The Power of Protest

illustration with picket signs, right here right now, no! and yes!

Hear from LaGina Gause and other political science experts on campus on this webinar.

Not all protests have the same power. In fact, protests by people who are politically marginalized are more likely to create change than those by the wealthy and well-connected, according to a forthcoming book by LaGina Gause, assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego. In The Advantage of Disadvantage, now under contract with Cambridge University Press, Gause uses modern collective-action data to show how protest is often a more effective tool for racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and other groups with much at stake. We spoke with Gause about the history of U.S. protest, the events of the past year and the role of protest in our democracy.


What is your definition of “protest?”

For me, protest is collective action—any time you have multiple people showing up in a public place to address a grievance or concern. It’s that simple. Some collective actions have specific policy aims—they directly target government reform and call for legislation. Others are social movements meant to build solidarity and community. That’s how Black Lives Matter (BLM) started, with self-affirmation as the internal target or goal. Women’s protests, too, are sometimes less about legislation and more about asserting a woman’s right to exist outside the home.

Is protesting typically a tactic of the left?

The way we think about social movements comes from when sociologists started studying them—in the 1960s. But protest is not exclusive to the left and never has been. Think of the White Citizens’ Councils and KKK that terrorized Black people and others in the name of white supremacy. They were engaging in collective action, too.

A difference between protesters on the left and right, in today’s terms, is that protests on the left are typically institution-challenging protests. From people of color, we see the Black protester saying to institutions “don’t kill me”; or the Latino, “don’t cage me”; or Native, “I want my land.” Right-wing protests generally are trying to keep things the same: not challenging institutions, but rather preserving the status quo.

How far back does protest go?

In this country, we started with protest. The Boston Tea Party was a kind of protest—an act of civil disobedience.

Are there fundamental ways in which protest has changed over time?

The role of information diffusion has changed. There was no contemporary national Tea Party, for example—it was very decentralized. That’s partly due to the role of social media and how people can attach themselves to different ideas they want to support.  In the way information is now shared through social media networks, it’s difficult for one central figure to define what the issues are or how people should think about a movement.

It is also the case that the leader-as-infallible person is a hard sell now, especially for younger people. Younger generations know that if you have leaders or central figures, you can bring down the whole movement by bringing down its leaders, through personal flaws or assassinations. But one critique of more diffuse movements is that if there’s no central message, it’s harder for traditional media to tell the story and for policymakers to address change.

What hasn’t changed?

The narrative of “good” and “bad” protests is still very much influenced by who’s protesting and what they’re protesting about. Even before the American Revolution, American Indians and Africans were scapegoated to deflect blame for protests. People at the Boston Tea Party roughly disguised themselves as American Indians. British soldiers attempted to justify shooting into a crowd of Boston residents by blaming Crispus Attucks (“the big guy of African and American Indian descent”) and the Irish, who were considered non-white at the time. The deflections were intended, in part, to fault “others” for the pre-Revolutionary conflicts between the colonists and the British.

Those tropes have a long history and remain today. You have white people armed to the max seen as protecting property and First Amendment rights. They’re called “militias” or “patriots”—while Black and brown people protesting their right not to die are seen as violent “rioters,” even when unarmed. The difference in police response is stark, too. This country still protects whiteness.

Are protests effective?

Yes. They’re effective in that they can gain support for ideas from the public. They can also affect policy. My work finds that the groups protesting at the highest costs to themselves—people who have the most to lose by protesting, those who risk police repression, death, arrest or deportation for example—are more likely to get legislation in favor of their cause. When people are willing to protest, particularly when their protest may result in serious consequences, it suggests that they care enough about the protest issue to hold legislators accountable at the ballot box.

We saw a lot of this effectiveness in 2020. Support for BLM has grown with the racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. There are also conversations now about reparations at a level of seriousness that hasn’t happened before and conversations about police reform.

In 2020, we also saw protests against COVID-19 policies, then there was the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Would you say, on the whole, that protests are positive or negative for U.S. democracy?

Democracies are supposed to be full of people participating. It’s not a bad sign in a democracy that there are a lot of people voicing strong opinions, or even extreme views. It can be good. In a strong democracy, people can and should feel that it’s OK to say what’s on their minds. A more dangerous sign is when people try to overturn democratic processes—and try to suppress other people’s voices, rights and liberties.