I've spent the last three days at three separate mass demonstrations.
On Saturday, I went to the antiwar protest in New York City. I was deeply impressed and moved by some of the young people in attendance--particularly by Iraq vets and leaders in the Campus Antiwar Network I met. But for the most part, I was dismayed at how much grey hair I saw. The youth who showed up were passionate, articulate, and committed; problem was, there just weren't so many kids who actually showed up. It felt like a movement that belonged to my parent's generation, not to mine. My generation is certainly opposed to the war, but for varoius reasons, it does not feel sufficiently empowered to act.
On Sunday, I headed down to Washington DC for the Save Darfur rally. The turnout was very impressive, and a far greater percentage of the crowd was young. On Darfur, young people do feel compelled to act, and I believe that this is largely because they see that they are making a tangible difference. Samantha Power, Pulitzer-prize winning author of "A Problem from Hell", told me that the event was historic--the largest public action in America against an ongoing genocide. While some of the speakers were electric--particularly Obama--the event dragged on for too long and the crowd was noticably enervated halfway through.
After two straight days of reporting on protests, I was so exhausted I considered sitting out of today's immigrant rights rally in New York City. As I boarded the train heading to in Union Square--which, at midday, was completely packed with protesters carrying US flags, Mexican flags, Bolivian flags, Ecuadorian flags, Jamaican flags, etc--I immediately felt wide awake. There was a mollasses-thick sense of energy in the air. When we arrived and emerged from the underground, I was bombarded by an ocean of colors and sounds. Not disparate noises-- united chants. "Si se puede!" everyone--everyone--shouted. It was the kind of protest where you felt embarassed not to shout (most I've attended seem to create the opposite feeling).
This was visceral. The other two rallies were political events. This was a social movement.
I recently returned from France, where I covered the youth uprising against the CPE law. Having witnessed a massive, and most importantly, victorious, youth social movement, I was dispirited to return to a country where young people generally lack a belief in their own agency. This movement showed me that what happened at France can happen here--is happening here.
This afternoon, I interviewed scores of young people who had walked not only out of their schools, but out of their jobs that they work at after school. I asked them if they were afraid of being suspended or fired. None of them seemed to care about immediate consequences and potential punishments. They told me they felt proud to participate in the unfolding of history. Too many of America's young people are afraid to fight for what they actually believe in--what they actually want--because they find that their dreams are untenable in the political present. Not these kids.
An interesting note--MySpace.com, the social networking sight recently purchased by Rupert Murdoch, has been absolutely critical to the youth turnout in this movement. Almost everyone I spoke with told me that they not only heard about the rally on MySpace, but also posted their own community bulletins on the site to spread the word. If only Rupert had known!
It's been quite a three-day span. I can definitively say that in the twenty-four plus years of my life, I have never witnessed a social movement like this before, at least on these shores. When I was a kid, I pined to witness something like what my parents saw with Vietnam and the civil rights movement. I believe I've seen that today.
Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, writes for The Nation, is a contributor to The Notion and is co-author, with Katrina vanden Heuvel, of the "Sweet Victories" series.
© 2006 The Nation