In 2020, millions of Americans attended hundreds of thousands of protests, from Black Lives Matter to rallies against COVID-19 restrictions. More Americans than ever before reported participating in a protest this year, according to the New York Times.
Hoosiers were no exception. From May 1 to Dec. 12 in 78 cities and towns across Indiana, there were 304 protests and 13 riots, according to the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project’s U.S. Crisis Monitor. Nearly two-thirds were Black Lives Matter protests.
In October, Indianapolis organizer Taylor Hall told WFYI she was surprised by how large the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests were in a conservative state like Indiana. “It definitely was, I'd say kind of weird and kind of surreal to see how many people in Indianapolis came out for this cause,” she said.
In Bloomington, there were 18 peaceful protests from June 1 to Dec. 12 and one violent protest. The violent protest was on Aug. 22, when demonstrators at the pro-police Red, White and Blue rally reportedly assaulted Black Lives Matter counterprotesters.
More than 94% of the events in Indiana were peaceful protests. However, violence both by and against demonstrators did occur, and some of the events which ACLED coded as peaceful protests were demonstrations by white supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys, whose rhetoric and goals are violent.
Black Lives Matter
Even before George Floyd’s killing on May 25, Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrated in Indiana in response to police brutality and incarceration. From May 1 to 16, there were five demonstrations demanding justice for Dreasjon Reed and Spencer Calvert, two Black men who were killed by Indiana police. In those first two weeks of May, Black Lives Matter protesters also protested twice for the release of prisoners due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After George Floyd’s death, Indiana saw a wave of sustained protest against police brutality throughout June, which reflected the broader national trends. But the reasons for protest were more localized, too, including the killings of Reed and Calvert. The attack on Vauhxx Booker on July 4, which he and supporters say was an attempted lynching, corresponded with another spike in protest activity in early July.
Counterprotesters representing pro-police groups such as Back the Blue and Blue Lives Matter, often expressing support for President Trump, attended many of the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the state. These were often attended by heavily armed individuals, some of whom were members of white supremacist militia groups. Around mid-July, they began to organize protests of their own, though those demonstrations remained much less common and smaller than Black Lives Matter protests.
Violence against Black Lives Matter protesters
There were six vehicular attacks against Black Lives Matter protests in Indiana this year, two of which happened in Bloomington. Only the July 6 attack shows up in ACLED’s dataset. The other occurred on June 1. The attacks outside Bloomington occurred in Kokomo, Indianapolis, Mishawaka and Richmond.
The attack in Kokomo, which injured several protesters, was carried out by an off-duty jail correctional officer. The officer later resigned and is facing hit-and-run charges, according to the Kokomo Police Department.
Vehicular attacks have been used by terrorists around the world to disrupt and intimidate peaceful protests. In the United States, they are most commonly used by white supremacists, perhaps most infamously at the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, according to National Public Radio.
According to RG Reynolds, a researcher at No Space For Hate, vehicular attacks in Indiana were less clearly attached to specific groups than in other parts of the country because there is a more developed right-wing network here. Everyday conservative Facebook groups were flooded with far-right extremist content, meaning that some mainstream conservatives were radicalized online and then carried out acts of violence without ever identifying with a specific extremist group and sometimes without planning the attack in advance, Reynolds said.
In the news and in datasets like ACLED’s, the focus tends to be on highly visible manifestations of violence, such as vehicular attacks or egregious examples of police violence. However, less visible forms of intimidation such as surveillance should still be taken seriously, Reynolds said.
Black Lives Matter protests nationwide experienced more government intervention, which was often violent, than other types of protests. This was also true in Indiana. Police dispersed some Black Lives Matter protests, often with riot control agents, which observers including civil rights lawyers believed were excessive. In many other instances, police marched with Black Lives Matter protesters. On at least two occasions, police marched alongside Black Lives Matter protesters, then arrested some of them later in the day.
The ACLU of Indiana brought two cases against police for their treatment of protesters. First, the ACLU sued the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for its use of chemical riot control agents, rubber bullets and batons against peaceful, lawful protesters. The suit was settled in October with the IMPD agreeing to end the use of some riot control agents against peaceful protesters.
The other case was brought on behalf of Balin Brake, a Fort Wayne protester who was blinded by a tear gas canister which the ACLU and Brake claim the police fired improperly. A jury trial was requested but has not yet taken place.
Black Lives Matter protests were the most common by far, both statewide and in Bloomington, but there were also pro-police protests, election-related protests, and protests regarding other local issues. The reason for protests in Indiana became more varied as the summer wound down.
As the coronavirus pandemic continued to worsen, teachers and students in several cities, including Bloomington, demanded remote learning due to the dangers of in-person schooling during the pandemic. Other Hoosiers protested the governor’s mask mandate and stay-at-home orders, demanding that businesses and schools reopen.
After students returned to Bloomington for the fall semester, there were a number of protests specific to IU. There were two protests related to sexual assault on campus — one after a rape that took place at Eigenmann, and one demanding IU improve its Title IX process after sexual harassment allegations against then-professor Murray McGibbon were published by the Indiana Daily Student.
There was also a protest about IU Student Government’s lack of representation for students of color. Since that protest, IUSG Congress passed a constitutional amendment to create seats for multicultural student groups, which will be up for a ratification referendum later this month.
In the immediate lead-up to and aftermath of the election, there were several protests and rallies in support of and opposition to both presidential candidates. “Stop the Steal” and “Count Every Vote” protesters rallied around the state as the legitimacy of the election was attacked, with many Republicans making allegations of fraud, though no instances of fraud have been confirmed by officials.
The most recent protest in Bloomington was the Hands off the Homeless protest outside the courthouse, where people rallied to oppose the police removal of the encampment of unhoused people in Seminary Park.
The future of political conflict
Both right- and left-wing mobilization are expected to continue and intensify past the Trump administration, according to ACLED, which outlined four possible trajectories which all predict increased right-wing mobilization of varying levels of violence. Due in large part to unfounded allegations of fraud, a substantial number of Republicans do not believe the election results are accurate, which is likely to be the main fuel for right-wing mobilization in the coming months.
Reynolds explained that the far-right has successfully integrated its talking points into mainstream American conservatism via memes and videos on social media platforms. Membership in far-right groups such as the Proud Boys is only growing, in Indiana and nationally, she said.
Left-wing mobilization is also expected to continue, which itself is a major motivator of right-wing mobilization, and vice versa. Clashes among ideologically-opposed protesters, from fistfights to stabbings and other armed attacks, could become increasingly common.
The Indiana state legislature’s 2021 session begins on Jan. 12, and some of the legislation on the docket is directly related to the events of this summer, though not in the way activists would prefer. For example, Senate Bill 34 would add harsher penalties for those convicted of rioting and other forms of unlawful assembly, and House Bill 1070 would restrict the circumstances under which it is legal for municipalities to reduce police department budgets.
A note about the data used in this piece:
ACLED’s U.S. Crisis Monitor is updated weekly and can be accessed here. Analysis conducted for this piece included all of the observations which occurred in Indiana from May 1 to Dec. 12. ACLED codes public demonstrations in which participants do not engage in violence as protests. Riots are “violent events where demonstrators or mobs engage in disruptive acts, including but not limited to rock throwing, property destruction, etc.” but without the use of sophisticated weapons, such as guns or knives. Peaceful protests that ended in vehicular attacks were not coded as violent protests since the protesters were not the ones engaging in violence. More information about ACLED’s coding and methods can be found here.