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The United States has faced significant turbulence in recent months, first with the global coronavirus pandemic and then with mass protests against police killings of Black Americans, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These challenges have exposed government shortcomings and provided an opportunity for civil society to occupy a more significant role in U.S. policy debates. A combination of newer and more established civil society groups has sought to respond to the pandemic and confront the government’s mismanagement of the crisis. There has been some overlap between pandemic-related civic initiatives and the civil society responses to racial and ethnic violence and injustices. Mutual aid initiatives, labor unions, and rights-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) active on the coronavirus have worked alongside organizations that have been active on criminal justice issues for many years.

Civil Society and the Coronavirus

The particularly ineffective management of the coronavirus crisis by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has galvanized intensely committed responses from U.S. civil society. New actors, such as faith-based groups and mutual aid initiatives, have helped communities respond to the pandemic. More established actors, such as labor unions, have taken vocal stances in addressing safety challenges in the workplace that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, causing a renewed interest in workplace organization. Large nonprofits that focus on human rights or civil liberties have led the way in documenting the pandemic’s danger to neglected populations, such as detained immigrants, and in filing lawsuits to protect those populations while fighting to uphold civil liberties.

A range of religious groups has embraced roles of helping local communities deal with the pandemic and its second-order effects. The evangelical organization Samaritan’s Purse deployed a field hospital in Central Park to help New York City treat the wave of coronavirus patients—although the organization’s devout Christian principles, which include opposition to same-sex marriage, drew significant criticism.1 Seeds of Hope, the food justice ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, addressed food insecurity through its existing efforts to provide farm-grown fruits and vegetables to over 30,000 families a week.2

Sikh communities across the country have prepared free meals for local communities, as their places of worship—called gurdwaras—are equipped with the tools and manpower to feed large populations.3 Although some religious communities have faced ire for defiantly continuing in-person services, others have made services available online to ensure the spiritual and emotional well-being of congregants or organized services such as grocery deliveries to support elderly people.4

Mutual aid initiatives have grown increasingly prominent to meet the urgent needs of community members by delivering groceries, running errands, and paying bills.5 Mutual aid has a rich history among Black liberation movements, from early independent Black churches in the eighteenth century to the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam in the twentieth century.6 Mutual aid has been geared toward populations that are excluded from government assistance, such as undocumented immigrants.7

David Wong
David Wong was a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program.
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In the current pandemic, a range of actors has spearheaded mutual aid initiatives: advocacy groups that have directly assisted populations in need, diaspora organizations that have looked to capitalize on transnational networks to obtain resources from members abroad, religious groups for which helping others has aligned with their religious principles, and individual citizens who have been motivated to fill the void left by existing state systems.8 Many of these groups have relied on tech platforms such as Airtable, Facebook, GitHub, Google Docs, and Slack to coordinate their efforts and compile useful information.9

The pandemic has also sparked a resurgence in labor activism. Workers have mobilized for higher wages, protections against coronavirus-related risks in the workplace, and financial packages from severance pay to sick leave. In the early stage of the pandemic, most labor action took place outside unions; instead, unorganized workers (employees in nonunion companies) held work stoppages, using the tactics of direct action to pressure superiors to address their demands—techniques termed “solidarity unionism.”10 Workers at Amazon, Instacart, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods co-organized a nationwide sick-out on May 1.11 However, more recently, existing unions and labor organizers have been more visible in leading strikes or supporting workers in major nonunion companies, such as Amazon, to pressure the business into making concessions.12

Large organizations that focus on human rights and civil liberties have concentrated on documenting the effects of the pandemic on marginalized populations and using legal means to prevent infringements of rights and liberties. Amnesty International has analyzed the dangers of the coronavirus in immigration detention centers.13 The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed lawsuits to ensure voters in several states can vote by mail, to release people vulnerable to severe illness or death from the coronavirus in detention centers, to block efforts to cut abortion access during the pandemic, to challenge fake news laws in Puerto Rico that endanger press freedom, and to release people from jails due to the challenges of adhering to physical distancing guidelines.14

From the Coronavirus to Broader Civic Activism

More indirectly, the pandemic has created conducive conditions for protests against police brutality by exacerbating existing societal issues, elevating the role of social media, and creating fiscal crises at the local level that pressure local leaders into undertaking significant reforms.

First, the pandemic has illuminated and sharpened the disparities that America’s Black population has long endured, as Black Americans have died from the coronavirus at a higher rate than other racial groups. According to the American Public Media Research Lab, Black Americans’ coronavirus death rate is 69.7 per 100,000 people, whereas the corresponding figure for white Americans is only 30.2 per 100,000.15 The higher death rate may be because structural and environmental racism lead Black Americans to have a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, that increase the risk of the coronavirus and because they constitute a disproportionate percentage of essential workers.16

The damage also extends into the economic sphere: during the pandemic, Black people have experienced layoffs at a higher rate than all other racial groups except Hispanics. Black families are particularly vulnerable to the financial effects of a layoff because of lower levels of household wealth. In 2016, the median middle class Black household held $13,000 in wealth, compared with almost $150,000 for the median middle-class white household.17

In this moment, when Black Americans have suffered disproportionately in health and economic terms from the coronavirus pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police officers made clear how systemic racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of U.S. institutions. Systemic racism affects not only policing but also public health, economic development, and other areas of civilian life. As an illustration of systemic racism, Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” are particularly chilling considering that this coronavirus, which has significantly affected the Black community, manifests itself in victims being unable to breathe.

For many Black protesters, the seemingly inescapable reach of systemic racism made protest necessary despite the risk of contracting the coronavirus or suffering physical injury. In the words of one protester, “If it’s not police beating us up, it’s us dying in a hospital from the pandemic. I’m tired of being tired. I’m so tired, I can’t sleep.”18 The simultaneity of the pandemic and the protests against police brutality also made it far more difficult for white Americans to ignore issues of systemic racism.

Second, the coronavirus lockdown has increased the use of social media, which, in turn, has added momentum to civic activism. According to market research company GlobalWebIndex, during the pandemic 49 percent of Americans polled have been reading more news stories on social media and 30 percent have been sharing more news on social media.19

Increased use of social media likely accelerated the spread of footage and information about the death of George Floyd. With clear video documentation of police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, Floyd’s death was uniquely visceral and prolonged compared with previous police killings of Black Americans, dispelling justifications that the officer was merely acting in self-defense.

After Floyd’s death, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, frequently used after police killings of Black Americans, was tweeted so frequently as to suggest the mainstreaming of the movement in a way not seen before. Only two days after Floyd’s death, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was used 8.8 million times on May 28 alone and was then used over 2 million times a day until June 7. For context, the previous highest number of daily uses was around 1.2 million after the 2016 police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.20 Increased use of social media for news purposes, combined with a heightened level of activism among Black social media users, likely provided the optimal conditions for social media to allow the police brutality protests to grow into the largest and most multiracial demonstrations in years.

Activists have since used social media platforms to circulate footage of police violence against protesters. This footage has increased public support for the protests as police have been documented dispersing crowds by using tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, and even vehicles.21 Public opinion is shifting: in a June 2020 Washington Post–Schar School poll, 69 percent of Americans considered recent police killings of Black Americans to reflect broader problems with police treatment of Black people, up from 43 percent in 2014.22

Finally, the pandemic has created an economic environment that is more conducive for civil society groups to achieve radical policy change, such as defunding the police. The pandemic has led to a severe shortage of municipal funding around the country that may force many mayors to reduce police budgets, which, for many cities, constitute a major portion of the city’s overall budget. Cutting funding for other departments that provide services for citizens in need, such as education or health, will likely spark an outcry from activists who argue that such cuts exemplify the problem of systemic racism and police overfunding.

Already, several major cities have significantly reduced police funding. The city of Los Angeles slashed the police budget by $150 million, and New York City will cut $1 billion from the police department’s budget. Seattle’s mayor and the City Council recently agreed on a 20 percent budget cut to Seattle’s Police Department.23 Activists have also used this moment to step up pressure for policy reforms beyond the pandemic.

Civil Society During Protests Against Police Brutality

The protests against police brutality have brought together traditional activists who have spent years advocating criminal justice reforms and newer actors who have gained prominence during the pandemic and aided with the protests or advocacy.

In the years leading up to these protests, many criminal justice advocacy organizations, such as Black Visions Collective and the Minnesota Freedom Fund, and other activists were working on issues of police reform but had limited success in convincing political leaders to consider reforms, let alone enact them. The police brutality protests have dramatically elevated the efforts of activists, who have seen an outpouring of donations that far exceed previous contributions and political leaders who are more receptive than before to significant reforms to U.S. policing.24

Additionally, mutual aid groups that have gained significance during the pandemic have provided protesters with supplies such as food, drinks, face masks, first aid equipment, and even information on dealing with tear gas or contacting a lawyer. These resources are critical, given that the protests are occurring in a pandemic, to ensure that citizens can follow basic precautions while protesting. The demonstrations have pushed some of the newer relief organizations in a more political direction as the overlaps become clear between the pandemic and underlying injustices in U.S. society.25 Religious leaders and clergy—from Latino and immigrant ministries in Los Angeles to interdenominational groups in Connecticut—have also mobilized congregants to protest and lobby state and federal legislators to support reforms to improve racial justice.26

Many labor unions and workers have taken a vocal stance in favor of the police brutality protests. In cities across the country, some unions joined ongoing protests or even called their own rallies or strikes to demand cuts to police funding. Bus operators in several cities refused to transport police on city buses, while teachers in Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Rochester, and Seattle ousted police from their schools.27 On June 24, 2020, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union shut down twenty-nine ports along the West Coast, not only demanding defunding the police but also protesting against rezoning projects. This was an unprecedented level of mobilization that likely stems from the impact of the pandemic on Black and Hispanic Americans.28

Journalist unions and organizations have criticized police arrests of and violence toward journalists.29 Nurses have been particularly vocal in their advocacy, from attending protests and highlighting racial disparities in healthcare to providing medical treatment to protesters and speaking out against police force against protesters and systemic racism.30 Notably, the participation of nurses in the demonstrations may be particularly beneficial for the protests, as polling by Gallup has found that U.S. adults have rated nurses as having the highest honesty and ethics standards among many professions, including medical doctors, for almost twenty years.31

The Strike for Black Lives on July 20, 2020, saw the most significant labor mobilization yet, with tens of thousands of workers across 200 cities walking out to demand better wages and greater efforts to address systemic racism.32 Overall, the upsurge in labor union mobilization foreshadows potential collaboration between organized labor and antiracism advocacy in the future.

Rights-based NGOs have been at the forefront of collecting information about police violence against protesters. Amnesty International mapped 125 incidents of police violence against protesters across the country from late May to early June 2020, with each incident accompanied by video evidence sourced from social media.33 The ACLU has filed lawsuits around the country on the topic of police violence against protesters. The ACLU of Minnesota filed a class-action lawsuit against Minnesota law enforcement for targeting journalists, while the ACLUs of Seattle and Indiana sued the cities of Seattle and Indianapolis, respectively, to halt police use of tear gas and projectiles against protesters. The ACLU of Washington, DC, filed a lawsuit against Trump and administration officials for using federal authorities to disperse crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas; the organization sought an order that would bar officials from conducting such activities again and claimed damages for protesters’ injuries.34


The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and the police brutality protests in the United States has brought civic activism to the fore in pushing for social change. In a way, the pandemic may have incubated civil society groups by exposing the government’s shortcomings in such a visible way as to compel citizens around the country to take matters into their own hands. Some of the same groups that have been strengthened or summoned to action by the pandemic—religious communities, labor unions, mutual aid initiatives, and rights-based groups—have also proved critical for maintaining the protests against police brutality.

Already, new alliances are forming between groups such as labor organizations and antiracist activists, and recent reforms to policing in different cities reflect the successful efforts of civic groups. As the United States struggles to control the coronavirus pandemic and protests continue across the country, civil society groups may have ample opportunity to push for even greater reforms in coming months.


1 Liam Stack and Sheri Fink, “Franklin Graham Is Taking Down His N.Y. Hospital, but Not Going Quietly,” New York Times, May 10, 2020,

2 Kathryn Pitkin Derose and Michael Mata, “The Important Role of Faith-Based Organizations in the Context of COVID-19,” RAND Corporation, April 16, 2020,

3 Priya Krishna, “How to Feed Crowds in a Protest or Pandemic? The Sikhs Know,” New York Times, June 8, 2020,

4 Tara Law, “‘It’s Like a Lifeline.’ How Religious Leaders Are Helping People Stay Connected in a Time of Isolation,” Time, April 1, 2020,

5 Rinku Sen, “Why Today’s Social Revolutions Include Kale, Medical Care, and Help With Rent,” Zocalo Public Square, July 1, 2020,; “Town Hall Project,” Mutual Aid Hub,

6 Aysha Khan, “Faith-Based Mutual Aid Flourishes Amid Pandemic, Protests,” Oakland Press, July 6, 2020,

7 Lizzie Tribone, “Mutual Aid, for and by Undocumented Immigrants,” American Prospect, July 1, 2020,

8 Annette Lin, “Diaspora Organizations Are Stepping Into the Void on COVID-19,” Nation, July 1, 2020,; Samantha Fields, “Mutual Aid Grows in Popularity During Protests and Pandemic,” Marketplace, June 4, 2020,; Aysha Khan, “Solidarity, Not Charity: Why Mutual Aid Reemerged in the Pandemic, and Is Flourishing Amid Protests,” Religion News Service, June 23, 2020,

9 Kaitlyn Tiffany, “Pandemic Organizers Are Co-opting Productivity Software,” Atlantic, May 28, 2020,

10 Shane Burley, “Coronavirus Fight: Some US Worker Unions Become More Aggressive,” Al Jazeera, May 1, 2020,

11 Noam Scheiber and Kate Conger, “Strikes at Instacart and Amazon Over Coronavirus Health Concerns,” New York Times, March 30, 2020,; Erik Oritz, “Target, Walmart Workers and Others Plan ‘Sickout’ Protests Over Coronavirus Safety,” NBC News, May 1, 2020,

12 Robert Combs, “ANALYSIS: COVID-19 Has Workers Striking. Where Are the Unions?,” Bloomberg Law, April 14, 2020,; Nandia Bose and Krystal Hu, “How Big Unions Smooth the Way for Amazon Worker Protests,” Reuters, May 21, 2020,

13 “USA: ‘We Are Adrift, About to Sink,’” Amnesty International, April 7, 2020,

14 “How the ACLU Is Responding to the Pandemic, Visualized,” American Civil Liberties Union, April 30, 2020,; Brian Hauss, “We’re Suing to Protect Press Freedom During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” American Civil Liberties Union, May 20, 2020,

15 “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” American Public Media Research Lab, July 8, 2020,

16 Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, “Black Workers Face Two of the Most Lethal Preexisting Conditions for Coronavirus—Racism and Economic Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, June 1, 2020,

17 Tracy Jan and Scott Clement, “Hispanics Are Almost Twice as Likely as Whites to Have Lost Their Jobs Amid Pandemic, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, May 6, 2020,

18 Akilah Johnson, “On the Minds of Black Lives Matter Protesters: A Racist Health System,” ProPublica, June 5, 2020,

19 “Coronavirus Research | April 2020, Series 4: Media Consumption and Sport,” GlobalWebIndex, April 20, 2020,

20 Monica Anderson et al., “#BlackLivesMatter Surges on Twitter After George Floyd’s Death,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2020,

21 Mike Baker, “Corrosive Effects of Tear Gas Could Intensify Coronavirus Pandemic,” New York Times, June 3, 2020,

22 Scott Clement and Dan Balz, “Big Majorities Support Protests Over Floyd Killing and Say Police Need to Change, Poll Finds,” Washington Post, June 9, 2020,

23 Nick Bowman, “Seattle Council, Mayor ‘Turn Corner,’ Find Common Ground on SPD Budget Cuts,” MyNorthwest, November 11, 2020,; Dana Rubinstein and Jeffery C. Mays, “Nearly $1 Billion Is Shifted From Police in Budget That Pleases No One,” New York Times, June 30, 2020,; Daniel Villarreal, “LA Mayor Faces Backlash for Defunding Police With $150 Million Budget Cut,” Newsweek, June 5, 2020,

24 Arian Campos-Flores and Joshua Jamerson, “Black Lives Matter’s Years of Pressure Paved Way for Sudden Police Overhaul,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2020,; Shane Goldmacher, “Racial Justice Groups Flooded With Millions in Donations in Wake of Floyd Death,” New York Times, June 14, 2020,

25 Laura Bliss, “To Sustain the Protests, They Brought Snacks,” Bloomberg, June 5, 2020,; Diana Budds, “Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?,” Curbed, June 23, 2020,

26 Alejandra Molina, “‘Your Fight Is My Fight’: Latino Clergy and Faith Leaders Rally Behind Black Lives Matter,” Religion News Service, June 25, 2020,; Isabella Zou, “‘A Very Broad Power Base’: CT Faith Leaders in the Black Lives Matter Movement,” CT Mirror, June 23, 2020,

27 Saurav Sarkar, “Unions Take Up the Black Lives Banner,” LaborNotes, June 19, 2020,

28 Karina Piser, “Unions Are Taking a Stand for Black Lives,” Nation, June 24, 2020,

29 James Walker, “Journalist Unions Condemn ‘Blatant Abuse’ of Police Power After CNN Reporter Arrested,” Newsweek, May 29, 2020,; “6-6-20-New-York-Press-Letter.pdf,” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, June 6, 2020,

30 Zack Budryk, “Nurses, Still Fighting Coronavirus, Serve as Medics at George Floyd Protests,” Hill, June 2, 2020,; “Nurses in Wake of Protests: ‘Weapons of War Have No Place in a Caring Society,’” National Nurses United, June 5, 2020,

31 RJ Reinhart, “Nurses Continue to Rate Highest in Honesty, Ethics,” Gallup, January 6, 2020,

32 Charisse Jones, “A ‘Strike for Black Lives’ Will Bring Together Workers Calling for End to Systemic Racism,” USA Today, July 8, 2020,; Jacob Bogage, “Thousands of U.S. Workers Walk Out in ‘Strike for Black Lives,’” Washington Post, July 20, 2020,

33 “Black Lives Matter Protests: Mapping Police Violence Across the USA,” Amnesty International, June 2020,

34 Brian Hauss and Teresa Nelson, “Police Are Attacking Journalists at Protests. We’re Suing,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), June 3, 2020,; Ariella Sult, “ACLU of Indiana and Indy10 Seek Court Order Barring Use of Chemical Weapons on Protesters,” ACLU Indiana, June 18, 2020,; “ACLU, Groups Sue Trump for Firing Tear Gas at Protesters Outside the White House,” ACLU, June 4, 2020,