The Activist: Millennials and Political Engagement

When students held a rally on the steps of the Athens County Courthouse, I attended. I heard many voices, some of whom directly affected by the possibility of a Muslim ban, and others upset by the political climate since the election. When this rally moved, students, faculty and community members followed to Baker Student Center, marching through Court Street and interrupting traffic.

On Tuesday, February 1, 70 of those students were arrested in Ohio University’s student center, after almost 200 students staged a sit-in protest. I was part of the group, but I didn’t get arrested.

Sitting with students in Baker, I didn’t think about getting arrested, or the repercussions of what I saw as a peaceful and justified action. I know what is right, what is wrong and what is open to interpretation. In that moment, student activism felt needed.

However, after warnings from OUPD Chief Andrew Powers, I felt less assured, even afraid. During the first arrests, my best friend and I left the sit-in, moving to another floor and watching as our friends and fellow students were hauled off for an expired parade permit and “impacting operations,” an OU spokesperson said.

Millennials are in a different political space than generations of the past. From Ferguson to Baltimore, Standing Rock and the communities in between, there are big issues and conversations happening across the country, and many times millennials are on the front lines. I yes, sometimes this means via their smartphones.

Student shoots Facebook Live video during rally
Student shoots Facebook Live video during rally / Photo by Nichole Moorman for The Athennial

There is this notion out, may it be a popular view or not, that the millennial generation does not care about politics. We’re disengaged. Lazy. We don’t vote, and would rather tweet about the issues than take action.

But there is a different story at Ohio University, and in many parts of the country. Our politics do not look the same, they do not act the same and are not received in the same way. But to call us politically disengaged in largely an understatement.

When it comes to protests and activism at Ohio University, some visible faces are at every protest. Jolana Watson, a first year graduate student at OU, has been involved with protesting at the university since her freshman year. She said her first two years at OU were important to her own political development. It was also at this university that she attended her first protest.

She has heard this criticism before, that millennials are disengaged, that they do not vote so they must not care about politics.

The voting issue is admittedly a problem, with millennials having the lowest turnout of any age group. Millennials make up 31 percent of the voting population, but only 46 percent of eligible millennial voters report voting in the 2012 election, according to Pew Research Center.

Watson herself understands this criticism, however she does not attribute low voter turnout to laziness.

“I think a lot of millennials are disengaged because we don’t trust the system, we don’t believe in it,” she said. “And so why participate in it? I know I myself was contemplating on, ‘Should I vote this year? I don’t really feel like it.'”

Watson explained millennial engagement doesn’t necessarily just look like filling in a ballot or campaigning for a specific candidate.

“I think it’s inevitable for us to become more politically engaged,” she said. “Maybe not in the way that older generations think we should be engaged, like I don’t see more millennials voting in the next election, but I can see more millennials going to rallies, starting marches, disrupting town hall meetings and calling their politicians.”

Social Media

As activists, it’s important for Watson and others to be able to organize and bring protestors together. For them, organizing is done largely through social media.

Megan Cartellone, a gender and communications major in the Bachelor of Specialized Studies program, said Facebook Events and Facebook Live have contributed to her organizing.

“I was actually the one doing the live video from the Union page when we got arrested and that spread so fast. That has like 20,000 views or something,” Cartellone said. “I think Facebook Live is just another means of producing our own media that is free from corporate influence. It’s essential for organizers to not only be organizers, but be producing our own media.”

Jazzmine Hardges, a communications studies and philosophy major, says that this is what makes millennials different from older generations in the political sphere. Organizing is less local and further reaching, she says.

“I think there’s still a lot going on, big things are happening as far as protesting and activism,” she says. “But I think it’s just a different structure.”

OU is not alone in its increase of demonstrations and protests. The same week as the Baker Center sit-in, peaceful protests at UC Berkeley spiraled into violence, a response to former Breitbart writer and controversial figure Milo Yiannopoulos’s appearance on the campus.

It’s a testament to the unparalleled political era we are entering, but also the unparalleled opportunity millennials have to speak their mind in the digital era.

Students rally against sexual assault
Students attend rally in response to OU English professor’s reported sexual harassment and assault of two graduate students / Photo by Nichole Moorman for The Athennial

Bobby Walker grew up in a politically progressive household. Her father was a journalist, covering the government and injustice in Guyana, the South American country they are from. With this sort of influence, Walker has always been politically active.

When she first started to do activist work on campus, there was this ongoing sentiment that people didn’t show up to protests or rallies because they didn’t care. It was the advice of a friend that made her realize that was far from the case.

“The truth is that people do care. You think people don’t care about the fact that they’re getting paid like, 8 dollars minimum wage and have hundreds of thousands dollars debt? People care about that,” she says. “The problem is people don’t know what to do with that energy, with their anger. They didn’t grow up in a time when social and direct action and all that sort of stuff was popular.”

She finds it insulting to suggest that millennials do not care about activism or the political climate around them.

“Almost all of the people that have been mobilizing over the last couple weeks have been high school kids! Who have been going to protests during class time,” she said. “300 people standing on the corner in the cold outside the Courthouse took the streets. 70 people got arrested. You can’t say people don’t care.”

Student holds sign during rally
Student holds sign during rally responding to OU English professor’s reported sexual harassment and assault of two graduate students / Photo by Nichole Moorman for The Athennial

For historical context, Dr. Kevin Mattson, author and professor of contemporary history at OU, points to the student activism of the early 1960s as the clearest examples historically of young people and politics. The Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War were hot issues, with activists organizing and recruiting students for activist work down south. Student activism today has changed, he says, with the work not having as clear a linkage to any one movement.

“Perhaps there are some linkages between students and [Black Lives Matter], but nothing as clear as the linkage with the civil rights movement during the 1960s, at least in my estimation,” he said. “[But] I’d say the clearest expression of student activism is the anti-debt movement. Now that more and more people are going to college and accruing debt. In some ways, I think activism has to rely upon some sense of self-interest rather than pure idealism.”

However, Mattson doesn’t find that this makes the millennial generation somehow apathetic.

I think that [millennials] are growing up in a world where the political system feels broken. This has a lot to do with the heavy influence of money on politics, gerrymandering, etc. But I don’t see millennials any more apathetic than my own generation – so-called Generation X,” he said. “And I’d say that it might be that Trump will change the world of student activism. I mean, would you have expected 70 plus arrests around some sort of Obama policy at OU?”

“I think part of the reason why we’re deemed to be not political or not engaged is because we’re not really raised to believe we can change the world in the way that we want to,” Cartellone said. “We’re truly realizing how severely things need to change in order to get better. Like, how much we need to break down and build in order to create the world that we want to see.”

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