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.