Young Activists Pour Energy Into Protests, But What About The Election?

Jun 14, 2020
Originally published on June 14, 2020 9:23 am

As demonstrators gathered around the White House last weekend, Howard University law student Tope Aladetimi leaned her cardboard protest sign against the street median and took a load off her feet. She had already been out protesting for a few hours, and the temperature was climbing into the 90s.

"There's a power in using your body, and actually physically being here," Aladetimi said. "Oftentimes, our voices aren't heard and this is the only way we're able to get our message across."

Domonique Dille, a Howard law school classmate, feels an urgency to this moment.

"We can't wait until November to voice our opinions," she said. "We've seen our parents, our ancestors fight. They've all fought, and we're still fighting in 2020. And we're going to keep this going until the election and even past then."

With a presidential campaign and historic demonstrations unfolding at the same time, the country's youngest voters and activists are being pushed to weigh their role in politics right now, trying to navigate the relative power of protest and electoral politics in real time.

The question is especially pressing for Gen Z, the generation of voters in their late teens and early 20s who grew up with endless school shootings, viral videos of police brutality and a political climate defined by President Trump — and who are rapidly aging into the voting population.

When former President Barack Obama recently addressed protests swelling around the country, he urged young people not to forget about the election.

"I've been hearing a little bit of chatter on the Internet about voting versus protest," he said. "Politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not an either/or. This is a both/and."

"I was feeling pretty pessimistic a week ago, and I'm more optimistic in this moment than I've ever been," said Natalie Spievack, who'd been out protesting for several hours last Saturday.

"More optimistic about the possibility of making systemic change, but mostly optimistic because I'm experiencing for the first time in my life people coming together around a common cause and demanding change — and actually seeing people listen," she added.

Natalie Spievack (third from left) and Raymond Sison (far right) take a break from protesting with friends at Malcolm X Park in Washington, D.C.
Sam Gringlas / NPR

Spievack and several friends had found a shaded spot in a park to cool off.

They all said they feel like traditional modes of political advocacy have failed their generation. That's in part why Raymond Sison says direct action and protest can be more powerful tools.

"There are so many issues to talk about, I mean, we're here talking about police brutality, but like student loans — there hasn't been anything done for students in America, one of the most indebted generations," he said.

Everyone in the group said they recognize the importance of the 2020 election and are planning to vote this fall. It's not really up for debate.

Like most of their generation, almost 80%, this group of young protesters overwhelmingly disapproves of Trump. For comparison, 42% of Gen X voters and 48% of Baby Boomers approve of the president's job performance.

Where it gets tricky, Spievack says, is trying to prioritize. Do you spend your summer planning demonstrations or knocking doors for a political candidate, like the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden?

To actually drive systemic change, Spievack says you have to hold politicians accountable — not just vote your preferred party into office.

"I feel like that's been my biggest internal struggle over the last week and a half, figuring out what's my place in creating change," she said.

In Louisville, 19-year-old Sean Waddell organized a march for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT killed by police this year.

"That could have easily been my brother, my sister or anybody," he said, speaking on a call from a birthday celebration in Taylor's memory, where thousands of people gathered downtown to release balloons and butterflies.

"Since middle school, seeing Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher, black people dying over and over again before my eyes, and being told to go to our politicians and seeing so little, it does take away our spirit," he said.

But Waddell plans to keep organizing, and he's optimistic this energy now will translate into a lasting movement for justice.

According to CIRCLE, a Tufts University research group focused on youth civic and political engagement, young people don't seem to be disengaging. Instead, youth turnout doubled between the last two midterms. And the group found that in 2018, three times more young people attended a demonstration than in 2016.

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"We have no more patience for justice to be served on a silver platter," said Daud Mumin, an organizer in Utah with March For Our Lives. "We have to go and fight for it."

After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 14 students and three educators were killed, the student-led March For Our Lives organized hundreds of demonstrations around the country calling for gun control, sparking a nationwide youth movement.

"The moment the march ended, we all took a deep breath, I think, collectively," said Matthew Hogenmiller, the social media manager for March For Our Lives. "We were 16 years old. Daud was, too. We were young people trying to create a change and all of us were looking for next steps."

Political advocacy and voter registration became a part of March For Our Lives' equation, too, as the group went up against entrenched political organizations like the National Rifle Association.

But Mumin says getting involved in politics can be harder for young voters, especially people of color. And he's watching how quickly the protests over police brutality sparked tangible change in cities around the country in a way that elections haven't.

"Electoral work is not the most accessible work," he said. "So when we tell African American people, 'Are you concerned? Go and vote,' it's almost offensive. It's almost a slap in the face."

Research suggests protest energy could boost young voter turnout. CIRCLE says in 2018, young people who were aligned with the Parkland gun control movement were 21% more likely to vote.

Matthew Nowling, communications director for the College Democrats, says protests over police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., actually inspired him to get involved in politics.

Afterward, he watched the Obama administration take action, actions the Trump administration has rolled back.

It's a reminder, Nowling says, of what's at stake not only right now, but on Election Day, too.

"The way to harness the momentum of the movement is really connecting the issues why people are protesting to direct Democratic Party policies," he said.

Nowling says while his organization is working to support the protest movement now, he's hopeful the momentum will spill over into the election.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now, former President Barack Obama recently addressed protests swelling around the country, and he urged young people not to forget about the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I've been hearing a little bit of chatter in the Internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not a either or. This is a both and.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The country's youngest voters are now weighing their role in politics right now, as NPR's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Chanel Sherrod is taking a break from marching in the massive protest near the White House. It's 90 degrees, really muggy. And she's got a cardboard protest sign resting by her feet.

CHANEL SHERROD: Voting is not enough. We have to protest. We have to picket. We have to speak out on social media. We have to educate each other.

GRINGLAS: Sherrod is with two Howard University Law School classmates. Domonique Dille says there's an urgency to this moment.

DOMONIQUE DILLE: We've seen our parents, our ancestors. They've all fought, and we're still fighting in 2020. So we're going to keep this going until election and even past then.

GRINGLAS: At a park, I meet Raymond Sison and Natalie Spievack. After three hours protesting, they found a shady spot with some friends.

NATALIE SPIEVACK: I was feeling pretty pessimistic a week ago, and I'm more optimistic in this moment than I've ever been.

GRINGLAS: Do you feel like the traditional systems of, like, political advocacy has failed you guys as a generation?

SPIEVACK: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I do, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

RAYMOND SISON: There's so many issues to talk about. I mean, we're here talking about police brutality, but, I mean, student loans. There hasn't been anything that's been done for students here in America - like, one of the most indebted generations.

GRINGLAS: Everyone here is in their early 20s. They're all planning to vote this fall. That's not up for debate. And like most of their generation, they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump. Where it gets tricky, Spievack says, is trying to prioritize - do you spend your summer planning protests or organizing for Joe Biden?

SPIEVACK: That has been my biggest internal struggle over the last week and a half - is figuring out, what's my place in creating change?

GRINGLAS: It's a question a lot of young people are trying to navigate, especially Gen Z - voters in their late teens and early 20s who have grown up with endless school shootings, viral videos of police brutality and a political climate defined by Donald Trump. In Louisville, 19-year-old Sean Waddell organized a march for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT killed by police.

SEAN WADDELL: That could've easily been my brother or my sister or anybody.

GRINGLAS: Waddell called me from a birthday celebration in Taylor's memory.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy Birthday to ya. Happy Birthday...

GRINGLAS: Thousands released balloons and butterflies.

WADDELL: Seeing Trayvon Martin, seeing Eric Garner, black people dying over and over again before my eyes. And being told to go to our politician and seeing so little, it does take away our spirit.

GRINGLAS: But young people aren't disengaging. Youth turnout doubled between the last two midterms, according to CIRCLE, a Tufts University research group on young voters. They also found that in 2018, three times more young people attended a demonstration than in 2016.

DAUD MUMIN: We have no more patience to just sit around and wait for justice to be served on a silver platter. We have to go and fight for it. We have to go and take it.

GRINGLAS: That's Daud Mumin. He's an organizer in Utah with March for Our Lives, the group behind those big gun control marches after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Political advocacy and voter registration became a part of the group's equation, as well. But Mumin says young people of color especially have a harder time getting involved in campaigns and voting.

MUMIN: Electoral work is not the most accessible work. So when we tell African American people, are you concerned? - go and vote - it's almost offensive. It's almost a slap in the face.

GRINGLAS: Research suggests protest energy could boost the young voter turnout. CIRCLE says young people aligned with the Parkland gun control movement were 21% more likely to vote in 2018. Matthew Nowling with the College Democrats is hopeful about 2020.

MATTHEW NOWLING: Like, to harness that momentum from the movement is really connecting the issues of why people are protesting to direct Democrat party policies.

GRINGLAS: Nowling says protests over police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., inspired him to get involved in politics. Afterward, he watched the Obama administration taking action, actions the Trump administration has rolled back. It's a reminder, Nowling says, of what's at stake not only right now but on Election Day, too. Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.