For students, protests are about more than just Trump

Demonstrators say the rallies are a way for concerned citizens – many of them youth – to show solidarity with minority communities and call for change.

Jessica Mendoza/Christian Science Monitor
Protesters gather at Mariachi Plaza in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights on Nov. 14. The rally, one of a series that have taken place nationwide following the election of Donald Trump as president, have been characterized by demonstrators – many of them youth – as a way to channel their disappointment and frustration and call for change.

When Ariana Rios walked out of class and onto the streets of East Los Angeles with her fellow students on Monday morning, it wasn’t just in anger at the election of Donald Trump.

Ms. Rios, a senior at Garfield High School, does resent that she had to watch her nation elect a man she can’t and doesn’t support. She wishes she had been old enough to cast a ballot.

But to Rios and other students who organized Monday’s walkout, it was less about getting Mr. Trump kicked out of office than showing solidarity with minority communities who have had to face a rise in threats and hate crimes following his victory.

Rios says she and other students came together to ensure that in a Trump administration, minority voices will continue to be heard.

“This is about the fear in our community. A lot of people are very confused and upset, and our goal is to get our voices heard,” she says. “It’s a reassurance to our community: We will stand with you, no matter who is president.”

Her remarks add nuance to the narrative that the protests that have swept the nation since Nov. 8 are little more than the tantrums of sore losers and people too young to be gracious in defeat. Instead, the rallies are, for the most part, a way for concerned citizens – many of them youth – to channel their disappointment and frustration and call for change, demonstrators say.

Some say they came out to protest the Electoral College system and the structure of the Democratic Party. Others marched to speak out against what they see as the threat that Trump and his allies represents to both their rights and their lives – and support those who felt the same.

“The vast majority of people in the protests see this as a symbol of solidarity,” says Alison Dundes Renteln, a professor of political science and an expert on cultural rights at the University of Southern California.

“I don’t think anybody in the protest movement is trying to change the election,” she adds. “It’s more about saying, ‘We’re going to look out for each other, we’re there for you.’ People are feeling concerned about what the future may hold.”

'We're more than just kids'

At Monday’s rally in Los Angeles, dozens of high school students gathered at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, chanting in a mix of Spanish and English and holding up signs that read, “Let our voices be heard,” “Brown is beautiful,” and “Siempre unidos” (“Always united”). Shortly before midday, the protesters marched west toward downtown, where they gathered in a grassy square across the street from City Hall.

By then the crowd had swelled to hundreds.

The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests, led by high school students, that took place following Trump’s election in cities nationwide – from Oakland, Calif., to Omaha, Neb.

Many of the protesters were too young to vote. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a voice, says Eric Cooke, another Garfield High senior.

Mr. Cooke says he has friends – many with undocumented family members, almost all from minority or immigrant communities – who have been too scared to come to school since the election. To Cooke, protesting sends a twofold message: That as a person of color, he stands with those who might be silenced by a Trump administration; and as a young American, he believes he has the power to call for change in his community and government.

“We’re more than ‘just kids,’ ” he says. “What’s going on affects us, and these things need to be talked about. We’re looking to our future.”

Youth have long played a crucial role in the rise and success of social movements in the United States, says Eric McDaniel, a professor of political science at the University of Texas in Austin who specializes in racial politics and organizational behavior. He cites figures such as Claudette Colvin, who at 15 and even before Rosa Parks, resisted bus segregation in her native Montgomery, Ala.

The response to this election is, in some ways, an extension of that history of youth activism, Professor McDaniel says: Movements like Black Lives Matter, coupled with the ubiquity of social media, have raised political consciousness in young people today, he says, empowering them to speak up when and where they see injustice.  

“The fact that Donald Trump was elected, the hate crimes that have taken place, these individuals see this as, ‘We’re returning to an era where our lives meant nothing or were highly marginalized,’ ” McDaniel says. “What’s going on ... is this sharp action: ‘You will recognize me and you will acknowledge my presence, my life, my work to this nation.’ ”

'It's not just the election'

Bright red against the grass, Zoe Cole’s “Black Lives Matter! Dump Trump” poster was hard to miss. And for Ms. Cole, that’s exactly how she wanted it.

“It’s important to recognize that Trump is racist and misogynistic,” says the high school senior. Drawing attention to that reality is part of why she and some of her classmates at Eagle Rock High School walked out of class and to go out and protest that day.

But even for Cole – the biracial daughter of lesbian parents – there's a bigger problem. She bemoans a system that, against the popular vote, propelled a man like Trump into the presidency. She expresses disappointment in what she sees as the ongoing marginalization of minority groups in her community and elsewhere.

And more than being angry or afraid, she foresees a future that will require young people like her to continue to speak out against injustice at all levels.

“There’s new issues coming up all the time. It’s not just the election,” Cole says.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, distinguishes between the awareness that the world may be a more dangerous place and a simple emotional response to a surprise result.

The uptick in hate crimes and threats against ethnic and religious minorities, as well as immigrant and LGBT communities following Trump’s victory, suggest that there is an increased risk for these individuals today, Professor Wingfield says. The protests, she notes, are a response to that new reality.

“These aren’t simply about people’s feelings,” she says. “Feelings can be misguided. These people are under threat and they are reacting.”

Amid the growing sense of danger, however, the rallies also represent hope that democracy will continue to be valued in the new administration, says Professor Renteln at USC.

“It’s a good sign that young people are joining these movements,” she says. “You’re seeing students saying, ‘Look, we’re going to protest for civil rights. We’re here for each other.’ In a positive way people are insisting that these rights be guaranteed.”

“A lot of adults aren't willing to compromise, which is so interesting because kids are taught to do that all the time,” says Cooke, the Garfield High student. “So the ultimate goal is to have communication. To have our voices make a difference.”

“We youth aren’t ignorant,” Cole adds. “This matters to us.”

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