Citizens engage in political protests when they believe that conventional forms of political participation have not made the government responsive to their preferences, needs, and grievances.  In light of the recent commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts at advancing civil rights, we are reminded of the potent power of various tactics of political protests such as civil disobedience.  Since the Civil Rights Era, protest has still been a tactic that citizens resort to for the purpose of voicing objections to what they perceive as the government’s lack of response to social injustices. Despite the advances and progress that political minorities have been made since the Civil Rights Era, there is no strong consensus among scholars about the effectiveness of this unconventional form of political activity.  Thus, the question remains concerning the efficacy of protests:  To what extent do politicians pay attention to and react to them?  

Dr. Daniel Gillion, from the University of Pennsylvania, provided a persuasive answer to this question on November 30, 2012 in his talk “The Political Power of Protest.”  Dr. Gillion spoke about the direct influence that political protest behavior has on Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court, showing how protest can be a form of democratic responsiveness that government officials have used, and continue to draw upon, to implement federal policies. His presentation focused on racial and ethnic minority concerns, demonstrating that the context of political protest served as a signal for political preferences.  According to Dr. Gillion, “Politicians learned from minority protest and responded when they felt emboldened by stronger informational cues stemming from citizens’ behavior, a theory referred to as the ‘information continuum.’” Despite the fact that the shift from protests to more conventional forms of politics “has opened the door for institutionalized political opportunity,” Dr. Gillion’s presentation reminds us that for political and racial minorities, protest still exists as a powerful tool to illustrate the inequalities that exist in contemporary society.

Professor Gillion spoke to and answered questions from an engaged audience that spanned a variety of disciplines including, but not limited to, Sociology, Social Work, African American Studies, and Political Science.  He was invited to speak as part of the Political Scientists of Color’s Distinguished Speaker Series.  Political Scientists of Color is a network of political scientists at the University of Michigan that recognizes both the numerous challenges and opportunities for students and faculty of color in the discipline and therefore aims to preserve and enhance a diverse academic and professional environment through social and professional events.  The Distinguished Speaker Series is an annual event that provides an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about a novel research project related to race/ethnicity and politics conducted by a notable scholar outside the University of Michigan.  

Professor Daniel Gillion is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is also a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Harvard University for 2012-2014. His research interests focus on racial and ethnic politics, political behavior, public opinion, and the American presidency.  Professor Daniel Gillion earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Rochester.