reflections on a week of archival fieldwork in springfield, il

I drafted this blog post on the train back from my week of archival fieldwork in Springfield, IL, for my dissertation chapter about the pogrom against Black residents of East St. Louis, IL, in May and July 1917. I write this post to document the methodological decisions and logistics behind my archival work, both so they’re fresh in mind and so that others facing relevant circumstances might benefit from my experiences. After introducing my project, I discuss (1) my preparation for archival work; (2) my documentation and research process; and (3) flexibility in the field. I also conclude by discussing the financial and COVID-related public health dimensions of my research trip, since these two topics were the “meta-context” for the work I’ve done in the past week.

Briefly, my dissertation research explores (1) why organizers use pogroms to target some groups, but not others, and (2) why these episodes result in violence in some locations, but not others. The East St. Louis case is one of four historical episodes under focus, the others spanning Nazi Germany, elsewhere in the United States, and the United Kingdom. My archival research during this past week centered on the second question, rather than the first. Methodologically, the work demonstrates how researchers can use the remarkable record of historical information about the early 20th century United States—census data, municipal records, and newspaper materials, among other resources—to explain the group-targeted violence that underpins this country’s political development.

Preparation for archival work: The advance work for my Springfield research involved three categories of tasks: First, I reviewed the historiography of the pogrom episode. This involved a skim-level reread of the three main monographs about the episode: Elliott Rudwick’s Race Riot at East St. Louis; Malcolm McLaughlin’s Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis; and Charles Lumpkins’s American Pogrom. The purpose of this review was threefold: (1) to identify key actors and timelines before and during the violence; (2) to understand competing interpretations of the causes and patterns of violence during the pogrom; and (3) to identify the newspaper records, investigation reports, and municipal records on which historians have relied.

This preparation work led me to select two archives in Springfield as my first research site for documenting the pogrom: (1) the Illinois State Archives, which contain municipal records, census information, and a few miscellaneous materials about government and commerce in East St. Louis during the 1910s; and (2) the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, which includes published documents about the history of the state and its counties, as well as—I discovered during my trip—the most comprehensive microfilm collection of Illinois newspapers in the state. I expected that the State Archives would be the most productive source of relevant materials, such that I would spend most of my week there. Having corresponded with one of their archivists about a tranche of digitized census records last December, I scheduled a formal appointment at the State Archives. I didn’t schedule a formal appointment at the Presidential Library, but I was able to receive a researcher card and schedule appointments for subsequent days soon after my arrival.

My last category of preparatory tasks took place in the archives themselves. I quickly realized that my archival search would involve a combination of different types of documents, as they relate to my core project: (1) true positives, or documents that I asked for after a database search and found useful; (2) false starts, or documents that I asked for and didn’t find useful; (3) discoveries, or documents that I identified in the course of poking around the archival space or talking with archivists and found useful; and (4) forgettable items, or documents that I identified in the course of poking around and didn’t find useful. With apologies for the 2-by-2:

 Expected to findDid not expect to find
Useful to project goalsTrue positivesDiscoveries
Not usefulFalse startsForgettable items
Table 1: A typology of archival finds

This variety of archival discovery suggested that I couldn’t rely on the list of documents that I had requested over email or in the archive’s digital request portal for comprehensive archival record-keeping. I needed to document all materials that I came across, their location, when I reviewed them, and whether I was able to create digital copies for further review. (Due credit to Diana Kapiszewski and Lauren MacLean for introducing this idea in their 2017 Institute for Qualitative and Multi-method Research fieldwork module.) I prefer to take these notes by hand when doing archival work, as I’m prone to multitasking with access to a laptop. Here’s an image of the handwritten “Documents I looked at” chart that I used while in the archives:

Each time I viewed a new document collection, I added it to the chart, so that I can access it at some later date if necessary. I also added collections or materials that came up in the course of my research, but which were not available in archives in Springfield. For example, an August 1917 Congressional hearing about the East St. Louis pogrom included testimony by an American Red Cross worker and employee of Howard University in Washington, DC, who witnessed the pogrom firsthand. Noting in my chart her contribution to the historical record of the pogrom flags that I need to do additional research to identify the location of her personal papers or the records that she used to prepare her testimony.

Documentation and research process: Because my research question for this part of the dissertation centers on a “what explains Y, rather than not-Y” puzzle, my research process in Springfield focused on answering that question. As I suggest above, I’m interested in additional questions about the East St. Louis episode, such as why the pogrom targeted Black residents rather than members of other groups. There are also other compelling questions that other researchers might ask about East St. Louis, such as how Black residents of this industrial boom town interpreted, memorialized, and made sense of the violence against them. But those questions were not the focus of this fieldwork. In light of my main question and constraints on my time, I wanted to gather as much material, as systematically as possible, to allow for subsequent quantitative data collection and statistical analysis of the determinants of pogrom violence. The archive itself enabled this well: the documents from the Illinois state government, federal government, East St. Louis municipal government, newspapers, and personal papers of state officials were organized and categorized in accessible boxes or microfilm, with few mismarked files.

This archival “pre-processing” made the collection and categorization of records easier than in archives that lack this organizational structure. For some collections, such as the personal papers of state officials, I relied on a “use what’s available” approach. For others, such as the newspaper reports, I needed a more systematic sampling strategy to bound the universe of relevant reporting about the pogrom. To facilitate both approaches, I created a series of Google Drive folders, in which I stored scanned PDFs of brief documents that I was able to find in the archives. Later this week, I’ll create a comprehensive database of each document in the Google Drive, so that I have an easy-to-access record of the documents I have a have and have not reviewed. For a small subset of longer documents about the violence that are not available online, I created a handwritten chart that tracks relevant information about the pogrom that will aid my subsequent data collection:

I recorded some field notes after returning from my daily walks, but these were for the purpose of recounting my experiences rather than for explicit reflexive analysis of my relationship with or role in my data collection process. I might have approached these reflections from a personal standpoint: I encounter my archival material as a White person from New York and Alexandria, VA; despite no direct exposure to the anti-Black violence that I describe in my dissertation, I draw material benefits from the racial order that historical episodes like the East St. Louis pogrom created. Alternately, I might have reflected on the space in which I was conducting research: in his history of the East St. Louis pogrom, Charles Lumpkins draws a direct comparison to the scale and political consequences of Springfield’s own 1908 episode. Springfield informed how Illinois state officials, East St. Louis residents, and national anti-lynching groups like the NAACP, which formed after Springfield, responded to the East St. Louis violence. At a glance, both past anti-Black violence and contemporary patterns of overpolicing, residential segregation, and unequal access to both public goods and private wealth make up the general context in which the State Archives and Presidential Library—my two research sites—are located. I was unable to discern, however, the precise process by which this historical and contemporary violence in Springfield influenced my research results—that is, whether I observed an instance of violence in the historical record of the East St. Louis pogrom. This may have been a function of information I lack about the newspaper archive, or about my relative distance from the site of violence itself. At any rate, both forms of reflexivity—the personal and the spatial—require more puzzling-over than my first post-fieldwork glance has allowed.

Flexibility in the field: Giving myself space to rearrange plans while in the archives and in my interactions with the surrounding community in Springfield was advantageous. To illustrate: In the archives, my initial instinct about “useful documents” led to a dead end. I had expected that the documentary records of the Illinois grain inspection office in East St. Louis would provide a novel “micro” measure of state capacity or patronage. East St. Louis in the early 1910s was a critical commercial hub for the rail-based domestic grain trade through Chicago to the American East, and its grain inspection office an important bottleneck for the state’s then-burgeoning regulatory administration. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about the documentary record. Far from documenting extensive regulatory activity or state-linked patronage systems in East St. Louis, the payroll vouchers revealed that the local grain inspection office employed less than a dozen grain inspectors, office clerks, and statisticians at a steady pay rate from 1914 — 1917. This might be an interesting factoid for an economic history of the city, but it’s not much on which to build a credible measure of state capacity. These documents were a central justification for the trip, as they were one of a select few documents that the State Archives were unable to digitize. In true “the food is awful — and such small portions!” fashion, half of the documents in the collection were from the central grain inspection office in Chicago, rather than East St. Louis itself. I finished scanning in the payroll documents by close-of-business Monday; how was I supposed to spend the rest of the week?

I had planned to visit the Presidential Library the following day, Tuesday. When I arrived, I accessed the personal papers and correspondence of the Illinois lieutenant governor who had helped to deploy National Guard troops to suppress the July 1917 violence, as well as a report that the Illinois Council of Defense—the board that coordinated the state’s contributions to the US war effort during World War I—prepared about the first wave of anti-Black attacks in May 1917. A brief conversation with the archivists, however, revealed that the Presidential Library maintained the state’s largest collection of Illinois newspapers, including multiple local papers from other large cities in St. Clair County. That brief conversation transformed a dead-end hunch into three days of scouring through microfilm:

Pivoting on a dime was also helpful beyond the archives. My train back to DC was on Sunday, so I spent my Saturday—when the archives were closed—wandering the mile radius of my hotel. Near Lincoln’s resting place at Oak Ridge Cemetery is a regional African-American history museum, which I’d seen advertised in pamphlets around town. My familiarity with Springfield history is limited to Roberta Senechal de la Roche’s book on the 1908 violence, so I was curious to explore further; in particular, the museum was advertising an exhibit about the Springfield violence. After stopping by the local farmers’ market at the city center, I walked up to the museum around 11. Having failed to check their Saturday schedule, I met a volunteer who informed me that the museum was not yet open, but wouldn’t I come back for a lecture by a “local civil rights leader” at 1:30. After purchasing a donut and some lunch, I returned at 1:30 on the dot. The lecturer was a museum board member, who had participated in civil disobedience actions in Jackson, Mississippi in support of the Freedom Democratic Party and later worked as a civil rights lawyer in the state. After his remarks, I talked briefly with a few volunteers and asked whether a similar institution existed for the East St. Louis area. One of the volunteers suggested a potential contact, and offered that I could use her name in making the introduction. Much like organizing, historical inquiry operates through these networks of trust and reciprocity; the research enterprise can’t exist without them.

Finances: I estimate that the total cost of my week in Springfield—including two “layovers” in Chicago—was about $1,000. This amount includes seven nights at a hotel near the archives ($435), a round-trip train ticket from DC to Springfield ($200), groceries ($100), and various downtime activities (a minor league baseball game, a couple of trips to the local microbrewery, an hour at a local record store, and meals with my two siblings in Chicago at either end of my trip). I’ve done my PhD work in relative financial comfort, having benefited from consistent part-time employment, no small degree of family support, and—for most of the time—a two-income household in addition to five guaranteed years of PhD funding from Georgetown. However, I decided to work off the cost of the trip with a last-minute teaching assistant job in an early summer course. I raise this not as an abstract declaration of privilege, but because these material conditions affected my logistical decisions about fieldwork. In light of that context, a few notes on this amount:

The hotel was the least expensive form of reliable housing I was able to find in Springfield, as (1) short-term rentals through Airbnb were expensive—above $650 for the full week—and located far from the city center; and (2) generous housing outreach on my behalf by faculty at the University of Illinois at Springfield did not yield viable options. Researchers looking to book similar-term stays in the United States might be interested to learn that I received a discounted rate after calling the hotel and asking for their “weekly rate,” which trimmed the online list price from $84 / night to approximately $62.

I opted to get from DC to Springfield by train because there’s no better way to travel in Joe Biden’s America. I didn’t compare the price of the round-trip train ticket to the price of airfare—I haven’t flown since February 2020—but I imagine the two options were comparable in price. The train was a blissful and inefficient way to cover the 1,000 miles from DC to Springfield. On the one hand, I passed through many locations and ecosystems I haven’t spent much time exploring, despite living in DC for 12 years. On the other, the trains were late to arrive in both Chicago and Springfield on my way out, and late to depart Springfield and arrive in DC on the way home.

The groceries-in-the-hotel-mini-fridge approach worked well, and proved more economical than eating out. This won’t surprise anyone who relies on the grocery store for most of their meals. With few exceptions, my lunches and dinners were all “homemade”; breakfast came with the room. Some classic hotel-room meals were: Monday mac-n-cheese night, Annie Chun’s peanut noodles with canned smoked oysters, and a loaf’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Eating (and drinking) out for lunch and dinner would’ve cost between about three times as much as I spent on groceries, with many fewer vegetables.

COVID safety: I left for my trip as the fourth wave of COVID-19 infection in the United States was gathering speed. I received the one-shot J&J vaccine in March. As best I can tell, current science reporting suggests that the J&J holds up against the now-dominant Delta variant; I have not sought out a second shot to “boost” its effects. At time of writing, eligible (above-12) residents of Sangamon County, where Springfield is located, are about 58 percent vaccinated, compared to 69 percent in my home county of Alexandria. I share this all as background information rather than to assess my personal risk of transmitting COVID to others, which is difficult to gauge under the best of circumstances.

While in Springfield, I took the following steps to limit my risk of transmitting COVID: (1) I wore a KN95 mask on the train out and back, except when eating and drinking; (2) when eating and drinking, I wore a double-layered cloth mask; (3) I ate all meals in my hotel room or in outside locations at bars and restaurants; and (4) I wore a double-layered cloth mask in the archives, all common spaces at the hotel, all indoor spaces at shops and restaurants, and all crowded outdoor locations. I did not take a COVID test prior to my departure.

During my stay, almost all other hotel residents and staff were unmasked in common spaces, including children. A sign on the elevator indicated that masks were no longer required for vaccinated guests, and that the hotel “strongly recommended” masks for unvaccinated individuals. The lack of mask compliance was especially striking because the hotel appeared to be a waystation for guests visiting family members at the large hospital down the street. In the archives, all staff wore masks. Mask compliance on the train was higher than in Springfield, as Amtrak mandates and regularly enforces mask-wearing for all passengers.

teaching resources

Since achieving “PhD candidate” status, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a few guest lectures about my work and related topics . There are no silver linings to the COVID-19 pandemic. But one common feature of pandemic-era academic practice that I hope persists is the ability to share ideas and conversation with students and scholars through remote presentations, without the personal, financial, and environmental costs of long-distance travel. I’ve found the occasional guest lecture a useful way to refine what I want to say about my dissertation research and the core concepts—among them, political order, mobilization, and violence—that animate it. These formats are also a useful home for writing that would otherwise stay on the proverbial cutting-room floor. For example, my research about the determinants of violence during the Kristallnacht pogrom has opened up a sizable historical literature about Jewish visibility during the Weimar period. Because only a fraction of my synthesis of this literature will end up in my article-length discussion of visibility during Kristallnacht, lecturing on the topic ensures that this writing finds another home.

I’ve posted two of these guest lectures to my new “teaching” page: one about the causes and consequences of civil war, and the other about mixed-methods approaches to pogrom research. With any luck, I’ll add selections of syllabi and lesson plans to the running lecture selection as my teaching career continues. In the meantime, I hope the collection of lectures becomes useful for educators teaching about comparative politics, international relations, and political violence. I encourage you to use them as you see fit, although I’d appreciate a heads-up at I also encourage folks to reach out if you think that a discussion of my research about pogroms would align well with your course plans.

phd candidacy (!) and my dissertation research about pogroms

I defended my dissertation prospectus today! For the uninitiated, the prospectus defense is the dividing line between my status as a “PhD student” and a “PhD candidate.” The defense means that I’ll spend the next two-and-a-half years on a book-length research project. Without dwelling too much on our present moment, it’s a refreshing marker of progress in a year defined by an abundance of personal and global uncertainty.

The dissertation will focus on explaining pogroms, which I define as a relatively brief episode of multiple violent acts against people and physical structures associated with a select social community, by an informal group but involving some pattern of state complicity. Gaps in both academic and common-wisdom discussions of pogroms motivate this focus. Because both pogrom participants and rioters use similar violent tactics such as damage to physical structures (or “property damage”), it’s common for scholars to treat pogroms and riots as observationally equivalent and for public commentators to condemn riots (or violent protests) as a specter of group-targeted violence. The instinct that motivates this project is that this tendency towards equivalence is analytically and normatively incorrect. My premise is that our understanding of political violence and practical efforts to prevent pogroms will be richer if we interpret and theorize about pogroms as a separate form, process, and pattern of violence.

My prospectus introduces a “symbolic theory” of pogroms, in which organizers of these episodes mark certain groups, their members, and their practices as objects of social exclusion by engaging in public, targeted violence against them. In the literature about closely-related forms of violence and contention, scholars emphasize the causal influence on pogrom violence of pre-existing attitudes, intergroup competition, and different types of community associations. At the same time, a large body of work also suggests that “context matters”: in short, that the explanatory power of these attitudes, patterns of competition, and associational life vary across different types of societies and political relationships. The symbolic theory that I plan to elaborate on and test in my dissertation gives structure to the variations in political order that shape pogrom violence, in particular the interaction between the informal organizers of pogroms and the state.

Empirically, my research in the coming years will focus on four cases: the antisemitic violence of the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria in November 1938; anti-Black and anti-Mexican violence in the early-20th century United States; and a 1958 pogrom against Black Britons of Caribbean origin in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. I have multiple methodological reasons for my interest in these cases, but my case selection strategy also responds to broader academic and popular calls for comparative study of both the events of the Nazi Holocaust and group-selective violence in American political life. In my prospectus, I observe that those who have organized and advocated against group-selective violence in the United States—in particular, Ida Barnett-Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois—have seen the global concept of pogroms as a salient analogue of group-selective violence against Black Americans. The task of comparison here illuminates how categories of violence that we reserve to the unthinkable Holocaust or as artifacts of American history can be both products and causes of political orders that we confront today, at home and worldwide.

I’ll save my acknowledgments and detailed words of wisdom for the dissertation, but a few interim maxims: Once you have an idea for a project that you find fascinating, that’s your dissertation topic. Reading good historical work is the most important thing you can do as a political scientist. Your work improves when you are generous in both receiving feedback from and offering it to others. If you haven’t yet joined or started organizing your graduate union, start tomorrow; solidarity is uncertainty’s surest cure.

If you’re curious to read more about my preliminary thoughts on this topic, here are the slides (PDF) and prepared remarks (PDF) from my defense. I’m also happy to share the full draft of my prospectus with the caveat that I continue to discover errors, typos, and half-formed thoughts in the document, as with any work-in-progress. Please reach out at if you’d like to see the document, or if you’re working on these topics as a scholar or practitioner and would like to talk about potential collaborations in the coming years. For everyone else, I hope to share more in a few months once I’ve made progress on my empirical work.

the language of the unheard: protest and protest violence after george floyd’s killing in minneapolis


The protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident, by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have returned matters of racism and police brutality to the fore of American public consciousness—to be more precise, to the fore of White-American public consciousness. The COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate health and economic effects on Black Americans deepen the tragedy of Floyd’s killing, the police killings of other Black individuals in recent weeks, and the ensuing repression of Black-led protests across the United States against police impunity.

My primary media source most days is a Minneapolis-based radio station called The Current, the rock-music and Prince fandom arm of Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR). A few times every day, The Current features news blurbs from MPR News, a statewide reporting outfit and National Public Radio (NPR) member station. As news of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing protests has increased, I’ve paid more attention to the details and narrative structure of MPR’s coverage of local protest events.

MPR’s initial portrayal of the Minneapolis protests was a disappointing, if not surprising, brand of the law-and-order commentary that nominally liberal mayors, governors, and media accounts made respectable in the decades that followed the recurring wave of summer riots and mass protests in American cities during the 1960s. While paying lip-service to the general inequity of local race relations, this narrative privileges fear of property destruction, especially among White property owners, and plays up the dangerous shock-and-awe of the riotous street. These narratives imply that military-grade police crackdowns, repression, and surveillance are necessary tools for the maintenance of social order, even if they may regrettably require the occasional use of excessive force against civilians.

This coverage–which we might refer to as the “White-fear narrative”–papers over the social and political basis for Black protest, the extent of police repression, and the process by which protesters decide to employ violence against police forces, buildings, and other targets. An oft-quoted phrase from Black freedom activist Martin Luther King, Jr. summarizes an opposing view: far from pathological or menacing, violence during protests amounts to the “language of the unheard.” As with all of King’s most lyric quotes, “language of the unheard” captures only a fraction of King’s private and public opinions about the strategic, moral, and social consequences of riotous action. In his 1968 book Where Do We Go From Here, King introduces his account of the 1965 Watts riot by elaborating on the phrase: protest violence is “the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored.” The context for what King controversially describes as “self-defeating riots” is “the daily ugliness of slum life, educational castration and economic exploitation.” This “desperate cry” is an intentional act of self-sacrifice and resistance against the rioter’s impoverishment. Here, riotous violence is a purposeful act of Black revolt, rather than the random, viral, or group-targeted contagion that White-fear narratives imply.

I’m working on a research project to evaluate these two arguments. From a moral perspective, the validity of either argument rests on whether and to what extent one views political justice as sufficient grounds for violent action. In that vein, I believe as a matter of principle that riotous action is a defensible form of resistance against repression–including the forms of police repression that shape the daily lives of Black Americans. In empirical terms, however, both arguments also have what social scientists call “observable implications”–processes that we should expect to observe during a protest episode if either argument holds. Whatever my moral priors, my project aims to evaluate whether empirical evidence supports (1) White-fear theories, in which violence is random, viral, or White-targeted; or (2) “language of the unheard” theories, which imply that violence is a symbolic form of resistance to past political repression or economic marginalization.

The first part of this project is descriptive. The basic research question that these two narratives provoke–What explains why protests against the police killing of George Floyd resulted in violence in some areas of South Minneapolis, but not in others?–requires first that we understand where violence took place during the initial days of the Minneapolis protests, and where it did not. Sympathetic accounts of events in Minneapolis and other recent protests across the United States have emphasized that these are “mostly peaceful” protests, which deteriorate into violence only after police provocation. I think this is right, but there are also multiple, not-necessarily-consistent ways in which a protest can be “mostly peaceful.” Consider three: (1) a majority of protesters refrain from violence; (2) the protest involves only momentary instances of violent action; or (3) violence by protesters occurs in a small minority of locations in which it is most likely to occur. This project examines whether we observe the latter pattern during the early Minneapolis protests. Whether this spatial pattern also accounts for the former two is a separate empirical question.

Understanding within-case variation in violence requires a consistent theory of both violent action and the distinction between violent-protest episodes and other episodic forms of political violence. There are multiple ways to classify protest violence, or acts of harm against persons or property. These include the theory of violence (or nonviolence) that protest organizers articulate or–as discussed above–the behavior of some preponderance of individual protest participants. Many of these classification schemes, however, depend on difficult-to-defend analytic judgments on the basis of imprecise data, or conclusions about the relationship between strategic intent and patterns of collective action that are virtually impossible to test. These analytic challenges demand a more dichotomous measure: nonviolent protests are an episode in which protesters do not employ a single act of violence, whereas violent protests–also known as riots–occur when protesters initiate one or more acts of violence in the absence of significant police repression. The mere occurrence of a violent protest does not imply that the movement whose claims the protest channels authorized violence at its outset, nor that other actors beyond that movement organized violence to undermine the movement’s goals or incite escalation. Identifying the purposes of violence for its agents involves qualitative information about intra-movement and intra-protest dynamics that falls outside the scope of this study.

That both events in Minneapolis and the episodic forms of police violence and protest across the United States continue to evolve as I write makes understanding patterns of protest activity an analytic challenge. The dynamism of this “repression-dissent cycle” means that the act of classifying episodes of violence has high moral and analytic stakes. As the world witnessed in Washington, DC, in early June, state security forces use the trumped-up pretense of violent disorder to justify egregious repression during and after protest events. Especially in studying patterns in riotous action during protests, anything less than a precise and transparent concept of the interaction between protest activity and police violence risks providing a scholarly justification for state-directed abuses. Additionally, conceiving of an event as a “protest” results in a different process of analytic simplification than does “police repression.” Both protest organizers and police units design collective strategies and tactics using available information about their opponent’s likely countermoves. Because of this strategic interaction, modeling circumstances in which protest organizers confront a high likelihood of reactive police violence prior to taking to the streets necessarily differs from circumstances in which the extent of that repressive response is not apparent. The specific police practices that differentiate “protest without police repression” and “low-grade civil conflict between protesters and police forces” will vary from case to case. One plausible cut point during the Minneapolis case and other recent protest episodes in the United States is the imposition of a police curfew, an artificial time at which once-permissible forms of public gathering become subject to police repression. I use the imposition of a police curfew by Minneapolis police on the evening of Friday, May 29th to define the temporal bounds of the South Minneapolis violent protest episode.

I use municipal data on “structural fires” from the City of Minneapolis’s Open Minneapolis data project to understand the pattern of violent protests in Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd on Monday, May 25. The structural-fires data capture only the most visible forms of violence–arson–in which protesters engage; they do not, for example, pick up instances of window-breaking that might occur during a violent protest episode. To identify the scope of the structural fires plausibly associated with the initial Minneapolis protests, I narrow the Minneapolis map to the South Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips West, East Phillips, Central, Powderhorn Park, Corcoran, and Bryant. The area’s southwestern section, southside Minneapolis, was home to a vibrant Black community before the construction of Interstate Highway 35W disrupted local residents and businesses. George Floyd lived in Powderhorn. I limit the structural-fires data to incidents between Monday, May 25 and Friday, May 29, when the Minneapolis police began to enforce its curfew.

The structural-fires data indicate that 7 buildings experienced structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29: four retail stores, a convenience store, an auto shop, and a gas station. Given the spatial constraints of the South Minneapolis area, these structural-fires data exclude attacks on the Minneapolis 3rd Police Precinct and the adjacent Target store on Minnehaha Avenue, both of which drew national attention. To facilitate further analysis, I divide the South Minneapolis area into grid units that approximate the average size of a Midwestern city block (200m x 100m). I aggregate the georeferenced structural-fires reports by grid unit. The structural fires from May 25 – 29 spanned five grid units, out of 440. With apologies to PDF fans, I display the grid-unit map of structural fires in South Minneapolis from May 25 – 29 in the following JPEG:


These descriptive data tell a clear story: the initial Minneapolis protests against the killing of George Floyd were overwhelmingly peaceful. From May 25 – 29, structural fires occurred in 1.1 percent of all grid units.

These data raise two additional questions:

  1. To what extent do the structural-fires data represent the full extent of violence during the initial Minneapolis protests, prior to police escalation on May 29? To address this, I will turn to event data gathered via Twitter.
  2. Are there particular characteristics of the grid units in which violence did occur that explain spatial variations in violence? To address this question, I will conduct a multivariate regression analysis of the effects of distance from the protest site, distance from the nearest police precinct, recent police shootings of Black individuals, and White property ownership on violence.

Here’s my GitHub page for this project: I will update the page as I make additional progress on the data collection and analysis.

I’m writing about this project now, rather than at its conclusion, because of my ethical ambivalence about the project’s very nature. My nascent dissertation project explores the dynamics of pogrom violence, a type of public contention that scholars often erroneously associate with urban riots and other forms of violent protest. Empirically, I expect this dissertation project will involve some form of comparison between, among other cases, the antisemitic violence of the Holocaust and the multiple, overlapping regimes of racial-terror violence in the United States. The dynamics of protest and repression in American politics fascinate and motivate my research; where they concern anti-Black violence, however, the racial order that these dynamics have produced is one from which I have benefited since birth. I am a White PhD student writing from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, in a condo complex that the federal government first subsidized to provide all-White housing to defense workers during World War II. The renewed public condemnation of White silence and willful ignorance that has followed George Floyd’s killing has underscored why scholarship that falls short of placing anti-Black violence at the center of our scholarship fails to grapple with the central animating process of American and global political life.

At the same time, this well-meaning process of examining the pervasive and durable effects of racist violence risks reinforcing the same patterns of racial injustice that White scholars aim to oppose. Without due care, discussions of “mainstreaming race” in the academic field of political science may generate an implicit process of intellectual and professional appropriation, whereby White scholars acquire all of the conventional markers of prestige–citations, publications, fellowships, research funding–for reproducing the intellectual work of their Black colleagues. This is a structural problem that results from a long legacy of White racial order in both American society and the American political science profession. But as scholars, colleagues, and friends, we can also choose to chip away at these structural problems through our everyday practices. These practices raise important ethical questions: How might a White scholar research and write about Black protest? What obligations does the White scholar owe to the community whom they research?

It’s not yet clear to me what those practices are. We arrive at our work with the professional and social networks we possess, the knowledge we’ve accumulated, and the experiences we’ve encountered, and not anything else. At an individual level, it takes a lifetime of slow and deliberate action to dismantle the extraordinary hold of White supremacy. These actions are about transforming those professional and social networks, those sources of knowledge, and those experiences on a daily basis. Because these things only exist in relationships with other people, the process of transforming them is messy, complicated, and ethically murky in a way that a scripted checklist of “20 things you can do to check your White privilege” can never be. Some things I’ve done in the course of developing this research project are attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC; donating $100.00 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund; and contributing $50.00 to the work of a Black Minneapolis organizer, Lucina Kayee, whose request for funds the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block coalition retweeted. Are those things “doing the work”? I’m not sure, but I do know that they’re not–and can never be–enough.

I post these data, my analysis, and its outcomes as an invitation: to scholars who might find either the analytic process or the data itself informative, and to activists who might find the results of the analysis itself useful. I will keep working on this, and may later seek to publish my findings in an academic journal; regardless of the outcome, I commit to conducting the process with the transparency and accountability that ethical work requires. If you’re working on these or related issues and you’d like to collaborate or have found any of these materials useful, I’d love to hear from you:

For their conversation and comments, I thank participants in the Summer 2020 Comparative Government Working Group at Georgetown University.

mugabe’s long shadow in zimbabwe: some statistical evidence

One of the central questions of contemporary Zimbabwean politics is whether the current regime led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa represents a clean departure from the violent 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa, a close Mugabe adviser and former security chief, came to power in November 2017 via military coup. In the subsequent 15 months, Mnagagwa and his inner circle of now-civilian advisers have embarked on a public diplomacy campaign to loosen international sanctions against the Zimbabwean economy and its leaders. The government’s message, “Zimbabwe is open for business,” implies a sharp departure from the instability and uncertainty that of Mugabe’s time in power. In the following post, I use evidence from a statistical test of trends in violence against civilians to show that this sharp departure has not occurred. The evidence indicates that repression under Mnangagwa mirrors levels of violence under Mugabe.

There are multiple indications that change has not occurred as advertised. First, the twin sources of Mugabe’s autocratic rule, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and the Zimbabwean military, continue to support Mnangagwa’s claim to power. Second, the economic, humanitarian, and political crises that typified the Mugabe government have continued under Mnangagwa’s rule. Anti-government protests in response to a sharp increase in government-directed gas prices this January preceded a period of harassment and extrajudicial imprisonment, hallmarks of repression under Mugabe. Repression by security forces during this period resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people and injuries of dozens of others.

These factors are important, but they do not provide systematic evidence that Mnangagwa’s rule is similar to Mugabe’s. Sticky ruling parties and security forces are a common feature of autocratic transitions. However, they do not guarantee that the political dynamics of the pre-coup regime will persist. The contemporary case of Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed, for example, demonstrates that individual leaders are able to make political reforms despite structural constraints that the institutional pillars of their regimes impose. Additionally, events like the violence in January might not be representative of the general pattern of violence under Mnangagwa. It is theoretically possible that the average level of violence or repression under Mnangagwa is less than under Mugabe, and that episodes of repression like the violence against protesters in January are simply exceptions to that rule.

To address these problems and test whether Mnangagwa’s repression differs from Mugabe’s, I use a method of statistical analysis called “regression discontinuity.” A regression discontinuity design tests whether some important event accounts for a meaningful difference in an observable trend. If the regression discontinuity model indicates a relationship between the cutoff–in this case, the coup–that is statistically distinguishable from zero, there is evidence of a meaningful difference between the periods before and after the discontinuity. If it does not, there is no evidence of a meaningful difference between the two periods.

In this case, my measure of repression in Zimbabwe is instances of violence against civilians. I use week-aggregated data about violent events from the Armed Conflict Location and Event (ACLED) Project, which compiles event data based on a combination of media sources and reports by non-governmental organizations. The dataset includes observations from the 68 weeks prior to the coup (beginning August 1, 2016) to 68 weeks after the coup (ending March 9, 2019). Others interested in replicating my findings can use ACLED’s Data Export Tool to download the same dataset.

Although I am confident that ACLED’s information on violence against civilians provides an accurate estimate of repression in Zimbabwe, it is important to be transparent about potential shortcomings of the measure and the data I use to observe it. First, observable instances of violence against civilians are not the only political or humanitarian consequence of repression. Not all repression results in observable violence, and observable violence is not the only form of physical nor psychological harm. Indeed, much of the Zimbabwean government’s violence takes the form of subterfuge and harassment that are visible to neither local nor international media observers. Second, some scholarship on media reporting about political violence suggests that datasets that rely on media reporting undercount violent events in locations where international media organizations are less present, like rural areas. For each of these factors, I expect that they will underestimate the scale and scope of repression over time. However, I expect these estimates to be constant during the period under study, as Mnangagwa and Mugabe have relied on “invisible” violence to a similar degree.

There are two important assumptions of a discontinuity design: (1) that the discontinuity is “exogenous,” or external to the trend; and (2) that other explanatory factors were constant through the period of discontinuity. I address each of these assumptions in turn. The primary cause of the coup, infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, was unrelated to the primary cause of violence against civilians for much of the period, regime repression of anti-government activity. The coup therefore fulfills the first assumption of the discontinuity design.

The following graphic displays the direct effect of Mnangagwa’s rise to power on violence against civilians. The solid blue line to the left of the dotted “November 2017 coup” cutoff represents the average level of violence against civilians under Mugabe. The dotted line to the right represents the pattern of violence that might have taken place under a post-November 2017 Mugabe regime had the coup not occurred. The red line represents the actual level of violence against civilians under Mnangagwa.


A simple model of violence against civilians in Zimbabwe over time probably fails the second assumption of a regression discontinuity, that other potential explanatory factors do not also change as a result of the change. Regime responses to protest activity might account for some of the new violence: a November 2016 report that I co-authored with Otto Saki and Lawrence Woocher found that regime repression of opposition protests was one of two scenarios under which violence against civilians in Zimbabwe could escalate. Indeed, a high level of protest activity has characterized Mnangagwa’s first 15 months in power, including protests after the coup, protests against the ZANU-PF party’s disputed victory in the July 2018 elections, and the gas-price protests. The larger number of protests might explain some of the varying patterns of violence that we observe in Mnangagwa-era Zimbabwe.

The following graphic displays the effect of the coup on violence against civilians, controlling for–or subtracting–the effect of protest and riot activity during the time period. The grey dots represent the number of observed instances of violence against civilians over time, as displayed in the first graph. The solid black dots represent the number of instances of violence over time, minus the number of protests and riots during the same week. The graphic suggests that the average level of violence against civilians in Zimbabwe persisted after the coup.


These graphics display how much violence against civilians changes as time moves farther from Mnangagwa’s rise–the slope of the relationship–but we should be also be interested in whether this relationship is statistically distinguishable from zero. The graphs suggest a consistent trend of violence against civilians before and after the coup, but a statistical test can describe the coup’s effect (or non-effect) with greater precision. In the “dot-and-whisker” plot below, I show the coefficients and the confidence intervals for the main variables in the discontinuity model. The effect of any variable for which the blue line crosses the dotted black line is not statistically distinguishable from zero. 


I also include the regression table for the discontinuity analysis, for quantitatively-minded readers.


As the “dot-and-whisker” graphic and the regression results demonstrate, the effect of the coup is not statistically distinguishable from zero. Repression under Mnangagwa is more of the same.

The continuation of violence against civilians in Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe has important implications for both the study of Zimbabwean politics and international policy responses to events there. International donors are tip-toeing towards a policy of re-engagement with the Zimbabwean government, after multiple decades of sanctions. These potential policy changes rest on the premise that Mnangagwa represents a qualitatively different style of leadership from Mugabe. Where violence against civilians is concerned, the empirical record points in the other direction.

Thanks to Patrick McSweeney for his comments on an earlier version of this research design.

<edited to correct image upload>