One frequently comes across handwringing articles in the mainstream media decrying the supposed apathy of my generation. Too often these are written by older liberals, nostalgic for their own bygone days of protest (and forgetful of the years of small-scale organizing that led to the social upheaval of those days). Sometimes they are written by young people, who believe themselves alone in their dissent. Ironically, these lamentations never seem to recognize what those of us who are involved in social movements today can see quite clearly: that there is a growing sense among many young people that something is deeply wrong with the society we live in—and more and more, that such knowledge comes with the desire to take a stand.
The sources of our anger at the present and fear for the future are many. The jobs that await most of us are more temporary, more part-time, and more poorly paid than at any time in four decades. Alongside this bleak economic picture, we are coming of age in a world growing more callous, violent, and absurd all the time—from the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, to the government’s criminal neglect of Hurricane Katrina’s survivors. War abroad is accompanied by an escalation of surveillance, fear mongering, racism, and social deprivation at home.
And yet youth can be a counterweight to the despair many feel watching a society spinning off the rails. In contrast to those who built the movements of the ’60s and ’70s, who have now watched too much of what they fought for be rolled back over the decades, in many ways we are starting fresh. We may not have learned the lessons of the past, but among those are the lessons of defeat; the radicals among us still believe we can change the world.
This is the spirit of the new collection Letters from Young Activists, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow. The concept of the book is that young people in the United States, who have made a decision not to accept the world the way it is, write letters—to their parents, their movements, and Condoleezza Rice—explaining why. The strength of the book lies in its refutation of the conventional wisdom that young people have given up on seeking radical change. For that reason, it may be particularly valuable to young people who do feel alone in questioning U.S. society. If high school students pick up this book and realize that other people their age are drawing similar conclusions—and acting on them—it will have made a real contribution.
As you might expect of the format, the letters are uneven. Some are frustrating in that they don’t give the reader enough to latch onto; they offer personal details and political generalizations, but you don’t necessarily come away understanding how the writer perceives the connection between the two. To give a picture of a living, breathing movement in such a short space is no easy feat.
Yet a number of the letters rise to the challenge, and these make the book worth reading. Some letters succeed in vividly conveying the author’s sense of injustice, or of possibility. These are exciting to read because they impart their author’s inspiration to fight.
A letter by Joya Colon-Berezin “to anyone who will listen,” for example, uses the details of her own experience in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement to impart a sense of the realities of life under a military occupation. Her letter begins:
I will never forget the tension in their backs. Massaging the backs of the nine- and ten-year-old kids living in Palestine felt like massaging my grandmother. Perhaps it had something to do with having their homes constantly raided by the army, or seeing their family members and neighbors killed. Maybe it also had to do with having their land confiscated, crops destroyed, and villages erased. After being there for two weeks I was already starting to feel tension building in my own back; it is impossible for me to imagine what a lifetime living under occupation would do.
With the unending campaign by the media and politicians in this country to dehumanize those living under occupation, a letter that helps us imagine what it feels like to travel through a checkpoint, or to live under a curfew where schools and stores are closed, is a welcome contribution.
Another one of my favorite letters is Tiffany Lethabo King’s “To our Iraqi sisters at Abu Ghraib.” King starts by recognizing what was often ignored in the U.S. media, even after the revelations of widespread torture in Abu Ghraib: the systematic rape and torture of women in the prison. For King, this notion of “unrapeable” Arab women, whose rape is unbelievable enough to be assumed consensual or unremarkable enough to escape comment, is a familiar one:
According to the media’s interpretation, the rape of women did not occur, only inappropriate (but not forced) sex between soldiers and female prisoners. As a woman of African descent who comes from a people who lived and continue to live under an oppressive white supremacist regime in America, the sexist and racist media accounts of “sex, but not rape,” that occurred between soldier and female prisoner at Abu Ghraib, sounded eerily familiar to the accounts of “sex, but not rape,” that occurred between White slave master and Black female slave, White male employer and Black female domestic, and White male jailer and Black female inmate.
Part of the significance of a letter like this is that it demonstrates the kind of political solidarities young activists are capable of developing in connecting our own experiences to the structural injustices of the system. Although the book’s premise is that young activists form a disparate category, its inclusion of letters that call attention to the interlocking oppressions of race, sexuality, and class highlight that “youth” is not an autonomous identity distinct from other cleavages in society.
Yet students and young people can also play a special and important role in social movements. They exist, as the socialist Daniel Singer once wrote, in a “strangely suspended state”:
Tomorrow they will be absorbed by the productive machine, conditioned by their class interest, more or less integrated into the system. Today, not quite torn from the domestic background but not yet prisoners of their future jobs, they are in an intermediate stage, when they are more likely to question their environment.
Historically, of course, this condition of questioning, and of willingness to take action, has led students and young people to initiate struggles that go on to dramatically transform society. This spirit of resistance is alive today, and some of the best chapters in the book detail the way this is beginning to happen.
The special place in society that young people occupy can be an advantage in building social movements; but youth is not an experience sealed off from others in society. Young peoples’ activism is also soldiers’ antiwar activism, antiracist activism, organizing of all kinds: the variety of emerging struggles documented in Letters from Young Activists attests to the multiplicity of young peoples’ experiences of activism.
This comes across in the exchange between U.S. war resister Stephen Funk and Israeli refusenik Matan Kaminer, written to each other as each underwent a trial for their resistance. It has also been apparent of late in what is probably the other most visible movement of young people since 9/11: the counter-recruitment movement, in which students have led the charge against military recruiters in their schools. This movement’s force has come from its participants’ strong sense that they are being targeted, that their schools are increasingly structured not with the goal of educating them, but of funneling them into a role as disposable soldiers for a war many of them oppose. This is necessarily a movement of young people—that’s who the recruiters are targeting, after all—but it is also a working-class movement which can raise wider questions about the priorities of a society that puts profits before education, decent jobs, and even life itself.
Young activists today are joining movements for many of the same reasons as previous generations, and are facing many of the same challenges. We are also struggling to find solutions, to understand and change our own movement. Some of the best letters in the book try to grapple with the kind of movement that’s necessary to transform the world. They succeed when they use a real experience in the movement to inform an argument about its direction.
In that vein, one of the highlights of the book is Andy Cornell’s letter, which begins, “Dear Punk Rock Activism.” Chronicling his own introduction to activism and the appeal of the political, cultural “scene” he found, he also voices his frustration that the contribution this scene has made to his own life may not be matched by changes it’s making in the world. Cornell’s argument is that there is a tension between the “culture of resistance” that punk rock activism embraces, in which people struggle against their own alienation by rejecting mainstream culture and forging alternative identities, and organizing, which he defines as “work[ing] to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis, and confidence within the context of organizations.”
The tension, he argues, comes from a conflation of the alienation that young people experience in a profit-driven society, and the oppression and exploitation at the heart of that society. Cornell writes,
As for organizing the white middle- or solidly working-class communities punks usually come from, we rarely live there or identify with them once we can get away. Our instinct is that those communities are the problem, not part of the solution.
Thus, creating a new identity can become a substitute for creating lasting structural changes; rejecting mainstream society in one’s own life replaces the struggle to change that society in the wider world.
This is a valuable critique—made “from a place of love”—of a cultural scene many young people have found appealing. It echoes a worry found in some of the most interesting letters in the book, like Stephanie Guilloud’s letter addressed “Dear friends.” An antiracist activist in Atlanta, she argues that it is all too easy for antiracist movements to devolve into posturing and “status games,” instead of strategizing action campaigns that will deliberately challenge “institutions and structures of oppression rather than merely responding to oppressive behavior.” These letters tackle a central question for activists of all ages: what will it take for our movements to win real victories and create lasting changes? They represent the kind of honest discussion, coming out of the real experiences of years of activism, that our movements could stand to engage in more often.
It’s a good sign that young people are engaging in this kind of critique today, because as new activists, our task is a daunting one. We face the challenge of building resistance to the most powerful government in world history from within its borders. But as Letters from Young Activists illustrates, we’ve already begun.