PARIS — Growing up in Northern California, acts of public protest were never far away. It felt perfectly natural for me to join fellow students in the annual "Day of Silence," refusing to say a word in any of my classes to draw attention to discrimination against the LGBTQ community. My favorite English teacher recounted his arrests while demonstrating as a student at UC Berkeley in the Sixties. And this week, following from afar on Facebook, I saw that my high school had notified students that they were free to leave class to participate in the nationwide walkout for 17 minutes to take a stand against gun violence.
The movement that has grown in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead is hardly limited to California. It is, however, very much a youth thing. Ahead of a massive March For Our Lives scheduled for March 24, young people are leading the call for stricter gun control laws through direct social activism.
There is something universal about young people demanding change. Though Vladimir Putin is assured reelection victory this Sunday, the only force that is making him uneasy are the nation's youth. But as reported in German daily Die Welt, authorities in Russia are not quite as understanding as the administration back in the U.S., as peaceful young protesters are routinely arrested and have their homes searched by the Russian government for simply opposing the ruling government.
In May 1968, the student-led street demonstrations brought France to a virtual halt — Photo: Keystone Press Agency/Keystone USA/ZUMA
In Syria, the consequences of youthful idealism have been far worse. Thursday marked the seven year anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War and it can be easy to forget that it all began with the actions of young people. With one anti-Assad graffiti, originally meant as a prank, a pair of high schoolers served as catalyst for larger demonstrations in the streets of the southern Syrian city of Daraa. Those protests were eventually met with violent repression from the government, which led to the bloody civil conflict that has left the country in ruins.
Still, such dire consequences can't quell others. In Iran, another repressive regime next door to Syria, a spontaneous movement is currently spreading of young women who remove their veils in the streets to protest the law that requires them to cover their heads. The movement is gaining traction on social media with the hashtag, "GirlsofRevolutionSt." Indeed, the arrival of social media multiplies the reach of such actions, but as we've seen elsewhere, also a means for repression.
In Paris, where Worldcrunch is based, there is talk ahead of this spring's 50-year anniversary of the May 1968 student protests. Sparked as a reaction against France's traditional values, the student-led street demonstrations brought the country to a virtual halt. And though certain policy changes came in its wake, in his book Mai 68, l'héritage impossible ("The Impossible Legacy"), French sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff wonders what was ultimately achieved. "Today's France is still looking for itself," he writes. "May ‘68? It's a youth mistake that we still haven't outgrown."
Whether under the heavy hand of authoritarian regimes or simply the "reality" of modern life, we young people are told that ideals themselves are a mistake. But Montreal-based writer Peter Wheeland is not convinced. "If history is any indication, the groundswell of anger and the impetus for change will begin with students, whose ideals have not yet been tainted and corrupted and whose hopes for the future have not yet been consumed by the struggle to survive." Thanks to social media, I was able to verify that Monsieur Wheeland is a self-described "curmudgeon" with a first few gray hairs in his beard— and I think this young man may be on to something.