Young people becoming more important

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Young people are very, very important as a growing number of protesters, says Jody McIntyre.

‘We are from the slums of London, yeah,’ a young man says to camera. The lower part of his face is covered by a scarf. He pulls up the scarf to stop it from falling down. It’s 9 December 2010 and the city centre is very tense.

Later that day, during student protests against a big increase in university fees, I was twice pulled out of my wheelchair by police officers who intended violence. The second time they pulled me out of my wheelchair, someone filmed it on a mobile phone and later it was shown to millions of people across the country. I and a group of others were outside the Houses of Parliament as the elected (and non-elected) members inside voted to increase university fees by 300% to £9,000 ($14,200) per year.


On April 6 young people in Egypt started the protest in Tahrir Square. They were nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2011, They played a very important part in bringing down Hosni Mubarak. Espen Rasmussen/Panos

But the young man giving the television interview is not a university student. He is still at school, and has more important worries. He is worried about other government cuts to education. ‘EMA!’ he shouts – short for the Education Maintenance Allowance for poorer students aged 16-19. EMA has now been stopped. ‘[It’s] the only thing keeping us in college! What’s stopping us from selling drugs in the streets? Nothing!’

He doesn’t speak about it very clearly but you can hear the anger in his voice. For the past two years, thousands of young people like him have started protesting over problems like fuel prices, personal freedom and economic injustice. People are talking about a new 1968. Is something completely new happening? It is clear that we are living in a time of revolution and protest. Young people often start the protests. In different parts of the world they are showing interest in politics in new and forceful ways. For example, the student demonstrations in London, the Mohammed Bouazizi protest against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the growing number of democratic protests across Latin America.

Young people with wrong ideas?

18 months after the education protest came the end of the riots in England in 2011. Sky News shows a video of violent teenage groups online. The reporter speaks to a group of young men who were in the London riots. They hide their faces with hoods and scarves. You can only see their eyes. He asks what they have taken. One interviewee, who is 16 years old, says he was shopping for his son.

‘I got him clothes, I got him nappies, powder... everything for babies!’ he says.

The boy beside him has a harder attitude to stealing from shops. ‘Man [I] got some TVs as well, plasmas, PS3 [PlayStation games console], laptops and things.’ He adds that the two thousand pounds he hopes to get from selling the things would be ‘nice, actually, for nothing!’ Is this what young people today think? Or are the young people of England more like those who protested for education for more people?

We can say that the actions of the teenage groups have no political meaning because they were stealing material goods. But perhaps the £100 billion ($158 billion) spent on advertising to children every year is one reason for the crimes. Are the groups of teenagers who steal clothes and electronics from shops following the example of their own government? It is their government who sent military forces to Iraq, to attack entire cities and rob a whole nation. Or, if we go back to the past and to colonial times, wasn’t that the attitude of the British Empire? The truth is, we are not born with the automatic idea of going out and destroying our own communities.


A picture of the protests by young people.

Occupy Nigeria

Five months after the riots in England, social protest came to Nigeria. On New Year’s Day 2012 the government said that they were stopping the $7-billion used to help people buy fuel. The well-organized and quick reaction was the Occupy Nigeria movement. By 9 January there was a national strike stopping all activity in the big cities. Seun Kuti, the son of Fela, joined the marches, and legendary author Chinua Achebe also said the government’s actions were wrong. But it was Nigeria’s young people who were on the streets and who criticised government ministers online on Twitter and YouTube. By 16 January, the government announced that fuel prices would be reduced again.

This protest was not as simple as the media reported it. The protest was caused by an unacceptable increase in the direct cost of living in a country with 23 per cent youth unemployment. But there was more. Young people in Nigeria were protesting against the small group of politicians with power and President Goodluck Jonathan. But they were also criticising more generally the Western-dominated institutions. These institutions encourage the privatization and deregulation of economies in the Global South. They are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The name Seun Kuti gives them is not very polite!

Out with the old government

Two months later, in Egypt, the January 25th Revolution Coalition refused to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They had played the most important part in organizing the big street demonstrations around Tahrir Square, which eventually put an end to dictator Hosni Mubarak. Many Egyptian youth groups formed the Coalition including the Young Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6th Youth Movement.

With many different political ideas and opinions, the Coalition understood the need for people to act together against a greater enemy. They refused to meet Clinton for a simple reason. The US government had always been a friend of the old Mubarak government. The Coalition was protesting against a very controlling government and the international support that kept it in power.


Senegal's 'Fed Up' movement protests for better and more open government. Amanda Fortier/OSIWA Communication Unit

‘The Egyptian people are masters of their own land and their own future,’ the Coalition said, ‘and will only accept equal relations of friendship and respect between the people of Egypt and the people of America.’ They demanded that the US make a formal apology to the Egyptian people.

The January 25th Coalition used the internet to tell the world about their protests and they knew exactly what they wanted. They wanted to completely change the old constitution, free all political prisoners and stop gas exports to Israel. Before the gas was sold very cheaply under Mubarak.

In Chile, too, the student movement that suddenly appeared in 2011 was very clear in its demands. Like the Egyptian students, they have built a steady political movement to change the neoliberal system of a previous generation. The Chilean students knew that having abstract goals is not enough. Or, as spokesperson Giorgio Jackson said, they were looking for ‘formal ways to turn social demands into reality’.

All American unity

The progressive movements and governments changing societies across Latin America really inspire the Chilean students. In Venezuela, hip-hop artists from the barrios, or poorer areas, around Caracas use culture to change society. Hip-hop group ‘Area 23’ come from the 23 de enero neighbourhood, one of the most militant zones in the capital city and traditionally the home of some of the strongest supporters of the Hugo Chávez government.

‘When Chávez won the election, I was 15 years old,’ says rapper Jorney Madriz, in Pablo Navarrete’s film Inside the Revolution, ‘And to be honest, I didn’t care that Chávez had won. Why? Because Venezuela’s youth, myself included, weren’t interested in politics.

‘Area 23 and I are showing how young people have become interested in finding out about our history and have learned that politics can be powerful if we use culture to spread these ideas.’ Area 23 is part of the Hip-Hop Revolución collective, which runs 31 hip-hop schools across the country. The collective supports the government and is critical of the government. When Area 23 were invited to perform in front of the President in a television performance, they were not afraid to change their plan and start rapping about corruption and bureaucracy holding back the revolution.

Like in the barrios of Venezuela, and in the favelas of Brazil, the poorest parts of society are organizing themselves to challenge the abuse of power that affects their everyday lives. Mayra Avellar Neves grew up surrounded by drug gang violence in one of Brazil’s favelas, which the police really wanted to ‘calm’. At the age of 15, she organized a march of hundreds of children and teenagers to protest against deadly police patrols through the favelas during school hours. The police finally gave in, which made it possible for many children to study again.


So what connects these movements, what makes them different? Young people in England may not face the same problems as Egyptians or children in the favelas. But in England we do live in an unequal society that tells us that capitalism is the only way, and that fills our minds with dreams of material possessions we may never have. Social protests by young people around the world connect in three ways: the young have hopes which are not met and they are angry that they are not involved in power or they are abused by those in power.


Fighting fire with art. Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo had great success in the media last year when she posed in a peace symbol built from teargas bombs. Vallejo told government that the $100,000 spent on teargas would have been better spent on education. Roberto Candia/AP Photo

The youths who stole from the shops in London had the same problems as the masked boy protesting against student allowance cuts. ‘This is revenge, isn’t it...’ explains one of the south London youths in the Sky News interview. ‘Bring back EMA!’ says another interviewee, when asked what the government should do to stop the riots happening again. ‘Help all the single mothers who have problems, [stop the] university cuts. Come on! We are doing this to try and survive in this world, and until we get that... it’s not going to stop.’ People say these things cannot happen, and that making cuts is the only way forward. The truth is there are other successful ways forward now and they are real.

The idea that young people are not interested in politics is not true, and this has now been proved,

As young people we are responsible for the problems of the future and the successes of the world. Let us find out what is really happening in the world. Let us be inspired and motivated by the young of the Global South. Let us open our eyes to different ideas. Let us refuse to accept the economics of cuts and the politics of the power of a few people. It may be in the form of tweets or the chanting of crowds in the streets. The voice of young people will be heard.

Jody McIntyre, 22, is a journalist and political activist. He has written for The Independent,Electronic Intifada and Disability Now, among others. His first book, Life on Wheels: Palestine, will be published by Verso in 2012.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: