Imagining a Real Youth Movement

The day after the election I sat in a room with two-dozen early twenty-something political activists discussing Bush's victory. They were too gloomy to even feign hope. This group comprised not only members of the highly touted youth vote, but the very organizers who tried to deliver it.

After massive campus and community canvassing, national strategizing conferences and media campaigns centering around pop culture icons, the youth vote ultimately did not do what it set out to do – beat Bush. Keep the champagne corked and tell the DJ to cut the music, because the party ain't happening. But what happens to all that political energy after it has been harnessed, win or lose? Does it just evaporate?

The truth is, the potential of the youth vote actually was never about Nov. 2. It was about Nov. 3.

A record 20 million young voters came to the polls on Tuesday, an increase of 4.5 million from 2000, for whatever reason – a brother in Iraq, an Eminem video, rising tuition fees, or a P-Diddy "Vote or Die" ultimatum. Today, these same voters may already be back to the couch, remote in hand, watching Real World re-runs, defeated, cynical and rightfully dismissive anytime anyone tries to get them plugged into politics again. Lesson learned in 2004. Or, a significant number of youths could be ignited by the past few months, reborn with new-found political voice and drive.

The outcome will not only be a truer temperature check of youth political activism than abstract poll numbers, but will reveal how transformative, or superficial, the power of voting actually is for the hip-hop generation.

I remember having a similar "where do we go from here" get-together after a state election in 2000 that had youth in the spotlight. We had just lost Prop. 21 in California, which aimed (and has since succeeded) in locking up scores of young people under the guise of reducing crime. We didn't have Puff Daddy, but we had our own bells and whistles. We did banner drops on freeway overpasses, took over hotels and, like this election, stayed in front of the polls through the rain. Our statewide "youth movement" was inspiring, even in its defeat.

We hoped the coalitions we formed would be a stepping stone to long-term, substantive change, not just a temporary reaction to a legislative threat. But political infrastructures fell apart as quickly as they were built, a sad reality of "online organizing." Those who didn't get burned out returned to their independent, local struggles. I remember an organizer I looked up to telling us, "You can't win what you want in a voting booth, but you can lose what you got." The challenge we didn't acknowledge, and is now facing the national youth vote, is rooted in the way youth electoral organizing is done in the first place.

For one, it's built to climax at a particular finish line – Election Day. Any day after that just isn't on the strategy charts. There are of course obligated political messaging about how we always need to keep marching forward or whatever, but "Vote Or Die" sure doesn't have much broad-scoped vision.

Secondly, young people are always targeted as consumers, no matter if it's a product, a brand name or a political cause. This election's youth organizing drives were absolutely shameless in this way. Voting was sold to young people like Nike or Sprite is sold to the masses. But marketing is not organizing. No one wants to be led like sheep, even if it's to greener pastures.

The third and perhaps biggest obstacle is that voting is about choosing what's in front of you, while a movement is about creating choices. The gulf is about imagination. As Desmond Tutu said, it's not just about having a seat at the table, it's about setting the menu. If young people really did set the menu, I doubt they would be serving up the Democratic Party or John Kerry.

If the "youth movement" is going to be more than a mere footnote in George Bush's story of continuing manifest destiny, it won't be up to Puff Daddy or John Kerry. I don't even think it will be based on the actions of the college youth organizers who were trying to console each other that day after the election. A youth movement will be led by those who were as removed from the vote as they are from MTV. It will be based on the 24-year-old who is living on the streets of downtown San Jose, jobless, and keeps his poetry book hidden under his 40-bottle in his backpack. The same one who told me, as I was about to drive over to the polling station on voting day, that sometimes he hates himself. I don't reflect about what president we need when I think of him. I think of what movement we need to imagine.

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