Following in The Footsteps of History:

Why Youth Protesters Need to March to Voting Booths

Ana Aparicio

Millennials of color across the country in recent months have further strengthened a blooming 21st century racial justice movement. This is despite some critiques of millennials, who according to at least one survey, are seen as overly sensitive, apathetic, self-absorbed and entitled.

They are also the largest sector of the U.S. labor force, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, with 53.5 million workers in the 18–34 year-old age group. But will they be the largest voting bloc in the 2016 elections?

Sparked by recent events viewed as criminal, unjust or racist, these young activists are reigniting a sense of radical possibilities and democracy through nationwide protests. But to be most effective, they will need to continue to arouse awareness as well as provoke political action, collaborate across groups and ultimately turn out to vote in the presidential election.

In the first days of 2016, New Year’s protests in Chicago around the shooting deaths by Chicago police of a 55-year-old bystander mother and a 19-year-old college student prompted street protests at popular brunch restaurants. It was a move echoing the Black Brunch protests of early 2015 in Oakland, Calif.

This followed protests outside the home of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the final days of 2015. Earlier, the Coalition for a New Chicago, and Latino Coalition for Change, protested on Christmas Eve on retail-heavy Michigan Avenue to call for an end to police shootings in what was called Black Xmas.

This demonstration mimicked the Chicago protests on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, also aimed at blocking shoppers from entering retail stores on the busiest shopping day of the year.

More than 500 Chicago youth demonstrated in other protests, calling for the ouster of Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez for their roles in what is called a cover-up following the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. As has been widely reported, the black teen was shot 16 times and killed by a white police officer in October 2014.

Nationwide Protests

In the first week of this year, protesters in Wilmington, Del. gathered downtown following a fatal police shooting. On the last day of 2015,following an Oregon Supreme Court ruling, protesters in Portland, Oregon called for the appeal of the decision to reinstate the officer responsible for the shooting death of an unarmed black man. In Rocky Ford, Colorado, a protest in late 2015 followed the shooting death of a black man by local police.

Peaceful protests filled the streets of Cleveland recently in the days after the grand jury failed to indict the police officer responsible for the shooting death of 12-year-old black youth Tamir Rice.Once the news emerged of the decision to not indict in the Rice case, as well as no charges in the death of Sandra Bland in Texas, millennials took to social media to coordinate events in cities including New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Ushering in Change Throughout History

This type of civic action is not new in recent history. DREAMers — those undocumented youth who have declared themselves “undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic” — have garnered important victories following protests, such as the passing of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012.

The virality of the 2013 initiative by Alicia Garza and others with the #blacklivesmatter and #sayhername movements, have ignited the coalition of even more groups and earned the attention of politicians on the main stage.

Similarly, in the 1960s, youth of color assisted in spearheading the civil rights movement and energized groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Young Lords Party, and the Black Panther Party.

Protests organized then by students of color led to the creation decades ago of Chicano Studies, Puerto Rican Studies and African American Studies programs across the country. As Martha Biondi notes in The Black Revolution on Campus, such student protests led to profound and long-lasting changes in higher education.

More recently, while young people were also at the forefront of the Occupy movement in 2011, the face of that movement was predominantly white. Despite efforts like “Occupy the ‘Hood,” youth of color never gravitated en masse to the anti-capitalism focused Occupy movement, as it paid scant attention to issues of structural racism.

Some might see the accomplishments of recent youth-led dissent as short-lived and bringing about only local results to reactionary protests. Other critics may argue that these millennials of color are inciting violence. Pundits such as Bill O’Reilly declared the #blacklivesmatter movement a “hate group;” he has even compared them to the KKK. But his is not a mainstream view.

While there have been incidents of violence at some protests, they have been mostly non-violent. Organizers denounce violence, instead building a network to push officials to implement policy changes that can have long-term results. As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan explain in their 2012 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, such non-violent strategies have been effective historically.

More than 50 years removed from the civil rights era, the organizing efforts of millennials of color highlight valid grievances around issues of exclusion, racism and structural inequality. Still, they will need to continue to move forward with three important strategies.

First, they must continue to organize street protests, marches, rallies, and issue demands. Such pressure has been important in previous movements historically, resulting in changes in national policy and public discourse, as well as juridical victories.

In addition, to have an even more profound and lasting effect, they will need to coordinate across groups — black, Latino and more. As Frederick Douglass Opie and Sonia Song-Ha Lee explain, coalitions across racial/ethnic groups were critical to racial justice movements of the mid-20th century.

As evidenced in my book, Dominican Americans and the Politics of Empowerment, some of the important gains made by new immigrants organizing in the late 20th century in places like New York were due in large part to the coalitions they formed with other groups.

Finally, while many millennials mistrust the voting process and elected officials, their votes are still important. A poll in early 2015 indicated that people between the ages of 18 and 24 are planning to vote in 2016 large numbers for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, with the largest of Republican respondents at that time stating preferences for candidate Jeb Bush.

Politicians are paying attention. Since #blacklivesmatter youth activists interrupted a Hillary Clinton speech and disrupted a rally for Democratic presidential campaigner Bernie Sanders in 2015, Clinton had meetings with these activists and Sanders made statements about racial inequality and abuses of power.

There seem to be no abatement of state abuses, racial violence, or mass deportations that millennials of color are protesting now. But their votes are critical, perhaps viewed as tipping points for any candidate. As seen in 2008 and 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign focused much attention on the vote of millennials.

Looking ahead to the march to the voting booths later this year and armed with the lessons of history, today’s millennials aim to jumpstart change seeded by these protests. If they succeed, they will transform the America we know.

Dr. Ana Aparicio is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latino Studies at Northwestern University. She is an NU Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.