We spoke with Daniel Gillion, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Associate Professor of Political Science, about youth activism in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The February 14 tragedy hit close to home for Gillion, who grew up in South Florida and attended schools in Broward County, where Parkland is located. He studies political protest, racial and ethnic inequality, and political discourse on race, political institutions, and the American Presidency.
You’ve written about the power of protest to bring about change. What makes a protest movement successful?
There are a couple of things that make a movement successful. The most important thing is its salience. You can capture the salience of an event by the characteristics of a protest, such as the size. Large numbers of protesters indicate this isn’t just a small group of people putting forth these concerns. The duration—the length of time in which individuals are protesting illustrates the resolve that protesters have in getting their point across. You also have characteristics that are more contentious in nature, such as police presence, arrests, even violence. Those things illustrate the passion that protesters have. All of these characteristics are going to increase the likelihood that people pay attention. The Parkland protests are also garnering support from prominent organizations and individuals.
Then there are the intangibles—you have a heart-wrenching situation. Whenever you have the death of children it really garners the attention of the American public. Then to have the survivors out there protesting, it elevates the salience of that particular event.
Over the past few years we’ve seen the rise of activist movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Flint, Standing Rock, the Women’s March, and #MeToo. Are Parkland students and their allies benefiting from a groundswell of activism? Are we entering a new era of protest?
What you’re seeing in 2018, and even starting in 2017, is an increase in liberal protests taking place. I do think that the Parkland students are benefiting from previous protests that have evolved around liberal issues. Individuals have almost been primed to look out for injustices that have infringed upon some of these liberal perspectives, in this case the belief that we should have laws that prevent individuals from being able to walk into a school and shoot 17 children.
Some have compared the Parkland students to youth in the 1960s who marched against the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights. Oprah Winfrey even tweeted that they remind her of the Freedom Riders. Is this an apt comparison?
I think it is a good comparison. However, one thing that makes this situation different is that for the Freedom Riders, some of their impetus came from larger organizations that wanted to bring about justice, and for sure the students involved in the movement bought into that message. But in the case of Parkland, I think that it’s more of an innate and spontaneous response. The passion that they have for this specific event is so great because it’s their friends, it’s their families, it hits really close to home.
Another difference is that the Parkland students are receiving support from the American public; people are embracing their cause. The Freedom Riders—I don’t want to compare courage here—but they had to have more tenacity. If anything, their passions were oftentimes pushed back against. Many in the public looked to dampen their spirits as opposed to encourage them.
Why do you think this youth-led movement is gaining mainstream traction and support when other youth-led movements, especially Black Lives Matter, have not?
With Black Lives Matter, I think they are able to influence individuals in the minority community. Their message resonates with them, but in the broader public, you have some individuals pushing back against Black Lives Matter, in some instances because of implicit bias and oftentimes institutional bias.
Every single protest event you can put into a liberal versus conservative bucket. Both of these protests, the ones dealing with Parkland and the Black Lives Matter movement, they fit within a liberal world view. But within that liberal bent, people gravitate toward messages that are most likely to resonate in their own lives. We have a theory called “linked fate.” By linked fate I mean that when an incident happens to a person and you believe it could also potentially happen to you or the consequences of the incident could impact your life, you feel your fates are linked. In the political literature, racial and ethnic minorities, African-Americans in particular, have a strong sense of linked fate. In the case of an African-American being arrested and potentially being brutalized by police—if you are African-American you feel that could happen to you or someone close to you. We saw this with President Obama when the Trayvon Martin situation took place. He said, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
When you look at Douglas High School, you see a community, I think, if you are an average, white, well-to-do person, you would say to yourself, “This could happen in my community.” They can imagine these tragedies befalling them and their kids and their communities. That’s going to resonate with the average American, while Black Lives Matter struggles to make that sort of connection. The response to those police shootings in 2015 and 2016 wasn’t nearly as immense as the response we’re seeing now to the incident at Douglas High School. That to me, is troubling because it makes us question why not.
Social media makes it easier for activists to spread their messages but also exposes them to smear campaigns, insults, and even death threats. What are your thoughts about the role of social media in recent protests?
Social media has a clientele that wants to hear about sensationalized topics and issues. Certain media outlets want to create a separate narrative to distinguish themselves. Some outlets capitalize on being the contrarian in this scenario, and what better way to sensationalize this event than to turn these so-called victims into the antagonists of the story. I think there’s a little bit of that—the need to separate yourself so that you can have your material read and viewed.
The second component is, as I said earlier, you can fit these protests into a liberal or conservative bin. If the liberals are protesting, what are the conservatives doing? They’re not sitting down on the sidelines. They try to find weaknesses in the storyline. They have to put forth a counter narrative to prevent this momentum from changing policy in ways that don’t align with their beliefs.
Many people have said that if nothing happened after six- and seven-year-old children were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School, then America’s gun laws will never change. Do you think that this time gun-control advocates can avoid losing momentum?
The one thing I believe that they can do to keep momentum going is to literally keep hitting the ground, to continue to engage in protest activity. In order for a protest to be successful, people have to continue to invoke the salience of an issue. You have to keep your issue on the policy agenda. The politicians who can bring about change, those are the ones the protesters should be targeting. They should be targeting their representatives—protesting, calling, writing.I should also say that this is fertile ground for protesters to be successful because it’s an election year. It’s a midterm election year, but it’s an election year nonetheless. As politicians begin campaigning for reelection, they want to hear what’s going on.
We have to realize that at the end of the day, protesters are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the ones warning us of an injustice or inequality that is forthcoming or that already exists. If we ignore those issues in our society, it’s only going to lead to a worsening of the status quo. It leads to us not truly living up to the American dream.