Youth: "Taking the Wind" in the Antiwar Movement

by Osage

Revolutionary Worker #1192, March 23 , 2003, posted at

Ever since October 6, when tens of thousands of people nationwide publicly came together to say "not in our name" to the war, there has been this flood of youth into the antiwar movement. Now, in many ways, they're struggling to spearhead it. From big cities to small towns, students have been walking out, striking, forcing discussions of the war, and taking the Pledge of Resistance. They're debating the ways to deepen the resistance and reach out to more people.

Here in NYC, and reading reports from across the country, I was surprised at how the majority of these youth are high school students and younger. It's been the high school students who have been out there, struggling with their classmates and college students to walk out and be defiant. And there's definitely been a lot of struggle. There are all these questions of what role students and youth play, what kinds of resistance are necessary and how do we get ourselves to take the next step. And I wanted to get to know these youth more, what are the challenges they're facing.

One of them, Alisa, is a 13-year-old middle school student. I first met her on November 20, the first time there was a walkout against the war in NYC. She and about seven of her classmates had walked out and were the first to arrive at the gathering point, where they were completely outnumbered by police. Undeterred, they proudly held the Not In Our Name banner and, after about 2,000 more kids arrived, they led the march with other NION folks.

Alisa has been going to antiwar demonstrations since before she could walk. Her mom, a veteran of struggles against the Vietnam war, took her to protests against the first Gulf War; and her mom has been a real strength and guide for her ever since. I was excited to see her again on March 5, the second big walkout. Then, she said, about 50 students (in a school of 360) walked out. The growth, she said, was because "the possibility for war is so much nearer. The U.S. is far into this and more and more kids realize this is wrong."

She's been active against war because she doesn't want to see innocent people killed. She doesn't like how the U.S. bullies people around. "Why does the U.S. have a god-given right to decide who has weapons? Doesn't this country have the most weapons? We've even used them. Aren't we more of a threat to the world?" She says a lot of her classmates have a lot of questions. She says they're not really sure what's going on. There hadn't been much discussion in classes about the war until after the walkouts. The students want to know why the U.S. is going to war and what has Iraq done to warrant it. And they are looking for the truth.

As these students form opinions against the war, they're confronted with many questions--and they're constantly searching for answers. The media trivializes this journey. And while it's true that a lot of the students getting active lately, and who were at March 5, are brand new to activism, they do know two things the media hasn't figured out: the war is wrong and we must oppose it. And these youth are refusing to be force-fed ideas--they want to find the answers themselves.

On March 5 in Union Square, where kids gathered after walking out of school, I spoke with a high school student from Westchester County wearing a black bandana, his hood up, and holding an enormous upside-down U.S. flag. As I introduced myself from the RW , he immediately said, "Oh, I know that paper, I read it online. Was that Carl Dix just speaking? I just read the interview with him in the paper about being a Vietnam vet." He was excited and animated to have met me.

Ten minutes later, trying to get a perspective of the overall crowd, I stood near some TV reporters and overheard one of them talking about the same kid. Pointing him out to one of the cameramen, the reporter sniped, "These self-fashioned anarchists throw on a black bandana and they think they know what they're talking about." He would have been in for a surprise, but of course he never even bothered to interview the kid.

Maria, a sophomore, who lives in Brooklyn and goes to an alternative high school in Manhattan, is one of these youth finding out answers to these questions on her own. And she's not afraid to debate and discuss. At her school, students pride themselves on being critical thinkers. They have a lot of discussions and to graduate, instead of tests, they put together portfolios. So, she knows a lot of what's on their minds. She says some of the big questions challenging them concern Saddam Hussein: "Liberating the people of Iraq and his brutality are two big points. It takes more than a few seconds to figure out."

She also said that while her classmates are not really aware of what's going on with the Patriot Act and Special Registration of Immigrants, they are concerned about losing their rights. Maria says, "They're reading our emails, they're listening to our phones. There have been truancy officers invading the neighborhood recently, cracking down on students."

She said a lot of kids went to their first protest on February 15 where they were harassed by the cops. Then she told a story about one student who saw and videotaped his mother being arrested there. She had a cast on her leg and arm and the cops grabbed her by her broken arm. She said, "Students are completely angry. Cops think this keeps people from going but all I've seen is more inspiration to get up and do it again and again and again."

Lack of information is definitely a problem for some kids. A lot of youth mainly get their information from teachers in schools that aren't discussing what's going on. Ati, 17, who comes from South America, is in her last year of high school in a New Jersey suburb where the majority in the town and school come from countries like hers. Ati says her classmates don't know what's going on, and if they do, there's a lot of struggle around the potential to stop this war. They also don't feel like this is their country and waging resistance is not their responsibility. They're not in the middle of the resistance like the youth in the city. ROTC is a big thing at the school. Like a lot of high schools, in hers there's a crowd people follow, and oftentimes that crowd is similar to what's dominant in society. And resistance is not dominant yet. But they see her taking up activism, take flyers from her and seek her out when they have thoughts, questions, or want to get involved. The teachers are very supportive of her activism, though, and some of them are Vietnam veterans.

I'm not sure how it hits other cities, but in New York, fear is also something they're confronting. There's National Guard at key places, but sometimes they're in subway stops that seem random. They rolled by in about a dozen trucks as we marched to the Feb. 15 rally. Cops are everywhere. When the rest of the country went back to Ridge's Paint By Numbers `Yellow' alert, New York was still on `Orange'. And the government uses the memories of September 11 against people. "I think it's addicting to be afraid. Students are terrified and it's really easy to get caught up in that. You go to the pizza shop and CNN's on and Bush is on in his little army get-up and `orange alert' is flashing and it sucks you into this hole of, `I'm scared, this is gonna happen and we have to stop it and it's gonna happen soon,' " Maria says.

September 11 also hits students in other ways. They have more of a sense now of what it might look like in Baghdad. I've heard Maria's sister Jen, 15, talk about being at a school near the World Trade Center and running through the streets that day. "Fifteen-year-olds saw people falling from the sky and die that day." And this experience, knowing what the horrors might feel like, is something she thinks pro- war people should have to be confronted with. "We're obviously going to kill millions of people, and we're obviously going to kill people for a really long time. Iraq is already devastated. Pro-war people should have to watch some footage from Vietnam. [The media then] had no idea that that was going to affect people here, watching that as they sat down for dinner. No war has ever been shown like that again. But I would like some people who are for the war to sit down and watch some videos like that. Watch footage of some girl running in a village because napalm is burning the clothes off their skin. Are you still so passionate for this war?"

The destruction the U.S. is promising in Iraq and what that will mean to the people is definitely weighing on the youth. It's hard for them to imagine 100,000 people dying. They talk to me about September 11, describing what it was like to run from the falling buildings, the smell of dust in the air, seeing people falling, or sitting in school and wondering if their parents would show up, not knowing if they could get in touch with their friends and family. And then they try to multiply that many times.

Maria said, "It's serious. You're taking people's lives. It's not just `100,000 Iraqis.' It's 100,000 Iraqis with little brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews, moms and dads who studied biology in the tenth grade."

Sitting together, Maria and her sister Jen really got into this and Jen said, "Half the population of Iraq is under 18--how can you possibly inflict that kind of pain? You know those people are gonna die. I don't believe people who say, `we're only going to hit certain military targets and personnel." And Maria jumped in, "And then they say there'll be no safe place in Baghdad, like, do no people live in Baghdad?!"

What was interesting to me was that some of these youth I interviewed were not pacifists. As a revolutionary, I have certain ideas about how getting rid of all this horror is going to require a real fight, and I wondered how these youth coming forward have struggled with this question.

Jen said, "I'm a firm believer in John Brown and he said that slavery would not end until blood was shed. And I'm a person who believes that in extreme circumstances people have to go to war. Sometimes you have to fight for something. Yes, I will go all out, try my hardest and be in the streets every day to stop this war, every single time. Because every time a war happens, it's my responsibility to stop it. Activism is one thing, but really waging a fight for the people against the government's war is something we should always evaluate the importance of."

And then, to bring her point to life, she read us part of a poem of hers:

Who's gonna be writin this shit
Who's gonna make sure we remember how we feel
This blood on my sister is real
Remember we don't ever wanna do this shit again
We only have so many lives
And some wounds we can't mend
We do it for the people each and every time
But who's gonna remember why we're on the front line
Don't ever forget why this fight is waged
This fight is my life because my life has been saved

Then she continued, "There's actual physical violence being brought on the people of the world right now by our government. It's one thing to sit here in NYC and say, `The people of Iraq should not kill American soldiers. They should lie down, do sit ins, whatever.' It's a whole other thing to be in Iraq, facing down a gun and say, `You shouldn't let that gun hit you in the crown of your head.' It's actually incredibly pompous and disconnected. If we're really fighting for the people of the world, that means we have to stand with them in resisting our government. We can't be against this war and not support the only means available to the people of Iraq and other countries being threatened with invasion. I'm not really loyal to the people of the world if I'm condemning them for saving their own lives."

This led into a discussion of the slogan of "Let the Inspections Work." The youth are checking out different approaches in the antiwar movement. Is everything against the war the same? Can someone saying "Respect the UN" represent the same thing as someone saying, "No War on Iraq. Period."

Jen said, "I am one of those people who would rather someone be against the war with this `Win Without War' kind of thing than be for the war, but I think if they don't progress past that point then it's not worth it. The thing about Win Without War, is, you miss the point. Let the inspections work? Saying that completely erases the fact that the inspections were illegitimate in the first place. And what does `working' mean? That we find no weapons? When George Bush says the inspections worked?

"The problem is that this country is trying to form a claw extending itself over the entire globe. They want to put up a U.S. flag every place they can. The inspections are a way for us to exert our dominance and our watchful eye in every place we can. But to say, `Well, I'm against the war because Saddam Hussein doesn't have weapons'--well we're not attacking Saddam because he has weapons anyway. So if you don't understand that, you just don't understand. That's my problem with it, because if the inspections are illegitimate, then making them work doesn't make any sense. It's supporting a government who's waging a war with or without inspections and then you're saying, `I'm behind this government's unjust war and the only reason I'm against it right now is because we haven't finished inspecting this country.' But they haven't inspected the U.S. or Israel yet."

The other sentiment that is really strong among these youth is that another world is possible. I've found that the dreams and hopes for something more are what gives heart to their determination.

Like many other students I've talked to, Ati says she gets a lot of her strength from the resistance building up around the world. And as a new member of the RCYB, she says, "Any fears I might have are covered by making this world better not just for me, but for everyone else."

They just don't want this war for the people of the world. They want so much more for them and that gives them so much strength and the youth around them have gained from that.

Maria said, "If you don't think another world is possible, how can you keep on going? If you don't think change is gonna happen, then there's nothing worth being here for. I think because people are so powerful it will happen, because it has to. I think everyone feels [change] is coming. Things are already different. People are looking at other views."

She said people who are antiwar come up to her and say protesting doesn't do anything and she explained, "I feel like even if it doesn't do anything, I feel like I have to do it. But, at the beginning of the year, I was saying they were going to be at war by January or February. I think the fact that it's been this long, with all the coverage that the walkouts got, I think they're aware and feeling it, like in Britain."

Jen then jumped in, describing it like a tug of war. "It's like hundreds of thousands of people and they've all got their shoulders pressed in the same direction and against them is this like one hand (or Bush's face) and backing him is his henchmen. We're obviously holding them off. It's possible they'll still go ahead with this war, but we're not over the pit yet. We can't think now like we've already lost. We can't give up yet. What can you possibly live for if you think you can't effect change in a war started by your own country? Then what are you living for?"

This determination has been often described as a characteristic of youth and that, while it's something the government does not want to grow, it's something the people of the world hunger for. Maria said, "Especially when [that defiance] comes from the youth, when they say they're completely unwilling to let this happen, it becomes dangerous for the government. The people are unstoppable and we're gonna keep going. And while I feel that the government learned a lot from Vietnam, I think that they're nervous. They're reading people's emails. They're afraid of what's going to happen if they do this, which might be a reason to [start the war] right now. Young people, not just older folks, saying we're not going to go to your schools, we're not going to sign up for your military when this is happening. Youth have an incredibly strong voice and influence and I don't think it'll be that easy to ignore."

Jen said, "It's hard for some people to take the first step against the war. Youth have this certain power because we're a little less afraid and because we don't all have jobs to worry about. We have the ability to jumpstart and lead this and make room behind us for people who are more at risk. It's sort of like in those bike races, when the leader of a team is at the front and the rest of the team pulls in behind them. The person in the front takes the wind. The people behind them can ride without the wind and they're still riding as a pack. And the youth are sort of taking the wind right now."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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