A youth fightback in the making

August 22, 2011

San Francisco college student Alex Schmaus takes on the argument that youth in the U.S. are passive and pacified--and reports the reality is quite the opposite.

DO YOU think that young Americans are self-absorbed products of consumer culture? That they're too submissive before authority? Do you see youth today as passive and apathetic, nourished by the soft glow of television and computer screens?

If your answers are yes, you're at the wrong website. But you might appreciate a recent article by psychologist and social critic Bruce Levine, titled "8 Reasons Young Americans Don't Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance."

It comes from a somewhat surprising source: the popular independent news website AlterNet. More than 5,000 AlterNet readers appreciated the article enough to share it with their friends on Facebook.

In reality, Levine made one of the oldest mistakes in politics when he wrote that "it is a major coup for the ruling elite to have created societal institutions that have subdued young Americans and broken their spirit of resistance to domination." There's a long record of self-important intellectuals who have declared that this group or that will never resist oppression, only to be proved wrong--and sometimes in very short order.

Students from Mission High School joined other San Francisco protesters for a march up Mission Avenue on March 4
Students from Mission High School in San Francisco march up Mission Avenue for the March 4 Day of Action in 2010

Just last October, while France was in the grip of mass strikes and demonstrations that spread to every corner of the country, even dedicated and experienced leftists in Britain wondered in print if there was something different about their country that made resistance less likely.

But out of the quiet that produced this disappointment, a new student movement suddenly exploded out of a huge demonstration in London where the headquarters of the ruling Tory Party was occupied. And now, a little over half a year later the world watched as urban youth rebelled against racism, poverty and police brutality in cities across the country.

I find it weird that an older radical like Levine--he was born in 1956--feels so comfortable explaining what makes the kids tick these days. Shouldn't he consider letting young activists speak for themselves? If Levine were willing to listen, he might hear some reasons to be hopeful about the next generation of resistance to injustice.

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that young people living and struggling in the U.S. today--like those of any age group--face a number of serious obstacles to moving forward. Most of us lack activist and political experience. There's a lot of anger, but we aren't nearly as organized as we need to be. Many people are still disoriented by the betrayals of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

But it won't advance the struggle for justice one inch to bemoan the inability of young people to overcome these obstacles just yet. Our responsibility today is to engage in the social movements and struggles emerging today in order to gain the experience and build the kind of organization we'll need for the future. In that spirit, I've prepared a list of my own.

Eight Reasons to Expect a Coming Youth Fightback

1. There's a global youth revolt underway. The Arab Spring began with revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and has spread to countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Many of these uprisings were initiated and carried, even in the face of repression by young people.

The spirit of the Arab spring has spread to Europe. Taking inspiration from the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square, the Spanish indignados ("indignants") and the Greek aganaktismenoi took over squares across their country and organized occupations where young people predominated.

In South America, the spirit of revolt manifested itself in the Chilean Winter, an episode of broad unrest developing out a large and combative movement of Chilean students against privatization of education. These and other revolts, like the London riots this month, can be an inspiration to young people in the U.S.

2. Twenty-five percent unemployment. That's the official jobless rate for teenagers in the U.S.--once youth in their early 20s are added in, the rate falls, but it's still around twice the overall unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. Conditions like these are not so different from those that drove youth protest in other countries like Spain. The U.S. is rapidly producing a new "lost generation," locked out of economic opportunities and chances of upward mobility.

3. Student debt. According to Bruce Levine, the huge student debt loads--and the fear they create--are a pacifying force for young people. But he's only telling one side of the story. In addition to fear, large debt loads create anger and bitterness, which can lead to action.

We saw that in California in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, when students across the state mobilized against budget cuts and tuition increases. On March 4, 2010, tens of thousands of students, teachers, parents and community members were involved in protests that ranged from pickets to building occupations on campuses throughout the state.

In fact, student debt loads are a source of fear not just for the students forced to pay them however, but increasingly for the plutocrats themselves. You can read all about it in a report called "Student Lending's Failing Grade" by the financial services firm Moody's Analytics. The report explains that investors are worried about the development of a student loan debt bubble that could become a further source of instability for the world financial system.

4. Save Our Schools. Levine likewise wants you to think that U.S. public schools educate for compliance and not for democracy. Again, he's only telling one side of the story. The education system does function as a system of social control, but there is always resistance to this, especially in times of crisis like these.

Activist educators took another step toward flipping the script on July 30, when thousands descended on Washington, D.C. for the Save Our Schools rally to protest corporate-driven education "reform" and budget-cutting. As the late historian Howard Zinn once said, "If teachers unions want to be strong and well-supported, it's essential that they not only be teacher unionists but teachers of unionism. We need to create a generation of students who support teachers and the movement of teachers for their rights."

5. The prison protests. In Georgia, prisoners braved fierce repression to strike their prison industry jobs for several days at six facilities across the state. This July, 400 prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the super-max prison in Pelican Bay, Calif., began a hunger strike that lasted three weeks, spread to 11 California prisons and eventually involved over 6,000 prisoners for some length of time.

Heroic examples of resistance like these can inspire protests on the outside, particularly among young African Americans who are the main target of the drug war and criminal injustice system.

6. The Dream activists. Undocumented young people have bravely faced arrest at protest actions around the country in order to advance the struggle for the DREAM Act and other legislative measures like that would provide a limited path to citizenship for some undocumented youth. The student struggle around the DREAM Act emerged as a leading element in the resistance to Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070.

Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and young Latinos in particular have shown they are not about to meekly accept second-class citizenship in what is supposed to be the "world's greatest democracy."

7. SlutWalks and the new women's liberation movement. SlutWalks are now a global phenomenon of protest against sexist violence. The movement began when a Toronto police officer suggested that women should "avoid dressing like sluts" in order not to be victimized. Sexist garbage like that isn't new, but what was new was the response of young women and men in Toronto, who organized a protest that has been imitated in cities around the world.

8. The battle in Wisconsin. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation targeting public-sector unions sparked the most important protests of the U.S. labor movement in decades. Students played a central part in the struggle, from the Teaching Assistants' Association representing graduate student employees at University of Wisconsin campuses to high school students who led the way into the state Capitol building for the beginning of what would be a three-week occupation.

The battle in Wisconsin was eventually won by Scott Walker, but the Capitol occupation was a transformational experience for huge numbers of people. Expect youth and students to look to that example in the struggles against austerity to come.

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