Why you should never underestimate a bunch of well-organized teenage protesters

People hold their hands up during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24 in Seattle. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)
People hold their hands up during the March for Our Lives rally on March 24 in Seattle. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)

For decades, youth activism has been a force for major social and political change around the world. The Parkland, Fla., students’ nonviolent mass action is part of a rich history of youth-led movements that have dismantled racial segregation in the United States, rooted out corruption in Brazil and toppled dictatorships in Serbia, Tunisia and Gambia.

Though their acts of defiance may sometimes be dismissed as naivete, when young people harness their natural inclination to question authority and challenge the status quo, they can be powerful catalysts for change. Youth-led movements do not always succeed (think Tiananmen Square in 1989), but when they do, it is often because they act with urgency, organize with patience and disrupt with discipline.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that activists sometimes need marches, sit-ins, boycotts and other forms of direct action to dramatize situations of injustice, make people uncomfortable with the status quo and build alternatives. Young people, naturally skeptical of those institutions and systems that they perceive to have failed them, are more likely to take action outside of them. In 1960, when four African American youths in Greensboro, N.C., entered a Woolworth store in 1960 and refused to leave, their lunch-counter sit-in galvanized similar actions across the country, paving the way to desegregation. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group formed in the wake of the sit-ins to increase student participation in the civil rights movement, meanwhile gave organizational focus to the nonviolent resistance.

Youths are typically more tolerant of risk than their elders. Recognizing that they have the most to lose from doing nothing, young people take action when the consequences of doing so are steep. Their audacity combined with collective action can create political openings in difficult environments, particularly when youths make common cause with adults. In Congo, a repressive dictatorship, the youth-led Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, or LUCHA) has organized public demonstrations to demand basic services and government accountability since 2012. LUCHA activists, avowedly committed to nonviolent discipline, have faced arrests, beatings and bullets. Meanwhile, they have been persistently building a network of about a thousand volunteers across the country and have won allies in the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in Congo.

Youth energy and optimism can be contagious, nudging people out of apathy and helping them see that change is possible. The Serbian youth-led Otpor (Resistance) movement challenged the Milosevic dictatorship in the late 1990s with low-risk street actions and a systematic approach to winning allies. When the regime attacked the youths, accusing them of being foreign-backed terrorists, Otpor responded with humor. Youth activists wore T-shirts with the words “Otpor Terrorist” emblazoned on them, prompting snickers from the public and undermining the government’s legitimacy by mocking their characterization of the youths, who were clearly committed to nonviolent action. Stark slogans such as “Resistance, Because I Love Serbia” helped bring the Serbian population out of its fatalistic stupor. Images of police beating up on teenage protesters backfired — turning public opinion further against the Milosevic regime.

Youth creativity and sociability are huge assets in building movements. About five years ago, in the West African country of Burkina Faso, a group of reggae artists and youth activists fed up with their government’s abuses of power organized the “Balai Citoyen” (Citizen’s Broom) movement that later mobilized the masses after then-President Blaise Compaoré tried to manipulate the presidential term limits. Their music and hopeful messages inspired large, diverse participation in protests, vigils and demonstrations that paved the way to Compaore’s resignation. It’s no surprise that rock concerts and street parties have been hallmarks of youth-led resistance movements from Burkina Faso to Ukraine to the United States. In South Sudan, the youth-led movement known as Ana Taban (“I am tired” in Arabic) has used street theater, murals and music festivals to mobilize the public in support of national unity and an end to that country’s civil war.

Youth movements fizzle when they fail to forge broad-based alliances, sustain pressure on power holders or organize around a compelling alternative vision. Organization is the pathway to power. The Egyptian youth-led movement forced the resignation of dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but failed to mobilize around an alternative political vision, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by status quo forces of repression. The Occupy movement in the United States has similarly been criticized for failing to develop an organizational and political strategy to channel street action into concrete legislative or electoral change.

Still, young people typically have the motivation and determination to mobilize large swaths of society with a collective energy that is contagious. As one LUCHA activist explained, “Young people keep their hopes, and are less contaminated by the vices of society. … We struggle for a better and different future.” Young people can and are leading the way. We should applaud the constructive ways they are disrupting the status quo, help them experiment with their organizing and provide them with opportunities to learn from their counterparts leading movements around the world.

Maria J. Stephan directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”.
Tabatha P. Thompson is a program specialist with the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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