Newsletter: Youth Recognize Their Power & Build It
As we prepared to write a newsletter focused on amazing youth activism, the attacks in Paris occurred. This attack continues the rise of violence that has been escalating since the US attacked Iraq in 2003. Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries have been devastated by war.
We need political leadership to break the cycle of violence, but instead political leadership is calling for escalation to all-out war in Syria. Ending the cycle of violence will not come until people demand it.
In Paris, a man pulled his piano with a bike to just outside the Bataclan, the theater that was the scene of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Paris Friday night. He played John Lennon’s “Imagine,”one of the world’s most famous peace anthems. Its lyrics ask us to imagine a world that rejects nationalist and religious prejudices, presenting a vision of a world living in peace.
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.
Youth Demand a New World of Racial, Economic and Environmental Justice- Youth are rising up. They have been showing leadership on multiple fronts of struggle. They see a broken-system, dysfunctional government that is corrupted by money. It is unable to respond to the crisis of climate change; the reality of systemic racism; students graduating with massive debt in a poor job market and so many other issues.
Too often, both major political parties put the demands of big money over the hopes of real people. Despite the campaign rhetoric and the noise of the 24-hour news cycle, most people in the US will tell you that they think our political system is broken. 83 percent of young people say they have no faith in Congress.
Today we face a true crisis of democracy: the will of the people is not the priority of our political system. . . . Commonsense measures on immigration, student debt, gun safety, incarceration, policing, and climate change have no chance of passing our broken system.
We all see these problems as the impact each of us. Many youth see nothing being done and some are taking matters into their own hands. Youth rising to demand a different world should spur each of us to take greater action. Youth have specific issues of concern including leaving school with staggering debt in an economy with no real jobs.
The US Tradition of Racism is No Longer Acceptable
This week youth rose up across the country to challenge systemic racism that has never gone away. This long term problem has festered for decades. Today’s students, spurred by #BlackLivesMatter, #FightFor$15, #StrikeDebt, Occupy and other movements, are demanding an end to racism on college campuses.
The spark came out of the University of Missouri which has had a long-term problem with racism. The school investigated the issue and came up with recommendations in 2001 but they were never implemented. The campus has seen racist graffiti and fliers, cotton balls to reference slavery thrown out in front of the black culture center, racist slurs, racist jokes, segregation and swastika’s. Black youth report feeling constantly degraded and belittled in an intense atmosphere of racism.
Students protested but were ignored by the administration. This led graduate student Jonathan Butler to begin a hunger strike, students supported him occupying the quad and putting up tents. They held a protest at a football game urging people to “join the revolution.” The hunger strike lasted eight days. Members of the football team and their coach announced they would not play until the president of the university resigned. In the end, the president and chancellor resigned.
The protests spread to other universities. At Yale more than 1,000 people joined the “March of Resilience” after some racist incidents. In one case a black student was refused entrance to a “white girls only” party at a fraternity. In another, in a response to urging students not to wear racially offensive costumes, a professor claimed doing so was part of “a free and open society.” This led to a new group “Next Yale” occuping the president of the university’s lawn; making 19 demands to “reduce the intolerable racism that students of color experience on campus every day.”
Ithaca College students walked out in a “Solidarity Walk-Out” after racial incidents were not being taken seriously by their administration. The students are demanding Ithaca president Tom Rochon resign.
Solidarity with Ithaca and Missouri is being shown by students at Smith College who have planned a walkout for Wednesday. According to their Facebook event page, students say they will walk out of class “for all the injustices students of color face on this campus and other colleges nationwide.”
Racism is showing itself at the high school level as well. In Berkeley more than a thousand high school students walked out of class on November 5 to protest racist threats left on a school library’s computer in support of the Ku Klux Klan, threatening a “public lynching” in December and calling for the death of all Black people. At the walk-out one student said: “All the legends of the civil rights movement are looking down on us real proud.” Later the student was identified and referred to juvenile services.
1,000 March for Climate, Racial and Immigration Justice
In Washington, DC, students came from around the country for the march “Our Generation, Our Choice.” They rallied in DC parks, heard speakers and blocked an intersection near the White House for two hours. They even painted a parachute with messages on climate change, immigration and racial injustice while doing so. Chants of “The youth are rising, no more compromising” and “I believe that we will win” rang out.
These students have seen victories. Many have participated in successful blockades of pipelines, fracking and other carbon infrastructure and know that strategic people-powered protest can win. This week they saw the ‘victory’ of stopping the northern leg of the KXL Pipeline but have a deeper understanding. After Obama fast tracked the southern portion of the KXL, youth fought it using blockades, tree sits, chaining themselves to equipment and other direct action tactics but were unable to stop it. Oil now runs through the KXL southern portion and the youth who fought it recognize that Obama and the Democratic Party are not their allies, capitalism is the problem, corporate power must be fought and that a diverse movement using militant direct action is central to the struggle of delegitimizing carbon fuels.
Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies described “Our Generation, Our Choice” as “A cross-section of youth activism [who] have come together to say that change is something that we demand, and the time to act upon it is now.”
Greisa Martinez, advocacy coordinator with United We Dream, said “Our political system is failing communities of color, and as 2016 approaches, it is up to us to demand real moral leadership for our communities. Candidates can’t simply rely on tired talking points, but instead must propose real solutions that allow people like my mother, Elia Rosas, to live with full dignity.”
This protest linked issues. Youth recognized that issues will not be solved in individual silos, but only if we unite across issues creating a mass movement that weakens the power structure.
Students Demand an End to Tuition Debt
While previous generations had free or affordable college, this generation is forced to pay high tuition that leaves them in deep debt. There is no way to recover from this debt in a country where half the US workers earn less than $15 an hour and 51% earn under $30,000 a year. They have come into adulthood at a time when the US economy is corrupted by the insatiable wealth of a handful of 1 percenters and a government is too corrupt to confront them.
Debt strikes and other campaigns highlight unjust student debt. People have learned that not only are they not “a loan” they are not “alone.” And, they have seen how other fronts of struggle have built power by standing together and demanding change.
This week students at more than a hundred colleges and universities held marches for free college protesting high tuition and the debt that strangles them economically. The Million Student March, had three demands: liquidation of all student loan debt, a national minimum wage of $15 an hour and tuition-free public higher education.
Their website, StudentMarch.org said: “We are high school, college, and graduate students, recent graduates, campus workers, former students, parents, and grandparents uniting in a day of action on November 12, 2015, to demand tuition-free public college, cancellation of all student debt, and a US$15 minimum wage for all campus workers.”
Youth Are Helping to Revitalize Labor
Another area where today’s youth are showing leadership is over the poverty wages suffered by most US workers. Youth are going into the job market and often taking low-wage service jobs joining Fight for $15 and calling for union rights. As Amy Dean writes in Al Jazeera:
…there’s a new sense that the challenges millennials are facing — from increasing debt loads to stagnating wages to a lack of job prospects — can be tackled only by collective action. Organized labor and young people who have recently entered the workforce have common cause. By championing the issues millennials care about most, unions not only promote a more just economy for a new generation; they also chart a course for their own revival.
Not only are youth helping to build the power of unions, they are broadening the scope of unions by getting them involved in issues like Black Lives Matter, immigration injustice and climate change. Uniting issues strengthens all issues as solidarity across issues is a key step to building a mass movement that can challenge the big business power structure.
Youth have been protesting on behalf of underpaid workers at universities and with adjunct professors seeking better wages and unions. One-quarter of adjunct professor’s families receive public assistance because these highly educated people are paid so poorly. Even full time faculty have benefitted from student activism, as in Portland where the student union joined in pressuring the university to give the faculty a new and fair contact.
The issue of fair treatment of workers has become a major national issue. This Tuesday – one year from Election Day – workers held walkouts in a record 270 cities culminating in protests in 500 cities. Fast-food, home care, child care, and other underpaid workers demanded that elected leaders nationwide stand up for $15/hout and union rights. Workers in Greece held a general strike this week to protest austerity measures that threaten their pensions and cuts to social services as a requirement of banker bailouts. In Quebec students have been part of a rolling series of strikes involving nurses, teachers, healthcare workers and others which are likely to culminate in a general strike in December.
Students on the Front Lines
The reaction of the right wing has been great anger at student activism. Students should wear that as a badge of honor. How can the right wing be taken seriously when they claim racist speech needs to be protected at universities?
And, it is not only Republican extremists, it includes Democratic corporate militarists. Suzanne Nossel, the head of the free speech, human rights group PEN America, said of youth protests: “Some of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry.” What! This is a human rights activist? PEN America needs to rethink Nossel’s leadership. Nossel is an advocate of humanitarian war and a former State Department aide for Hillary Clinton.
TIME Magazine reports student protests are a good sign for the future as they are a gauge of the national mood. Protests on college campuses, they report, are evidence that the protesters are increasingly hopeful that they can have an effect.
Politicians aren’t the only voices with power. We have power, too. And we have more power when we act together. Young people don’t live single-issue lives. We live at the intersection of the most pressing problems today. Our movements are connected and our purpose is huge. Martin Luther King described the civil rights movement as a time when the “people moved their leaders, not the leaders who moved the people.” If enough of us push together toward a new vision, the world will begin to move.
That is a message we should all take to heart. We should continue to exercise our power, continue to fight injustices and as we do so, our power will grow.