I'll never forget the first time I marched on Washington. It was an overwhelming rush to join such a huge crowd, drumming and dancing, shouting to stop the war. When we saw the small city of people -- 100,000! -- assembled on the Mall, we knew we were making history.
The date? Oct. 26, 2002. My age? 22. The war? Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As the vigil of Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan has refocused a jaded media's attention on the antiwar movement, some are asking: Why has a middle-aged mom emerged as a hero? Why not a young radical? Where is the youthful passion that fueled popular politics a generation ago?
Well, it may come as a shock to those who wear the blinders of nostalgia, but the youth movement of today is bigger than ever before. We're just having some trouble getting the world to pay attention.
Despite the familiar, unthinking smear of young people as apathetic, I and the countless others I've met and reported on over the past five years care just as much as our parents ever did. The difference is in the balance of hope and despair -- how much we believe we can truly affect a world that progressives, anyway, think is going horribly wrong.
The truth is, the 2000s so far have taught our generation that the old methods of expressing your beliefs -- activism, voting -- aren't going to work by themselves. And we're just now figuring out what to do next.
Let me say right now that I'm not so in touch with the mood of young, politically engaged conservatives. I know, from reading the papers, that there are millions of them, focused, articulate and -- in a coup of organization that progressives are just starting to duplicate -- supported by up to $35 million in annual campus funding from groups like Young America's Foundation.
But I'm writing here about the under-30-somethings who supported John Kerry over George Bush by 55 percent to 45 percent last November, who overwhelmingly support gay marriage and think the war in Iraq was a mistake.
These kids have given their all to reinvent the progressive movement. Groups like United Students Against Sweatshops led the way in the anti-globalization movement that burst into the mainstream consciousness with the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Suddenly, activism meant online organizing, massive turnout, creative dissent and the direct-action power to shut a city down. And with global networks already in place both on and off campuses, the demonstrations against the war on terror have easily been some of the biggest, best coordinated, most imaginative in history.
Iremember elbowing my way into a packed assembly on Yale University's campus only a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The legendary Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., told us how happy and proud he was that we young people were standing up against war so soon, when it took several years to get a protest movement going during the Vietnam War. At exactly the same time, in Boston, 20-year-old Eli Pariser set up the Web site 9-11peace.org to call for a peaceful response to the attacks; within days, the site had 2 million hits. Pariser went on to become the international director of MoveOn.org and the youthful, bearded face of e-activism.
So why can't my generation get any respect? Why, after record numbers on both sides volunteered in the last election, and under-30 voter turnout increased by 9 percentage points (the sharpest spike of any age group), did the Associated Press run a story headed, "2004 not the breakout year for youth vote after all"? Why is it still so easy to tag young people as uncaring?
Maybe what's taken over is our own sense of futility at going unheard. Because no matter what we do -- e-mailing Congress, marching, volunteering, holding bake sales for democracy -- we feel as if things have only gotten worse.
A 23-year-old friend called me at dawn the morning after Election Day. He'd been canvassing housing projects for Kerry in Toledo day and night for the previous week. "What the hell have we been doing for the past four years?" he asked me after Bush's win. The same question goes for the protest movement. Millions marched around the world; the war in Iraq started anyway.
It's hard not to feel that we were born at the wrong time. We're Reagan babies; the pendulum has been swinging in one direction for most of our lives. Back in the Vietnam era, the baby boomers were the stars of the cultural show -- and had been since birth. People really believed that campuses were a plausible place to look for a new political direction, even leadership. In this context, events like the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago riveted national attention. Young people were protagonists of a compelling narrative of social change -- a narrative that doesn't exist today.
Instead, today's youth movement is like Evel Knievel's son, Robbie -- he's outdone all his father's stunts, yet never managed to win the same fame. During New York's Republican National Convention last year, surrounding protests saw more than 1,800 arrests to Chicago's 600-odd in 1968; and the main march on Sunday drew an estimated 500,000, to Chicago's peak of 10,000 to 15,000. Yet the largely peaceful New York protesters struggled to capture more than brief segments of airtime on the major news networks.
Complicating the story's newsworthiness is that, though youth turn out in force, they also draw strength from that oxymoron, the counterculture establishment. The new peace movement, for example, is led by '60s veterans, including Vietnam vets. Youthful idealism is no longer the top story.
What's more, the youth story that does exist is a little sadder and wiser than those looking for another Woodstock would prefer. Take Billy Parish, the 23-year-old leader of Energy Action. He co-founded the nation's largest youth environmental coalition as a Yale junior in 2003; it now claims an e-mail list of 30,000 and member organizations on 1,500 campuses, where it conducts national campaigns on clean energy and global warming.
In confronting the sobering reality of environmental devastation, Parish's members are reaching, not for eco-utopia, but for small and achievable goals. "The next generation of advocates are solution-oriented," says Parish. "They're interested in things like biodiesel, etc." -- instead of the radical ecology of the '70s. This pragmatism may seem alien to those who equate youth with uncompromising zeal.
But I'm holding on to my optimism, despite its apparently low news value. I predict that the tide will turn during the coming school year, and the post-millennial progressive youth movement finally will come into its own. My main inspirations, these days, are the actions of a handful of high school and college students across the country, from Seattle to the Bronx. They have been organizing at the grass roots to kick military recruiters off their campuses, because they don't want their friends to have to fight and die in this war.
"For us and the dozens of other groups we're working with, the slogan is 'College, Not Combat,'" says Monique Dols, a Columbia senior who is part of the Campus Anti-War Network. "Opposing the recruiters is something very concrete we can do to oppose the war. I see it as us cutting off their flow of recruits." And as a winnable fight. In May, the Army's top recruiter said 2006 could be the toughest year for recruitment since the all-volunteer military began.
Josh Sonnenfeld, 20, mounted his first successful activist campaign in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2003, gaining the passage of a school board resolution to limit military recruiters' access to his high school classmates. He has continued as a leader in the national counter-recruitment movement. They are holding rallies and workshops, trying to convince their fellow students not to sign away their futures to the military. "To a certain degree, I think the students in the 1960s were very naive in thinking that the point of their movement was a global revolution," Sonnenfeld says. "It's very important for me to take this radicalism and put it in a context, something that's strategic, not just tied to the ego. . . . If we're in it for the long haul, and I definitely am, a lot of us realize there have to be successes as part of the process. Otherwise we keep living in this cycle of despair and depression."
So maybe it's time to stop denigrating today's teens and 20-somethings for what they're not -- starry-eyed revolutionaries, carbon copies of the Yippies -- and start recognizing them for what they are: practical, committed guardians of the future. Not just the self-defined activists at elite colleges, but also ordinary working-class young people, are voting against this war by choosing not to sign up. It is their refusal, not a sea of banners or one woman's conversation with the president, that will ultimately change the political calculation. And that gives me all the hope in the world.
Anya Kamenetz is a columnist for the Village Voice. Her first book, "Generation Debt," (Riverhead) about young people's economic woes, is forthcoming in February.