During the last two years, a political revolt on the Right has changed the landscape of American politics. A movement which calls itself the Tea Party, overwhelmingly composed of white Americans over the age of fifty, has taken over the Republican Party, and with it the House of Representatives, with a program calling for drastic curbs on government expenditure and a moratorium on new taxation. The startling growth of this movement is in large measure attributable to racial fears triggered by Barack Obama’s election as president. but those fears are connected to demographic shifts which have made school populations majority minority in many states, and prefigure a future when whites are no longer the nation’s dominant group. Economic anxiety and racial fears have produced a truly vindictive approach to politics on the American Right. To put the matter bluntly, the Tea Party has declared war on American youth by trying to cut school budgets, library budgets, publicly subsidized recreation programs, and access to college scholarships.
Until quite recently. young people in the country, who do not vote in the same proportions as their elders, ( the 2008 Presidential Election excepted) have mounted little no significant resistance to the Tea Party offensive and showed few signs of dissatisfaction. But this could change with startling rapidity. A wave of protest in other nations, starting in the Arab World, spreading to continental Europe and most recently taking the form of massive riots in England, all have originated among young people using social media to spread their message. It is not difficult to imagine that this wave of global protest, both non violent and violent, will soon spread to the US, taking forms uniquely adapted to American conditions.
Some of this protest has already started. It is significant that the most important recent youth protests in the US have taken place in our prison system, a sector which dwarfs its counterparts in the Arab world or Europe. There have been two huge hunger strikes in prisons in the last six months, the first in Georgia, the second in California, in each case ending when authorities made concessions. Since a significant portion of the American working class lives in communities where people move in and out of prison with startling frequency, such protests are a sign of growing discontent among that section of the US population steadily being beaten down, not only by Depression imposed job losses and foreclosures, but by the budget cuts Tea Party activists have helped negotiate.
Another sign of this discontent is are electronically organized commodity riots which the media have called “flash mobs,” groups of adolescents from poor neighborhoods, who, with the help of cell phone communication, suddenly descend on a downtown business district, or a store, and rob everyone in sight, disappearing as quickly as they’ve congregated. Incidents of this kind have taken place in Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Maryland, prompting moral panic among politicians and religious leaders who view these outbursts as a consequences of faulty childrearing and parental neglect
But while it is hard to endorse indiscriminate acts of violence which put forth no program and make no demands, it is also naïve to condemn them without referring to the increasing poverty and isolation of the young people responsible for these actions, or to the blithe indifference to their plight among urban elites and young professionals whose prosperity has been untouched by the recession. Can you really expect young people to stand by and suffer in silence while libraries and recreation centers are shut, while food becomes scares, while many among them are being forced into homelessness, and when schools become test factories, especially since their older siblings in prison are starting to organize and protest against their plight. As conditions worsen among the working class and the poor, expect more flash mobs, more school takeovers and walkouts, and more actual riots, especially when and if police over react to these other forms of protest.
Now as for middle class students and ex students trapped in an unfavorable job market, will they remain silent in the face of working class violence and dissent, or join forces with their elders in calling for its suppression? I don’t think so. There is not only a growing awareness among college students about racial and economic disparities in the country, there are signs of actual activism. College and high school students were a central component of the protests, marches and occupations surrounding the elimination of collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin, they have major participants in protests against repressive immigration laws in Arizona, and they have been active in protests against police violence and police brutality from New York to Oakland. Because of economic pressures as well as moral incentives, more and more college graduates are choosing to participate in programs which place them in low income communities, whether it is Vista, Americorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or alternative certification programs like Teach for America. As the residents of these communities erupt in protest, they are going to inevitably pull along a portion of the middle class community workers and teachers in their midst.
In five years, I predict, there are going to be youth movements in the US, multiracial, multicultural, and multi-class in their composition, which dwarf the Tea Party in size and importance. Like their counterparts around the world, they will take a wide variety of forms, some violent and even nihilistic, some visionary, carefully organized and inspirational. But they will make demands on this nation that will require it to sharply change direction in favor of greater inclusiveness, greater compassion, and greater equality. No younger generation worth its salt will allow the poor and the weak in its midst to be driven into the dust, by smug, racist movements, financed by self-interested elites!
The current concentration of wealth at the top of our nation – that allows 400 of the nation’s wealthiest individuals to make as much as the bottom 150 million – will not go unchallenged forever.
The youth of this country will rise up and demand something better, and the people running the country had better listen, if they want to have a country left to govern.
This article originally appeared at the With a Brooklyn Accent blog.