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Excerpts from a review of Letters from Young Activists


by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
From Monthly Review

For the complete review see

…We may not have learned the lessons of the past, but among those are the lessons of defeat; the radicals among us still believe we can change the world.

This is the spirit of the new collection Letters from Young Activists, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow. The concept of the book is that young people in the United States, who have made a decision not to accept the world the way it is, write letters—to their parents, their movements, and Condoleezza Rice—explaining why. The strength of the book lies in its refutation of the conventional wisdom that young people have given up on seeking radical change….

To give a picture of a living, breathing movement in such a short space is no easy feat.

Yet a number of the letters rise to the challenge, and these make the book worth reading. Some letters succeed in vividly conveying the author’s sense of injustice, or of possibility. These are exciting to read because they impart their author’s inspiration to fight.

A letter by Joya Colon-Berezin “to anyone who will listen,” for example, uses the details of her own experience in the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement to impart a sense of the realities of life under a military occupation. Her letter begins:

I will never forget the tension in their backs. Massaging the backs of the nine- and ten-year-old kids living in Palestine felt like massaging my grandmother. Perhaps it had something to do with having their homes constantly raided by the army, or seeing their family members and neighbors killed. Maybe it also had to do with having their land confiscated, crops destroyed, and villages erased. After being there for two weeks I was already starting to feel tension building in my own back; it is impossible for me to imagine what a lifetime living under occupation would do.

With the unending campaign by the media and politicians in this country to dehumanize those living under occupation, a letter that helps us imagine what it feels like to travel through a checkpoint, or to live under a curfew where schools and stores are closed, is a welcome contribution….

…students and young people can also play a special and important role in social movements. They exist, as the socialist Daniel Singer once wrote, in a “strangely suspended state”:

Tomorrow they will be absorbed by the productive machine, conditioned by their class interest, more or less integrated into the system. Today, not quite torn from the domestic background but not yet prisoners of their future jobs, they are in an intermediate stage, when they are more likely to question their environment.

Historically, of course, this condition of questioning, and of willingness to take action, has led students and young people to initiate struggles that go on to dramatically transform society. This spirit of resistance is alive today, and some of the best chapters in the book detail the way this is beginning to happen.

The special place in society that young people occupy can be an advantage in building social movements; but youth is not an experience sealed off from others in society. Young peoples’ activism is also soldiers’ antiwar activism, antiracist activism, organizing of all kinds: the variety of emerging struggles documented in Letters from Young Activists attests to the multiplicity of young peoples’ experiences of activism.

This comes across in the exchange between U.S. war resister Stephen Funk and Israeli refusenik Matan Kaminer, written to each other as each underwent a trial for their resistance. It has also been apparent of late in what is probably the other most visible movement of young people since 9/11: the counter-recruitment movement, in which students have led the charge against military recruiters in their schools. This movement’s force has come from its participants’ strong sense that they are being targeted, that their schools are increasingly structured not with the goal of educating them, but of funneling them into a role as disposable soldiers for a war many of them oppose. This is necessarily a movement of young people—that’s who the recruiters are targeting, after all—but it is also a working-class movement which can raise wider questions about the priorities of a society that puts profits before education, decent jobs, and even life itself…