Listen to the children…
As I write this, young people are in the frontlines of political change. High-school students, survivors of the Feb 14 massacre in Parkland, Fla., are confronting politicians, demanding action regarding gun control, and their fervor has spread nationally. The students’ foundational demand is that weapons like the AR-15 that was used to slaughter their classmates and teachers be banned. Their argument is straightforward: the AR-15 is not a sporting weapon. It is a combat weapon that was designed for the U.S. military and whose sole purpose is to kill many people quickly. A sampling of recent killing rampages bears bloody witness to the devastation this weapon of war causes.
Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut (20 children, 7 adults murdered); Pulse night club, Orlando, Florida (49 murdered); The Harvest Music Festival, Las Vegas (58 murdered); First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas (26 murdered); Century 16 movie theater, Aurora, Colorado (12 murdered); office party shooting, San Bernardino, California (14 murdered). Hundreds of others were injured in these mass-murder incidents.
The students have succeeded in bringing the issue of gun control into the open. Many states, including gun-crazy Florida, are passing laws that raise the legal age to purchase guns, expand the scope of background checks, and outlaw “bump stocks,” cheap and easily obtainable devices that make semi-automatic weapons fully automatic. The students continue to press for an assault-weapon ban.
Exhibiting a complete ignorance of history, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians it owns are dismissing the students’ efforts as knee-jerk reactions that will soon dissipate. But history is rife with examples of young people being the catalyst for substantive societal changes. A full in-depth discussion of all these youth-led movements is beyond the scope of a single blog article, but here are snapshot examples of some of them, starting with some contemporaneous ones.
The moral force of young people at work…
The youth-led Black Lives Matter movement is confronting the political establishment throughout the country, generating discussion and effectuating changes in police-community relations. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students are rallying from coast to coast, energizing their supporters. DACA exists because in 2012, undocumented young people risked deportation by sitting in at federal offices, Republican and Democratic Party headquarters, and Obama campaign offices in several states. In response to that pressure, President Obama created DACA.
In 2011, young people, many of them Dreamers, were a major force in the historic recall of Russell Pearce, author of the racist Arizona SB 1070 (“Show me your papers”) law. Mexican American Studies students and other young people were the driving force of the movement to save Mexican American Studies after the Arizona legislature determined that MAS courses were “un-American.” The students were recently vindicated when a federal judge ruled that the MAS ban was racist and unconstitutional and prohibited the state from enforcing the ban.
In 2012 Young Navajo tribal activists fought and defeated a Republican attempt to force the Navajo Nation to waive its water claims to the Little Colorado River. In 2014 the “Change the Name … Change the Mascot” movement emerged after seven young American Indian activists challenged the Washington NFL team’s trademark on the grounds that the team name is a racist term. As a result of this movement, many schools and universities have changed their American Indian-based nicknames, and the MLB’s Cleveland Indians will stop using the “Chief Wahoo” logo. In 2015 Congress allowed a foreign corporation to build a copper mine in Arizona on an ancestral Apache sacred site, Oak Flat. Led by young people, over 300 tribal members and supporters occupied Oak Flat, vowing not to leave until Congress reverses its action.
Under the leadership of Indigenous youth, over 4,000 people representing more than 100 tribes gathered by the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota in 2016 to protest the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), which would transport up to 500,000 barrels of oil a day under the Missouri River, Standing Rock’s source of water, and would desecrate sacred and culturally significant sites. The protests resulted in the Obama administration’s calling a halt to the DAPL.
We were those young people once…
Students and young people in general were the major force in bringing about change in the 1960s and 1970s, a highly significant period in our history.
The Chicano Generation, my generation, was subjected to a societal campaign to make us feel inferior. Forty-plus years ago we were the young people described above. Via the Chicano Movement, we moved mountains by changing rather than adapting to the political culture. Our fingerprints and DNA are on a myriad of societal-political changes. Education, for example: This is the 50th anniversary of the “LA Blowouts,” when thousands of Chicana(o) students walked out of school in East Los Angeles to protest discriminatory treatment. The ELA Blowouts inspired school walkouts in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and beyond. These students fundamentally changed the educational landscape in their communities.
In 1968, over 10,000 people, virtually all youth, gathered in Chicago to protest the Democratic Party convention. They were attacked by police and National Guardsmen; hundreds were injured and close to 600 were arrested. In direct response to the young people’s demands, the Democratic Party became more responsive to the voters.
Hundreds of thousands of young people, including high-school and college students, mobilized to oppose and end the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 Americans died in that war, and over 300,000 were wounded. Many others came back damaged psychologically, and thousands more suffered delayed harm from the effects of chemicals such as Agent Orange. The protesters focused on the fact that the war was based on government lies and that Draft exemptions for college students discriminated against people of color and working-class youth. Ending the war saved many lives.
The Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s-1970s was spearheaded by young women who confronted every major American institution—politics, education, business, health, etc.—and demanded equality. The fruits of that movement are visible everywhere. Women have become a force to be reckoned with in politics and other areas. It bears noting that a record number of women (535) are running for office this year.
The 1960 lunch counter sit-ins by black students, the student Freedom Riders, and the work of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) were major impetuses of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. A pivotal event in the movement occurred in 1963 when 1,000 black students marched in Birmingham, Alabama. The students were blasted by high-pressure fire hoses, clubbed by police officers, and attacked by police dogs; hundreds were arrested. These images appeared on national television and galvanized support for the movement throughout the country.
Young women energize the Labor movement…
Teen-aged women were a great impetus to the American Labor movement. In 1909 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in New York City met to discuss the sweatshop working conditions in the garment industry.
Nineteen-year-old Clara Lemlich, an ILGWU organizer, called for a general strike. Within two days, over 20,000 workers, virtually all females in their teen years, from 500 factories walked out on strike, demanding better wages and working conditions. Within a month all the factories settled and met the workers’ demands. The momentum created by these female teenagers was a great boost to the developing labor movement in the U.S. Commissions to propose labor standards were formed and laws protecting workers were passed.
Young women union organizers have also played a huge role in our history. [I wrote about them in a previous blog: “Women organizers in our history,” Latinopia, May 15, 2016] In the 1930s-1940s, while in her early 20s, Guatemalan immigrant Luisa Moreno unionized Mexican women cannery plant workers in California, fighting for maternity leave, equal pay for women, and racial equality.
At age 18 Josefina Fierro de Bright organized boycotts of businesses in Mexican American barrios in Los Angeles that did not hire Mexican American workers. With Luisa Moreno, Fierro de Bright organized Spanish-speaking union workers in various industries in the 1930s.
Eighteen-year-old Emma Tenayuca, of San Antonio, Texas, was arrested in 1933 when she led a strike of cigar workers. In 1938 Tenayuca led a strike of twelve thousand workers—almost all Mexican American women—of the International Pecans Shellers Union, challenging pay violations, unfair production quotas, and unsanitary working conditions. Tenayuca and hundreds of strikers were arrested and beaten by police, but they eventually prevailed.
I surely do not mean to imply that all the issues described above are solved and that everything is hunky-dory. Reactionary forces—the Tea Party, Republicans, Trump and his minions—are doing everything they can to eradicate the progress brought about by the above activists and those they inspired. Our work continues, but the above dynamics laid a good foundation for us and today’s young activists to stand on.
It’s too early to tell if the uprising by the Parkland students will evolve into a sustained, national movement. But history is a powerful teacher: politicos and policy makers ignore the voice of youth at their own peril. c/s
Copyright 2018 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal, write: firstname.lastname@example.org Photo of AR-15 in the public domain. NRA logo used under “fair use” of the copyright law. Dakota pipeline photo used under Creative Commons attribution for Fibonacci Blue. Walkout photo and Emma Tenyuca photo copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.