ourEconomy

This election can’t contain the rage of young Americans

In the most important election in my lifetime, who speaks for my generation?

Aaron White
29 October 2020
Image: Aaron White

“Mic check, mic check. We’re gonna try something different,” a young Black woman bellowed into the bullhorn, joined by two young marching band drummers.

“You, can’t, stop, the revolution”, she sang. “You can’t stop the revolution” louder this time. Hundreds followed behind, bopping to the rhythm.

The crowd had been marching for hours, steadily growing as the night progressed, picking up angry and lonely mourners along the way.

The routine was all too familiar. Chanting into the dark and desolate concrete canyons of lower Manhattan, watched by the drone and helicopter buzzing above.

“Whose bridge? Our bridge!” The leaderless crowd, now amassing to a couple thousand, chanted as they seized the Williamsburg overpass.

As I walked back home, the chanting echoed onto the adjacent streets lined with shuttered businesses and makeshift homeless shelters.

What future?

One in four young people in the United States seriously considered suicide in June.

Around 52% of 18-29 year olds are living with their parents – the highest percentage in more than a century.

Those of us born between 1981-1996 own just 4.6% of wealth, even though we are 35% of the total workforce – the largest cohort in the labor force.

In this collapsing empire, there’s not much to look forward to.

Nearly a thousand Americans are dying every day from COVID-19, and models predict that the virus could take more than 400,000 lives by the end of year. Twelve million Americas have been kicked off their employer based insurance since the pandemic began, tens of millions face the immediate threat of eviction. And 45 million Americans continue to carry a collective $1.6 trillion of student debt.

Many young people are suffering in solitude, exacerbating an already pervasive epidemic of loneliness.

Children are watching the small towns they grew up in reduced to ash along the West Coast, as the prospects of a hospitable future appear more futile every year.

And all the while, the federal government, even on the eve of the election, has refused to pass another much needed stimulus package to prevent millions from falling off the cliff edge.

Yet even amidst this darkness, a revolutionary energy has captured the minds of young people across the country. Beneath the superficial election noise – the varnish of vanity has worn off, exposing a beautiful awakening of solidarity and determination to build a radically better future.

A long March

For many young people, Bernie Sanders was the one presidential candidate that was able to speak directly to our needs. He was going to be the one to dismantle the rotten system: abolish student debt, decommodify the healthcare industry and institute a wealth tax.

But his candidacy collapsed in March after the remaining moderate candidates consolidated behind Joe Biden at the last minute.

For those who were part of his campaign, it was a devastating end. Bernie triggered a renewed belief in democracy – that there were some politicians that cared about you, who would fight for you. He understood that the system was rotten.

This wasn’t, as Cornel West would say, that milquetoast neoliberal hope. It was the kind that spoke to the constant battle for dignified survival, in a vicious system that suffocates so many Americans, so much of our generation.

He spoke to those graduates sent off into the world in a deep pit of debt peonage; bar staff who fear a surprise medical emergency will spontaneously send them into bankruptcy; Uber drivers and independent contractors surviving off lower wage, algorithm-based work; and those overwhelmed by the prospect of an uninhabitable future.

And then COVID-19 struck.

I didn’t know it was my last day, I never got to say goodbye.

The hospitality industry disappeared overnight. Many were forced to abandon their lives of precarious independence, moving back home or struggling under the weight of unpaid utility and rent payments. The ideal of an independent life – of liberty – moved even further out of reach overnight.

“There was no time to process, no one understood what was happening”, Sarah, a former assistant general manager at a restaurant in midtown New York, told me.

As restaurants were ordered to shut down on 16 March, many in the hospitality industry were left out in the cold. “I didn’t know it was my last day, I never got to say goodbye.”

Those with Social Security numbers applied for unemployment benefits. Undocumented immigrants were totally abandoned by the system.

“Only one guy out of 40 who worked in the kitchen qualified for unemployment. Some of them had worked in this restaurant for nearly fifteen years.”

Millions filed for unemployment every week, making the Great Recession of 2007-2009 look a minor blip. Many more tried to file, but couldn’t get through the backlog. “You couldn’t call, it would take me six hours just to get through.”

The state labor department websites were unprepared and overwhelmed. An estimated 60 million people in the US were fired between mid-March and the end of April, nearly a third of the entire labor force. 12 million people have lost their employee tied health insurance.

However, many in my generation never had any insurance to begin with.

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As businesses and schools shuttered overnight, the streets emptied. Between March and May, an estimated 110,000 small businesses across the country closed.

The howls of sirens grew exponentially. At night the only vehicles I saw on the streets were ambulances.

Over the final two weeks of March, New York went from its first reported death to over 1,000 as incarcerated inmates dug mass graves on Hart Island.

Only the disposables were forced to walk the streets: the essential workers and those with nowhere else to sleep.

Utility and rent bills went unpaid. Child hunger soared as the schools that provided free meals closed. The percentage of children who “sometimes lacked enough to eat” grew 14 times higher than last year.

The government did very little to help. The rich got even richer.

“I can’t breathe”

In May, the video of George Floyd’s murder sparked the largest social movement in the history of the United States. Up to 26 million people say they joined Black Lives Matter protests.

In New York, amorphous crowds formed all over the city as the police responded in full body armor.

As I left my house one evening, a swarm of teenagers ran towards me, as cops were chasing them from behind. One of the kids, whilst clutching a skateboard, jumped on top of a police van and smashed the window. I ran with the crowd, afraid of getting kettled.

I turned a corner and saw a police car on fire. Behind me, the windows of a bank were smashed, the words “fuck the system” grafittied next to the shards.

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The next day trucks brought in plywood. Workmen boarded up the stores. The mayor instituted a curfew as helicopters circled the sky all night long. Sleep became impossible.

And then came the collective mourning.

Intimate forums in public parks and squares were organized by different groups around the city. At a spontaneous assembly in Washington Square Park a Black teenager grabbed the mic: “I am more afraid of being killed by the police than I am of COVID.” Many nodded in unison.

Activists from VOCAL-NY, The Black Youth Project and other organizations came together to establish an encampment outside City Hall demanding that the Mayor cut the NYPD budget by $1 billion.

I am more afraid of being killed by the police than I am of COVID.

The occupiers painted their dreams on large sheets of canvas; hosted radical reading groups; watched civil rights documentaries from the 60s; and fed the hungry and the homeless.

A healthcare station was established: no deductibles, no copayments. People cared for one another unconditionally.

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Image: Aaron White

The cops had had enough though. It was time to crack down on these dirty kids. At 4am, nearly a hundred NYPD officers showed up in body armour. The crowd responded: “Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here.”

The next day hundreds of teenagers gathered to protect the occupation. Lines of defense were erected, and plastic barriers were placed in the middle of adjacent streets. Those with bikes formed rows of protection in front, hundreds firmly stood behind, arms locked.

This was no fire drill. The occupation would be protected at all costs. This was our new education, the lived practice of solidarity.

An older Black man, pensively looked out at the human barricades. He told me: “you gotta do what you gotta do. It wasn’t easy going over the Edmund Pettus bridge. Nothing’s easy. King got stabbed”.

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Image: Aaron White

A couple of weeks later, the cops won. The occupiers were evicted. Yet the marches continued. Every single night.

After the Kentucky Attorney General announced that none of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor would be charged with homicide, a huge wave of protesters passed my apartment, and I joined them. As the night progressed, hundreds more did the same.

“No justice, no peace! Black women matter!” a young Black woman screamed, her vocal chords worn out.

Geritocracy

US political institutions operate in a different reality. The Senate has an average age of 62; whilst the House of Representatives is slightly younger at 58.

Those leading the political resistance are stuck in a bygone era.

Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee is 87 years old. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, is 80 years old. Their net worths are $58.5 and $54 million respectively. The political system works just fine for them, they are in charge.

Blinded by an addiction to wealthy donors and legislative decorum, their check on incipient authoritarianism is delivered in the form of symbolic gestures: kente cloth, shredded speeches, or even a celebratory hug.

Nothing would fundamentally change

Joe Biden is their leader, harking back to a mythical land of yesterday when things were ‘normal’. He is the one who has made a career of appeasing their corporate constituency. “Nothing would fundamentally change”, he told donors at a New York fundraiser last year.

He will raise the corporate tax rate to 28% (where it was when Trump entered the Oval Office); he will protect and build on Obamacare, increasing the subsidies for private plans, ensuring no one pays more than 8.5% of their income on insurance.

He boasts about “beating the socialist”. The game will continue, this time with more decorum. No need to worry: he is not going to abolish the private health insurance industry; he is not going to cancel all of your student debt; he is not going to defund the police; and he is not going to scale down the Pentagon budget. He’s the safe bet.

And he knows how the game operates, he’s been at it since 1972 – the same year the Godfather was first released.

For us, normal is crisis

When I was six years old, my school principal disrupted my first grade class. She sat in front of the room and demonstrated with her hands that two airplanes had crashed into two very large buildings near us. The school day was over, our parents would be picking us up early that day.

Life overnight was turned upside down. For the next several days my parents made me wear a mask to protect my young lungs from the dangerous air. Life slowly returned back to a new normal.

In Washington the partisan bickering wasn’t as intense. Back in the days of that normality, radical agendas had bipartisan support: the Patriot Act, the Authorized Use of Military Force, the invasion of Iraq. Every military budget passed without a problem.

The militarism swept into daily life with unanimous consent. I became numb to NYPD officers with massive machine guns patrolling subway stations. Sometimes I was late to high school, as the police inspected my backpack for the off chance I was carrying mass explosives, not heavy textbooks.

I was the privileged one. In foreign lands US drones patrolled the skies, striking “enemy combatants” on a whim. School children were collateral damage. Before long, this sophisticated surveillance technology came home to roost.

And then came 2008. The banking system collapsed. Congress swiftly acted, passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program. And as the government purchased nearly $700 billion worth of assets and injected equity into failing financial institutions – including those responsible for the subprime mortgage bubble – millions of homeowners faced eviction.

No one was arrested, and executives continued to rake in enormous bonuses. Millions on the outside suffered. The system was operating as normal.

Doses of reality

As the movement demanding an end to endless greed has grown stronger, allies of the streets have started to make their stamp on the halls of power – bringing with them a strong dose of reality.

In 2018, several unabashedly progressive women entered the Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tliab and Ayanna Pressley. And this year the ‘Squad’ will likely expand with the addition of Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush. They campaigned on a bold agena: passing a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a Homes Guarantee, dismantling the military industrial complex, and instituting a reparative economic agenda.

Young radical organizations pushed them over the line. Justice Democrats, a group of ex-Bernie staff members, built a movement to bring real working class people into Congress. The Sunrise Movement, an army of young people, swarmed the phone lines, knocked on doors, produced brilliant ads, and participated in civil disobedience to win a Green New Deal.

And over the last several years organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have seen their ranks increase by tens of thousands – many inspired to join by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The revolution extended down the ballot. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, a slate of young and diverse socialist candidates were elected to serve in the state legislatures, bringing the cries for a dignified future inside the halls of power to fight for a homes guarantee, gig worker rights, a Green New Deal and dismantling systemic racism.

The party elders unified against these newcomers, who were intent on breaking up the established order. The old tricks aren’t working as well as they used to, however. The times have changed.

As the old withers away, the new is being born. But is it too late?

The margins of despair

With Congress and Trump failing to pass another stimulus before the election, the United States is entering a very dark winter.

The first stimulus package that passed in March included about $500 billion for small business loans. Those lucky enough to receive the funds have found they are rapidly running out.

What happens when more than a third of small businesses in New York disappear forever? And what happens to all the chefs, bartenders, managers and cleaning staff whose incomes depend on these jobs?

Nearly 23 million Americans are still on unemployment aid, with over a million continuing to file every week.

What happens to the 40% of Americans who couldn't – even before the pandemic – afford an unexpected $400 dollar expense?

Since May, eight million Americans have fallen into poverty, with minorities and children being hit the hardest.

The crack at the center of America is growing.

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Trump supporters at Bellingham Pride Festival - Bellingham, Washington, 11 July 2016
Across the country, people tell me they back racial equality, LGBTIQ and abortion rights, and believe in climate change. Even Trump voters do. There’s just one problem.

And as MSNBC continues to focus on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Fox News reliably delivers state propaganda – where are the voices of the millions on the brink of survival?

Why aren’t the eviction figures given a red “breaking news” banner? Why aren’t the soaring child hunger rates given a ten minute prime-time slot? Where are the interviews with the college graduates who are $50,000 in debt and barely able to pay the rent and keep food on the table? And where are the images of the scorched cities in the midwest, where the smoke is so intense and deadly that people are lining doors and windows with blankets?

Seeds of spring

US society is broken. The exceptionalist mythology of the American empire has combusted; the American dream is dead.

But as the cracks widen, and the suffering deepens – light is rising from the depths of despair.

A new generation of people has blossomed from the ashes, intent not on reforming the system, but dismantling it. Dismantling the “security” infrastructure that indiscriminately terrorizes Black and brown people at home and abroad; dismantling the toxic addiction to endless extraction; and dismantling the political institutions that cloak brutality in the language of “democracy”.

Irrespective of next week's election outcome, the angry mourners and the lonely dispossessed will continue to seize the bridge to a more dignified tomorrow.

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