Generational Activism

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Activism has long, historical roots in the United States that are sewn into the Constitution. The right for individuals to peaceably assemble has, and does, pave the way for groups to achieve political goals. But has activism changed? The OUtlet’s Juli Holbert takes a look at how different generations view protest and activism.

Nina Richner, a 21-year-old at Ohio University, protests as a way of communicating and achieving goals. As a young millennial, Nina experiences protest and organization digitally.

“I attend marches and speak outs and I’m also an outspoken role model for kids in my hometown in Texas who are queer and need someone to talk to, which I consider a form of activism,” Richner said. “It’s mostly through Facebook messenger, but I have a Snapchat friendship with one of the kids, and there’s text and email as well, but mostly Facebook.”

Last year, Nina and 69 other students were arrested after staging a sit-in inside Baker University Center at Ohio University. The group has become known as the “Baker 70,” and while the protest was about President Trump’s travel ban, the circumstances surrounding students’ arrests sparked a debate at Ohio University about free speech and protest on campus – largely because technology allowed events to be broadcast in real time.

“I think it helped shape our peers immediate response,” Richner said. “Originally I was upset because of not having consented to be on camera, but after thinking about it, it was nice to not have to answer questions about it. Like ‘Are you sure the cops aren’t doing this?’ ‘Are you sure you aren’t over exaggerating how many of them were there?’ It also rallied our supports and let them know we were safe, etcetera.”

The internet savvy of the Baker 70 didn’t end with live streaming. Facing costly legal fees, the group devised a strategy to help alleviate expenses as well as spread their message.

“Previously, funding for activists situation that would require money was difficult. It was people donating their money and activists donating their money, asking friends and family for cash,” Richner said. “Something you could do while talking to someone, or letter writing campaigns, something like that. Crowdfunding has revolutionized fund raising completely… So quickly we got 1000 or more dollars from OU alumnis from all over who would’ve never been able to help this cause before.”

But not all members of the activist community in Athens feel as confident in the “new school” ways of protesting and organizing online. “Hashtag” activism is something that Jake Hagman, a 35-year-old Ohio University staff member, criticizes as a lazy effort.

“There was a movement early on within social media of, I called it, ‘hashtag activism,’ ‘slacktivism’ is another term that would be used,” Hagman said. “People posting things on

Facebook, on Instagram and on Twitter, whatever the hashtag might be, feeling that they were contributing the cause by doing that. Predominantly white, middle class people from the suburbs, from the comfort of their own home.”

For Jake, physically showing up to a variety of rallies is his way of showing solidarity with underrepresented individuals – it is a lesson he’s passing down to his 5-year-old son Judah. They recently attended the Athens’ March for Our Lives rally. Judah made a poster to use at the protest.

“Everything for Judah’s picture he did himself. He wrote it himself, he colored it in himself, signed his own name on it,” Hagman said. “His poster said ‘No More Guns’ and then he drew a picture of the elementary school that he goes to and was very proud of his poster, and was showing it off both while we were doing the poster party and at the march itself to anyone who was around.”

Jake’s analog childhood and digital adulthood means that while he embraces technology in everyday life, he is critical of the way that organization happens online. His research for his master’s degree has helped shape his belief that “old school” activism is more effective than “new school” approaches.

“My master’s is in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. So I studied heavily the women in power movement, gay liberation, black power, brown power for Latinos, red power for Native Americans,” Hagman said. “A lot of the social movements that were going on and how they’d take to the streets, [did] what is happening with groups now like Black Lives Matter, and they would shut things down with their bodies and with their presence. With posters.”

Though Jake, like many others on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, learns about protests through online movements, there are still a group of people in Athens who protest the “old-fashioned way.”

The “Courthouse Protesters,” as they are locally known, meet every Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the corner of Court and Washington streets.

“Unless Christmas is on a Monday, we might not come out then,” Elizabeth Westenbarger said.”

Westenbarger is 80 years old and while she’s been part of the “Courthouse Protesters” for about a year, the vigil itself is a 39-year-old tradition.

“It’s a peace and justice vigil. That’s the principal thing,” Westenbarger said. “Everything that people stick up words about, goes back to that. Peace and justice issues. There can’t be any peace without justice, for all.”

The vigil raises awareness for many things, spanning from racial discrimination to environmental issues. Marty Zinn, a 74-year-old retiree who also takes part in the vigil each week, sees a huge difference in the way that young people protest today.

“There isn’t the kind of presence on the streets of the younger generations that of course, in my era of the 60s, it was really exciting because we thought, and we did, change the world in many ways,” Zinn said.

Despite the differences from old school and new school styles of protest, high school and college students appear to be more visibly active than in decades’ past.

“They seem to understand that it’s going to take a lot of perseverance but they can win if they do persevere,” Zinn said.

And whether activists work to mobilize people through social media or old-fashioned marches — the goal is to get people participating in the democratic process.

“When their minds are convinced, they vote,” Zinn said. “It’s really in the voter booth that change happens.