Occupying the 21st Century: The Rise of Leftism in American Youth Organizing

In 2010, the Pew Research Poll did a survey measuring people’s reactions to different political philosophies. They found that even though all age groups in America were opposed to socialism, the highest proportion of support, 43 percent, came in the 18-29-year old bracket. When they repeated the survey 18 months later, they found that young people now favored socialism more than they did capitalism in addition to giving socialism a plus-six favorability margin.

That finding made national news. After all, it had been 87 years since a leftist candidate carried a state in a presidential election (Robert M. LaFollette carried his home of Wisconsin in 1924) and 72 years since the last socialist governor in America stepped down (Gov. Elmer Austin Benson from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, who left office in 1939). Sewer socialism had long since gone out of style, with Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler serving as the last socialist mayor of a major city until he left office in 1960. In that period, we have experienced: an embargo against Cuba, the ramping up (and eventual defeat) of American forces in Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1972 humiliation of George McGovern, Reaganism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2010, we watched as Republicans successfully painted President Obama, who is a DLC-style centrist at best, as a socialist on their way to a 63-seat gain in the House.

But some things have happened since that dark day in November of 2010 that has given rise to a leftist tendency in America’s youth.

With the recession lifting the slowest for young people across the world and normally sympathetic governments introducing punishing austerity measures, young people started taking to the streets across the world in 2010. The most well known of these were the Indignados movements that gripped both Spain and Greece. The sometimes deadly protests against government’s acquiescence to unrestrained capital unleashed realignments in both countries politics: Spain’s center-left Socialists suffered a historic defeat while the United Left and Podemos have risen on the scene, and Greece’s long-dominant party of the center-left, PASOK, suffered a similar humiliation at the same time the left-wing SYRIZA party sextupled their vote between 2009 and 2012.

Much like that critically-acclaimed Japanese horror movie that finally makes its way to America, so too did these movements come from abroad in the form of Occupy Wall Street and its governing body, the New York City General Assembly. Their occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park became a lightning rod in a nation where mass protests of rapacious capitalism had not been en vogue since the Johnson administration. The rallying cry of “We Are The 99%” rung out from Lower Manhattan and touched disaffected youth across America, and the Occupy movement itself would eventually extend its reach just as much. Cities as diverse as Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Columbia, Missouri. Hell, there was even an Occupy Tuscaloosa group that organized out of the University Presbyterian Church not far from campus. Many, if not all, of these Occupy groups were led by young people.

But as many have pointed out, Occupy Wall Street did not lead to a concrete gain in support for one political agenda or another. You did not see new political parties sweep out of nowhere on a national scale, and the electoral successes that leftists have had are on a very local scale. President Obama was re-elected, in part, by co-opting the message of the “99 percent” during the 2012 campaign; of course, many of his moves since then have been in the service of, well, anyone but the working class. But you did see folks like Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, who famously referred to herself as laying the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street, sweep to the United States Senate that same year. And were it not for Occupy Wall Street’s message of reducing inequalities, would we be talking about a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont as a legitimate threat to the Democrats’ chances of winning a third consecutive presidential election? And while the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle might have been functionally been a drop in the bucket, the fact that she won in a city that young people have flocked to (and stayed put) during the recession should give naysayers a bit of pause.

One organization that came out of the Occupy movement was the Ohio Student Association (OSA). This youth-led organization began in the winter of 2012 when Will Klatt, Stuart McIntyre, and other youth from across Ohio came together in Columbus to form a group that would advocate for Ohio’s youth on the issue of student debt, which is higher today than it has ever been. They got to work in fairly short order, helping to put together a national organizing conference for student leftists in Columbus that summer. The National Student Power Convergence featured seminars, breakout sessions, keynotes from people like Naomi Klein and organizers of the Quebec student protests ongoing at the time, and a march to the Obama for America office near Ohio State University to protest all the ways in which the Obama administration has left young people behind.

After the 2012 elections, they faced the challenge that all youth-based organizations face at some point: How do we keep youth interested and involved? The “moments of intensity” that power student organizations, as McIntyre described them to me, were self-evident in 2012 with a presidential election dumping millions into the Buckeye State and a hotly-contested U.S. Senate race, both won by Democrats. But moving into 2013, how were they going to continue the momentum that they had built up? The answer was to shift the focus from college campuses and the issues those students face to a broader focus on community-building and organizing around issues that affect all youth. According to McIntyre, “Many of us went to urban public schools in Ohio, and so we built a base that looks like the schools we went to. And while many of the students involved were still college students, many of their friends and families chose not to attend college due to financial concerns. We have never wavered in our commitment to educational justice.” As a part of that shift, the OSA organized around issues that affect a broader cross-section of young people like Stand Your Ground and the school-to-prison pipeline. They also participated in the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, where racial justice activists from all over the country gathered in Mississippi to register Black voters in 1964; it was also a movement that paralleled today’s progressive organizing in the large numbers of youth that were involved.

With all of their successes, it was natural that I would ask Klatt and McIntyre what they would suggest to leftist youth in places like Alabama who seek to form their groups committed to social justice and educational equality. Their answer was clear: long-term planning.

Klatt’s assertion that 90 percent of organizing groups like the OSA is dependent on ground conditions is an important one; the desire for instant gratification is strong for organizers of all ages in areas where progressivism and leftism feels relegated to a kind of permanent minority status. We often look for the perfect leader, candidate, or philosophy that will lead us to organizational or policy gains, and we are disappointed just as frequently. The forces aligned against the young, poor, and workers were not assembled in a day or an election cycle, and so it will go for the entities that organize to defeat such reactionary forces. This is why groups like The Dream Defenders are so important to the future of youth activism: they are able to clearly define the issues that affect our communities and execute actions that will highlight just how destructive our political system can be towards them.

The future is bright for those who wish for a more inclusive and just vision for American society.

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