Young Protesters Are Our Best Hope—From Hong Kong to Florida

By Ronald C. Rosbottom
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Even Donald Trump noticed. Indeed, the images astounded us all.

In late June and early July this year, millions—not thousands, but millions—of Hong Kong citizens covered every open space in that city—boulevards, narrow streets, parks, parking lots, plazas. They were resisting the specter of Chinese autocracy, struggling to maintain the judicial and legislative independence promised when the United Kingdom ceded the colony to China in 1997.

Newspapers, social media, and television commentators all stressed that this enormous show of opposition had been inspired and led by students, and other youth who were concerned about their future. Step by step, China had imposed more censorship, more surveillance, and less justice on the former British colony, and young citizens were having none of that.

These movements should remind us that 30 years ago, another massive resistance, this time within China itself, against the Communist Party, was organized and led by students. Brutally repressed by the army in Tiananmen Square, its memory is in the DNA of subsequent popular resistance to the Communist Party’s dominion.

Hong Kong Protesters, Inspired By the Late Great Martial Artist Bruce Lee, Stun Beijing

And, only eight years ago, a young Tunisian immolated himself after the authorities forbade him a stall and chair at a market. This event spurred what we now call “the Arab Spring.” Hundreds of thousands of young people went to the streets to demand that the “seats of power” be shared.

Such acts of youthful courage—small and massive—continue to capture our attention: in Algiers, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Berlin, Istanbul, and, of course, in our country.

“Resistance” has become a by-word of these public shows of alarm, appearing on posters, signs, bumpers, and on the internet. The term itself has two major connotations. One is the idea of “withstanding,” of not giving in to political or police authority. The other refers to an act or acts of physically opposing a government. To take action, no matter how individual or minor, is to resist purposefully, and dangerously.

Young resisters evince a precocious courage by leaving comfort zones of certainty to venture into a confusing world; they question the “lessons” of their elders; they befriend instead of offending. They believe in the future, even if troubled by the present. They have a moral certainty, often rigid, which gives them the fortitude to confront powerful foes. My own research reveals that these are all characteristics of the young people who confronted German occupations throughout Europe. They took bold steps into the world of clandestine opposition.

There is no demographic more anxious during difficult times, and many find solidarity with other youth a weapon of mass disruption. Young men and women are idealistic, persistent, free from social obligations, and concerned about future opportunities. They are physically stronger than their elders, and the timeless adolescent urge to move away from “home” for independence sustains them in dangerous moments. Should the authorities respond too brutally to their actions, there is an imminent risk that their parents and relatives will demand justice. Gassing a student does not play well on YouTube.

For decades, I have been a teacher of and mentor to teenagers and young adults. Those who are seriously engaged with politics, and its rhetoric, search eagerly for truth about the past, learning how to separate myth from fact critically. They have confidence that one—in solidarity with others—can move the needle a bit. They accept mistakes as a path to wisdom. And they seek to understand the prejudices of others, as well as their own.

I have participated in or witnessed three major resistance moments in our country, times when young people went repeatedly to the streets, and stayed there: the civil rights movements of the ’50s and ’60s, the Vietnam resistance (the ’60s and ’70s), and the Occupy Wall Street demonstration of fall 2011).

Many of these young people were patriots, proud of their nation and well aware of its complicated history. The most recent examples in the U.S. are the survivors of the Parkland massacre in 2018. Stunned by violence, furious at political ineptitude, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students set up on social media a hashtag, #NeverAgain, and organized immediately nationwide demonstrations against the fecklessness of our attention to gun control. Unlike their leaders, who hug the flag, thereby trying to freeze dissent, they offered new values to symbols of patriotism. They do not hate their country; they despise what their country has become.

I do not intend to amalgamate all youth into a category of judicious resistance against baleful authority. Many take other avenues to sustain the status quo; others strap bombs to their bodies to challenge the faith of “unbelievers.” Some keep their heads low, hoping that choices might not have to be made, waiting out the storm. I recognize their commitment and fears, but I write in awe of those who boldly struggle for justice and democracy, no matter how gossamer their goals may be, no matter the costs.

History rhymes: the newest young adult generation will somehow, transparently and courageously, though at times ineptly, return our attention to problems rather than to bromides, to action rather than apathy, to courage rather than to fear. A decision to take a step in opposition to an inauthentic power may at first be a small act, but that ripple in the becalmed lake of enforced obeisance can soon become a flash flood of resistance.

Thank goodness for the kids.

Ronald C. Rosbottom, professor of French and European Studies at Amherst College, is the author of SUDDEN COURAGE: Youth in France Confront the Germans, 1940-1945.

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