Just before midnight EST on election night, the Associated Press moved a story on the wire titled 2004 Not the Breakout Year for Youth Vote After All. State tallies were still coming in, progressive voters were losing morale and headlines like these were the proverbial icing on the cake for many young organizers.
In a San Jose Mercury News article released the following morning, Youth Vote is Sign of Hope for the Future journalist Sue Hutchison responded with anecdotal evidence.
One look at the throngs of students barely out of their teens who were standing in those lines, she wrote, and it was tough to swallow [the] poll that said people ages 18-24 made up fewer than one in 10 voters – about the same as in 2000.
Hutchinsons gut response, like that of many voters, organizers and observers, was dead on. The implications of the exit polls were in direct contrast to her experience and, it turns out, they were only part of the story.
Now that some of the smoke has cleared and the data has been crunched, it's clear that 2004 was, in fact, an amazing year for young voter participation. Whereas only 42 percent of 18-29 year-olds had voted in 2000, a whopping 51 percent showed up at the polls this year, making for a 9-point increase. The catch? Everyone else came out in record numbers too.
Hans Reimer, director of Rock the Vote, describes the youth turnout as exceeding all expectations. He points out that the percentage of youth who came out to vote this year was four points higher than in 1992, a number he says is phenomenal.
1992 was a similar election Reimer continues. There were really sharp issues; there was a candidate who reached out to young people; there was tremendous interest in voting. It was also the first year of the MTV/Rock The Vote effort. Voting was part of the social movement.
From the looks of many college campuses in swing states this fall, you would have thought that voting was the social movement. And as Mattie Weiss, the Midwest director of the League of Young Voters puts it, this was evident on Tuesday in Minneapolis, Minn.
Voter turnout, she says was huge. Minnesota has same-day registration, so there were 80 League volunteers out reminding students and other youth to vote, handing out voter guides and making sure they were prepared.
We had three shifts planned to go out and make sure people knew what to bring to the polls, says Weiss. But we had to change our strategy when, at noon, we discovered that 50-75 percent of the people we were talking to had already voted.
By the end of the day, the League and the Young Voter Project had spoken to an estimated 100,000 young people. And by 5 p.m., some 70 percent of city residents had cast a vote.
According to CIRCLE, youth turnout was especially high often as high as 64 percent – in some battleground states. In addition, young voters favored Kerry by a 10 percent margin over George Bush nationally, while in many key states it was even higher. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 32 percent more youth voted for John Kerry than did for Bush.
Kim Teplitzky, a Temple University student who spent the last several months doing GOTV work in Philadelphia, Pa. describes Nov. 2 as the most active day of my life.
A lack of campus polling places didnt keep Temple students from voting. Teplitzky says that, like on many campuses, student organizers were shuttling 20-30 students at a time in vans to the polling places.
One of our designated polls had the longest lines in Philadelphia. The last person to vote in the city she adds, was a temple student.
Alex, the Madison-based Rock the Vote Street Team member, writing in the RTV Blog on Tuesday, reported that kids on his campus were calling this the The Hip Election.
If thats the case, and this elections was hip it raised larger questions about the future of youth engagement.
Reimer says the challenge now is to take the issues that young people are voting on and sustain them."
People are already expecting you to knock on their door on Halloween. So its the one day of the year where people will be home and ready to answer the door, says Sarita the Great Witch Ryan, an organizer for Trick or Vote. This way, itll be fun for everybody involved, not just another [election] canvasser coming by.
The idea is simple enough. This year, Halloween falls just two days before what many are calling the most important election of our lifetime. And, while most of us have had it up to here with both Bush and Kerry their voices on the radio, their mugs all over the television and on the front of all the newspapers young people everywhere are using this holiday to remind each other that the election is as much about one another, and the issues we care about, as it is about the candidates. By going door-to-door in costume, offering up directions to polling places, reminders to bring a ID, and Halloween classics like Tootsie Rolls and Pal bubblegum, this years trick-or-voters will also be spreading the word: politics and fun are not opposing forces.
Whose brilliant idea was this? Well, its likely that many people have connected the dots between November elections and Halloween before, but the idea to make it a national push? The credit goes to organizer and Oregon Bus Project director Jefferson Smith. Heres how he tells it: Four years ago, I went door-to-door for a friend who was running for Congress. I dressed as a lawn sign, gave candy to kids, and had a great time. Two years ago, a member of our [Bus Project] crew said, 'we won't trick-or-treat, we'll trick-or-vote!' And it stuck.
Smith has been talking up the idea for the last year. And its a good thing, too. Trick or Vote is planned to go down in 15 key swing state cities through the official Trick or Vote organizing. But just how many thousands of people have picked up the idea and run with it is anybodys guess. The League of Pissed Off Voters, for example, which has campus branches on tons of campuses, is also endorsing and encouraging the idea.
According to Smith, Different groups are taking the concept and making it their own. Some groups are supporting candidates, some are supporting specific issues. Others are doing a straight "vote" reminder, as we're doing in Portland. The Portland crew started the Web site, trickorvote.org and reserved the trademark Trick or Vote, says Smith, but only as a way to keep it out of the hands of people who would misuse it. We want it to be an open source kind of thing, he continues. The spread of this idea is really exciting.
Noa Marmar of the Young Voter Alliance, a partisan campaign comprised of five progressive and democratic organizations targeting young voters, is coordinating the Philadelphia Trick or Vote effort. He says he has over 100 young volunteers signed up each day to go knocking on doors all weekend long. And his crew has the goods. Theyll be handing out goodie bags that read Dont be tricked by the Republicans. Inside the bags, potential young voters will find, among other things, a CD sampler, a magazine, arm bands and a reminder about their polling place.
Marmar says that the fact that there are 100 young people a day willing to spend their Halloween engaged in political activity says a lot about the urgency of the issues behind this election.
Marmar, who plans to trick-or-vote in a George Bush mask says he thinks fun is crucial, adding, If you look at some of the most effective voices out there on the progressive left, its two comedians. Its Michael Moore and Jon Stewart who are really getting all the headlines. What does that say? Young folks are disenchanted, disenfranchised, jaded and theyre tired of mudslinging and the negativity surrounding politics.
Smith agrees. We absolutely have to make at least some part of politics fun, he says. We are competing for mind share with an ever-increasing onslaught of synapse-firing inputs. We need to compete in that battle for brain space. Fun is a good start.
Trick or Vote is just one example of the way this election is changing the way youth see political engagement. And regardless of the outcome on Nov. 2, chances are very good that it will become a GOTV tradition.
Interested in taking part? Its not too late. Contact the folks at Trickorvote.org or your local League of Pissed Off Voters chapter for more info.
There were plenty of distortions and contrasting views of reality presented by Sen. John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney in the debate on Tuesday night, but if you were looking for a blockbuster lie, there was one of those too. Edwards took pains to point out to the audience that Cheney had made repeated statements connecting Iraq with al Qaeda, at times going off the topic of the question to do so. It took Cheney a while to respond to that charge, but he did, finally – with a lie.
"I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11," Cheney said.
Here's what the vice president told NPR's Morning Edition in January: "I think there's overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government."
Beyond that flat-out lie, there was condescension. Cheney repeatedly adopted the tone of a strict father or disapproving teacher: "You're never going to build a coalition with that kind of attitude;" "You have one of the worst attendance records in the Senate;" and "You probably weren't there to vote for that." Moderator Gwen Ifill supported that frame with questions suggesting that Edwards had the least government experience for a vice-presidential candidate in decades. Her question pushed this envelope with "French and German officials have both said they have no intention, even if John Kerry is elected, of sending any troops into Iraq for any peacekeeping effort. Does that make your effort or your plan to internationalize this effort seem kind of naive?"
Edwards countered with the right emphasis – essentially suggesting that experience was no substitute for good judgment, echoing John Kerry's line from last week's presidential debate that one can "be certain and be wrong." Edwards quoted Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, who said that not enough soldiers had been brought in to do the job and that we invaded without a plan. Edwards pointed out that Republican Sens. John McCain, Dick Lugar, and Chuck Hagel had described Iraq as a mess.
Cheney did little to defend these accusations, perhaps because they are indefensible. Instead, he stayed "on message": "We did exactly the right thing. ... What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action."
Edwards hammered away at the lack of international support for the U.S. war on Iraq, the lack of a real coalition and the consequence of unilateralism: "You know, we've taken 90 percent of the coalition causalities. American taxpayers have borne 90 percent of the costs of the effort in Iraq."
Cheney's response was to twist Edwards' statements and suggest that Edwards was somehow "demeaning" the Iraqis. "Gwen, the 90 percent figure is just dead wrong," Cheney began, then proceeding to use some fuzzy math of his own. "When you include the Iraqi security forces that have suffered casualties, as well as the allies, they've taken almost 50 percent of the casualties in operations in Iraq, which leaves the U.S. with 50 percent, not 90 percent. ..." Then, slipping into the self-righteous tone, he tried to lecture Edwards, saying the Iraqis are "increasingly the ones out there putting their necks on the line to take back their country from the terrorists and the old regime elements that are still left. They're doing a superb job. And for you to demean their sacrifices. ..."
Edwards didn't let up, pointing out later that President Bush and Cheney had been peddling another fiction to the American public – that elections in Iraq were on schedule: "Right now, the United Nations, which is responsible for the elections in January, has about 35 people there. Now, that's compared with a much smaller country like East Timor, where they had over 200 people on the ground. You need more than 35 people to hold an election in Cleveland, much less in Iraq. "
On the topic of Afghanistan, Cheney talked of "amazing" progress being made. "We're four days away from a democratic election, the first one in history in Afghanistan," he boasted. "We've got 10 million voters who have registered to vote, nearly half of them women. We've made enormous progress in Afghanistan, in exactly the right direction." Setting aside the highly questionable number of 10 million registered voters, Edwards challenged the narrative of a smooth transition to democracy in Afghanistan. "Here's what's actually happened in Afghanistan, regardless of this rosy scenario that they paint on Afghanistan, just like they do with Iraq," Edwards said, "What's actually happened is they're now providing 75 percent of the world's opium," he said, adding that soaring opium production was financing terrorist activity and that warlords are in control of large parts of the country.
Without citing any specifics, Cheney accused John Kerry of having been "on the wrong side of defense issues" in the Senate for more than 20 years. "In 1984, when he ran for the Senate, he opposed, or called for the elimination of a great many major weapons systems that were crucial to winning the Cold War and are important today to our overall forces." Edwards fired right back, pointing out Cheney's record. "This vice president, when he was secretary of defense, cut over 80 weapons systems, including the very ones he's criticizing John Kerry for voting against. These are weapons systems, a big chunk of which the vice president himself suggested we get rid of after the Cold War."
And then Edwards went for the jugular, questioning Cheney's allegiance to the nation and implying that Cheney was more businessman than statesman. He brought up Cheney's business dealings as CEO of Halliburton in the late '90s when the company had contractual relations with Libya and Iran and how later the company reportedly ripped off the American taxpayers. "The facts are the vice president's company that he was CEO of, that did business with sworn enemies of the United States, paid millions of dollars in fines for providing false financial information, [and is] under investigation for bribing foreign officials," Edwards said. "The same company that got a $7.5 billion no-bid contract, the rule is that part of their money is supposed to be withheld when they're under investigation, as they are now, for having overcharged the American taxpayer, but they're getting every dime of their money."
On other topics, Ifill asked Cheney about the government's role in helping to end the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., in particular among African American women who, she pointed out, are "13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts." First, Cheney responded by mentioning the paltry sum of $15 million the Bush administration has spent on international efforts to stop AIDS, including in Africa and the Third World. Then he acknowledged his own ignorance regarding the domestic AIDS crisis: "I have not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women."
When the topic turned to gay marriage, Edwards ran with Bush's approach by validating Cheney's family and his lesbian daughter (this had the added effect of pointing out, in a perhaps back-handed way, that Edwards' own family was all heterosexual, that it is the anti-gay Republicans who have gays in their midst).
Aside from policy issues. both Edwards and Cheney had sharply contrasting styles and demeanor. Cheney was generally cold, playing the strict father role, trying repeatedly to come across as mature and resolute by adopting a condescending tone towards Edwards. By contrast, Edwards maintained a lighter, charming presence that (despite the copious blinking) came across as genuine.
Political consultant Steve Cobble says that given Edwards' newcomer status, he had a lot to lose, but he more than held his own against a far more experienced – and meaner – opponent. "And we should remember that four years ago, Dick Cheney defeated Joe Lieberman in that vice presidential debate, a surprise showing that might have been just enough to win the election," Cobble added.
In the final analysis, Cheney's message was a rather weak one – that experience mattered. It was a weak message because Edwards had a message that punched a hole through the advantage-of-experience line: That Bush and Cheney were too stubborn to learn from their mistakes and that they were not shooting straight with the American people (or the rest of the world, for that matter), especially about the state of affairs in Iraq. And, of course, it didn't help when Cheney lied about the Iraq and 9/11 connection.
When it comes to engaging new voters, PunkVoter just wont quit. Their second Rock Against Bush compilation has already sold over 70,000 copies and has climbed to the top of the College Music Charts. The coalition of over 200 bands has already registered and motivated a whole new round of listeners and will-be voters. And now the punks are going back on tour.
This time, the tour is being lead by Anti-Flag, the Pittsburgh-based punk band that has been urging young listeners to question authority and take action since 1988. At the helm of Anti-Flag is Justin Sane, the permanently 19-yr-old sometimes solo artist and political activist who appears, over a decade into the bands history, as ready as ever to change the world.
Along with Anti-Flag, the tour will also include Midtown, Strike Anywhere, and Mike Park.
This tour is about motivating punk voters to learn more, take action, and make their voices heard says Sane. To make this happen, PunkVoter will be working with many local organizations and holding educational events, bringing in guest speakers, and showing movie screenings throughout the country to educate and motivate its members.
WireTap caught up with Justin Sane just days before he and his band were heading to Portland Ore., where the tour is kicking off on Sept. 17 at the Roseland Theater.
Q: In the press materials for this second round of Rock Against Bush tour, PunkVoter mentions the punk community several times. Can you tell me how you see the punk community?
A: Well, the community I feel I belong to centers around music, to a large degree, but I think overall what draws a lot of people is the idealism and the visionary perspective of the punk scene.
What I love about the community is the fact that that it is very accepting of my faults, as well as my good points. Its not the kind of thing where youre gonna be judged by your appearance. Its also made up of people who believe in being good to each other, and to people over all.
Q: How is this second round of the Rock Against Bush Tour different than the first?
Well, the bands are different, for one. I think many of the bands are more overtly political. I also think theres more of an urgency. If you look at the polls they show Bush leading Kerry by as much as 10 points in some places. So were looking to reach people who have never voted, who pollsters arent talking to.
Were not endorsing John Kerry. But we are certainly endorsing anybody but George W. Bush and John Kerry is the one with the best chance of doing that. The way I see it, if things go well, in 4 years John Kerry will be the one well be trying to get out of office. I see Kerry as a stepping stone.
I voted for Nader 4 years ago and I still feel that the issues hes addressing, especially trade, healthcare, the environment almost every progressive issue and the things I truly care about – fall in line with what he stands for.
But I do believe that there are things about Kerry that are better than Bush. A womans right to choose, for instance, will be in serious jeopardy if Bush gets elected.
The next president will have the opportunity to appoint 2 Supreme Court justices in the next four years and the Supreme Court makes that decision (about abortion). Bush has also gutted the EPA. And I dont think Kerry will be incredible [for the environment], but he will be better. Kerrys platform is based on militarism and Im not for militarism, so I prefer to see electing him as an important step to take now, versus an end-all, be-all solution.
Q: How do this album and tour fit into the larger picture of the political work that you and Anti-Flag have done in the past?
I was born into a political family. My parents were activists, so I grew up going to demonstrations. It just made sense for me to be in a punk rock band. Punk rock spoke to a lot of issues I cared about.
Anti-Flag has been involved in numerous anti-war events. We also co-founded an organization called Underground Action Alliance, to help get punk kids involved in activism. In October, for instance, were going to be doing a students rights workshop where well be informing students about what they can do to protect their rights because when they walk into a school their rights dont go away.
One thing youre doing when youre touring is establishing a relationship with people who listen to your music and feel the same as the way you feel about the world. Youre putting a face behind the message, making the message more personalized, and a stronger message.
One show isnt going to change the world but what it does do is it solidifies the community and strengthens the community. Because it reminds people that theyre not alone that there are other people willing to back the beliefs they have.
And in America right now, where it feels like we live in a police state under the PATRIOT Act, this is really important.
Q: What would you say to youth who dont traditionally listen to punk music and may need a little help becoming more engaged?
We know that peoples tastes vary. So what we always say at our shows is we dont care what your hairstyle looks like and we dont care about your sexual preference or what music you listen to. What we care about are the ideas in your head.
For young people overall, whether or not they listen to punk rock, I encourage them to be informed. That was why we started Underground Action Alliance. Being active isnt a competition. Everybody has to participate to the point that they can. And that might just mean talking to a friend about an issue.
Q: Where is the second round of Rock Against Bush tour going? Are you touring in swing states?
The only state were going to that is not a swing state is California, and thats mostly based on geography. We have to go through California between Oregon and Nevada. Anti-Flag also did the Warped tour earlier this summer. Warped is a very mainstream tour and our reason for doing it was to reach an audience that doesnt normally hear the kind of things we have to say. We talked about the draft, we took polls on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we talked about the Bush administrations policies.
This tour is kind of a follow-up tour. Were trying to excite people about following through [in November].
Q: We hear a lot about conservative values in the country. What would you say are the core values behind the progressive punk agenda?
The main concept is to treat people with respect and understand that its OK for people to feel and think differently than you do. It comes down to tolerance and treating people like human beings because, after all, thats who we are. Thats the message of Anti-Flag – that were not nationalities, were not flags, were human beings.
A lot of these huge multi-nationals who often play on patriotism as a way to control people, they have no allegiance to any flag. And the people who are connected to those countries – people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and G.W. Bush – they also manipulate people with patriotism, but ultimately they have no allegiance to their fellow human beings. Theyre running a campaign based on patriotism and fear.
Q: What are the core issues that will get young people voting this fall?
Health care would be a good start. Over 43 million Americans are without healthcare and a lot of them are young.
The war in Iraq the fact that [the current administration] has a track record of invading countries you hear the same rumblings about Iran that you did about Iraq. I believe that if Bush gets elected he will try to invade Iran and maybe Syria and maybe North Korea.
If you dont want to find your feet in a pair of combat boots, you better go out and vote. As a far as jobs that pay a living wage or the serious lack of them, Id certainly think that that is an issue.
A lot of young people dont see any future for them as far as a job or a career. We talk to kids all the time who feel like they have no future. I think thats tragic. Young people should be excited about the future.
Live in a swing state? Visit the Punkvoter site to learn more about when the Rock Against Bush tour will be in your neck of the woods
Dear Adbusters Editors,
Believe me, I am as unconvinced by capitalism as you are. Im down with even the most offensive billboard alterations, I appreciate a good sweatshop expose, and I have stood in support of many of the messages your magazine has worked to put across over the years. Really, I have. But when I received the recent invitation to join you in a crazy, yet profound, journey into a radical new future, I have to admit – I was less than impressed.
The invite, which suggested that its recipients imagine waking up tomorrow to find that:
Violent gangs and bandits roam the streets. People move to the country – if they can. Governments try to maintain order, yet it appears that the old globalized order is gone, if not forever, then for a long, long time.The next issues of Adbusters, they tell us, is going to be compiled as if it were being published 6 months after this supposed crash. The editors, in their request for so-called Post-Crash submissions, say they can see a chance to create the new world that we've always dreamed about.
Back up. I understand theoretical catastrophe can sometimes be sexy. Like a lightning storm right until the moment it is over your own home. And thought experiments and apocalyptic scenario-planning has been around longer than Adbusters.
Whenever I hear about the disparities between the first and third world, I am well aware that theres no way things in the West can stay the way they are. But encouraging people into an absurd mental game, to not only hope for drastic destabilization and chaos, but to assume theyd survive it with a sporadic email connection – and asking for "how-to tips" on how to kill a chicken – as their biggest concerns seems not only like an profound waste of time, it seems irresponsible.
If you work for social justice you know that most positive change happens slowly. It takes time to build movements and reconcile all the pieces. But – and Adbusters has proved this nicely – there is a big difference between making change and sitting around hoping change will happen.
This echoes what Ive heard people saying about why they dont vote: that Gore and Bush were the same, and now Kerry and Bush are just as much the same, and that theyd prefer to hang out and wait until the system crashes. This is one way to uphold the status quo: Keep people polarized around participation in "the system." Either you're with us in our vision of a 180-degree crash-and-burn turn, or you remain "part of the problem."
The fact that such an important and influential media source would take such an abstract, academic approach to change – especially at a time when many of us see participation in the system as crucial to changing it – concerns me. This goes beyond "culture jamming," beyond giving people tips on how to buy nothing or how to break up their sidewalks and plant trees.
What about the casual mention of violent gangs that will roam the streets? And who are these readers who can afford to move to the country? I saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. I know Im not enough like Tina Turner to survive. An apocalypse isn't the only way to attain that new world that Adbusters editors have always dreamed about.
And while there was much talk of the important role this group can and should play in November, the focus went far beyond election 2004. The hope was to create a solid infrastructure that can take hip hop beyond the realm of entertainment and improve the relationships between the older, "Civil Rights Generation" and younger hip-hop heads. Instead of endorsing a single candidate or drilling the importance of voting into participant's heads, convention organizers remained focused on the issues -- from education to health care to the prison industrial complex -- that most need attention. Now, in November and beyond.
Here are some of the voices from the convention.
"I had seen an ad on TV and they needed volunteers, so I came and volunteered. There's a lot going on in the world. And this year, with the war...it's just crazy. Bush is spending all that money on the war when we need better schools. "
–Ayana, 15, Newark resident and convention volunteer
"The best thing that could come out of this is a sustainable, strong movement that creates a progressive political agenda and has the capacity to implement it.
To break that down, if we can have a lot of organizations working together on the grassroots level, trying to implement change through voter registration and education, through civic action, advocacy, direct action, etc. I think that that type of a movement that has multiple facets, that's youth-led, that's creative -- I know it's lofty, but that's the best thing that could come out of this event."
–Baye Adolfo Wilson, Conference Co-Chair
"One of the challenges is convincing people that they have the capacity to [make change] because Americans are so demoralized. Using hip hop as a tool to do that is exciting because there's an inherent value that hip hop gives to people "off the block" in terms of what politicians ignore. And hip hop, itself, has a democratic sensibility. It's very regional and very localized while always having a national appeal. I'm from St. Louis and when I hear people sing about the streets I grew up on, you know what I'm saying, there's a democratic sensibility...so it can counteract and overcome the lack of value that young people feel in relation to the political system, but also in their everyday lives.
The political infrastructure that exists is not appealing to young people, nor is it accommodating them nor is it recruiting them. Whether it is within electoral politics and partisan politics, or in traditional civil rights organizations. And even organizations that have come into existence after the civil rights movement still have not valued youth voice. The constituency that we are organizing has no infrastructure now...other than through club networks, through street teams and local organized groups.
But the primary challenge is that people don't feel that the democratic ideal has value to them, therefore electoral politics are irrelevant to them...at best they are suspicious, at worst, they disdain such politics."
–Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, 32, Community Organizer and Convention Coordinator
"I was talking to the aide to a city councilman here in Newark and he was talking about education and empowering youth of color here. I work for Californians for Justice in San Jose and I gave him some newsletters 'cuz some of the educational issues are similar. So it's like if we can really show the national government that we're doing this in all these places, it's more powerful than just in our states ... to get every state to rally around these same issues, I think that'd be real cool."
–Lindsey Long, 19, San Jose Hip Hop Political Convention Commitee
I think it's a historical moment, to be at the very first, ever, national Hip Hop political convention. It's so important to be able to do that with culture ...and Hip Hop is no longer just culture, it's a philosophy, a way that social justice work is organized. It's a way that people are coming together across races and classes, and to be part of that this weekend and voting on a national agenda is tight.
–Organizer, San Jose Political Hip Hop Convention Commitee
"My own personal goal here is to empower as many people younger than me as possible. While I'm still young, I still want to give this energy to someone even younger than me, so I can sit back at 50 or 60 yrs old and enjoy watching them moving the country in the direction it needs to move, because there've been too many mistakes and too much, as we say drama, so it's gonna take years and years and years to repair, but at least we've built the ground floor to start to try to change it.
The challenge is "where do we go from here?" How do we keep the momentum that we build at an event like this?
–Angela Woodson, 36, national co-chair
"I work in a re-entry program for ex-offenders ...and I'm a hip hop artist. I live hip hop. I dance, I write and I tap into my creative energy and that is the model I use to navigate myself through life. Anytime you have a phenomenon such as hip hop that sweeps the mind of so many people, that has to be politicized, as far as I'm concerned, because anything that can influence you or put something in your brain that wasn't there, is worth using as a tool to break through stereotypes, to enlighten people, etc.
The hip hop culture isn't looked upon as a substantiated culture, because it's bigger than, say "Appalachian culture" or "Native American culture" or any one kind of people from one place ...it has spread to a point to where it has to be accepted, dealt with and respected!"
–Sol Jasun Prophet, MC and Community Organizer, Cincinatti, OH.
"I'm here to spread awareness about the work we're doing in Atlanta and to show brothers and sisters that you can make moves with hip hop that have a lasting effect on your community. I'm also here to represent from the perspective of everything I've seen and activate people into doing something. So my whole role is to do everything I can do and lead by example, basically. I work in a penitentiary in Atlanta ...and that's what keeps me going is brothers calling me, from the pen, telling them how much it means to them."
–Thomas Gibbs, delegate, Atlanta, GA
"I run a program called the Racial Justice Campaign Fund at Progressive Majority and we work to elect people of color at the local, state and national level. Part of the reason I came to the Hip Hop Convention is to meet progressive young people of color who are getting more politically active and hear from them about why it's important to elect progressive people of color, to get united behind folks who are gonna stand up for our communities and our issues."
–Darshan Khalsa, director, Racial Justice Campaign Fund
"For me, there isn't any one issue that's more important than the others. Because the prison industrial complex, health care and education -- it's all the same on some level, it's about equal opportunity and equal access and people having true and honest potential for greatness. Everybody is born with the potential and the right to be whoever it is that they're supposed to be. And then you go to a school where they don't have books for you, or you get sick and you can't afford to get better, or you're discriminated against because you're gay or because you're a woman or because you're black and it stifles your potential and it puts you in a position where you have to fight to be who it is you're supposed to be in the first place. And a lot of people don't have the skill or the wherewithal or the information to know that they're even allowed to fight in the first place."
–Anasa Troutman, convention organizer, Atlanta, GA
"What hip hop head can resist the appeal of meeting other hip hop heads from Chicago and Detroit and seeing what's going on in different places?
I'm riding around New Jersey, here in Brick City and I'm looking at cats and the situation is so familiar. Dudes is even looking familiar, you know what I'm saying? So it's the same problems. So, holler at fools here, holler at fools there, and connect on that tip. We might have the police issue worked out in Oakland and they don't over here, so we share solutions, and just trade."
–Dan, MC, from Oakland.
"I have so many friends getting locked up. I'm sure if they had been here they would have left this room with a different perspective on their lives. But they're not here. So my job, my responsibility, is to go back and let my friends know, let them know what's going on out here."
–Helen, 18, ACLU volunteer
Sol Jasun Prophet contributed to this collection of interviews.
According to Greg King, 21, of the Highlander Center, a Tennessee-based organization that supports youth organizers all over around the South, the rest of the U.S. is quick to make assumptions about that neck of the woods.
"There's a stereotype that the youth here are not doing very much organizing," he says "But, in fact, we have a long history of activism and organizing."
Historically, as in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, local organizing in the South, such as the famous struggle against segregation in Selma, Alabama, has had huge potential to effect regional politics. And Greg points out that while youth in the South are often more geographically isolated, and therefore their efforts are often still very focused on local issues, their engagement also has the potential to have an impact nationwide.
In fact, since the South has the highest rates of imprisonment in the nation -- meaning southernersare more at risk of being criminalized and imprisoned -- southern youth might just have the potential to lead the national in its' struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex (see sidebar for definition).
Prison Industrial Complex: a marriage of public and private interests working together to institutionalize repressive policies, enforcement practices, activities, and culture that target, control and exploit poor communities of color and rural communities, youth of color, women, immigrants and the lesbian and transgendered communities, among others.
--Definition by the Prison Moratorium Project
But youth organizing in the South is unique for other reasons, as well. For one, Greg says, religion plays a bigger role in the "bible belt" than it might in other parts of the country and there are considerable cultural differences between youth from different states. For instance "Deep South," which includes the most Southern states like Alabama and Mississippi, is very different than the Appalachian region (states like Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia).
Greg points to the traditional music in the areas as an important symbol of this difference. "It's like the difference between folk and blues music," he says. "The two have similar roots but the sounds are very distinct. That extends to other aspects of culture, as well."
For this reason, gatherings that bring together youth from different parts of the South -- like the upcoming Critical Resistance Conference and Strategy Session -- are vital in the creation of a unified southern youth movement."Politically, it's important for youth in the South to have a sense of the larger movement and the work happening in other communites," Greg says.
Why the Big Easy? New Orleans can be seen as a sort of microcosm of youth organizing going on around the South -- specifically around issues relating to the prison reform and anti-racism movements, two efforts which are closely tied together. It is also a place where the youth involved in both efforts have been directly effected by the Prison Industrial Complex.
Tamika Middleton is a student at Xavier University of Louisiana and a Volunteer Coordinator at Critical Resistance. She estimates that she knows "at least seven or eight people" who have been involved in the criminal justice system.
"Most young people today, especially youth of color, have some kind of personal connection to the prison system," she says. "I know people who have been involved in the system in one way or another -- friends, family members, or acquaintances that have been in jail or on probation. It's almost like second nature these days. It's as common as knowing a high school graduate."
Tamika says she got involved when she started to learn about the numbers of her peers who were being imprisoned. "It has become amazingly obvious to me how many young black men are affected by the PIC. The female to male ratio at most Historically Black Universities is about 11:1."
"People would quickly assume that it's because young Black men just aren't going to college," she adds. "And they're correct -- they're going to jail." Tamika sites a study by the Justice Policy Institute that found that in 2000, there were 791,600 Black men in jail or prison, and only 603,032 enrolled in institutions of higher learning.
Working with Critical Resistance has helped Tamika feel like she's actively counter-acting this trend. "I love knowing that I'm not a bystander; I'm actually involved in it," she says.
Courtney Smith is another young person involved with CR. She feels that what she's learned about prisons has opened her mind to much more about "the social problems that plague our society."
"This is very crucial," she says "because how is anyone going to be able to combat social issues such as poverty or the prison system if they lack the knowledge about it. Once you have the knowledge and are aware about the problem then you can strategize."
Courtney has experienced some resistance by other kids her age when she tells them about her activism work. But, she says, it's been worth it.
"When I tell someone where I work they look kind of puzzled. However, I tell them some of the facts that I have learned about the prison system and their expression changes from confused to interested. At that moment I know that I have caused someone to take a different look at the situation. Now, it may not have been a radical, life-changing experience, but from the look in their eyes I know that it had an effect on them."
Like Tamika, Courtney has had friends and family who've done time in prison and in the juvenile justice system. She says, "I know that it isn't easy to have someone that you love and care about taken away from you."
The organizers at Critical Resistance South see the South as particularly vulnerable to the Prison Industrial Complex because of its history of slavery and segregation. "At the same time," the organization states in its official literature, "it is our history of resisting and overthrowing these seemingly unchangeable systems of state-sponsored terror that is the inspiration for CR South."
Unfortunately, not everyone who grows up in the South learns about this history of resistance. That's where the Freedom School, a peer-to-peer educational program of The People's Institute's People's Youth Agenda (PIPYA) comes in.
At 14, Aubrey Jean Jacques was resistant to the idea of going to Freedom School. He was spending his summer just like he always had, hanging out, chillin', taking time off from school, when he got a call from his sister Ariel.
"She had asked me to come to the Freedom School before," He says, "but this time she had one of the staff people on the phone with her, a guy we called 'Kool Black'. He was very convincing and I decided I'd stop by and see what it was like."
Aubrey did stop by. And he stuck around.
The Freedom School is a project of People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, a 23-year-old organization that has become known in communities across the country for their "Un-Doing Racism" workshops.
"As a black male," says Aubrey, "I figured the history of slavery, racism, Jim Crow laws, etc., the stuff you're not going to hear in school, was some something I should start learning about."
The Freedom School combined a lengthy process and analysis based on the People's Institute's approach to looking at the connections between racism and other social injustices with fun activities and field trips to historical sites such as the burial place of the Reverend Martin Luther King in Atlanta, Georgia.
At 18, Aubrey is now in his first year at Tulane University and is a Student Leader at the Freedom School. Last summer, when the Institute was low on funding and couldn't staff the Freedom School, he and other the student leaders took over. As he tells it, the group put together a series of fundraisers -- from car-washes to talent shows - so they could make the Freedom School possible. The seven student leaders were able to work with the existing curriculum to "take it to their own level."
"We are a group who cares not only about our history," he says, "but we wanted to train one another to become strong community organizers and to strive for a future we could believe in."
Also important is the fact that the group is made up of youth from a variety of racial backgrounds.
Kendra Christos-Rodgers, 16, is one of two white student organizers involved with the Freedom School. She has a lot to say about the importance of doing anti-racism work. "I see myself as benefiting from almost everything that goes on in society because I'm white," she says. Like other white anti-racists Kendra feels motivated by this knowledge, not stuck.
According to Kendra, New Orleans is seen as one of the more progressive parts of the South. And, for that reason, she believes it is more important than ever to point out places where what is commonly referred to as "institutionalized racism" is still at work.
"People think that [New Orleans] is different, because you can see a gay couple walking down the street, for instance, but the whole layout of the city lends to segregation," she says.
Kendra sees the issue of race as key to a number of movements taking place in the South today. "When I look at all these different movements," she says, "I can't help but see the way race plays into it. Like the Women's Movement, for instance -- it was seriously stalled because the women involved didn't come from the same backgrounds and they had a lot to work out around race issues before they could really move forward."
Holler to the Hood
Southeast Hip Hop
Knoxville Free Amendment Radio
Young and the Restless
(including the "Seeds of Fire" youth leadership camp)
Empty the shelters
A lot of anti-racism work is very internal work, she points out. It means looking at your own place in the larger system and taking responsibility for your role. In order to work on external problems, especially the really large ones like the growth of the prison industrial complex, Kendra believes that activists need to move from the inside outward.
"You can't just do internal work," she says. "You have to involve your friends, your family, your community. You have to motivate yourself to talk to people."
Like Kendra, Aubrey, Tamika, Courtney, and Greg and the youth who attend the Critical Resistance Conference and Strategy session will do a lot of the kind of talking she is referring to. Together they and their peers represent a whole generation of Southern youth who are taking their futures into their own hands.
Photos of the Freedom School taken by Elizabeth Jeffers.
Shortly after September 11th, a group of young activists found themselves wondering about how to widen the conversations they'd been having. They talked about how they were getting through a time that felt cluttered with conservative, simplistic messages, capitalist jargon and the kind of black and white "patriotism" that insists you keep your opinions to yourself. Many of them were reading alternative news sources and subscribing to activist listserves. Most had been sharing stories, attending rallies, connecting with people in their own communities as a way to stay sane. But they wanted to expand their conversations and let more people listen in.
Then someone had an idea. Why not try to publish some of what they were reading in an anthology and invite voices from around the country?
And three months later, here it is. Edited by six twentysomethings, "Another World is Possible, New World Disorder" is meant to be a way to "reflect on how the crisis has impacted our lives, explore the roots of anti-American terrorism, and offer concrete solutions for preventing future atrocities."
Hailing from different parts of the U.S., the editors (Some of whom are involved with New York's Active Element Foundation are a cross section of today's young activism. Their previous work spans the gamut: from hip-hop activism to environmental work to organizing around political prisoners. And their involvement in a project like "Another World is Possible" may just be an example of one of this dark cloud's most important silver linings. It illustrate the fact that young critical thinkers everywhere are joining forces.
Like other books that have cropped up this year in response to September 11th, such as the soon-to-be--released AlterNet book, "After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World," "Another World" includes work by a variety of writers and thinkers, from Angela Davis to Boots Riley from the Coup. The book is put together like a conversation and moves through emotional responses to analysis, and hopeful visioning for the future. "We tried to make the book accessible to everyone" said editor and activist Walidah Imarisha, in a recent interview. But, she says, "When it comes down to it, people of color are going to be the most effected by this. They will be the ones that bear the brunt of the cut backs, the restrictions. They'll be the ones who lose their jobs." Walidah says she wants the book to get into the hands of those who are outside of traditional activists circles and "just everyday folks."
One of the most unique aspects of the book comes in the form of a an email conversation between editor Jeremy Glick and activist Jee Kim. Between articles, the reader is let in to the conversation between Glick, who lost his father in the World Trade Center attacks and Kim who offers up support and commentary. Over the course of the anthology, these tidbits are refreshing in their casual, conversational tone and allow the reader to feel as they have been let in on a frank, sometimes intimate conversation between friends, such as:
From: Jeremy Glick
To: Jee Kim
Subject: Re: good and bad
thanks brother--you know i value all the support i've gotten the most from my peeps--in music in revolution my dad is not making it, we don't have a body yet and needless to say its been a nightmare. my mom has been through hell and its not ending any time soon. you guys have held me down and helped me when the american media and patriotism has only made me sick and convulse--to know that american imperialism is as we speak pimping my father's death and others to rationalize the impending slaughter adds a whole other layer of disgust and dread to this very difficult situation. the ONLY thing that has been keeping me up and treading water for my mom is to know that folk like you. i can not even begin to express how important that has been for me. thanks jee for having my back. see you soon kid.
The correspondence was chosen, Walida explains, as a counterbalance to some of the book's harder political analysis. "We have to talk about the politics," she says " but there's also the human factor that is very tied up in what has happened [since 9/11] and we thought it was important to balance the two in the book."
Active Element has also made the books available to non profit organizations as fundraising tools. (they offer copies of the book to organizations for one dollar each and allow them to sell them at a retail price of $12.00 each.)
The first edition was printed in an edition of only 10,000, many of which have already sold through their webpage and through the distributor/publisher New Mouth From the Dirty South. Walidah says that she and the other editors have also been carrying copies to hand out on the streets and in subway stations in their home communities.
Are you worried about getting your own copy before they sell out? Never fear, a second edition is on its way. As is a companion video produced by Paper Tiger TV and Big Noise Films and a hip-hop album featuring the Coup and Dead Prez (available from Freedom Fighter Music March 15, 2002).
How do young people feel about the war on terrorism? Well, that depends entirely on who you ask.
In an Oct. 31 New York Times editorial called "These Spooky Times," for instance, Maureen Dowd describes a job fair at George Washington University in which the line for the CIA booth is longer than all the other lines combined. Dowd refers to this moment in the United States as a "weird inside-out image of the Vietnam era" and notes that on some large campuses the CIA and ROTC are now becoming "chic." It is unclear how many young people Dowd actually spoke to, but she paints a picture of the college environment as little more than a microcosm of a war-hungry nation.
On the other hand, an article that ran two days earlier in the Los Angeles Times had a headline that read: "On Campus and Off, Antiwar Movements See New Vigor"
In this article, Elizabeth Mehren, a Times staff writer, sites examples of widespread campus anti-war activism. She describes how it began at schools like UC Berkeley, UW Madison and Wesleyan, and has grown to include a campaign called "Peaceful Justice" and a "day of action" at over 150 schools. Although Mehren says that antiwar activism is seeing a "new vigor," she goes on to argue that in the year 2001 pacifism "feels almost polite" and lacks "the stridence of earlier generations of American protest."
Mehren and others point out that many young people participating in anti-war organizing are already versed in activism. One article by Claire Vannette, which also appeared on October 29 and ran on University Wire, portrayed Rebecca Anshell, a UC San Diego sophomore and activist who was an active member of the International Socialist Organization and the UCSD Peace Coalition before the events of September.
In the article, Anshell, whose blue eyes are "intense" and who is wearing an anti-death penalty T-shirt, is shown to be uncompromisingly committed to peace. But she doesn't come across as the most complex thinker. When asked about backlash she calls those supporting the war "frat boys."
On the other hand, in the same U Wire article, Vannette presents Vince Vasquez, a young man with a "soft voice," whose demeanor she says contradicts his burgeoning patriotism. Vasquez says that those who oppose the war are "anti-American" and "honestly hate their country."
Both these types of students -- those extremely critical of the war and those who support it strongly -- seem to exist in large numbers. But where are the youth who fall in between? What about those who feel conflicted about what they hear on the news, from their peers, their families? Surely, the largest percentage of youth fall into this gray area.
By focusing on youth with the most extreme viewpoints, the mainstream media is continuing a typical pattern of generalization and over-simplification. Long before the Columbine shootings and the media reports engulfing them, it was commonplace to describe "today's youth" in broad, sweeping terms. At a time like this taking an extreme stand can be a way to feel one has the power or the right to get in involved. So it is disappointing (but still surprising) that mainstream media is attempting to pin them down and portray them as either vengeful conservatives or naive peaceniks.
This week Newsweek magazine will run a number of stories about "Generation 9-11" Behind a glossy cover graced by the three appropriately mixed-raced kids looking gravely concerned, the article attempts to offer a definitive analysis of the lives of millions of younger Americans.
In the cover article, authors Barbara Kantrowitz and Keith Naughton tell us that this privileged, apathetic generation has found its "defining moment ." They also say that only 28.1 percent of last years freshman class reported following politics," an embarrassing number, to be sure. But then they jump to the fact that Newsweek found that "85 percent of the students they polled favored the current military action."
When the Newsweek story does acknowledge the student activism that has taken place in the past years it is described as "just a lot of 'little projects': protests against sweatshops or nuclear weapons." Similarly, they describe anti-war movements on campus as "scattered and nascent."
Newsweek's point is that an important shift has occurred for the under-25 population in the last two months. Now, not only are young Americans overwhelmingly compelled to inform themselves, argues Newsweek, but they are suddenly "politically involved" because they can claim their support for the war. At one end of the polarized set of options is complete anti-political apathy. At the other is a flag-waving, government-job-seeking buy-in. If you don't believe in the ideas behind this war, this widely-read magazine indirectly implies, you don't belong in "Generation 9-11."
In a similar vein, on October 31, the Orlando Sentinel ran a profile called "Teen Marine." The description for the piece reads: "His Peers Are Devoted to the Pursuit of Fun, But This 14-Year-Old Is Devoted To His Country." In the article, Junior Marine Corporal Danny Serrano expresses regret for being too young to join the armed forced. "I love my country a lot," He says. "I love the military. I just want to be a part with them and help out the United States, like right now in Afghanistan."
Recent evidence that shows that most young people are not, in fact, rushing to join the army, but are simply paying closer attention to the news. According to an MSNBC article called "A New Generation of News Junkies," the number of 18-34 year-olds who turned into CNN grew from 16 to 45 percent the first five weeks after Sept. 11. The article, which, is focused more on demographics and advertising opportunities for news organizations than on the social implications of the shift, also suggests that youth are spending more time reading newspapers. "The New York Times' September newsstand circulation was up 37 percent for the month after tripling its retail print run to a record 1.3 million from Sept. 13-15," the article reported.
Then, of course, there's the Internet. Many young people have turned to the Internet to inform themselves about the role the U.S. has played in relation to other countries, especially the nations the Middle East. For a generation already accustomed to doing most of their research online, this electronic hunt feels a bit like cramming for a test in a much larger and more important classroom.
Supporting the story of American youth's hunger for news is a recent Christian Science Monitor article, "Trade Center Attacks Reactivate Campus Activism: Rallies Emails and Vigils" which argues that the rush to dissect war news has resulted in a heightened level of political awareness among students. The article also successfully avoids pigeon-holing the youth it portrays, and is among the best published on the subject.
Samantha Fernandez, one young student interviewed in the article, describes feeling overwhelmed by contradicting messages from the media, the government and her fellow peace vigil-attending students. She expresses, "a confusing mix of patriotic feelings and a desire for forbearance."
The article also describes Sept. 11 as a bubble bursting, a shock to the system that has caused all kinds of reevaluation. The author quotes Deepinder Mayell, a Boston University student, saying "I think people didn't recognize the responsibility of being a citizen, of being a member of a community before."
Mayell makes an important observation. And his statement poses vital questions: What does it mean to be a young American citizen in this age? Is it about joining an email listserve to stock up on masses of information? Or about spit-shining your combat boots? Can "being a responsible community member" or even an informed "citizen of the world" occur overnight? And will watching more CNN help any of us do that?
While you don't hear it as often, the sentiment that "things will never be the same" is still echoing in many young minds. For the first few weeks after Sept. 11, it was impossible to find a teenager or young adult in the news doing anything more than mourning or looking shocked. But now, the media is finally acknowledging the fact that some younger people may, in fact, have something to say.
Even David Brooks who, just six months ago, wrote a scathing criticism of students at the Princeton for being too self-involved and obsessed with personal success, has now officially revised his outlook. In "The Organization Kid Revisited" he says "You go back to a place like Princeton or Yale now and immediately you start hearing about fervent debates around the dining hall tables, anguished wrestling with moral problems, and a general sense that the old fixed points of the universe have been shaken loose."
At the same time, some find it difficult not to see this revitalization as also gimmicky or, at the very least, overtly, self-consciously smug. In articles like the one published in Newsweek, we hear about a whole generation that has come of age without the kinds of crises that really unite people. "We've had no JFK, No Vietnam" you hear again and again. Never mind those "little projects " like opposing arms sales or the new corporate influence on politics.
Things have changed. They will continue to change. But today's youth were not as apolitical before September 11th as is widely argued. Nor have they become over night patriots. Their views are varied and complex and they will, most likely, remain that way .
T. Eve Greenaway is the editor of Wiretap Magazine.
Graduation, 2001. A crowd at one end of the lawn. Folding chairs in rows across the newly mowed green. Teary faces, fidgeting children. The soon-to-be graduates of a small women's college move slowly through the crowd in white hats and gowns. They ascend a small stage for a certificate marking the end of their undergraduate careers.
The parents of this group in white believe in women's colleges for many of the same reasons they might have 20 years ago. They believe young women have a stronger chance at success, academically and professionally, if they are nurtured in an environment free of gender politics. But many of their daughters are graduating with very different identities; in fact, a whole new kind of gender politics. Some will tell you they are not women at all.
And indeed, there is reason for that question. Lesbian and bisexual groups have played a prominent place on many women's campuses since the '70s and queer identity forms the backbone of a large portion of the social activism that goes on there. But as the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation becomes more of an issue, women's colleges are witnessing a new crop of student groups. Transgender organizing is picking up speed and trans alliances are far more vocal than they were just five years ago.
How many transgender students are there in the U.S.? The numbers are hard to record, and university deans and administrators appear reluctant to comment or speculate on transgender organizing on their campuses. While the term transgender applies to anyone who undergoes a shift from female to male (FTM) or male to female (MTF), most associate it with those who don female clothes or traits like Ru Paul.
Until recently, FTM people were relatively invisible. But things are changing fast, especially on America's campuses. Some Americans born between the mid '70s and early '80s are now taking on gender identities as varied as their hair colors. Many will tell you they are simply "trans," but some use words like trannyboy, boydyke, post-genderist, androgyne and genderqueer.
Korey, for instance, was born female but will tell you he is a straight male. The 19-year-old New Yorker says he questioned his female gender identity for years but didn't find the language to describe himself until he saw author and transgender advocate Leslie Feinberg speak. (Feinberg's novel, Stone Butch Blues, is the first step on many trans boy's reading lists. He also has written books about the blurred the lines of gender expression and coined the term "Transgender Warrior.")
Neverthless, Korey ran into some trouble at Lesley University. He was criticized by students and administrators for his gender stance. "The staff reminded me that if I don't identify as female then I need to reconsider why I am at a women's college," says Korey. "It is frightening that I've become a threat."
Korey is probably still a student at Lesley University because there are no policies there regarding trans students. But Paul Karoff, vice president for Student Affairs at Lesley, is concerned. He speculates: "A situation like this is going to raise practical issues that no one has ever contemplated or dealt with before."
As Karloff suggests, the transgender "movement" is difficult to understand. It's based on a language of identity, with which most Americans are unfamiliar. It requires a revision of the use of pronouns, and the inclusion of terms like "hir." Many trans activists seem to spend a great deal of time educating people about this shifting language. Glossaries are popping up right and left. The most comprehensive ones break down the intricacies of "assigned gender," and what it means to be "female-bodied," "pre-op" or "non-op." (The latter refers to the way some trans people position themselves in relation to sex-reassignment surgery.)
Dr. Jadwiga Sebrecht, the president of the Women's College Coalition of the United States and Canada, prefers to see trans identity questions in terms of the law. Asked about policies regarding trans students on women's campuses, she responded:
"Women's colleges comply with government regulations, hence they recognize a person's legal sex status. If the person is a female, in the eyes of the law, then any previous sexual identity is irrelevant. If, however, a person is legally male, that status is the one recognized by the women's college. I do not know of any women's college that has a different policy."
Legal identification may seem to solve the problem, but recent incidents on women's campuses tell another story. In an article appearing in Ms. Magazine last winter, for example, a young student at an unnamed midwestern women's college was told he could stay enrolled as long as he remained a "vagina'd individual." The article did not question how such a thing be regulated, nor did it bring up perhaps the most important point trans activists are raising: that some students see their gender identities as entirely separate from their anatomies.
In a statement produced by the Smith transgender alliance, the answer to the question "Why Are We at Smith" reads: "We are a single-sex school, which means that every Smith student's sex is labeled as female. But in our single-sex environment we have a multitude of different gender identities and gender expressions ... The queer-friendliness of this campus, our affinity with Smith's values, and the connections we have made thus far within the Smith community are aspects many of us appreciate. For these reasons, transgendered students remain at Smith despite the difficulties we face here."
If this sounds more sophisticated than an average college student, there's a reason: many trans students are looking at gender in the context of their academic work. Take Ryan. The 22-year-old earned a degree in women's studies and sociology from Smith this May. Like many students, Ryan's academic pursuits lead him to research the history and theory behind the transgender movement. And like many trans boys, Ryan dated a woman who was very supportive of his fluid gender.
If pressed, Ryan says he does not identify as transgender, but is comfortable being referred to as both "he" and "she." He rejects the two-gender approach (and refuses to use the word "transition" because it implies a set binary), describing himself instead as "gender variant" or "gender queer." Still, Ryan is unsure how this approach will translate to his life outside the politically charged, academic bubble of Smith. At school, he says his friends were more than accepting. But he fears that some of that comes from a sense that being genderqueer is "the new cool thing."
"I've sort of reached a point," he says, "where I'm re-evaluating and trying to figure out, without the queer skew of Smith College and Northampton, what I'm all about."
Women's colleges are not the only place where people are transitioning genders. Tucker, for example, began his transition at age 14. Tucker is a traditional transsexual, meaning he is becoming a man physically as well as emotionally. The 21-year-old junior entered Brown University a "male," has been on testosterone for several years and is fairly open about his identity. "A good portion of the queer community at Brown seems to know that I am a transsexual," he says. "I'm used to avoiding pronouns and pretty skillful at telling stories without them."
Many trans guys say they "pass" for their gender of choice easier than their MTF counterparts. In Tucker's case, he wears his hair long and a pearl necklace sometimes as part of what he describes as his "effeminate" appearance. "I find they help me pass better as a man," he says. "If I wore short hair and no jewelry, I might resemble a butch woman or an obvious FTM. But when I accessorize, people assume 'No butch woman would do that...'"
Tucker says cultivating his softer "female" side gives him more options. "I understand something of receptiveness, nonviolence, beauty, cooperation, nurturing. But I construct these as 'gay male' rather than 'female,'" he says. The "male" identity is central to Tucker. To him, it represents autonomy, independence and self-motivation. "I need to have that as a starting point," he says. "Otherwise I would lack the sense of independence to achieve my full potential."
Tucker also believes that more people are identifying as trans than ever before, because of a shift in feminism. "The concept of gender identity and expression, as the transgender movement, defines those terms, is crucial to a healthy feminist movement," he says.
Tucker may be on to something. Third wave feminists' fight for equality is no longer just about voting and reproductive rights; it's about the subtler significance of cultural identity and the place of biology in gender roles. Young trans people are looking closer at the parts of our lives that most of us assume are scientifically predetermined.
But some say they may be zooming in a little too closely. Some, like Ryan, say this breeds an element of peer pressure in the transgender phenomenon. "I do think more people are identifying as 'gender queer,'" he says, "and I think there has begun this weird and really troubling competition -- at least at Smith -- to see who can be the most queer." Ryan points to a growing pattern within the younger lesbian, bisexual and transgender community that, while sensitive to forms of discrimination, has created yet another power structure.
"It's no longer queer enough to be gay or lesbian," he says. "It's a little more queer to be bisexual, and the most queer to be trans. And there is some version of that hierarchy of oppressions that got us into trouble decades ago starting to resurface or manifest itself in this new way," says Ryan.
If what Ryan says is true, why is questioning your gender "the new cool thing?" Are these shifts really happening on a large scale?
Patrick Califia, the author of Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, argues the FTM community is reaching a "critical mass." If numbers are hard to come by, it may be largely because FTMs fill a whole spectrum of identities, ranging from those who call themselves butch lesbians to those, like Tucker, who are transsexuals. What seems clear is that by the time some people are in college, they have been living with gender dysphoria for years.
Califia says that the trans community is now "big enough, and visible enough that people are becoming aware that it's an option, that transsexual doesn't only refer to male-to-females." He also believes that the Brandon Teena Story -- as told by the 2000 feature film Boys Don't Cry and the 1998 documentary about the brutal rape and murder of the same Nebraska boy -- was a "quantum leap forward" for the trans community. Some speculate it is only a matter of time before FTMs start showing up on the popular culture radar more frequently.
Because his movement is still young, however, it is almost as politically charged internally as it is on the outside. Within the "old school" lesbian feminist community, there are those who link men with oppression and look to deny trans people a place in their cultural spheres.
As Califia puts it, "when people identify as feminist, and are critical of the role that males have played in creating patriarchal culture, they may look for ways to express their masculinity without 'becoming the enemy.' But all this is based on a cultural script that says that women are the solution and men are the problem."
Feminism has always been about re-writing these scripts. And in that way this movement may not be so new. After all, young trans people are questioning, unlearning and creating their own culture. Best of all, they force the rest of us into those awkward, gravity-less moments where nothing is what it seems, and the potential for change is more vast than we may have realized.