Last week, I spent a day at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where some students and I talked about protest. Des Moines is six hours up the road from Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot to death by a police officer in August, prompting weeks of often violent clashes between protesters, rioters and heavily militarized police.
Some of the kids have ties in that area, so they were waiting – even more tensely than the rest of us – to see if a grand jury would indict the officer and whether the failure to do so would mean renewed violence. These were serious-minded young people concerned about the state of their nation and they were wondering what they could do to effect change.
I’ve had similar talks on college campuses going back before most of us ever heard of Ferguson. I’ve lost count of how many students have told me: “I want to change things, but I don’t know how. What can I do?”
It amazes me that half a century ago people their age fought for civil rights, women’s rights and an end to a useless war in Southeast Asia using no technology more sophisticated than mimeograph machines and rotary dial telephones, while kids with iPads and social media accounts feel helpless to make themselves heard. I’ve walked away from many encounters with students feeling that they were earnest, well-intentioned – and utterly clueless about their power to better the world.
Nor am I alone in that. I often hear older people, those who marched, leafleted and shouted for justice in the ‘60s, complain that Kids These Days are too complacent. They lament what they would do if they were just young enough. Rep. John Lewis, the hero of the voting rights campaign in Selma, often puts it like this: “Young people today are too quiet.”
But here’s an idea: Instead of just criticizing them, why don’t their elders teach them? Meaning not just icons of the struggle for human rights like Gloria Steinem, Diane Nash and Tom Hayden, but lesser-known foot soldiers whose names never made the history books. Why don’t they put together college campus lectures, church basement meetings, podcasts?
Call it Protest 101, a seminar in how to organize effectively for change. It would be a gift to the next generation, one the elder generation is uniquely positioned to give.
I vacillate on what John Lewis said. Sometimes it seems to me that young people are, indeed, entirely too quiet, too narcotized by gadgets, games and irrelevancies to notice the world is going to heck around them. Other times, it seems that they simply don’t know what to do about it, that they have been made to feel too helpless and small to make a difference.
But as the Occupy movement a few years ago demonstrated and Ferguson reiterates, there is a new ferment among young people – and people not so young – as they see civil rights gains whittled away, as they see elections rigged like a casino slot machine by monied interests, as they see unarmed black boys gunned down without consequence, as they see robber barons too big to fail game the economy and get away scot-free while the full weight of American jurisprudence and media indignation drops like a brick on poor people and immigrants.
What a waste if that energy goes only into the breaking of windows. What a loss if that moral authority is burned up in fire.
This nascent, inchoate movement knows how to get attention, but has no idea what to do after that. It is undisciplined and unformed and does not know how to articulate an agenda for change. I submit that that’s where their elders come in.
The ‘60s generation once changed the world. Here’s a chance to change it again.
Leonard Pitts Jr.’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.