Young and Old Together?

Young people are on the move. A big question, still to be resolved however, is this, “Will older activists help or hinder their movement?”

There is no question but that older activists are and increasingly will be connected to the growing upsurge of student and youth activism.
This is true as far as the movement against police brutality and an unjust criminal “justice” system, the direct action movement against the IMF, World Bank, WTO and other instruments of corporate domination, the movement against sweatshops and the corporatization of education, as well as others.

Just as older activists need youthful participation, energy and new insights, young people need to learn from the knowledge and experience gained by those who have come before. However, there’s a sometimes difficult path to be navigated so that there’s a mutually beneficial interaction.

For older activists, we need to be sensitive to the desire young people have for their own space apart from us. At a recent conference of the organization I coordinate, the Independent Progressive Politics Network, there was a youth caucus, at the same time that a workshop was being held for non-youth on “ageism.” Despite this, some adults felt a need to go to the youth caucus. When asked why they did so one said, with good intentions I’m sure, “being young is a state of mind.”

Well, there is truth to that statement, but it doesn’t apply in this particular case.

Young people, certainly those in high school and most in college or college-age, are still in the process of sorting things out, on many levels. As in a family setting, in a political setting young people need both interaction with adults and time to think and talk things through with peers. They need to be able to develop their self-confidence, their ability to articulate their thoughts and their own ways of working with others. Having adults around, even sensitive adults who know how to keep their mouths shut, can inhibit this process and make it more difficult for young people to grow and develop.

Some older activists, for understandable reasons, love to be around up-and-coming young people who are in the process of becoming politically active. They feel better, rejuvenated, validated, hopeful seeing those coming after them following a similar path. As far as it goes, this is a good thing. But they can’t forget that although they may feel younger, they’re not of the same generation.

New generations have a way of building upon the generations who came before in ways that can be of great significance to the entire movement, eventually to the country as a whole.

At a “spokes council” meeting a few days before the April 16th blockade of the IMF/World Bank meeting in D.C., there was a point in the meeting where people broke into small groups for a few minutes with a request from the facilitator that they come up with an answer to the question, “What would constitute victory this weekend?” There were many answers, but one that stuck with me, and which received much applause, was this one, “It will be a victory if we function in such a way that we are a model of the new society we want to bring into being.”

This is deep and important stuff. In the midst of planning how to confront tear gas, pepper spray, beatings, horses, arrests and who knew what else, people were very conscious of this need to be about something qualitatively different. From what I have seen in my interactions with activist youth, this is an insight, a lesson, that large numbers of young people have learned from the failures of those movements that came before. It is an insight that all of us, of whatever age, need to think seriously about, on a daily basis, and internalize.

On the other side, young people have need of the experience and insights that those of us who have been in this movement for a long time have obtained.

The youth movement of the ’60s fell apart in the early ’70s for a number of reasons. Government repression certainly played a major role, particularly for the African American freedom movement and other movements of people of color. But also significant was the relative paucity of older, more seasoned activists whom young activists could relate to, talk to, work with and respect. Far too many older activists failed to appreciate the sense of urgency and the more militant approaches of students, preferring instead to stay in political ruts. In addition, many adults had a paternalistic attitude towards young people.
In combination these alienated youth and turned them away. Partly as a result, groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, at one time powerful and important, self-destructed as different factions formed and spun off. This led directly to the demise of the student movement and contributed in no small measure to the weakening of the anti-Vietnam war and civil right/Black freedom movements.

This is why we need to build a unified people’s movement this time around in which ageism, as well as racism, sexism, heterosexism and other negative “isms,” are openly confronted and dealt with. It’s not just a matter of us being “nicer” to each other, of learning how to be better people on an individual level. It is strategically essential.