History shows us a world of terrible violence and inequality--but also one of resistance.has some tips for anyone wondering how to change that world today.
ON AUGUST 24, tens of thousands of young people participated in demonstration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, alongside older generations of marchers.
Nine-year-old activist and Chicago public schools student Asean Johnson addressed the assembled throng from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:
August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King and thousands of others marched on Washington to demand jobs and justice. Congressman John Lewis was the youngest speaker, and now I am the youngest speaker. I am marching for education justice and freedom...In Chicago, we have 50 schools closing in Latino and African American communities. Budget cuts in all public schools and an increase in charter school budgets and new charter school openings--Then, just like in 1963, the youngest speaker was interrupted before he said everything that was on his mind. When Asean paused for a breath, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten cut him off. "I ain't done yet," said Johnson, but Weingarten, after a moment's hesitation, pulled the microphone away.
Fifty years earlier, John Lewis--at that time, the leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee--was pressured to cut these words from his speech:
We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.No doubt we will be hearing more from Asean Johnson in the years to come. But what happened in Washington last month only goes to show that if political leaders are fond of repeating the phrase that "the youth are our future," they are less keen on actually listening to young people--or, God forbid, sharing any real power with them.
As if to drive home the point, on August 28, President Barack Obama and others participated in a celebration at the Lincoln Monument to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Phillip Agnew was invited to speak as a representative of the Dream Defenders, a group of Florida high school and colleges students who the occupation of the governor's office in the state Capitol demanding an end to "Stand Your Ground" laws and racial profile.
But he was cut from the program at the last minute. SocialistWorker.org printed what he would have said in his two minutes.
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Know What You're Up Against
The U.S. Constitution prohibits anyone under the age of 35 from running for president, while the age restrictions on the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are 30 and 25 respectively.
Thus, our society discriminates against young people as a matter of law. Teenagers can fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they can't serve in the elected institutions that send them there--nor even buy a beer, for that matter. Thirteen-year-olds have been tried as adults, and teenagers are regularly expected to work in order to help support themselves and their families, but they aren't permitted to vote until age 18.
The founding fathers intentionally built prohibitions like these into the Constitution in order to buttress the most conservative political establishment possible, while at the same time still being able to refer to it as "democratic." Of course, Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, non-white immigrants, most poor whites and women of all classes were openly excluded as well.
The big merchants, bankers and slave owners who dominated the Constitutional Convention had good reason to fear these social groups. Throughout American history, people of color, women and youth have generally been more radical than the rest of the population--and certainly more than the rich, old, white men who dominate commerce and government.
This is as true today as ever. Take just one example: According to a recent CNN poll, 55 percent of Americans believe that same-sex marriage should be legal--a majority opinion that only developed over the past decade.
But when you break the statistics down by age, race and gender, you see what the powers that be are afraid of. Some 68 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34, 60 percent of women and 60 percent of people of color support gay marriage--compared to 46 percent of people over the age of 50, 49 percent of men and 53 percent of whites. These gaps generally hold true for a host of issues.
There is a veritable smorgasbord of barriers to democracy embedded in the American political system. Campaign contributors and lobbyists shower elected officials at all levels with cash and perks. All perfectly legal, ruled the U.S. Supreme Courts in its Citizens United decision.
The Electoral College system embedded in the Constitution to govern the election of the president--as opposed to a simple popular vote--grants undue weight to the least populated (and whitest) states. So does the structure of the Senate--under which 38 million Californians have "equal" representation with 576,000 people in Wyoming.
Meanwhile, almost 6 million adults convicted of felonies (disproportionately African American) and 32 million non-citizens (about 12 million of whom are undocumented, most of them adults and overwhelmingly Latino or Asian) aren't allowed to vote at all.
Far from reversing this trend, the Supreme Court decision this past June to strike down sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will disenfranchise even more people.
And as if this wasn't enough, the largest and most powerful part of our government, the Pentagon and the intelligence and security forces, not to mention nearly 2 million police and prison guards, operate almost entirely without any interference from elected officials. Chelsea Manning's 35-year sentence and Edward Snowden's forced exile demonstrate the consequences for anyone opening even the tiniest window on this power behind the throne.
In short, young people who want to fight for social justice, peace and ecological sustainability aren't playing on a level field. But that hasn't stopped them from trying throughout history.
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Young People Can Change the World
We tend to think of revolutionary leaders as ageless, frozen in time. If we are lucky enough to learn about them in school, they seem old. But the reality is very different. Look at the ages of these people (listed in no particular order):
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--Led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, age 26. Assassinated, age 39.
Ernesto Che Guevara--Landed in Cuba in 1956 on the Granma to help initiate the revolution, age 28. Assassinated, age 39.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn--Full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World in 1907, age 17. Communist Party leader in 1930s, jailed in 1951 during McCarthyism.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels--Wrote the Communist Manifesto and participated in the revolutions of 1848 at the ages of 30 and 28, respectively.
Nelson Mandela--Joined the African National Congress Youth in 1943, age 25. Jailed for 28 years starting in 1962.
Emiliano Zapata--Organized the Mexican Revolution in Morelos in 1911, age 32, Assassinated in 1919, age 39.
Frederick Douglass--Escaped from slavery in 1838, age 20. Soon became national abolitionist leader. Organized abolitionist pressure on Abraham Lincoln to to end slavery during Civil War, age 41.
Inessa Armand--Joined the underground socialist movement in Russia in 1903, age 29. Leader in 1917 Russian Revolution, died of cholera in 1920.
Tecumseh--Organized armed Shawnee resistance to white settlers in Ohio River Valley in 1783, age 15. Killed in battle in 1813, age 45.
Malcolm X--FBI opened surveillance file for his role organizing the National of Islam in 1953, age 28. Assassinated in 1965, age 39.
Angela Davis--Named to FBI's "Top Ten Most Wanted List" in 1970, age 26. Theorist, educator, activist to the present day.
Elaine Brown--joined the Black Panther Party in 1968, age 24, and became the party's chairwoman in 1974, age 30.
Camila Vallejo--Elected president of the University of Chile Student Federation and leader of mass student protests in 2011, age 23.
Asmaa Mafouz--Gave video speech that went viral calling for January 25, 2011 protests initiating the Egyptian Revolution, age 26.
You can see some common themes here. Most of these people started organizing, or at least became politically aware, in their late teenage years or early 20s, and then emerged as widely known leaders by their mid to late 30s. Many suffered prison, exile or assassination. Far from the postage stamp images and t-shirt icons that come down to us today, they were young people who looked around at their world and decided to dedicate their lives to revolutionary change as they understood it.
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What Can We Learn from These Examples?
Learn from experienced organizers and speak your mind: These activists and organizers went through a period of political apprenticeship. There is no shame in learning from those who have come before you--whoever said "Don't trust anyone over 30" was an idiot.
The real question is figuring out who to trust and how to learn everything you can from them so that you can have the tools to innovate when needed. If you think something needs to change, speak up and argue your point, but seek out help.
Leadership shouldn't be automatically bestowed upon those with more experience, but it is a grave mistake to discount the importance of savvy organizers who have spent years in the struggle. Movement leaders, whether or not they are well known publicly, often have learned how to sort out complex political situations, train others how to survive repression or ideological assault, and differentiate between opportunities and fools' errands.
Such people are invaluable. Our movement suffers tremendously today because we have all too few people like that.
Any movement or organization that aims to tackle structural power must be multi-generational. Here's just one example. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC for short, organized the sit-ins and protests that pushed the civil rights movement onto the national stage for good starting in 1960. Young Black college students, most of them involved in a political activity for the first time, formed and led SNCC throughout this era. But they were reliant on the contribution of Ella Baker--57 years old at the time--who drew on her years of experience in civil rights organizing to help guide SNCC in its formative years.
Read books: The 1 Percent spends billions of dollars each year to train specialists who produce ideology to defend their system. Anyone who dares challenge them is ridiculed.
Our movement can't afford to depreciate the importance of intellectual training. This isn't in order to be know-it-alls and lord it over other people, but to learn things that will be useful to us in changing the world--like how Tecumseh built his Confederation of united tribes, why Malcolm X warned us about the Democrats, or the reasons Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn thought reproductive justice and socialism went hand in hand.
By the way, there's no better place to begin learning than by getting your hands on a copy of Howard Zinn's truth-telling A People's History of the United States.
Form organizations and build a network of comrades: For every one of these revolutionary leaders who we know by name, there were dozens or hundreds (sometimes thousands) of lesser-known organizers forming a dense network around them. Each was rooted in some kind of organization, and you can bet that their closest friends and collaborators weren't afraid to tell them when they thought they were wrong.
Don't buy the "great man/woman" myth: There's a powerful myth repeated ad nauseum that goes like this: X leader stood up for what was right, and this inspired people to follow him or her. The reality is the inspiration usually ran both ways.
For instance, Frederick Douglass fighting his slave master rather than suffer another beating made possible his escape from slavery and subsequent impact on the abolitionist movement. Yet when Douglass fled North, he found a pre-existing web of abolitionist organizations, maintained by Black and white organizers, with newspapers and lecture circuits, not to mention forms of direct action such as the Underground Railroad. It had taken decades to create these resources. Douglass' genius and determination thrived in these channels, and he was, eventually, able to improve upon them. But he couldn't have done so without the abolitionists who came before him.
Use social media to build a social force: One tremendous challenge for young activists today is to overcome the atomization and isolation faced by those of us who want to see some sort of social transformation. Social media is a double-edged sword. It facilitates communication. There's no better example of this than Asmaa Mafouz's call to join in the January 25, 2011, demonstrations, which began the days of protest that ultimately brought down the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Yet no number of Facebook "friends" can replace real movement meetings, discussions, debates, shared experiences and political loyalty. Revolutionaries in Egypt today have to be independent from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its allies. This is a tremendous task. They have to compete with two huge forces in terms of mobilizing power; building networks of activists able to act in common across schools, neighborhoods and workplaces; and making their voices heard with their own media.
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What sort of revolution do we need?
Look reality in the face: There are profound problems in the U.S. on most fronts: climate change, unemployment, rape culture, racism and the incarceration nation, immigrant bashing, decaying public schools, an out-of-control surveillance state and war machine. Even as we win real victories around marriage equality and the temporary suspension of deporting some undocumented youth, we are losing ground on voting rights and access to abortion.
This contradiction is most obviously expressed by the re-election of the first Black president of the U.S., alongside the escalating epidemic of racist police and vigilante violence. Meanwhile, the rich keep getting richer, and rather than Occupying Wall Street, Wall Street appears to be occupying our schools, neighborhoods, hospitals and futures. What capital giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.
Can capitalism be fixed?: Back in 1967, Martin Luther King asked:
Where do we go from here?...[T]he movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here, and one day, we must ask the question, "Why are there 40 million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.Now King went on to say that he wasn't talking about communism and that he thought that Marx didn't follow Hegel far enough. I disagree with him there, but you should read King's speech to see how he answered his own question:
Your whole structure must be changed. A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.So what do we do today?: If it was true then, it's doubly true today. We might ask, "Can we get social justice, peace and save the planet as long as the 1 Percent is in power?" If not, what sort of political movement and what sort of organizations do we need to start building to challenge them?
Only a fool would think this will be easy. Look at the price paid by those who struggled before us--and the price being paid today by Chelsea Manning because we don't have a social movement nearly strong enough to defend her. The same is true for the 2.2 million people, disproportionately Black and Brown, in prison. And the women who live in the 87 percent of U.S. counties without an abortion provider. And the 89 percent of U.S. workers without a union. And there's the problem of future of the Earth itself!
Up until now, capitalism has managed to crush any short-lived experiments with socialism or to co-opt cultural challenges. Cash is king. As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." Even "London Calling" by The Clash ended up as a jingle for Jaguar! Temporary reforms and changes have all too often fallen backwards in conditions of war, economic crisis and the power of the Almighty Dollar.
But despite the odds against us, there are important examples we can look to today of resistance, from Greece and Egypt to Brazil and Turkey. Closer to home, the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in 2011 showed that tens of thousands of young people won't quietly accept the foreclosure of their futures. The 2012 Chicago teachers strike showed that union workers have the capacity to fight. And not least, the big turnout to the 2013 March on Washington shows that Trayvon Martin's murder and the construction the New Jim Crow will not go unopposed.
How strong our movements can become, how closely they can become aligned, and whether their combined force can eventually replace global capitalism with something better is a question that will only be answered by what you, and millions of people like you, decide to do.