Young activists in 2015 face a landscape unfamiliar to most veteran dissenters. Technology has helped them organize and gain attention – but it’s also created a new platform for their foes to attack them. And with corporate control over their government and institutions only growing, the American dream they were promised has started to look like a distant spot on the horizon.
Cecily McMillan is a 25-year-old activist who spent 58 days in New York’s Rikers Island jail for allegedly striking an officer after her breast was grabbed from behind during an Occupy protest in 2012. Since her release, McMillan has become an ardent advocate for the rights of prisoners. She believes many people who grew up like she did followed the path set before them, attending graduate school and trying to get a good job – and many of them are becoming fed up with the results. “People like me in the millennial generation are rampant, and the storm is coming,” McMillan says.
Activists in previous generations, McMillan says, had “a really strong commitment to the promise of democracy as it existed. We’re at a new point now where there’s the corporatization of democracy, and I think the average person understands that.” With corporations influencing elections and profiting off student loans, she says it’s hard for young people to settle for anything but a broad program of structural change. Adds McMillan, “We’re not going to accept the pennies you’re throwing at us.”
McMillan believes in the transformative power of the Internet – “We’re educating ourselves all the time,” she says – but she’s wary of putting too much faith in online organizing alone. “It’s exciting what’s happening right now, but it’s not sustainable,” she says. “It’s cathartic, but it’s not building agency. It’s anger, but it’s not power.” And, much like some of Occupy’s original critics, she says she’s wary of protests that don’t have sharply focused targets. “Disruption has to be geared at the obstacle,” McMillan says. “Disruption of the average Joe, of the middle of the road, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Those are the people you’re trying to win over for your cause.” She says young activists need to focus on creating long-lasting organizations that can sustain the momentum they’ve created.
Nelini Stamp is the 27-year-old co-director of Rise Up, a grassroots community organization in Atlanta. She’s been involved in police brutality-related activism nationwide, and she, too, feels that social media and Internet activism alone are not enough. “We need people who tweet and use social media on the streets,” she says.
Stamp has been threatened online for her work, and she sees few ways to combat such threats. “They know me by my face, but I’m not going to go stalk each of them and always worry to see them on the street,” she says. “We don’t have the tools yet to protect the folks who take the risk of using the Internet and technology to take a stand.”
Both McMillan and Stamp recognize that some people in their generation are reasonably afraid to get involved because of the risk to their jobs or families. But they think there will soon be no choice but to join the movement. “No matter what, when your back is up against the wall, you’re going to have to make a decision,” McMillan says. “Somehow or another, you’re going to have to be involved in resisting the oppression against you, because it’s choking you.”