Operation Gridlock protest outside of New York State Capitol, April 2020. Photo credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

On Thursday, April 15, the traditional day for paying federal taxes, several thousand cars rolled to a stop on the streets in Lansing, Michigan. They surrounded the State Capitol, commencing “Operation Gridlock” to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s extension of the state’s “stay-at-home” order. Blaring horns, waving flags, and sprouting signs on car hoods and windows saying “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Let Me Work,” they agitated for a loosening of restrictions to get businesses back up and running. A few hundred protesters on foot stood on the capitol grounds, but most stayed in their cars, socially distanced. Since then, in an even tenser confrontation, some of these protesters have returned with weapons: They entered the state capitol building and were barred from confronting Whitmer by a line of state troopers.

Michigan has seen the largest protest against governors by far. But a few dozen protesters shouted outside the Frankfort, Kentucky, capitol building on April 15 as well; and over in Raleigh, North Carolina, about 100 people protested Governor Roy Cooper’s stay at home order. Other protests in Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, while small, sent the same message.

But these “let me work” protests weren’t the first to take place during the pandemic. And conservatives are not the only protesters.

On April 3, protests by a dozen medical workers in scrubs outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan called for the provision of protective gear for front line workers, while in the Bronx, as CBS New York reported on April 2, medical workers also protested their working conditions. Grasping signs saying “Patients Before Profits” and “Healthcare Justice Saves Lives,” about 20 medical professionals spaced themselves out on an inner courtyard to address the national media.

On April 7, a caravan of cars drove in circles for an hour in front of Chicago’s sprawling Cook County Jail, demanding the release of many detainees. Hundreds of jailed defendants and nearly a hundred staff had already tested positive for the coronavirus. One man awaiting trial, Jeffery Pendleton, had already died on Sunday, April 5. Three more prisoners and two guards would die in the next two weeks. This “solidarity caravan” maintained social distancing rules while managing to protest: They shouted from their cars and held posters out the car windows with slogans like “Detention=Death” and “Release Them B4 Corona Takes Them.”

Each of these examples alerts us to a crucial question for our democracy in this state of crisis. Just how do you protest in a pandemic?

In normal times, freedom of movement and the right to assembly are core tenets of our democracy. Historically, these have supported the collective voice of thousands of citizens by protecting the right to gather in the streets and make their views known. Mass protests are powerful precisely because they make visible the significance of collective will. This is especially true when protesters assemble at symbolic sites. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial is one of several examples of protesters taking their demands to the heart of government.

At a time when most of the U. S. population is under stay-at-home orders, and when outrage at the lack of preparation for a pandemic is mounting across the nation, one of the fundamental tenets of democracy — the right to protest — is necessarily restricted.

But the history of parades and protests demonstrates just how important dissent has been in promoting social change in United States history. Social movements have used public participation and public presence as a key strategy for changing opinions for more than a century. This year, for example, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote nationwide. Huge parades of suffragist women, marching in the streets and placing their bodies on public display, served to demand change at a time when middle- and upper-class women were expected to avoid making themselves a “spectacle.” Every major social movement has used mass protests to change opinion and to shape governmental action.

Physical protest asks us to stand and be counted. Our embodied presence serves as a public testamentary to our point of view. When protests bring hundreds of thousands of people together in one place, through highly coordinated national planning that requires everything from permits to public safety measures, the magnitude of the event guarantees that citizens will be heard and seen. The scale of such in-person protests is key to their power to engage, and help shape, public opinion.

And it is not only progressive causes that have used public protest as a political strategy, as the recent protests in Lansing demonstrate. Anti-abortion rallies, Tea Party gatherings, and white supremacist gatherings — like the “Unite the Right” events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12 in 2017, in which hundreds of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, and other members of white supremacist and neo-Fascist groups came together in a deadly clash with counter-protesters, police, and on-lookers — are a few recent examples.

But right-wing protests are often dwarfed by the massive scale of progressive rallies. The Women’s Marches in Washington D.C., across the nation, and around the world on January 21, 2017 — the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration — may have been the largest one-day protest in American history. Approximately half a million people marched in Washington that day, with estimated totals of a million or more in other cities. Massive scales of participation and physical displays of public conviction characterize the power of such protests.

Under our current pandemic conditions, of course, marching with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of others, is unthinkable. So, what are the possibilities for mass protests during a pandemic?

I put this question to my anthropology students recently. Most of them immediately thought that online protests were the answer, pointing out that especially now, when so many families live a large part of their lives online, connecting socially or for work through Facetime, Zoom, and Instagram, it might be easier than ever to organize virtual campaigns. And in fact, recent social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo surged in part because they made canny use of online platforms to signal shared values and calls for change as they organized “real life” protests. Similarly, white supremacists used the Internet to build a cohort for the “Unite the Right” march.

A move to online protest could be more democratic, making organized dissent more available to those who normally might not be able to travel to a protest venue, such as parents with young children, people who are disabled, those without transportation, those who cannot afford to take time off of work at that precise day, or those for whom coming forward in public is a danger, such as undocumented people, making a good case for organizing virtual protests under normal conditions.

Of course, not everyone has access to the Internet. But what is also lost in virtual campaigns that display their commitments in “likes” and hashtags, is the visual power of hundreds of thousands of bodies committed to changing social practices, beliefs, and policies. In-person protests are hard to manipulate or deny. They are not subject to bots, spoofing, or fictive avatars. They do not speak in an echo chamber. Rather, they claim the attention of the public at large.

The most powerful twenty-first-century protests will use all the tools, and occupy all the space, that they can. Online and “IRL” protests can be and have been, intertwined in ways that help launch, build, coordinate, and disseminate images of live events as part of broader campaigns.

And not all collectives come together to protest: Some reaffirm, celebrate, and reassert community values. Around the world, we are seeing creative adaptations of how to protest, and perform, collectively when the pandemic keeps us physically separate. Most have involved sharing music or saluting health care workers. Widely circulating photos and videos feature Italians singing together across their balconies, Spaniards banging pots and pans out the windows, and entire choirs in South Africa singing together connected only through their earphones.

Here in the United States, residents of New York, Chicago, and other cities have also sung from their windows and cheered front line workers. In Montgomery, Alabama, residents in high-rises started collective clapping to salute health care workers on their shift changes. Teachers in Dallas, Miami, and the Indiana suburbs have formed festive car parades to wave to the students in their neighborhoods as a mark of solidarity with their classroom communities.

These celebratory actions can easily be adapted for the purposes of collective protest. They can be coordinated, documented, and live-streamed synchronously via social media, even when Americans are self-isolating, and when protesters are widely separated across neighborhoods, cities, and states. Such protests even have the potential to coordinate actions across the divisions of social class and race and ethnicity that too often divide us. A hundred people on the lawn of a state capitol do not make a movement. But hundreds of thousands united in time, and in physical actions — like cheering or chanting, holding placards, and unfurling banners, even if separated by space, be it feet or blocks or miles or thousands of miles — could.

As the pandemic unfolds, it will remain important to make public opinion known. We need to support governmental action that supports public health while commenting on and correcting poor decisions that affect us all. This will become especially important over the next several months as the national death toll continues to climb, calls to “open the economy” accelerate, and the disproportionate impact of the virus on communities of color brings longstanding injustices to the fore.

There are ways to show ourselves and be counted in a pandemic: We are already doing it. However socially distanced, we still have the potential to make our voices heard, separate but together, from balconies and rooftops, front-stoops and windows, and on digital devices, across the nation.

Jane Desmond is a professor of anthropology and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.