On protest and lasting change

DeWayne Lucas
Associate Professor of Political Science

We know from political science that when citizens feel unheard by the government, they will take the levers of power available to them — either conventional or unconventional forms of participation. While unconventional forms of participation like protests are often discouraged for more conventional forms like voting, each represent legitimate expressions of concern and demands on government. Recent protests of police brutality across the world are expressions of the outrage and frustration from the Black community and its allies at government actions that they have felt unheard about and find unacceptable. The extent and intensity of these protests express the demands to political leaders to act on behalf of the community. Just like voting is a message to candidates to continue or change, protests are messages from citizens to their representatives to change.

The level of response from government about that message, however, is dependent on that continued intensity. Government leaders may simply take short-term measures to pacify the protest and to demonstrate their awareness of the concerns. Where recent protests seem to differ is that they are not simply accepting these conciliations but demanding more significant actions and changes such as complete police reform. A key question for the future of politics is how long and how intense will the protests remain. Will protesters still be in the streets demanding change until legislation is actually passed? Will candidates adopt their campaign messages to include issues from the protests? Will the promise of law and order outweigh the calls for meaningful social reform? Will voters elect candidates that actually will push those changes?