Are Young People Good Protesters?

It seems as though there’s been a quite, but steady stream of complaints about the way young people protest.

Even among progressives who are supportive of the cause, I commonly hear remarks about how today’s protests – orchestrated by today’s young people – are ineffective, poorly executed, or even damaging to the cause.

Millennials Can’t Even Protest Right, declares a Daily Beast article reflecting on a successful 1976 Title IX protest. Forbes asks, Are Millennials Lazy Or Avant-Garde Social Activists? And, of course, there is ongoing debate about whether young people are real activists or just, in the words of the New York Times, Tumblr activists.

NPR is far more generous, detailing how young people near Ferguson, Mo. used social media as a tool to “plan and participated in the most recent large protest.”

So, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of today’s activism, but for the moment, let’s play a little game – let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that no, Millennials can’t even protest correctly.

If that is indeed, the case, it begs the question – why not?

Those who argue most fervently against the effectiveness of young people seem predisposed against the generation – and I imagine they might summon reasons like:

Young people can’t protest correctly because they think social media is all you need.

Young people can’t protest correctly because they are too self-absorbed to see how their actions will impact others.

Or perhaps: Younh people can’t protest correctly because they are so entitled, they protest stupid things without even knowing how good they’ve got it.

But let’s try out another option – if it is indeed the case that young people can’t protest correctly –

Is it possible this is because our parents have failed us?

In Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer his core argument is that the activism of the 60s and 70s was really launched by the white students who participated in 1964’s Freedom Summer.

In part, these young people were deeply radicalized by the experience – returning to their home states with a critical and politicized view of their lives.

But more practically, these young people were trained by their experience.

The movements of the 60s and 70s – those efforts which today’s elders declare so successful while sneering at the efforts of today’s youth – benefited tremendously and directly from SNCC organizing tactics developed in the 50s.

SNCC trained 1000 young people in their organizing techniques. Those young people used what they learned and became the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation movement, and more.

Perhaps these movements were successful because someone had trained their leaders.

As a somewhat young person now looking back on this history, it seems that yesterday’s young people made a critical mistake –

After their battles were fought and their skirmish won, the thought the war was over.

We’re in a post-racial society. A post-sexist society. All our problems are solved.

There’s no need to train young people as organizers. No need to develop their skills in putting their passion for social justice to practical use.

We solved everything 40 years ago. And we figured it out ourselves.


If indeed today’s young people are terrible protestors, it’s their parents, their mentors, their elders who are at fault.

It is yesterday’s leaders who have failed us. Not today’s.


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