Politically speaking, I was born in a black hole. It was January 1969. Less than a year after the student uprisings of 1968 and just six months before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Back then I’m sure anything seemed possible. But by the time I had come of age all sense of political possibility had effectively been extinguished. As a 15-year-old in Britain I broke my activist’s milk teeth on the miners’ strike. My side lost. And for the next ten years, with the exception of the struggle for majority rule in South Africa (a victory we would have to share with our parents), every major progressive battle I was involved in would end in ignominious defeat.
And if the sting of these losses did not suffice, there was also the condescension of my elders to deal with. Those who took to the streets in 1968 would wax wistful for the days when you could picket an embassy, occupy your college, throw some cobblestones at the police and still have change left out of ten bucks. Then they would express their political disappointment in those who were born in ’68 for not carrying the torch.
"Youth," wrote German playwright Bertolt Brecht, "is when you blame your troubles on your parents; maturity is when you learn that everything is the fault of the younger generation."
Yet over the past year or so a new generation of activists has emerged on the global stage that has proved itself both sophisticated and extraordinarily effective.
The last few weeks saw more than 700,000 students skip classes in Chile to demand free public transport, lower fees for college entrance exams and greater participation in government. Meanwhile, in France over the past seven months, there have been two episodes of revolt–one of minority youth in the banlieues in response to racist policing and discrimination, and the other of students and youth in the city centers against a proposed employment law that would have made young workers more vulnerable to being fired.
Closer to home, there has been the crucial involvement of Latino youth in the demonstrations against the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill. An estimated 70,000 turned out in San Diego County; in Los Angeles County 46,000 students left school over the course of the protests; in Dallas around 3,300 demonstrated. While some briefly stormed City Hall, others stood outside chanting "Viva Latinos, viva Mexico!"
The urge to diminish these protests was irresistible to some. "These kids don’t know anything," one radio commentator told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Several Congressmen branded them truants, apparently unaware of how much more difficult it would be to stay in school if they or their parents were deported as the legislation suggested. But whatever else these youngsters may have learned in class, they clearly know enough to bring governments to the negotiating table and wrest major concessions from them once there.
In Chile the recently elected socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, offered an extra $200 million for transport, some free lunches, mostly free university entrance exams and the renovation of dilapidated buildings. She also set aside twelve of seventy-three seats for young people on an advisory panel on education–a package the students finally accepted.
In France the first set of riots forced the government to unveil a raft of measures to tackle banlieue deprivation. The second, which saw two-thirds of universities occupied, blockaded or closed, hundreds of schools taken over and between 1 million and 3 million in the streets, forced a total climb-down. The concrete outcome of the immigrant rights mobilization is still in the balance, but it gave voice to a dynamic constituency that can no longer be ignored.
These demonstrations were in no way connected. Yet together–with still other recent examples, from pro-reform students holding rallies and clashing with police in Iran, to thousands in Germany protesting tuition fees–they suggest a surge of consciousness, confidence and activism among young people that goes beyond the immediate local demands of each protest. These young people may have grown up in grim times, but unlike my lost generation they have not been schooled in defeat. They are gaining an awareness of their strength at least in part because they have not been taunted by a sense of their weakness.
"I felt pretty good about what we did that day," Edward Chavez, who led a walkout of Bowie high school in El Paso, told the local Newspaper Tree. "People come up to me now and ask me when there’s going to be another protest. They’re ready to march. The Zapatistas are coming to Juárez this summer and we want to take students there to talk to Subcomandante Marcos."
For some from the ’68 generation this will, of course, never be enough. "The young people [now] have a negative vision of the future," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a k a Danny le Rouge, who headed the Paris protests almost forty years ago, referring to the most recent student demonstrations in France. "May 1968 was an offensive movement, with a positive vision…but today’s protests are all against things. They are defensive, based on fear of insecurity and change."
Cohn-Bendit is right to draw a distinction, but the differences are far from flattering to his generation. The demonstrators today are in general younger, poorer and darker than those of forty years ago. Young women are more likely to take a leadership role; their parents are more likely to support them. These are not middle-class students seeking an alliance with the workers; they are working-class students seeking a share of middle-class entitlement. The chant of Paris ’68 was "Under the paving stones, the beach." But these young people have their feet on the ground and know that underneath it there is only more concrete.
"This is not romantic at all," says Karl Stoeckel, the 19-year-old who led the students in Paris recently. "It’s important and it’s very serious. We are doing this for the future of all the generations who are going to follow us."