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Three recent mass demonstrations have shed some light on what motivates young people to take effective political action.
On April 29, 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. 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.
The next day, 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 the May 1 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 molasses-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.