This week we want to highlight some of the issues that are spurring youth to get active in their communities and what they are doing about them.
Young people are yearning to understand the world, even when the truth is horrible, so that they can change it for the better. Mary Elizabeth Williams writes in Salon: “They’re questioning and curious and skeptical and intensely philosophical. They want to make sense of the world and reasons people do the things they do. They have amazing ideas, ideas that are too often wrung out of them by a school culture increasingly devoted to filling in little circles and insisting there’s only one correct answer to any problem that comes along, and only one way of arriving at that.”
She wrote about a fifth grade student in Florida who won an award for his essay called “In the Name of Religion” in which he described the use of religion to justify war and mass murder. His school tried to take away his award and prevent him from reading his essay to his classmates.
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Instead of creating an environment for honest discussion of the past and present which would facilitate reconciliation, school text books and programs perpetuate the status quo. For example, high school textbooks often gloss over injustices such as the fact that racial segregation was caused by explicit policies and not by societal norms.
And rather than discussing the US as the world’s largest empire, that imperialist mentality is cultivated at a young age in the guise of a ‘youth development program,’ otherwise called the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp (JROTC). Ann Jones writes that this program is “pushed by multiple high-powered, highly paid public relations and advertising firms under contract to the Department of Defense….” She calls it the world’s most effective child soldier recruitment program.
Despite this, students are questioning the injustice that they can’t help but see around them. We marched this week with high school students in Baltimore who are organizing their community to stop the country’s largest trash incinerator from being built in their community.” Another impressive group of students in Baltimore, the Algebra Project, is working for better conditions in their schools and to stop the school to prison pipeline. So far they have kept a juvenile detention center from being built, and are pushing for recreation and other youth programs. They need to raise a few thousand more dollars to keep their program going.
Militarization and Over-Policing of Schools
The militarization of public schools and our culture generally, is dramatic, particularly in communities of color where police are intervening in increasingly aggressive ways. As Chase Madar writes, “What not long ago would have been seen as normal childhood misbehavior – doodling on a desk, farting in class, a kindergartener’s tantrum – can leave a kid in handcuffs, removed from school, or even booked at the local precinct.”
In Rochester recently, a police officer arrested three teen athletes who were merely waiting for a school bus to take them to practice. The officer insisted on completing the arrest even after the coach arrived to explain. It seems the only ‘crime’ they committed was being African American.
Racism in the US is obvious when one looks at mass incarceration and ‘stop and frisk’ statistics. In fact, in the US, there are 2.4 million people behind bars, which represent 25% of the world’s prisoners, even though the U.S. is only 5% of the world’s population. The U.S. prison population is enough to comprise a small nation. Rosa Brooks describes this ‘Incarceration Nation’ – which is larger than 50 nations and would be one of the most densely populated nations in the world. The private prison-industrial complex encourages policies that increase the prison population so that a few can enrich themselves.
Chris Hedges brings us the stories of 28 prisoners whom he teaches at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. They started writing about life in prison in his class and their essays were made into a powerful play called “Caged.” Their stories reveal their talents and their sacrifice, courage and dedication to their loved ones. Hedges writes that: “The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
In New York City, voters hoped that there would be an end to racist ‘stop and frisk’ policies with the election of Bill de Blasio who ran on a platform against ‘stop and frisk.’ Instead deBlasio’s first political appointment was the police commissioner, William Bratton, who was quoted in the LA Times calling youth a disease. Amnesty International “found a ‘serious problem of police brutality and excessive force’ in the NYPD under Bratton” during the 1990’s.
Imagine what these aggressive police actions are doing to students. Recently, almost two dozen high school students were arrested in California after undercover police infiltrated their school and coaxed them into purchasing small amounts of marijuana. Some students say that it makes them not know who to trust. Contrast this with the state of Colorado which legalized marijuana last year. They have saved an estimated $60 million and have prevented tens of thousands of arrests so far.
Youth Fight Back Against Militarization, Corporatization, Poverty Jobs and Tuition Hikes
Fortunately, such obvious injustices serve to unite communities to fight back. The growing corporatization and defunding of public schools is fueling a nationwide movement. On December 9, teachers and students wore blue and rallied from coast to coast in the nation’s largest day of mass action to “reclaim public education.
Sometimes students are fighting to correct historic injustices. In Jacksonville, Florida high school students joined with the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition to change the name of their high school. It will no longer be named after Nathan B. Forrest, a vicious slave trader who committed war crimes as a confederate general and was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Students at the college level are organizing and escalating their tactics on a variety of fronts despite police aggression towards them. College students have many reasons to protest: the corporatization and decline in quality of their education, record student debt, a poor job environment and an uncertain future due to climate change, globalization and increasing austerity.
The mainstream media portray the millennial generation as sheltered, content and lazy without considering, as Michael Corcoran writes in TruthOut, “the context in which young people are struggling to find decent jobs, including the long-term economic impacts of deregulation and neoliberalism pushed by state managers and wealthy elites for some three decades now, which have kept wages stagnant for people of all ages, including young people….”
It is these greedy and abusive policies that have created a systemic failure, policies that were created by the wealthy elite and that steal the millennials’ futures. The media are sending the wrong message to our youth, that the problem is their failure to choose the ‘right’ major or to work hard enough. Sarah Kendzior describes the current situation well, saying “Individuals internalise the economy’s failure, as a media chorus excoriates them over what they should have done differently. They jump to meet shifting goalposts; they express gratitude for their own mistreatment: their unpaid labor, their debt-backed devotion, their investment in a future that never arrives.”
The result, for those who are fighting back against the system, is solidarity between students, faculty and campus service workers. This solidarity has been building for years from coast to coast and is now escalating to sympathy strikes such as this one at UC Santa Cruz.
In the UK, students are also protesting and in response, campus administration is clamping down. In central London, students were beaten and arrested during a peaceful demonstration and then the school banned further protests. Students say that these extreme tactics are a powerful recruitment tool and they expect their movement to grow. In fact, this new documentary, “Street Politics 101,”which tells the story of the student protests in Montreal, shows that “every time the cops struck, the student movement got bigger and angrier.”
Students at CUNY are also fighting the creeping militarization of their college. The student body is primarily made-up of working-class youth and they see the campus administration preying upon them for military recruitment. Last year the ROTC was brought back to campus after having been banned for forty years. This year, General Petraeus was hired to teach. Students have faced retaliation for their protests – police violence, arrests and the closing of a popular student center used for organizing. Their lawyer, Ron McGuire, characterizes this struggle as determining “the intellectual landscape of the United States … whether that landscape is going to be a militarized society, with a wealthy ruling class sitting on top and black and Latino working-class youth fighting wars all over the world.”
And the battle continues at Cooper Union over the move to start charging tuition although it was founded as a free university. Students marked the one year anniversary of their occupation of Foundation Hall with what they called the ‘ping-pong-pocalypse.’ They dropped 1,500 ping pong balls with dollars signs on them down a four-story open stairway. This video lists their numerous grievances.
Millenials are also concerned about climate change. The most recent data show that climate change is accelerating and we must take action quickly to both mitigate it and prepare for its consequences. Students at more than 300 universities are working in solidarity to pressure their schools to divest from fossil fuels. They say that the schools cannot claim to be ‘green’ if they invest in dirty energy.
Students and Youth Have The Power To Transform The Nation
And young people are escalating their tactics to stop Obama’s deportations under the #Not1More campaign. Statistics were recently released showing that Obama has deported a record 2 million people during his presidency so far. #Not1More reminds us that every one of those 2 million has a family that is torn apart by their detention and deportation. On December 16, protesters on both coasts shut down immigration facilities as part of the growing movement to literally stop deportations.
Students and youth do have the power to create the kind of future they want to live in. This is demonstrated most clearly in Chile where four ex-student leaders were elected to Congress. And now the re-election of Michelle Bachelet means that the country has the real potential to move back onto the path that President Salvador Allende, also a physician, began in the 1970s before a U.S. supported coup. Bachelet promotes an overhaul of the economy and education. She says, “Profits can’t be the motor behind education because education isn’t merchandise and because dreams aren’t a consumer good.”
It may take a while before we see similar changes at the same electoral level in the US, but the landscape is already changing at the local level. This year we saw hopeful signs with the election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle and a number of independent labor candidates in Ohio. We will have to continue to educate ourselves, organize and work together strategically to shift power away from the wealthy elite in order to make electoral gains in our mirage democracy.
We feel hopeful for the future when we look at the many young people around us who are taking on the monumental task of transforming the world. We think back to the Civil Rights Movement when the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led the way on many fronts because the more traditional organizations led by older adults were too timid and willing to compromise.And education is not only available to those in colleges. Our newest writer at PopularResistance.org, Stephen Wallace, made his debut with a tribute to Noam Chomsky for his 85th birthday. Wallace has been mentored by Chomsky and is largely self-taught. He describes Chomsky as ‘revolutionary’ and defines that as “radical social change: The flow of daily life free from authoritarian attitudes, the abolition of oppressive institutions, and the deepest reaches of our humanity in choosing to live decent and ethical lives.”
SNCC field organizers showed tremendous commitment, energy and courage as they went into violent areas and refused to be intimidated in their mission for equality and voting rights. They organized using a grass roots model that empowered those who are most affected by the issues to speak out and become leaders. They were literally fighting for their future and they knew it. We see the same type of approach, gravity, commitment and courage in many youth today all around the country.