The protests about police shootings haven’t stopped in the heartland. Two weeks after a St. Louis judge issued a not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley trial, there have been protests in malls, before concerts and baseball games, and in schools.
Many of the high schoolers who walked out of their suburban St. Louis classrooms to protest the Stockley verdict were in middle school when teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot.
The anguished reaction in the streets three years ago captured the world’s attention, but it made an indelible impression on the newest generation of emerging social activists.
Theirs is an adolescence punctuated by protests. It’s a coming-of-age experience vastly different from their Generation X parents, like myself, who were too young or not yet born during the Vietnam War protests. We were even further removed from the civil rights movement, which belonged to our parents’ generation.
Today’s parents, in our mid-30s to early 50s, lacked the visceral experience as teenagers of watching police, in militarized vehicles, firing tear gas on crowds and making mass arrests in the malls we hung out in, in the streets familiar to us.
Our children’s perspective on how to impact social change is being shaped by the experiences they are living through. And what a tumultuous few years it’s been.
Today’s young teens growing up in the middle of the country have watched a national movement against racial inequality and police brutality spring from civil unrest in their own area. They watched students at their state’s flagship institution -- the University of Missouri -- challenge the administration’s response to racism on campus and saw the football team unite to bring down a university president.
The few degrees of separation in cities like St. Louis mean that social media feeds, filled with images of protests, likely involve someone they know or someone to whom they can find a mutual connection. They may have marched in the largest single-day mass protest in American history, joining between 4 to 5 million people participating in women’s marches across the country a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. That was soon followed by hundreds of thousands of people at airports nationwide demonstrating against the administration’s travel ban.
And, most recently, amid two weeks of daily protests since a judge found former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, #TakeAKnee also started trending. NFL athletes silently kneeling during the playing of the national anthem have inspired similar protests against racial inequality and injustice on high school and college fields across the country.
From pop culture to social media to sports, everything is intensely political.
These students have also seen the backlash to this activism and the growing polarization in civil society. They may have something to learn from previous generations who fought similar battles. Those who were 16 in 1963 when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech are 70 now. They may remember that the historic march, now taught with reverence as a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, took place against a backdrop of fear and suspicion.
In the 10 weeks before the 1963 March on Washington, there were 758 demonstrations in 186 cities resulting in 14,733 arrests, according to the Justice Department. A Gallup poll taken before the march found that the majority of Americans were against it -- viewing it unfavorably, thinking it wouldn’t accomplish anything, or believing that it would end in violence.
In addition to the power of their civil disobedience, that generation also learned that the most potent protests happened at the ballot box.
It remains to be seen if today’s 16-year-olds will harness that same political muscle when they are old enough to cast ballots. This generation after the millennials, Generation Z, makes up a quarter of the U.S. population. They are a larger cohort than the baby boomers or millennials.
Given their collective formative experiences so far, this generation will not accept a return to a status quo their parents accepted. They are armed with technology, including social media, to organize and amplify their voices, and a courage to stand up for their beliefs that has been tested and proven to be strong.
This generation is getting loud.
And they won’t be ignored.