Nothing weird about Detroit's largely white Black Lives Matter protests, according to cellphone data


  • Steve Neavling

Much has been made about Detroit's Black Lives Matter marches being made up of largely white protesters, with Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig accusing "outside agitators," not Detroiters, of leading them. Detroit's population is nearly 80% Black.

But Detroit's white Black Lives Matter protests are no anomaly, or at least that's what a controversial report from a tech company called Mobilewalla suggests. The firm analyzed cellphone data from protesters in four major U.S. cities from the weekend of May 29, when police killed Minneapolis man George Floyd, sparking the new round of protests across the country. It released the report, "George Floyd Protester Demographics: Insights Across 4 Major US Cities," earlier this month.

The numbers are just an estimate, and Detroit was not one of the cities the firm analyzed. But analyses of Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York City found majority-white crowds.

The cities had estimated crowds made up of 77%, 78%, 83%, and 72% white protesters, respectively. Meanwhile, the report estimated 17%, 2%, 13%, and 17% Black protesters, respectively.

The cities have a Black population of 51%, 11%, 19%, and 26%, respectively.

Screenshot of Mobilewalla's report showing the estimated racial demographics of Black Lives Matter protests in four cities. - MOBILEWALLA
  • Mobilewalla
  • Screenshot of Mobilewalla's report showing the estimated racial demographics of Black Lives Matter protests in four cities.

The release of the report drew controversy, with critics raising concerns about issues with privacy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts told BuzzFeed News that there should be regulations on how data companies can use their information.

"This report shows that an enormous number of Americans — probably without even knowing it — are handing over their full location history to shady location data brokers with zero restrictions on what companies can do with it," Warren said.

The company does not collect the data, but buys it from sources including advertisers and internet service providers. It told BuzzFeed it does not release private information about the cellphone users to law enforcement.

In May, data firm VoteMap tracked the location data from protesters at the right-wing "Operation Gridlock" event in Lansing, a demonstration against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus economic shutdown. The firm collected the data using geo-location data from hundreds of other downloaded apps, which the users agreed to share when they approved the terms of service.

There are a number of problems with Duggan's dismissal of the outsider protesters. For one, Duggan has spent much of his mayorship making Detroit more appealing for white suburbanites, who avoided Detroit for decades. Two, many people who live in the city, both Black and white, use suburban addresses to avoid paying higher city taxes and driver's insurance rates. (The city even filed lawsuits against landlords demanding tenant information in a crackdown against the practice.) And three, plenty of Black Detroiters have encouraged seeing white people marching for their rights.

Detroit's protests are led by Black Detroiters, including Tristan Taylor and Nakia Wallace.

Taylor previously told Metro Times that he welcomed white supporters to the movement.

“We say this is America’s problem, right?” he said. “If this is America’s problem, it’s actually the obligation and duty of America to stand with Black and brown bodies.”

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