The Power of Protest

Assistant Professor of Political Science Daniel Gillion measures the political effects of protest movements.

No one doubts that peaceful protest helped advance the Civil Rights movement. But what about more recent political protests, from anti-nuclear groups to the Million Man March to the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street? Do they matter? 

Assistant Professor of Political Science Daniel Gillion has developed a way of measuring the political effectiveness of protest, and thinks that the time for protest is still here—especially as a way for racial and ethnic minorities to draw attention to inequalities in society. He says, “I believe that protest activity is a political resource that should not lie fallow in the toolbox.”

Gillion outlines his method in his book The Political Power of Protest: Minority Activism and Shifts in Public Policy, to be released in January. He regards protest actions as another form of constituent sentiment that should be considered alongside public opinion and voting behavior: “There’s great information in protests that helps politicians.” This includes the size, which demonstrates interest and ardor; organizational structure—support by an organization like the NAACP or La Raza gives credibility to the issue; and the message, which conveys the specific concerns of the constituency. These characteristics can be measured, giving each event a score between one and nine. Gillion then adds the scores of all pro-minority rights issue protests to create an annual total. 

He also tracks protests against minority rights issues, then compares the two scores to create an “information continuum.” He notes that, “When these scores become positive it means that pro-minority rights protests are more vociferous, and when they are negative, that means anti-minority rights protests are more vociferous. That’s how I assess whether or not a protest was informative, and then I look at how politicians respond.”

What Gillion has found is a strong correlation between the continuum and how much minority rights are focused on by politicians—in ways like press conferences and proposed legislation—on both national and local levels. “We see that [a congressman or woman’s] voting on minority bills shifts drastically when pro-minority protests occur in their district, and that the President is more likely to put forth an executive order or give a public statement when these events occur.”

Gillion believes that minorities have moved away from protest as they have adopted the more institutionalized political opportunities now available to them. “It is not the case that minority citizens should completely ignore electoral forms of political behavior,” he says. “Voting puts a politician in office, but that politician needs some sort of signal. It’s not always the case that you’re going to change government, but you can put issues on the public agenda.”

 “Over the last 50 years, literally since the March on Washington, political scientists have not addressed the connection between protest and policy because we have viewed protest as something that’s disconnected from government,” says Gillion. “We always thought of elections as the one way in which citizens can make a difference.”  He wants to show people that there’s something they can do the other 364 days of the year.  “I believe protest is an avenue in which citizens can express these concerns, and allow minority voices to really be heard in the democracy.”

By Susan Ahlborn