The following is my keynote for the October 2012 issue of the New Internationalist, guest Edited by myself. You can get a copy of the magazine here:
‘We are from the slums of London, yeah,’ a young man says to camera, the lower part of his face covered by a scarf, which he pulls up to keep it from falling down. It’s 9 December 2010, and tensions are high in the centre of the city.
Later that day, during student protests against a hike in university tuition fees, I will twice be pulled out of my wheelchair by police officers intent on violence. The second time they did it, it was caught on mobile phone and subsequently beamed to millions of people across the country, thanks to the person who filmed it. I and a group of others were right outside the Houses of Parliament at the time, as the elected (and non-elected) members inside voted to triple fees to £9,000 ($14,200) per year.
But the young man giving the television interview is not a university student. He is still at school, and has more immediate worries about other government cuts to eduation. ‘EMA!’ he half-shouts – the acronym of the now scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance for poorer students aged 16-19. ‘[It’s] the only thing keeping us in college! What’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the streets? Nothing!’
He isn’t particularly eloquent but you can hear the frustration rising from the back of
Over the past two years, thousands of young people like him have mobilized over issues as diverse as fuel prices, personal freedom and economic injustice.
There is talk of a new 1968. Could something unique be happening? What is clear is that we are living in a time of revolution and reaction, with young people often taking the lead. In different corners of the globe, they are engaging with politics in new and forceful ways. From the student demonstrations in London, to the Mohammed Bouazizi-inspired uprising against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, to a swell of popular democratic movements across Latin America, young people are pushing the boundaries.
Fast forward 18 months from the education march to the wake of the England riots in 2011. Sky News stream their ‘Teen Gang Members Explosive Interview’ online. The reporter speaks to a group of young men who have participated in the London unrest, their identities concealed by hoods and scarves, with just a thin strip left clear for the eyes. He asks what they have taken. One interviewee, who is 16 years old, says he was shopping for his son.
‘I got him clothes, I got him nappies, powder… the whole Johnsons set!’ he says.
The boy beside him has a more hard-nosed approach to looting. ‘Man got some TVs as well, plasmas, PS3 [PlayStation games console], laptops and stuff, innit.’ He goes on to say that the ‘couple grands’ he is expecting to make from selling the goods would be ‘nice, actually, for not paying nothing!’ Is this the voice of young people today? Or were the youth of England best represented by the students who fought for access to education?
We can say that the actions of the ‘teenage gang’ have no political meaning because they were stealing material goods. But perhaps the £100 billion ($158 billion) spent on advertising to children every year played a part. Could the destructive ‘Teen Gang’ who loot clothes shops and electronics stores also be following the example of their own government, who sent military forces to Iraq, to smash entire cities and loot a whole nation? Or, if we go back further to colonial times, wasn’t that the attitude of the British Empire? The truth is, we are not born with the impulse to go out and tear apart our own communities.
Five months after the England riots, social protest swept through Nigeria when the government chose New Year’s Day 2012 to announce that they were scrapping a $7-billion fuel subsidy. The response, in the form of the Occupy Nigeria movement, was well organized and urgent. By 9 January, a national strike was in place, bringing major cities to a stand-still. Seun Kuti, the son of Fela, joined the marches, and legendary author Chinua Achebe lent his voice to condemn the government’s actions. It was Nigeria’s youth, though, who were on the streets, and who ridiculed government ministers online via Twitter and YouTube. By 16 January, the government announced that fuel prices would be brought back down.
This movement was not as simple as the mainstream media portrayed it. The protest was sparked by an unacceptable hike in the direct cost of living, in a country with 23 per cent youth unemployment. But there was more to it than that. Young people in Nigeria were protesting against the political élite and President Goodluck Jonathan, but they also had a wider critique of the Western-dominated institutions which encourage the privatization and deregulation of economies in the Global South: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or, as Seun Kuti likes to call them, the ‘International Mother F***ers’.
Out with the old guard
Two months later, in Egypt, the January 25th Revolution Coalition refused to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They had played a central role in organizing the mass street demonstrations centred around Tahrir Square, which eventually overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak. Several Egyptian youth groups made up the Coalition, from the Young Muslim Brotherhood to the April 6th Youth Movement.
Representing a broad spectrum of political opinion, the Coalition recognized the need for unity in the face of a far greater enemy. They refused to meet with Clinton for a simple reason. The US government had consistently been an ally of the ousted Mubarak regime. It was not only a repressive government that the Coalition fought against but the international structures that kept them in power.
‘The Egyptian people are masters of their own land and destiny,’ the Coalition said, ‘and will only accept equal relations of friendship and respect between the people of Egypt and the people of America.’ They demanded that the US issue a formal apology to the Egyptian people.
The January 25th Coalition used the internet to internationalize and spread their struggle to a wider audience, and were specific and articulate in their demands. Among them were calls to scrap the old constitution, release all political prisoners and halt gas exports to Israel (previously sold at a fraction of its value under Mubarak).
In Chile, too, the student movement that exploded into the public arena in 2011 was precise in its demands. Like their Egyptian counterparts, the students have built a sustained political movement in the struggle to dismantle the neoliberal apparatus of a previous generation. The Chilean students were aware that having abstract goals is not enough or, as spokesperson Giorgio Jackson said, they were looking for ‘formal ways to turn social demands into reality’.
The wave of progressive movements and governments transforming societies across Latin America provides much inspiration for the Chilean students. In Venezuela, hip-hop artists from the barrios, or less-privileged areas, surrounding Caracas use culture to transform society. Hip-hop group ‘Area 23’ come from the 23 de enero neighbourhood, one of the most militant zones in the capital and traditionally one of the strongest bases of support for the Hugo Chávez government.
‘When Chávez won the election I was 15 years old,’ says rapper Jorney Madriz, in Pablo Navarrete’s film Inside the Revolution, ‘…and to be honest, I didn’t care that Chávez had won. Why? Because Venezuela’s youth, myself included, weren’t at all interested in politics.
‘Area 23 and I show how young people have become interested in finding out about our history and have learned that politics can be a powerful weapon if we use culture to expand these ideas.’
Area 23 is part of the Hip-Hop Revolución collective, which runs 31 hip-hop schools across the country. The collective has a position of critical support for the government. When Area 23 were invited to perform in front of the President in a televised performance, they were unafraid to deviate from the plan and start rapping about corruption and bureaucracy holding back the revolution.
Whether it is in the barrios of Venezuela, or in the favelas of Brazil, the poorest sections of society are organizing to challenge the abuse of power that affects their everyday lives. Mayra Avellar Neves grew up surrounded by drug gang violence in one of Brazil’s favelas, which the police were intent on ‘pacifying’. At the age of 15, she organized a march of hundreds of children and teenagers to protest against deadly police patrols through the favela during school hours. The police eventually gave in, enabling many children to study again.
So what connects these movements, what sets them apart? Young people in England may not be facing the same struggle as Egyptians or children in the favelas, but we do live in an unequal society that tells us that capitalism is the only way, and that fills our minds with dreams of material possessions we may never be in a position to acquire. Social protests by youth worldwide connect over unmet expectations, and anger at exclusion or abuse from those in power.
It turns out that the looters in London shared the same concerns as the masked boy protesting against student allowance cuts. ‘This is payback, innit…’ explains one of the south London youths in the Sky News interview. ‘Put back EMA!’ says another interviewee, when asked what the government should do to stop the riots happening again. ‘Help all the single mothers that are struggling, [stop the] uni cuts. Come on! We are doing this to try and survive in this world, and until we get that… it’s not gonna stop.’
We are told that these things cannot happen, and that austerity is the only way forward. The truth is, there are successful alternatives being built right now, and denying their existence does not make them any less real.
The story of apathetic youth is a myth, and has been proven as such.
Let us educate ourselves, as young people with the weight of tomorrow and the joy of the future resting on our shoulders, about what is really happening in the world. Let us be inspired and motivated by the youth of the Global South. Let us open our eyes to a different vision that refuses to accept the economics of austerity and the politics of élitism. Whether in the form of 140-character tweets or the chants of masses in the streets, the voice of young people is destined to be heard.