In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, I felt so helpless. Social media posts didn’t feel like enough. Going to protests was dangerous then because of the pandemic (we’re talking pre-vaccine here!).
“Though some citizens choose not to engage directly with a protest movement by hitting the streets, they still may play an instrumental role in that movement’s success. They do their part when they voice their preferences through voting.”Gillion 13
I didn’t know what to do.
Reading and listening to Black voices became my coping mechanism. I sensed that I didn’t know enough about the Black experience or pain that the murder of Floyd ignited. Despite my impulse to do something, I found myself sitting and listening to Black voices.
“Protesters lay out their concerns, reveal their lived experience, and place their hardship and strike on full display for the American public with the hope that they connect with the broader community.”Gillion 23
I found Daniel Gillion’s in a podcast episode of Factually! With Adam Conover; “Do violent protests actually work?” features an interview with political science scholar, Daniel Gillion.
The episode is great and I highly recommend listening to it. It’s accessible and hits the main points of Gillion’s book, The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy.
After hearing about Gillion, his work, and his book, I quickly ordered a copy from Bookshop.org. I wanted to hear more from Gillion, whose voice is clear, measured and substantiated by research.
This is not an easy book to read; it’s scholarly in nature and definitely isn’t a beach read (even though I sat on my lawn in my beach chair reading it that summer).
In the book, Gillion presents the research he found when he pursued the question, “How do protests impact American democracy?” He reviews not only the history of protests in the United States but also the data collected from his action research about protests and their various natures.
“While as Americans we want instant gratification, protest outcomes that take months or years to become visible are not failures, though some may see them as such.”Gillion 18
Gillion believes that protests are not the small pockets of unsettled feelings, but rather have heavy political influence in our democracy, making them worth listening to.
“protest activity spills over into the electoral process. Historically, political protest has been spurred by voices within marginalized groups, by those people who express the concerns of the repressed, and are seen as belonging to radical and isolated segments of society. Conversely, electoral outcomes in democracies demonstrate the will of the people and represent majoritarian preferences. As a consequence, political protest is often viewed as being a contrarian perspective to the outcome of political elections. I posit, though, that protests are a part of the social learning process, and act as an avenue of social communication between activists and nonactivists.”Gillion 7
Often, the effectiveness of a protest depends on the audience of the protest. Today, protests are more connected to politics than ever before, which brings about more thought-provoking results than protests of the past.
Now, protests are clearly “democrat” or “republican” and “liberal” or “conservative,” whereas this was not always the case. Strangely, different parties and factions seem to claim ownership of ideological issues that are not inherently political.
“the increasing political polarization within American politics has forced social change to be carried out by an electorate that has replaced a less pronounced mass public with markedly partisan voters.”Gillion 9
Indeed, protests at national conventions, campaign contributions, voter turnout, and backlash, and election results are all — possibly irrevocably — tied to protests.
“The public can be particularly effective in helping to further a movement’s political agenda. In a democratic system, the silent majority that stands on the sidelines is protesters’ implicit link to government. These are the people who can make protestors’ political goals reality by voting.”Gillion 8
“Protest actions can mobilize and guide the political sensibilities of the public. Protest can both represent and shift citizens’ opinions. If we fail to consider how social movements are linked to the U.S. electorate, we run the risk of misunderstanding the true political influence that protest has on American democracy.”Gillion 10
Today, protests that are effective must link with an ideology to have a prominent impact. Although there is a healthy amount of skepticism about the effectiveness of doubts, Gillion demonstrates that skepticism is unfounded.
“Protests have come to be seen by critics as too reactionary and spontaneous, belonging to a form of folk politics that does not allow for the complex strategies and abstract thinking needed to achieve the long-term goals and institutional change on a global scale.”Gillion 26
I often hear from people that violence does nothing for a protest. Indeed, I understand that oftentimes, violence oversteps not only the law but the original intent of the protest organizers! However, Gillion’s research points out that inevitably, violence brings more attention to the matters at hand and plays a part in lending a protest higher “salience.”
“Protest narratives summarize the state of the world around us, and signal to the nation that the wrongdoings occurring on a daily basis may be so egregiously bad that they warrant an assembly of individuals giving their time and energy to push back.”Gillion 12
“protestor’s investment in the issue that spurred them to take action beyond participating in elections, leading them to give their time and at moments risk personal sacrifice in pursuit of a collective aim. These characteristics of political protest work in tandem with one another to inform voters. And these various forms of information can build up to mobilize political participation from voters in the silent majority.”Gillion 45
As I said, start with the podcast. Gillion’s voice should be required listening/reading when it comes to trying to heal the wounds of the United States. If you want to know more and really dive deep into the politics of protest, The Loud Minority is for you.
“If you stop for a moment and listen closely, you can hear it. The steady pounding of demonstrators’ feet. The ruffling of protest signs being hoisted up and down. The echoing chant in the distance. It is the slow beating heart of American democracy.”Gillion 194