Power to the protest: Daniel Gillion on protest movements

The political science professor’s new book, “The Loud Minority,” traces the impact of protest movements on legislation, voting, and other aspects of American democracy.

Daniel Q. Gillion
Daniel Gillion, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science

In 1995, young Daniel Gillion took part in a Miami satellite protest coordinated with the Million Man March of African American men held in Washington, DC. He carried a banner that was a bit too large for him, and he wondered: Have we made any difference here, or are we just wasting our time? 

Gillion wasn’t wasting his time, if only because the protesting teenager turned his question into a fruitful career in political science—a career in which protest has been the focus of his research.

One of eight children growing up in a poor but close-knit family in South Florida, Gillion recalls lively political discussions at home that helped to make politics a natural area of study for him. He joined the faculty at Penn in 2009 and today is the Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt Presidential Distinguished Professor of Political Science. His new book, “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy” (Princeton University Press, 2020) is about the effects of protest on legislation, voting, and other aspects of our political system.

rendering of cartoon humans in line with flags and protest signs waiting to climb a ladder to stuff their vote into a life-size ballot box

In his view, protest is not merely a chance to let off steam; on the contrary, it’s an important harbinger of new directions. “Protests,” he writes, “are the canaries in the coal mines that warn of future political and electoral change.”

“The way I see protests translating into political change is through the communication of protesters to non-protesters. I believe that protesters and their message are viewed in a light that is already preconceived,” says Gillion. “When a bystander or an average citizen who’s not engaging in a protest sees, let’s say, the Black Lives Matter movement engaging in activism, they have a preconceived notion of what that group is about. The same would be true of protests around the Second Amendment, regarding holding on to your guns. People have a preconceived notion of whether such protests are liberal or conservative.”

“In today’s society, every single protest action can take on that liberal or conservative label in the minds of the non-protester.”

Read more at the Pennsylvania Gazette.