Around this time last decade, I was wading through clouds of tear gas and dodging rubber bullets from the Seattle Police Department. I was 24, it was the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests and a moment that I thought signaled the inauguration of a new youth activism that would hit the ground running with the new millennium.
I was right about the arrival of a new political engagement of young people for the decade, but wrong in my presumption that it would look and feel like the activist movements in America's past that I had read about. I thought young people, 16 to 24-year-olds, were going to continue what my generation did -- fight for inclusion, to be part of the ongoing struggles over civil rights, immigration and the environment. Instead, they decided to lead them. They did so by redefining what it means to be an "activist," who could be one, and new ways to get the job done. They made history in the process, and did so on their own terms.
In Seattle, I was part of a "youth of color contingent." In a mainly older, white anti-globalization movement in the United States, to define and pronounce ourselves was important. Our fight was just to be part of the fight, and that's exactly what we did. Never before had we known what it felt like to completely take over city blocks, to make global financial powers nervous, or to freeze a major international convening. Emboldened as to what was possible, some stayed in the anti-globalization movement (a term that admittedly seemed horribly ahistoric at this point) but most of us returned to the places where youth activism would really be cultivated, our local communities.
Here, on the ground, youth movements sprang up out of necessity, creating new, organic forms that didn't suffer the same insecurities my generation did in trying to replicate the activism of the 1960s and 1970s. This generation didn't get in squabbles over who was more revolutionary, didn't pull all-night, Marx-Engel study sessions, didn't try to bring back the beret, and as it turned out, could care less about being called "activists." They simply got to work on the issues that concerned them most and utilized their unparalleled ability to communicate quickly and effectively to anybody and everybody. Who would have anticipated that Myspace and texting would become political organizing weapons for the marginalized?
Never was the potential of youth activism more tangible then during the gigantic marches and student walk-outs of the 2006 immigrant rights marches, which were the largest mass demonstrations in U.S. history and started a new annual tradition. The organizing was done mainly in households, over kitchen tables, by Latino youth who wanted to protect their parents from anti-immigrant legislation. In every major metropolis, these youth prodded their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles to take to the streets and out of the shadows. Youth of color didn't need a contingent for this march; it was theirs. They organized school walk-outs through Myspace and text messages, and let an entire country know that they were a generation of protectors.
The great irony of this generation was that they had been called self-involved and apathetic, a generation that lived in isolated iPod worlds. Yet when their loved ones were being threatened, they erupted. No national coalition, no 10-point plan, just a raw flexing of organizing power.
History may cite the Obama presidential victory as the highlight of youth engagement for this decade. But for me the more heroic struggle was for those who can't even vote -- not only the undocumented, but youth who can't participate in the political process that can determine their fate.
In the 2008 California election, the quintessential "tough on crime" initiative, Proposition 6, was defeated. It would have put 14-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system, mandated regular criminal background checks on families in public housing, and denied bail to undocumented immigrants facing felony charges. It marked one of the first times in California history that a pro-incarceration policy and "lock ‘em all up" politics was voted down. That tidal shift can be attributed to the young people who fought it tooth and nail. Not old enough to enter the voting booth, they made sure their presence was felt nonetheless. Across the state they made Facebook pages, posted videos, held banner drops, made rap songs, marched, held concerts, and sent text messages. The proposition was rejected by voters, 70 to 30.
And all across the country, young people, equipped with this sense of unprecedented communications know-how and an instinct to protect, fought for education reform, challenged the criminal justice system and battled for environmental justice.
In East Palo Alto, for example, a multi-million dollar toxic waste company called Romic was shut down after decades of poisoning a community that was predominately African-American, Latino, and low-income. The lead organization behind that historic victory is called Youth United for Community Action, and their executive director, Annie Loya, is 24. She got involved in the campaign when she was 13.
What is telling in her story, though, is why she got involved. She needed her mother and aunts to literally breath easier, without the pollutants coming from Romic, and for her cousins to know that living in East Palo Alto is not inherently a risk factor for cancer. They produced a video about residents who suffered from respiratory illnesses related to the plant, and went door to door showing it to neighbors on a laptop. The testimonials united the community across generation and race, and Romic toppled. The video producers were in high school. Annie's 1-year-old daughter, Kierce, will grow up in an East Palo Alto with cleaner air.
And up the freeway, in Oakland, the police killing of Oscar Grant, 24, last year was perhaps the most significant measure of the struggles young people are still facing, and what they are doing that previous generations could not. Despite the new millennium and the arrival of a new black president, which was supposed to mean the nation's transcendence of race, youth of color are still victims of police violence.
On New Year's Day 2009, at an East Bay BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station, Grant was shot and killed as he lay on his belly by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. The story of law enforcement killing a young black man is woven into the American experience since the country's inception, but what is different is how the execution was publicly and widely witnessed.
Karina Vargas, 19, a receptionist at a mental health clinic, recorded the shooting on her cell phone and uploaded the video to Youtube. Now, there is a revitalized movement for police accountability in the Bay Area, changes to civilian oversight of BART police, and evidence that may secure justice for Grant and his family. Vargas was only doing what was natural to her generation--record, post, share (and as a result, protect). She never regarded herself as an "activist." When asked why she recorded the incident, she told YO! Youth Outlook magazine, "When it happened, I figured people's rights were being violated right in front of my eyes. I thought to myself: 'Let me turn on my camera.'" Vargas's impulse represents a new, ubiquitous deterrent to police violence. Any wrongdoing by law enforcement might be captured and made public on Youtube.
I often hear older activists asking where activism has gone. Where are the Martins and Malcolms of today? They may not have heard of Karina Vargas, Annie Loya, or the youth behind the immigrants' rights marches. But they should know these youth are part of vital, evolving movements that are going places where prior movements could not go. And given the challenges this next decade will lay at their feet, they're going to need to go even further. These young people might not fit the traditional mold of "activist" and that might be the best thing about them.