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SNF Agora Conversations: Protest, Activism, and Organizing

July 10, 2020

Filipe Campante, Vice Dean for Education and Academic Affairs, Johns Hopkins SAIS; Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of International Economics at Johns Hopkins

Kanisha Bond, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Binghamton University

Erica Chenoweth, Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University

Moderated by Hahrie Han, Professor of Political Science and Director of the SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins

As protesters across the country continue to demand an end to racial injustice and police violence, as the coronavirus pandemic persists, and as the United States heads into one of the most contentious and high-stakes presidential elections in recent history, the SNF Agora Institute and Johns Hopkins SAIS hosted a conversation on how, amid multiple crises, people can come together to navigate this historic moment. 

Chenoweth began the discussion by contextualising the cumulative organisational capacity and resources that have been developing over the last decade and have accelerated over the past three and a half years. Furthermore, based on relevant data analysis Chenoweth highlighted the youth dimension of these actions. In particular, she noted that black-led protests have a major impact on issues that are discussed on local and national levels, electoral outcomes and public opinion, arguing that this is a moment that is signalling the start of a new generation of American politics.

As a researcher with a focus on internal conflict, contentious politics, and social movement organizational behavior, Bond talked about the process of mobilisation which is often non-linear. Bond explained that social protest represents an expression of grief which translates into empowerment and the ability to speak up for yourself. Furthermore, she emphasized that the negotiation of power relationships among these crowds and mobilisations is ongoing and fluid and that is probably the core of what will shape the future. Finally, the political negotiation of the claims that different individuals make during those protests can lead to narrative violence that needs to be accounted for. And to flatten the underlying motivations of individuals does not do a whole lot of justice to the complexity and depth of these mobilisations.

Campante reflected on the impact of pandemics in electoral politics. He emphasized that the current pandemic and wave of protests are not just about triggering emotional responses like in previous instances but rather it is about a context where a huge economic impact and policy failure are taking place. He noted that the environment of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent broader crisis has affected the dynamics of the current protests and feed back into a kind of movement that may have electoral consequences in directions that are different from previous public health events.