Emma Gonzalez tweeted out a picture of herself after she voted in Florida’s primary election. Along with 1.5 million other followers, I saw Emma smiling, displaying the “I voted” sticker that came with her first in-person vote. Emma started on Twitter when she and some of her classmates organized March for Our Lives in response to the horrific mass shooting at their high school. The Parkland kids brought a new energy and visibility to a growing movement for gun safety regulation, running through a full range of social movement tactics: a local demonstration where Emma gave a stirring “We Call BS” speech; a bus trip to lobby Florida legislators in Tallahassee; a national demonstration in Washington, DC, that drew more than one million people — and featured no speaker over the age of 19; a coordinated series of school walk-outs across the country; and a speaking tour in the summer of 2018 to encourage young people to vote.
I was fortunate to catch the Parkland kids when they visited Irvine, California in November 2018, for a rally on the campus where I teach about social movements. They distributed stickers and t-shirts, gave brief speeches, provided a platform for local young activists and candidates for office, and then ran a bus to City Hall where residents could register to vote. Activist actors Chelsea Handler and Natalie Morales attended as well, and Handler spoke, but the young people were the stars. After the event, they stayed for more than an hour, talking with students and others, and posing for pictures with anyone willing to wait. I still wear the t-shirt I got, which features a QR code that links to a voter registration site. Since then, some of the Parkland kids have endorsed particular Democratic candidates, but even when they differed, all have encouraged other young people to vote.
The Parkland kids were great: smart, committed, and disciplined, but hardly unique. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I saw other young people equally committed in my social movements course. Before class, almost every session, one student or another would ask for a minute to announce an organizing event: on guns or climate change or unionization or tuition. There were meetings, canvassing sessions, speakers, and demonstrations. Every student, even those who just needed credits offered at this time of the day, was invited to attend a new set of events, and sometimes conversations extended beyond the classroom to the walk out or a snack at the student center. A few students were visibly exhausted on the Thursday after the election. But their efforts paid off. Orange County, political home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — to say nothing of the local airport’s namesake, John Wayne, saw record high voter turnout for a midterm election, and flipped every House of Representatives seat to the Democratic Party for the first time since the Pleistocene era. (My very clever attempt at a hashtag, #Orangeisthenewblue, almost caught on, I think.)
So, does the dramatic social movement activism of young people in the Trump era affect American elections and more conventional political participation? Sure. In lots of ways, activism promotes activism. Commanding public attention for yourself and your issues encourages others with concerns to try to enter into public life as well — even on different issues. Greta Thunberg, who started a weekly climate strike outside the Swedish parliament, cited the Parkland kids, who she had never met, as inspiration.
But it’s more than this demonstration effect as well. Organizers and activists set examples, to be sure, but they also set up communication channels for wholesale dissemination of information about issues and activities. In ancient times there were leaflets, then telephone trees, but social media allow a much faster, and largely unmediated, spread of information than ever before. Occupy media teams livestreamed meetings, working on laptops, sometimes with portable generators. Shortly after Trump’s election, Indivisible posted a manual for action quickly downloaded thousands of times (Brooker 2018). The Parkland kids sat on a living room floor, working on a range of platforms through their phones. It’s easier than ever for someone with an interest to find support and encouragement online, as well as directions for next steps to social and political engagement.
Social movement activism promotes politicized education. Young people who engage in activism come into contact, online and in person, with other committed people, and they talk about the things they care about. A tentative interest can deepen into a set of political commitments (Munson 2009).
Importantly, those intellectual and political commitments are solidified through personal commitment. Activism creates social ties that help young people develop a sense of self that those around them reinforce. The resulting solidarity makes it a little bit easier for someone to find out about an issue or event, and to find a way to engage with others. Over time, young activists develop broader social networks that afford them access to a widening range of issues to care about, and tactics for promoting influence. Connections create nearby opportunities for activism, ranging from working for a candidate to showing up at a demonstration.
Contemporary democracies are structured to promote and channel political engagement in ways that stabilize, rather than undermine, the political system. This makes for a familiar story in American politics, where social movements, sometimes in short order, move from activism at the grassroots and in the streets, to creating caucuses in state legislatures and in the Congress. These days, however, protest and politics operate in concert, not opposition or strict sequence. Demonstrators show up at the polls, and people who vote are far more likely to do more than those who don’t.
For young people today, who share concerns about their future and that of the earth, there is an ongoing search for ways to protect themselves and their interests. First steps may be at a demonstration or a climate change protest or at the polls, but it’s quite likely that the path will go through many forms of participation and a range of issues. Even in these moments of desperation, these are the signs of hope for the future.
Brooker, Megan E. 2018. “Indivisible: Invigorating and Redirecting the Grassroots.” Pp. 162-184 in The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement, edited by David S. Meyer and Sidney Tarrow. Oxford University Press.
Munson, Ziad. 2009. The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.