Mid-Year Update: World 10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2020


At the start of the year, a range of indicators warned that America faced increasing risks of political violence and instability: mass shootings had hit record highs (BBC, 29 December 2019), violent hate crimes were on the rise (Al Jazeera, 13 November 2019), and police killings were continuing unabated, at 2.5 times the rate for Black men as for white men (FiveThirtyEight, 1 June 2020Nature, 19 June 2020).

Polling data pointed to skyrocketing levels of political polarization (New York Magazine, 23 January 2020), and thousands of protests had been reported across the country during the previous year.

Within a matter of months, these existing risks were compounded by the social and economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented wave of demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

Image: ACLED

Both developments have shattered the status quo ahead of the 2020 general election, simultaneously creating profound opportunities for change alongside new flashpoints for state repression, extremist attacks, militia clashes, and other forms of political violence.

To track these trends, ACLED has partnered with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University to launch the US Crisis Monitor — a special project to collect data on political violence and demonstrations across all 50 states and DC in real time.

The project builds on the pilot project we conducted this time last year, which informed our assessment in the original installment of this report series: that America was at heightened risk of violent political instability ahead of this year’s election in November.

Comparing the pilot data for July 2019 with the latest US Crisis Monitor data for July 2020  illustrates the current scale of social mobilization and demonstrates that these risks have only grown over the past 12 months.

While the US has long been home to a vibrant protest environment, demonstrations surged to new levels in 2020.

During last year’s three-month pilot period, ACLED recorded more demonstrations in the US than in almost any other country covered in the dataset, with nearly 1,400 events in July 2019 alone. Even still, the number of demonstrations increased by 42% to nearly 2,000 events in July 2020, driven by a massive spike in protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd.

Although the vast majority of demonstrations in July 2020 were peaceful, state intervention has increased since this time last year. Last July, under 2% of all demonstrations — fewer than 30 events — were met with intervention by police or other authorities.

This July, that number swelled to nearly 9% — or over 170 events — despite the fact that more than 95% of all demonstrations were non-violent. Government personnel used force in just three of these engagements in July 2019, whereas, in July 2020, they used force against demonstrators in at least 65 events.

Such force includes, but is not limited to, the use of  less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, as well as beating with batons. In addition to demonstrators, state forces have also targeted journalists reporting on the unrest (US Press Freedom Tracker, 12 June 2020), and ACLED records nine events in which state personnel used force against journalists in July 2020 alone.

The escalating use of force against demonstrators comes amid a wider push to militarize the government’s response to domestic unrest, and particularly demonstrations perceived to be linked to left-wing groups like ANTIFA, which the administration views as a “terrorist” organization (New York Times, 31 May 2020). In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, President Donald Trump posted a series of social media messages threatening to deploy the military and National Guard to disperse demonstrations, suggesting that authorities should use lethal force if demonstrators engage in looting (New York Magazine, 1 June 2020).

Rhetoric soon translated into policy: in early June, the government used National Guard troops, Secret Service agents, and US Park Police — among other federal agents — to violently disperse peaceful protests in Lafayette Square outside the White House to create a photo opportunity at St. John’s Church (Vox, 2 June 2020New York Times, 10 June 2020).

By the end of the month, the president issued an executive order authorizing federal agents to pursue demonstrators who pull down statues or damage federal property, spurring the creation of the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) and the deployment of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents around the country, including in Portland, Seattle, and Washington, DC (Al Jazeera, 23 June 2020).

In Portland, reports indicate that DHS personnel used excessive force and arbitrarily detained demonstrators in unmarked vehicles far from their area of operations at the city’s federal courthouse — a potentially illegal practice that was recently emulated by the New York Police Department during a demonstration in Manhattan (The Guardian, 29 July 2020).

Since George Floyd’s killing, dozens of federal and National Guard deployments have been reported across the country, including members of PACT as well as forces affiliated with Operations Legend and Diligent Valor.

Government forces are not the only actors intervening in demonstrations, however. Amid rising tensions and deepening mistrust in state institutions, militias and other non-state actors are increasingly engaging with demonstrators directly. In July 2020, ACLED records over 30 events in which non-state actors intervened in demonstrations — up from zero in July 2019.

These actors include organizations and militias from both the left and right side of the political spectrum, such as ANTIFA, the “Not Fucking Around” Coalition, the New Mexico Civil Guard, the Patriot Front, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, and the Ku Klux Klan, to name a few. Additionally, individual perpetrators have committed car-ramming attacks targeting demonstrators around the country, with at least 13 such incidents reported just in July 2020.

There is also a growing presence of armed individuals at demonstrations: more than 20 such incidents were reported in July 2020.

This trend threatens to more quickly escalate confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters into violent clashes, which are occurring with increased regularity. In July 2019, only 17 counter-protests were reported around the country, or approximately 1% of all demonstrations, and only one of these allegedly turned violent.

In July 2020, ACLED records over 160 counter-protests, or more than 8% of all demonstrations. Of these, 18 turned violent, with clashes between pro-police demonstrators and demonstrators associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as demonstrators for and against COVID-19 restrictions.

While these data present only a snapshot of American disorder, the trendlines are clear: demonstrations have erupted en masse around the country, and they are increasingly met with violence by state actors, non-state actors, and counter-demonstrators alike. In addition to traditional election-year debates, the country faces deep divisions over racial inequality, the role of the police, and economic hardship exacerbated by an ineffective pandemic response.

The administration has taken multiple steps to inflame these tensions, from announcing further federal deployments in “Democrat-led cities” like Chicago and Albuquerque (AP, 22 July 2020) to threatening a postponement of the election altogether (BBC, 30 July 2020).

In this hyper-polarized environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive, and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street. All of these risks will intensify in the lead-up to the vote, threatening to boil over in November if election results are delayed, inconclusive, or rejected as fraudulent.

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