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A look at youth abuzz with activism

Youth and violence are often conjoined nouns in American culture. As a rule, young people appear on the evening news only if they have shot, stabbed or car-jacked someone, or been the victims of similarly spectacular violence from their peers.

Media images of youth tend to adhere to the old TV producer’s maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

How refreshing, then, to read Patrick Marrin’s cover story this week, which presents a different kind of tale about youth and violence. In this case, young people are neither perpetrators nor victims, but prophets.

Thousands of adolescents and people in their 20s joined the annual protest seeking to close the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., Nov. 20 and 21. Peace and justice activists know that what matters is fidelity, not success; yet this infusion of young energy cannot help but lend the anti-SOA veterans a sense that the breakthrough they have long sought may be drawing near.

As Marrin tells it, students in America are beginning to discover the fabric of relationships that connect their soccer balls and sneakers to Third World sweatshops, and to the military and political policies that maintain unjust economic conditions. Campuses and youth groups across the country are abuzz with new activist energies.

In a certain sense, this defies conventional wisdom. Sociologists and pundits say that today’s youth distrust institutional solutions, having learned from their parents that mass movements and political organizing frequently leave the system intact. They prefer person-to-person approaches; that accounts in part for the fact that 20-somethings have the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation’s history.

The School of the Americas, however, may be the kind of issue that knits the personal and the political back together. It is one thing to talk in abstractions about the “institutional violence” of economic injustice; it is another to point to a place whose graduates torture and kill people in order to maintain that injustice.

Moreover, the nature of the anti-SOA protest -- which calls forth the courage to risk arrest, to make a personal stand -- stirs the hunger for the good that lies inside young people.

The surprising numbers of young people drawn to groups such as Voices in the Wilderness and its struggle against the sanctions imposed on Iraq, testifies to the same truth.

Lest one conclude that social justice is simply the flavor of the month for American youth, recall that the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s took on a new momentum when college students began demanding that their campuses divest holdings in South African companies. From a thousand different centers of energy, those protests created a force for change.

Credit for what’s happening must go in part to Catholic colleges and parishes that have fostered a social consciousness. In light of the throngs of students from Catholic campuses who made their way to the SOA rally, it becomes more difficult to fathom the concern expressed repeatedly by the nation’s bishops that church-affiliated colleges have lost their Catholicity.

But at a more basic level, what happened at Fort Benning reflects the inherent capacity of young people to care about justice, even when our culture in a thousand ways tells them to value acquisition and consumption instead.

One 17-year-old who took part in the SOA protest spoke of a trip she had taken to El Salvador, sponsored by her Catholic high school. She reported that a Salvadoran girl had urged her, “Do not fall asleep in the American dream.”

It would seem that our young people are indeed waking up. The real architects of violence in our culture cannot find that a heartening thought.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999