Facebook protest isn't enough. Selma vets and young activists must share lessons.
A Facebook protest or online petition is not the same as a sit-in or hunger strike. As activism re-invents itself, the experience of the older generations and the innovations of the young each have something to offer.
My father, a veteran of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1965 Selma march and numerous Vietnam War protests, still wages peace the old fashioned way. For seven years running, he and a group of fellow activists have taken to the streets every Friday afternoon, placard in hand, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the perspective of many younger activists, these 1960s-style tactics appear quaint and out of date.Skip to next paragraph
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That is not to say that teenagers and 20-somethings have left the streets altogether, as uprisings in Iran and climate protests in Copenhagen attest. But if you look closely at these and other young agitators, you would see they are carrying cellphones, twittering on-the-spot updates, and organizing flash mobs that can respond instantaneously like a school of fish to real-time text message commands from protest leaders.
Moving online, you will find thousands upon thousands of Facebook groups, social-change networks like Change.org, community support “marketplaces” like Globalgiving.org, and bloggers actively organizing around and raising money for a myriad of causes. Last year’s “Twestival” helped raise over $250,000 for “charity: water” (a nonprofit supporting clean and safe drinking water in developing countries) in only a few weeks time. The organizing was done entirely on Twitter and resulted in fundraising “Tweetups” in 200 cities across the globe.
The game has clearly changed. A new generation of young people is waging political and social battles through eyeballs and not sneakers.
And a more subtle change, mirroring a generation raised on always-on and always-responsive technologies, is the demand for instant results. Today’s young approach activism with an impatience that previous generations were often unable to satisfy.
For older activists, like my Dad, face-to-face interactions and organizing were a critical part of the education process. Nonviolent protest techniques were learned and trialed in the presence of angry mobs and club-wielding police. Results required training, patience, and unwavering action.
Many old-school activists are left wondering what happened to personal risk as expressions of commitment. They don’t understand why younger folks aren’t literally standing up to take action on climate change, gay rights, the war in Iraq, and the runaway excesses of the financial industry. They worry that younger activists are not willing to commit themselves to the laborious process of cutting their activism teeth the hard way.
Those may be fair points.
After all, putting up a Facebook page, donating through your mobile phone, or posting an angry message on a blog is not the same as a sit-in or hunger strike.
But the instant result impulses of today’s youth, bolstered by lightning-quick actions on the Web and phone, are also worth acknowledging.