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Activism In the Past and Today

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After much talk of young people's political apathy, could we be entering a new age of activism?

After much talk of young people's political apathy, could we be entering a new age of activism?

After much talk of young people's political apathy, could we be entering a new age of activism?

Brandon Tejeras, Editor

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This story was originally composed in May 2017 as the writer’s final project of the academic year.   

As my eyes slowly opened on April 22nd, albeit with a strenuous effort, I rolled to my side and nearly off the bed. I contorted my body until finally, I was upright and ready for the day.  I walked into the kitchen with my eyes still barely open, almost colliding with the wall along the way. Today was my day to go for a run.

I had made it my mission to run during this spring break away from home, filled with visits to prospective colleges; however, the allure of extra sleep trumped that desire. I had read late last night that the following day, today, was Earth Day and the March for Science would be occurring along a predetermined route. That got me especially excited – finally, something to look at while running! My parents and I left for the train station and headed toward the Chicago Loop to start the day.

Hoards of people poured endlessly on and off the train at Roosevelt during morning rush hour. Weaving my way through the tightly packed people, I made it to my starting point between Soldier Field and Grant Park. Despite being on the other end of the park and farthest away from the center of it all, I could still hear the conversations and music blending into one incoherent sound. Stretching out and doing a warm-up lap around a row of trees, I made my way up to Lake Shore Drive, through the cool lake wind and sporadic clusters of fellow runners.

Today had, surprisingly, been a relatively warm day for late April in Chicago, but as a Southern California native, that didn’t mean much to me. “Good thing I wore my new running pants,” I remarked to myself in between short breaths made visible as they escaped my mouth.

As I neared Grant Park, I slowed down to a stop along the steps to stretch out a dull pain deep in my knee. Only after momentarily removing my headphones, the once muddled sound of people’s conversations and blaring music became more coherent and disticnt than before. I finished my brief stretch and sped up once more.

The true scope and size of the March for Science didn’t hit me until I reached Buckingham Fountain, still not the center point of the rally. Step by step, the music, playing in my ears, was beginning to be replaced with the music played at the rally. The evening news, playing the whole weekend, hour after hour, never actually captured the intensity of this group of people, dressed in everything from ordinary clothes, to full on costumes simulating fake and real scientists alike.

My focus began to narrow as I saw a few moving brown bonelike structures poking up from above the other signs and heads of people. My curiosity got the better of me and resulted in my stopping along the grass.I tried to get a better look without being absorbed into the group. I made my way closer to the fountain and saw that it was a giant paper mache fossilized t-Rex, supported by at least a dozen protesters like one of those Chinese New Year dragons. You could tell the march was ramping up as the crowds started shifting. Individual people began sliding past each other and down their pre-planned route towards the Field Museum. The excitement and raw electric-like energy emanated from the crowd and struck me with genuine awe.

***

Political activism, across the board, is the basis of a progressive and ever-evolving society, one that comes closer and closer to fulfilling its founding creed. Political activism takes many forms and has historically been associated with populism and giving a voice to the people. Historically, both the left and right have taken part in vocal activism. In the past few years, we’ve seen a wave of populism that helped to elect Donald Trump. In the spirit of the March for Science, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; an equal and opposite wave of activism has emerged in the wake of the 2016 election.

Through American history, activists have maintained that America hasn’t lived up to their expectations, hopes, or dreams, for various reasons.  The ideas of justice, opportunity, and acceptance were not being sold or simply were being overshadowed by their opposites. Activism is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, and a generation of disgruntled voters and political activists fosters a rejuvenated hope of policy making that moves us forward instead of backward. A simple google search definition of what activism means isn’t enough to define what it means today, that’s where Servite’s History department chair, Mr. Benjamin Van Dyk, comes in.

When asked for a definition of political activism, Van Dyk paused, set his fork down, and defined it as “being active in politics.” After a chuckle, he continued. “Activism is about applying yourself to, actually, seek change,” Van Dyk explained. “Activism means getting involved in the political process whether that be by supporting an act that has passed, wanting a bill to be passed, or fighting against what you see.”

Activism, of course, is not as clear as you may think; the process is winding, exhausting, and has been violent at times. It has continued to redefine itself continuing from the beginning, up until now, with each passing generation. From the advent of newspapers in colonial America to the living rooms and social media platforms of today, much has changed and continued to change concerning how we interact and influence what goes and doesn’t go.

According to Van Dyk, political activism in America centered around the printed word. “Political activism, early on, was primarily in newspapers, and other people using writing and essays to persuade those people.”

The Industrial Revolution threw a curveball at this type of activism. “With the advent of labor unions and mass demonstrations, the 1800’s built the framework for modern day events,” Van Dyk said. This concept remained, mostly undisturbed and unchanging, until the mid-20th century with the awakening of an increasingly vocal and rebellious demographic: young people.

The culmination and climax of mass conformity of the 1950’s, out of fear of communist revolution, resulted in another type of revolution, a much younger one. “This all began, actually, in the 50’s, with the discovery of Elvis Presley,” said Van Dyk. Turning the tide in how you and what you listened to subsequently turned the tide in how you felt and what you were going to do about it, especially with the looming controversy of the Vietnam War in the lives of America’s youth. “They were being sent overseas, to an unknown land, to fight in a war that they had no say in,” said Van Dyk.

***

Today, we often see a new generation of activist, one with a lot more time on his or her hands. “More people are going to college, the period where you aren’t, necessarily, in the workforce, and not a full adult yet, so you have much more time to be involved,” Van Dyk said. As technology advanced, social media was born and became more present in our lives, and consequently in our political process.

The 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections saw an unprecedented importance given to social media. However this phenomenon is certainly not a uniquely American one. “With such events as the Arab Spring Uprisings, a lot of credit was given to social media and Twitter for making it known, and it has provided a way to address a political concern,” Van Dyk said.  

There seems to be a sense of confusion on where this tool will take us in future elections and political movements. Van Dyk acknowledged this. “Since the 2016 election, I have no idea where it is going to go or what the next social media fad is going to be.” When he first started working here, the emerging website was Facebook and “now all you kids are on your snap gram’s and instachat’s and what have you,” he humorously remarked.

There is a dilemma, however, emerging with social media and political activism: laziness. Now it seems as if people aren’t willing to get out of the house and show, in real life, that they care about this issue. All it takes now is a Twitter account to voice your opinion and not to be present at a protest. The ‘active’ part of political activism had seemingly disappeared from American life. However, recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and other activist movements have reacted to recent events in America.

These demonstrations brought together many demographics, but young people seemed to be the largest of them all. Much has been made of how to win the notoriously apathetic youth vote. “Obama did it brilliantly at mobilizing people just as Kennedy did in the 60’s,” said Van Dyk. Social media is a large part of that process.

So how do we get more young people to the ballot box, regardless of which way they lean politically? “The answer to this problem is getting social media at the forefront of the fight for activism in the younger generation,” said my father, Eddie Tejeras. “Millennial lives seem to be centered around their Instagram and Twitter feeds, and things like that. It’s no longer the case where they gather around a TV and watch the evening news. They’re on their phones and therefore getting their news in short burst or within 140 characters.”

You can see the power of social media, from the biggest of ordeals to the smallest of victories. Take, for example, the movement to diversify emojis on iPhones. “There’s power in social media that can be utilized for the transformation of the political activity among the younger generation,” said Tejeras. “I can’t wait to see which way the political spectrum moves as a result of not only the power of social media but also the way young people perceive the world; I’m sure it will be exciting and, at the same time, scared to see what happens.”

Although the future of activism is unclear, it has a rich history protected by our first amendment. Rather than enable apathy, social has already sparked a newfound activism on both sides of the aisle.

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