Thu, Jun 15, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Students are taking to the streets

Forget nostalgia for 1968. Youth activists today have real political savvy, and they are making their governments listen

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

These demonstrations were in no way connected. Yet between them -- and countless others over the past few weeks, from pro-reform students in Iran to 4,000 youngsters in Slovenia -- they suggest a surge of consciousness and activism among young people that goes beyond the immediate, local demands of each protest.

May 1968 it isn't, although not for the reasons some of the leaders of that iconic student uprising would have you believe.

Wistful for the days when you could picket an embassy, occupy your college, throw some cobblestones at the police and still have change left out of a fiver, many of those who rioted in 1968 have so gorged themselves on nostalgia that they have nothing but condescension and bile for young demonstrators who were born after that year.

"Young people [now] have a negative vision of the future," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the Paris protests almost 40 years ago. "May 1968 was an offensive movement with a positive vision, but today's protests are all against things. They are defensive, based on fear of insecurity and change."

They conveniently forget that what followed their protests was a victory for then US president Richard Nixon and increased representation for the Gaullists, who were instrumental in unleashing the forces that would produce the fear in the generations to come.

The people involved in the demonstrations today are in general younger, poorer and darker than those of 40 years ago. Young women are more likely to take a leadership role; their parents are more likely to support them. These are not middle-class students seeking an alliance with the workers; they are working-class students seeking passage to the middle class. In Chile, 87 percent of the public supported them.

"These are not crazy revolutionaries," wrote Patricio Fernandez, an influential columnist in the Clinic newspaper. "Their parents support them. Their cousins, their neighbors, their old aunts. They are bored that the wealthy schools educate those who will be boss while their school trains them to be workers. More than combating Chilean authorities, they are convincing them."

While the conditions that produced these protests are particular, they are all underpinned by a common condition -- the collapse of a postwar consensus where the state felt it had a role in investing in the futures of young people rather than at best neglecting and at worst criminalizing them with everything from Asbos to curfews.

Take the US. In 1994, president Bill Clinton introduced a bill that allowed more juveniles to be tried as adults; between 1984 and 1997 the arrests of juveniles leapt 30 percent. Meanwhile, in the press, youngsters were being demonized in a similar manner to the Asbo culture in the UK.

"Superpredators arrive," announced a Newsweek story in 1996 with the question: "Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?" By 1998, two-thirds of Americans believed that children under the age of 13 should be tried as adults.

Whatever the gains of the 1968 student revolts -- and there were some -- it has been the generation forged in the crucible of those times who are responsible for these circumstances.

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