Many, I expect, will look at the year 2020 as evidence for the familiar notion that the children will save us. We can expect familiar imagery of children at mass protests, children speaking in Congress or the United Nations, or children shouting into megaphones. This would be a shallow reading of 2020, at best. The children tried to save us, but no one cares what the children think. Relative powerlessness in accepted political spheres is not unique to Gen Z, it is the condition of every generation entering adulthood.
The youngest adult generation, members of Gen Z were born after 1996, are less powerful than their older counterparts, owning the least capital. Major political movements, however unintentionally, make this powerlessness potent. Generations that, by coincidence, are less engaged in political movements are less likely to notice or be bothered by their political impotence. In 2020, Gen Z has participated heavily in, and in many cases led, movements against police brutality and climate change.
The powerlessness of Gen Z is not to be compared to the systemic oppression of people of color, working-class people, or women, as it will inevitably be resolved with time. However, at this moment, members of Generation Z are shown the unimportance of their actions, opinions, and perspective in the inaction of their elders.
On Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter is not a movement belonging to or originating in Generation Z. The Black Lives Matter movement is the radical response of Black Americans to their continued state-sponsored oppression. The movement was founded in 2013 by Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as a response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was not arrested until 44 days after the murder, as a response to mass protests in Florida demanding he be charged for the crime. Martin was unarmed yet Zimmerman was acquitted on the claim that he killed Martin in self-defense.
As is often the case, members of Gen Z were overrepresented at protests, meetings, and other organizing work concerning Black Lives Matter. June polling of Gen Z Americans conducted by Business Insider indicated: 77% of Gen Z had already attended a protest to support racial justice, and 62% were willing to get arrested at a protest for this cause. At a protest on June 7th, Nupol Kiazolu the 19-year-old President of Black Lives Matter Greater New York summarized “young people have been carrying every single movement we’ve seen across the world, so it’s time for adults to step aside and uplift us. We are not just the future. We are the present.”
While young people participated more widely than older generations, the Black Lives Matter movement received historic support regardless of generational delineation. In July, polling documented about 26 million Americans participating in Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020. This makes Black Lives Matter the largest protest movement in the history of the United States. Notably, most of the organizations’ protests were organized locally and participation occurred organically. Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, told the New York Times “really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement.”
The members of Gen Z polled by Business Insider were optimistic about the effect of their participation and the movement overall, firmly situating their predictions in early 2020. More than half of respondents said protests did not need to be violent to create change, and 60% believed the summer’s non-violent protests would lead to significant change. In December 2020, it is clear that 60% was wrong.
A movement to defund the police is a challenge to American racialized capitalism, whether explicitly or inadvertently. U.C.L.A. History Professor Robin D.G. Kelley explained to The Intercept in June how this movement challenges the fundamental basis of American capitalism.
“The police protect capital,” said Kelley, “the police were designed to protect property going back to…the system of jails in cities in the 19th century. Those jails were designed to hold fugitives, runaways. When you’re trying to track down a runaway slave you pay a jail a fee to hold that enslaved person until the master could come, identify the person, and take them back into slavery.” Now, corporations donate money to the police to keep them operable, Wall Street invests in police brutality bonds, and modern capitalists otherwise support police power. Observers should not be surprised that “the violent acts of the police would be supported by capital…Because capital needs a police force that could terrify people.”
Racialized capitalism, Gen Z is being shown, will not be overthrown by a non-violent protest movement. Gen Z, as is evidenced by our early 2020 optimism, will be surprised by the support of capital for the violent acts of the police, and the influence of capital over government, despite its historical precedents.
In June 2020, a Monmouth University poll demonstrated a dramatic increase in the belief that law enforcement discriminates against Black people in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement achieved a remarkable shift in public opinion, however, this shift only highlights the disconnect between public opinion and policy.
The most conservative local movements consistently demanded cuts to police budgets, while the more radical movements called for police and prison abolition. In that same month, June 2020, the mayors of Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia pushed to increase or at least maintain police budgets, while cutting social services like youth programs, libraries, recreational centers, and education. A September 2020 Bloomberg CityLab study of the 34 largest American cities that have finalized 2021 budgets demonstrates that more than half of these cities increased police spending, or kept budgets unchanged. In total, police funding as a share of the general funds fell by less than 1% this year. Activist Jeralynn Blueford responded to these failures, saying “we allowed you to kill our children, and you said this was going to change, and you reneged on it. If we keep funding them, it gives them the green light to continue.”
On the Saturday after November’s Presidential election, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors wrote a letter to President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “In short, Black people won this election,” wrote Cullors. “We want something for our vote. We want to be heard and our agenda to be prioritized.” The incoming administration did not reply. This is unsurprising, considering Biden’s campaign rhetoric, which portrayed police officers as “good, decent honorable men and women” who “risk their lives every day to take care of us.” Biden plans to invest an additional $300 million in police departments across the country.
On Climate Change action
2020 will be the third hottest year on record. The period between 2011 and 2020 will be the warmest decade on record. In the first six months of 2020, almost 10 million people were forced to evacuate their homes as a result of natural disasters either induced or enhanced by climate change. In response, the Sunrise Movement, a youth movement to end climate change, reached out to 3.5 million swing-state voters in support of Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash commented in November “we delivered for Biden, now it’s his time to deliver for us.”
Prakash and other young climate activists will likely be disappointed. Biden has made clear he does not support a ban on fracking, which Food & Water Watch activist Mitch Jones called “a litmus test for how seriously you’re taking the problem of climate change.”
Biden has selected Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, as his Energy Secretary. Granholm has received significant financial support from chemical and energy companies contributing to climate change in her political history. In her 2006 reelection campaign, Granholm received at least $34,000 from DTE Energy. DTE is regulated by the Department Granholm is slated to lead and has a portfolio including electrical and natural gas utilities. Climate activists should assume Biden will fail to provide necessary change because the oil industry is “cautiously positive” about his victory, according to Jen Snyder, a director at Enverus, analysts for the oil and gas industry.
Non-violent social change movements can and have been successful through mass demonstrations and electoral politics, often with strong support from young activists. 2020, however, raised important movements that challenged the hierarchy of American capitalism: Black Lives Matter and movements against climate change. The failure of these movements to achieve their stated goals despite unprecedented mass support will demonstrate to Gen Z our powerlessness in the face of capital. It remains to be seen if this disillusionment will lead to radical leftist politics, right-wing politics, or deter Gen Z from political participation altogether.