Protests: A Racial Reckoning in Suburbia

Most of the country’s Black Lives Matter protests are happening outside of cities—in communities exclusively designed for middle-class whites but increasingly diverse and grappling with policies that foster segregation.
A demonstrator kneels in protest in front of the suburban home of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd.

Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP

Over the past several weeks, protesters have taken to the streets, demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many other Black Americans unjustly killed in the name of law enforcement. While media coverage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have focused on major cities, much of the action has taken place in their surrounding suburbs. There, organizers are seizing the moment to have a conversation about racial equity in places that were often built for exclusion.

One of the first suburban protests related to the murder of George Floyd occurred the day after his death, on Tuesday, May 26, in Oakdale, Minnesota. That evening, protesters gathered outside the home of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who had knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the man begged for his life. By the next day, protests had spread to other suburbs around the Twin Cities, as well as cities like Memphis and Los Angeles. By the weekend, those cities’ suburbs were also marching, with reports of demonstrations in Orange County, California, Philadelphia’s Main Line, and towns outside Chicago, Dallas, and Baltimore.

By the end of June, most of the more than 4,000 protests calling for racial justice across the United States had taken place in suburbs. “Based on what I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of them occurred outside city centers,” says Dave Murphy, a retired Department of Defense geographic analyst in Washington, D.C.

Murphy and Alex Smith, a cartographer based in New Mexico, collected reports of Black Lives Matter protests and created a map of each city or town that had hosted one since May 25. Looking at the map, each dot represents one or more protests—scattered throughout the United States but with clusters surrounding each major city.

Screenshot from Creosote Maps, July 9, 2020, https://www.creosotemaps.com/blm2020/index.html

On the one hand, it may seem surprising that demonstrations are sprouting up in the suburbs, places long characterized as quiet, homogeneous, and exclusive. Yet the Black Lives Matter movement began after the unjust killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a Miami suburb, and first gained widespread attention for its work in Ferguson, Missouri, a community outside St. Louis, where a police officer shot an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, Jr., in 2014. “Ferguson is a suburb. That gets lost on a lot of people who think suburbs are full of wealthy, white people,” says Murphy.

A majority of Americans currently live in suburbs, and as these communities have grown, they’ve also become more racially and socioeconomically diverse. That sits in tension with how much of American suburbia was created with segregation in mind.

Throughout the 20th century, the Supreme Court upheld exclusionary zoning policies that banned apartments or required minimum lot sizes, allowing new suburbs to keep out lower-income residents. In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration introduced redlining, a policy which kept Black people from getting mortgages and buying homes in suburbs. While redlining was banned in 1968, its pervasive impacts on financial stagnancy for Black households and on the demographic composition of communities still persist. Suburban schools are frequently segregated by class and race. Meanwhile, roads and highways—the typical transportation infrastructure of suburbia—have often been used as tools to physically separate neighborhoods and are designed only for moving lots of cars, excluding anyone without the means or the physical ability to drive.

Not only do today’s diverse suburban communities face the same social challenges as their urban counterparts, but they’re doing so in a physical and political environment built explicitly for white, middle- and upper-middle-class families. Those are natural conditions for dissent to flourish. One of the nation’s earliest suburban George Floyd protests took place on May 30 in Prince William County, Virginia, a majority nonwhite suburb outside Washington, D.C., where so-called “crackdowns” on undocumented immigrants have become a regular occurrence. There, protesters blocked a state highway and were teargassed by police.

A peaceful protest for racial justice taking place at a library in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 2, 2020

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Across the Potomac River in Maryland, Montgomery County—where I live—has hosted about two dozen protests this summer. This suburb is affluent and increasingly diverse, and many of its demonstrations were organized by students who decry growing segregation and inequity in the county’s public schools.

“So much change is necessary right now and it seems really daunting. Change in all of America seems really daunting, so the way we can make an impact is by doing something in our community,” says Nat Tilahun, who organized a protest with his friend Matt Garfinkel in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the nation’s wealthiest towns.

Their protest was held at Walter Johnson High School, where Tilahun and Garfinkel had graduated from last spring. The school was also the site of a different demonstration about six months ago: Parents were fighting a redistricting study that could help desegregate the school system in which more than 40 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch plans. But on June 27, more than 100 people gathered at the high school in 95-degree heat to listen to speeches on systemic racism by Representative Jamie Raskin, by a county councilmember, and by activists fighting for anti-racist school curricula and police reform (including yours truly), followed by a three-mile march through a zip code where the median home value is $1.2 million.

Tilahun, who is Black, and Garfinkel, who is white, wanted to send a message to their community. But holding a protest in the suburbs also meant there would be more room for social distancing, as the COVID-19 pandemic might dissuade people from assembling in downtown Washington, D.C., 10 miles away. “I’ve been going to protests for a few years, and all of them have been in D.C. proper,” says Garfinkel. “It felt very different to be marching in the streets of the community where we spend most of our time.”

For now, the message seems to have gotten through. Montgomery County officials have cited the protests and calls for racial equity in their pushing of new policies: a police reform bill that limits use of force; an opening up of exclusionary zoning to allow more affordable types of homes; and a declaration that racism is a public health crisis. Judging from the number of protests in suburban communities around the United States, it’s hopeful that other places will follow suit.

“The fact that these protests are happening all over the country does represent a turning point,” says Murphy. “As divided as the country is, you can see the movement occurring everywhere. The divide certainly isn’t geographic.”

Perspectives

From Jamaica to New Hampshire, a Black activist discusses her wilderness legacy and efforts to create new cultural memories and rituals out on the trail.

Art

The documentary “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” examines the unnatural disasters of environmental and structural racism.

NRDC in Action

In the midst of a pandemic, NRDC advocates are stepping up their work to prevent the risk of mass utility shutoffs, now and for the long-term.

onEarth Story

Reducing air pollution isn’t just something to strive for. COVID-19 is illustrating why it’s a moral imperative.

Voices

NRDC’s Dawone Robinson discusses how social, political, and economic inequities lead to environmental injustice.

Profile

Whether they are delivering food or climate justice or standing up for clean air or access to nature, these activists are uplifting communities across the country.

In Conversation

Dawone Robinson, regional director of NRDC’s Energy Efficiency for All Project, works to create opportunities for low-income communities of color to save energy and money.

onEarth Story

The middle class may be getting squeezed out of our cities, but the author of a new book dangerously mistakes the symptom for the cure.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.