Youth activism at a crossroads

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Feb 15 14:10:24 MST 2002

Canadian Dimension
January/February 2002

Youth Activism at the Crossroads
By Joel Harden

"I came here to protest the killing of turtles. I'm going home
determined to turn the world upside down."

These were the words of a young environmentalist who took part in the
storied "Battle of Seattle." Her words are not unique: thousands upon
thousands of youth across the globe are waking up to activism and
taking their voices to the streets. As they challenge the world's
injustices, they are beginning to learn what will be necessary to end
these injustices for good.

Youth activism, of course, is nothing new. In the annals of recent
history, from the heady days of 1968 to the present, young upstarts
have figured prominently in struggles for a better world. Indeed, the
exciting spirit of resistance in the past two years - particularly
the anti-capitalist mood within the broader anti-globalization
movement-has resonated loudest among the politically newborn. Here
calls for reforms to trade deals have won less support than arguments
surveying the ruins of capitalism itself. Amidst the tear gas and
riot police in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Buenos Aires or Quebec
City, there were few cries for "corporate responsibility." The most
popular slogans are revolutionary claims: "This is what democracy
looks like," "Our world is not for sale," "Human need not corporate
greed," "A better world is possible."


About youth activism, however, one thing is for certain: the
anti-capitalist mood inside today's anti-globalization movement has
provoked a shift away from the single-issue campaigning and
parochialism that marked youth politics during much of the seventies,
eighties and nineties. In the West, as the reach of today's
insatiable markets has spread extensively on campus, an ideological
war is being waged by a growing minority of youth who name capitalism
as the source of their problems. Elsewhere, youth are gaining the
confidence to take on dictatorial regimes that rightly fear the
agitational role young radicals are playing. These are the battles we
look at in detail here.

Indonesia and Serbia: Youth in Revolution

"Indonesia is rich in raw materials yet the people live in misery.
The people can no longer afford to eat or buy medicine. This is all
the fault of the system - this is what we have to smash." - Cecep
Daryus, Indonesian student leader

"We did it on our own. Please do not help us again with your bombs."
- Serbian student

Both of these quotations come from student radicals who participated
in recent popular revolutions that ousted hated dictators. The
defiant spirit to resist leaps from the pages of those who wrote
about the events of May, 1998, in Indonesia and October, 2000, in
Serbia. In both instances, youth played a major role in urging
forward oppositional movements. At the same time, both revolutions
ultimately fell short of their aims, and hold important lessons for
young radicals trying to build a mass movement today to change

U.S. President Richard Nixon once let the cat out of the bag when he
referred to Indonesia in the following way: "With its 100 million
people and 300 mile arc of islands containing the region's greatest
hoard of natural resources, Indonesia is the greatest prize in South
East Asia." For decades Indonesians - not to mention the East
Timorese and others in the periphery of Indonesia - have suffered
terribly as various imperial powers have backed one the world's most
notorious regimes. Enormous transfers of money have poured into
Indonesia for decades in hopes of maintaining ties to the prized
natural resources in the region. Military supplies and training have
been delivered to Indonesia from abroad in bountiful quantities. Many
who studied the regime felt President Thojib Suharto, who ruthlessly
attacked even the mildest forms of dissent, appeared as an almost
unstoppable force.

But rumours of the death of Indonesian resistance were greatly
exaggerated. Mass demonstrations broke out shortly after Suharto had
rigged yet another parliamentary election in 1997. Rioting was
rampant in the streets of Jakarta as upwards of one million people
held the streets. Strikes figured in this wave of dissent, which led
to a brutal crackdown on trade-union leaders. This crackdown did not
deter workers who in some instances went on to win major gains
through mass strikes.

Early 1998 also saw major waves of protest in Indonesia as rising
prices and high levels of unemployment battered the country.
Suharto's cynical response was to blame ethnic Chinese in Indonesia
for the downturn, and this racism was supported by many of the large
Muslim organizations. Military provocateurs posing as rioters then
waged a vicious campaign of brutality against ethnic Chinese that
sadly spread among some sections of Indonesia's immiserated
underclass. At the same time, the rioting also hit political targets
where the organized working class was strong.

As the protest wave built, the Indonesian military warned students
not to take their demonstrations off campus. The advice was roundly
ignored. The students gained more support as the military attacks on
them increased. When Suharto announced in May that democratic reform
would come only in 2003, the barometer of campus unrest shot through
the roof. It intensified twofold as the government announced it was
cancelling subsidies for fuel and electricity prices due to an IMF
directive. Workers everywhere began to move into action.

The ten days in mid-May that followed contained the moments most will
remember from the Indonesian revolution. As youth began to drift into
the streets, rioting and looting were now concentrated much more on
Suharto's elaborate network of crony capitalism. These were the
moments when military officers at times showed open sympathy with the
uprising, often urging looters "take turns" to ensure a fair
distribution of given warehouse's supplies. Whole sections of Jakarta
burned, costing many lives. At first most students, in the name of
non-violence, refused to join the riotous events in the street. But
on May 19, not long afterwards, over 30,000 began occupying the main
parliament building in Jakarta. Workers, who moved into action much
more slowly, sent representatives to support the initial occupation,
and joined the youths' call for Suharto to step down.

Most are aware of the most obvious result of the Indonesian
revolution: Suharto resigned on May 21, but was replaced by B. J.
Habibie, a close supporter of the old regime. Less well known is the
fact that a vigorous debate broke out inside the student occupation
of the parliament building about whether workers or peasant
supporters should be allowed in. Sadly, the leadership of the
occupation fought bitterly against the unity position, ordering that
pamphlets backing the idea be torn up and a cordon put in place to
block anyone from entering. The failure for a united voice between
students and workers meant that the largest demonstrations during the
Indonesian revolution were co-opted by liberal opportunists desperate
to restore order, even if that meant supporting Habibie.

The Serbian revolution in October, 2000, shares much in common the
Indonesian example. Once again, youth were the initial force to
challenge Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's rigging of the
September 24 elections. Students had been a thorn in Milosevic's side
for some time, but in an organized fashion for only two years. In
1998 a spirited wave of dissent was raised against the Serbian
government's proposed 1998 University Act. The new legislation
allowed the state the right to directly appoint Deans or Rectors, who
then would oversee all faculty hirings. The Act also compelled
professors to sign documents many recognized as declarations of
support for the Milosevic regime. Over 150 professors were fired once
the Act was introduced.

The Faculty of Philology in Belgrade (housing the literature and
foreign language departments) was a particular target. The neofascist
Serbian Radical Party - among the three parties in Serbia's ruling
coalition - appointed an ultranationalist dean to the faculty, who
quickly used his arbitrary powers to sack most of the
world-literature department. Students responded with months of
protests. Within these events emerged a small group of activists who
referred to themselves as Otpor! ("Resistance!" in English). Otpor!
and others managed to chase the appointed dean out of the faculty,
and force the reinstatement of the fired professors.

The confidence arising out of this experience was clearly infectious.
Otpor! began to mobilize in a serious way, often using the weapons of
satire and comic theatre to confuse their opponents. Sometimes youth
would amass in large numbers to play the board games Monopoly or Risk
in public venues, emphasizing how Milosevic was toying with their
future. When Milosevic once declared himself a national hero, Otpor!
printed stickers and badges in mass quantities that read: "I am a
national hero."

Otpor!'s goal was to build a broad coalition that sought to mobilize
the vast majority who detested Milosevic. As one activist put it:
"Milosevic controls the media, and he has 20 per cent of the people
in his pocket. The rest of the country hates his guts and knows he is
an evil tyrant. It's our job to motivate those 80 per cent." But
Optor! faced a problem: while most Serbians detested Milosevic, there
was little enthusiasm for the opposition parties who were frequently
just as corrupt, and often collaborated with the existing regime.
Hence the reason the primary demands concentrated on ousting
Milosevic, drawing less attention to support for any parliamentary
opposition (though such support remained their official position). An
Otpor! spokesperson is reported to have announced at one opposition
rally: "If you betray us again, next time we will bring ten thousand
of our people."

When Milosevic tampered with the September 24 elections, Otpor! took
the lead in many regions, filling the streets in protest. High-school
youth were seen everywhere. The Kolubara miners and thousands of
other workers joined the revolution, and thus began the tumultuous
days of October 5. The parliament building was set ablaze and the
national television station taken over, while police and security
forces countered with little or no resistance. Milosevic's regime had
been toppled, and many of his sympathizers were driven out of their
posts. The revolution remained a problem once Vojislav Kostunica's
liberal opposition took power, which quickly moved to condemn the
worker-management experiments that had become commonplace during the
revolutionary fervour. Youth activists and workers accomplished what
NATO's 78-day bombing campaign had failed to deliver - ousting
Milosevic from power. This was largely done in three days, and not
one bridge, school, or hospital was damaged.

Otpor! has begun to steadily unravel from within since the
revolution, due in large part to internal disagreements about the way
forward. Moreover, news that Otpor! may have received outside support
from U.S. government and non-government sources has tarnished its
image as an independent voice for democracy and freedom of
expression. Be that as it may, even if Otpor! was used - willingly or
not - as an arm of U.S. interests, more telling is the fact that the
masses of Serbians were deeply moved with their courageous campaign
in the face of the Milosevic regime. Using tactics quite similar to
the creativity seen in recent anti-capitalist mobilizations, Otpor!
struck a chord with a public fed up with the huckstering gambit of
Serbia's political parties. The weakness for Otpor! - much like it
was with the Indonesian youth - was their failure to orient towards
building unity with workers and other allies. Youth proudly sought
out workers in the heat of the battle, but little effort was made
beforehand to extend the reach of Otpor! into the ranks of the
working class. This unnecessary polarization, coupled with the
reports of U.S. involvement, has left Otpor! isolated and incapable
of being a serious threat to the Kostinica government.


Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 02/15/2002

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