January 24, 2003

Silent Generation – As War Looms, Where Are The Youth?

By Raj Jayadev

Let’s face it, 2003 is a make-or-break year for progressives. A war looms, racist immigration detentions recall the internment camps of World War II, the economic future for working people feels like a punch in the gut and President Bush provides a credible a target for protest. If U.S. activism is going to happen, now is the time.

And to some respectable degree, voices critical of the U.S. march to imperialism are entering the public discourse. The problem is, these passionate, informed and angry calls for action come from yesterday’s activists, recently re-activated from “protest retirement.”

The budget cuts, a lack of jobs, even a potential war are not animating today’s youth. There are no major walkouts from schools, no sit-ins on the lawn of the university chancellor, nor any other acts of mass uprising I read about during the Vietnam era. Young people seem not to care, and it is troubling to those of us who want to radically change the way this country works. Having a progressive movement without young people is practically a contradiction in terms — and is doomed to failure.

Today’s peace marches have individual youth participants, but no generational presence. The scene-stealers are older, like the “Code Pink” feminists or the graying Mothers Against War.

And so, anti-war groups, progressive nonprofits, even unions constantly tweak their message to penetrate and energize the seemingly apathetic heart of teenagers and twenty-somethings. The hope is to coat progressive politics with a more modern cover, to make activism a little more hip-hoppity.

But the form of the message isn’t the problem. Nor are young people apathetic. Young Americans today have no point of reference in their lived experience that tells them that collective action can change what is seemingly unchangeable. Nowadays, if you don’t like the situation you are in, you get up and out by yourself, not with others. There is no grand social movement that confirms that protest actually works, that it changes things and, perhaps most important, that it is worth the risk.

I once worked at a factory in San Jose where we assembled printers. Workers were being shorted on their checks and a petition was circulated to get our money back. When the petition came to my station I watched who signed and who didn’t. It went first to a guy named Phil, an African-American in his late 40s.

“Me and my brother were part of the Civil Rights movement. I know this stuff works,” he said as he put his name down. He had a point of reference of collective action from his youth. It was the same with Laura, a Chicana in her late 30s, who grew up in the Central Valley during the rise of the United Farm Workers. She signed, recalling the times her mother and she would go to the fields and march under the red and black flag of the union.

When the petition went to Robert and Franklin, both Filipino Americans 20 years old and born and raised in San Jose, they both had the same response: “This ain’t gonna change nothing.”

Robert and Franklin weren’t being pessimistic. They were being pragmatic. They had no Civil Rights movement, no massive union struggle like Phil and Laura that let them know that getting together with others makes you more powerful than the powers that be.

The job of today’s activists who are trying to get young people involved is not to clarify that Bush is a bad guy, or that working people are oppressed. The urgent need right now is to create these points of reference, lived experiences of strength through collectivity. So that the next time Robert or Franklin get asked to join the cause, whatever it may be, they will sign, and say like so many who struggled before them, “Because I know this stuff works.”

(Jayadev (svdebug@pacificnews.org) is the editor of www.siliconvalleydebug.com, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.)

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