Voices in the Street

Sociologist Tracks “American Resistance” for New Book
by Chris Carroll | Photo by Emily Rasinski

At a coffee shop a few blocks from the White House, Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor who has studied left-wing protest movements for nearly two decades, tallies up reasons why this January morning’s 2019 D.C. Women’s March could be a bust.

An organizer’s friendliness with anti-Semitic preacher Louis Farrakhan alienated some would-be marchers; a freezing rain threatens to glaze the city in a few hours; and perhaps most fundamentally, there’s no single issue on the agenda—nothing like the inauguration that spurred the massive turnout at the first Women’s March in 2017, or the mass shooting horror that animated the March for Our Lives last spring.

Figuring on an exponentially smaller crowd, the planners a day earlier moved the gathering from the National Mall to Freedom Plaza. Fisher has conducted research among protest crowds numbering 1 million—what is she expecting today?

“Maybe 25- or 30,000? Maybe?”

If there’s a note of resignation, well, tanking attendance and infighting wouldn’t exactly bolster the thesis of her latest book, “American Resistance,” coming out late this summer. Aimed at a popular audience, it argues that widespread opposition to the Trump administration has spurred diverse groups to merge into a people’s movement unified not by leaders, but grassroots connections.

But it’s time to work, not ponder. She pulls a stack of pink tablet computers from her bag and hands them out to undergraduates, graduate students and staff from the sociology department—all women—who’ve volunteered to help survey.

Survey data is the basis of her study of the Trump resistance. She’s hit every major protest in d.c. since the president took office, and switched to Android tablets after the first Women’s March in 2017 to speed data entry, which once could take weeks.

“I have the full data set, compiled, clean and ready to analyze within two hours of leaving the field,” she says. That kind of speed has facilitated next-day analyses in The Washington Post, cnn and msnbc’s “Morning Joe,” among other outlets.

Political scientist Michael Heaney of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, who co-authored a paper with Fisher and is writing a book of his own about protests surrounding recent presidential politics, said her up-to-the minute findings are crucial to understanding grassroots opposition groups.

“Dana Fisher’s research has played a critical role in providing scholars, the media and ordinary citizens real-time knowledge,” he said. “It has enabled us to learn about the demographics, politics and direction of these emergent movements and organizations.”

As she and her students walk from the café to the plaza, a woman asks her to sign a petition for Equal Rights Amendment ratification.

“I’ll be happy to sign it later,” she says, striding away. “Not right now, though—we’ve got to gather data.”

Fisher dispatches her crew to the far ends of the square, with instructions to move through the still-sparse crowd and ask every fifth person to complete the survey. (The practice, aimed at randomization, gets better than 90 percent participation.)

One of the survey takers, Kathryn Berthot ’86, a furloughed FCC employee, said the controversies didn’t faze her.

“Not everyone agrees on everything here,” she says. “We don’t have to in order to work together on a bigger thing we all agree on.”

As marching time draws nearer, more people surge into the square from up and down Pennsylvania Avenue and side streets. In the end, there’s hardly room to move as the crowd reaches an estimated 100,000—bigger than the 2018 Women’s March and hardly the predicted bust.

Fisher’s data peg the crowd as far more moderate politically than at many marches—filled with people who for the first time went out in the streets with others alarmed about the country’s direction. Democracy in action, Fisher says.

“My goal is not about one organization over the other, Democrats versus Republicans,” she said afterward. “It is about people in the streets—that their voices as citizens matter.”


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