"We Have No Choice But to Step Up": Youth Activists Come Together to Build a Movement for Student Power
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“It's important, it's an international fight for education; with the globalized world we require international cooperation with movements, not only the US but also Latin America, Spain, African countries,” Arturo Cuevas-Bautista of Mexico's Yo Soy 132 told AlterNet.
Emilie Joly from CLASSE, the largest coalition of student unions in Quebec, told the students that she wanted to make them “professional complainers.” Organizing about small things, she pointed out, proves that tactics work and allows for small wins that build momentum—the Quebec student strike was built over years and has spread to the general population, inspiring a movement against neoliberalism and privatization all over the province. In Mexico, what started as a student-led protest against rigged elections and media corruption has galvanized the population and brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.
“If you're fighting for the same thing you can all work together,” Valeria Hamel of Yo Soy 132 said. “Letting everyone in society organize, you don't have to be radical to organize and to protest.”
Of course, you don't gather hundreds of student radicals in one place without planning some direct action. A group of participants in the conference, many of whom had never met beforehand, came together to plan an action at Obama's campaign headquarters in Columbus, to call the campaign's attention to the issues that matter to young people today.
In 48 hours (and very little sleep) they pulled together a march, rally signs, and speeches for representatives to give outside of the office on different issues: student debt, prison and immigration, state violence, LGBTQ issues, and the climate.
No representative from the Obama campaign came out to speak with the students, but they were able to take over the streets for their march to the offices, and a few police officers threatened arrest but mostly let them say their piece. The ubiquitous “Here, us, now,” turned into a chant for the street, became “Hear us now!” a demand to those in power.
“I think we all learned a lot in the process, because none of us really knew each other beforehand, we were just learning together,” said Aislinn Bauer, a former student from Hampshire College who was part of the action. She pointed out that students are not apathetic, that they're organizing to reclaim their future from the wealthy, from corporations, from politicians who can't be bothered to come to them. Students who, four years ago, might have been part of the Obama campaign are now organizing outside his headquarters to hold him accountable.
Demand the Future
The last afternoon of the convergence was dedicated to future planning—for another convergence, for mechanisms for staying in touch, for coordinated days of action around the country and the world. Students broke into working groups to plan, collect contact information, and then came together to share steps, as around the edges students on their way out the door hugged, said goodbyes, exchanged contact information. The #hereusnow hashtag on Twitter filled up with reflections and thank-yous.
On the bus back to New York, the NYSR crew held their own debrief session, sharing their highlights and criticisms, planning next steps for their own state and region, and continuing, as they had all weekend, to dig deeper into the ways that issues intersect, into the little oppressions that make working together difficult, and coming up with solutions to take the next step.