Through the lens of history, the 1960's are remembered as a time when the world changed. Thousands took to the streets, raising their voices in movements to redefine American Society as they knew it. Young people filled the ranks, claiming a new sense of justice and a new vision for their future. Fifty years have passed. The nation still wrestles with issues of war and peace, have and have not, connection and alienation. But the means of communication have been completely reinvented. And young voices are being raised in new settings with new and old methods.
I think students are beginning to raise the level of their voices a little higher, a little stronger.
It's not a state right to discriminate.
We have to remember, as Americans, that it is our ability to question; it is our right to question that makes us Americans.
In the resistance, in that space of friction, is where change occurs.
What works in the '60s and '70s doesn't necessarily work now. And it's our job to find the new forms of activism and the new ways to help this society grow to what we want to see.
You know, education is a right, and nobody should be taking that right away. It is my responsibility to fight for the rights of others, just like the rights for me were fought for.
The muscle and shoe leather of the civil rights movement largely came from a post-world war two generation of young Americans inspired by dreams of freedom and equality.
It was students who made such a difference during the Civil Rights Movement. Oftentimes even the leaders in the movement recognize the youth as those that didn't have to be afraid of losing their job, they weren't afraid of not having a house to go to when they went home and so they were more able and free to be at the frontline and then on the college campuses.
It was the '60s that gave us a whole way of thinking about questioning authority that didn't exist before. I would say that when people say it's apathetic now or there is no student activism I would just say maybe it was more visible then.
Students today think that students during the iconic '60s - activists, were more effective, they stopped the war, they ended Jim Crow, and that the reason that they did that is because they were smarter, they had better tactics, they were just larger. And part of what's important that students learn from studying the sixties is that the people who led progress were flawed people, they were people justlike you, right? And so that you don't feel that sense of distance. And if they could do it, you could do it.
This program looks at three young Utahns who have dared to step out of a comfort zone. Each has a unique issue. Each has a unique expression. Each represents a voice challenging the status quo. Esther Kim, a student at the University of Utah, took a different path to student activism. She literally embraced the journey of civil rights activists of the 1960's.
Today I'm flying to D.C. and I'm going to go and join 39 other students and original freedom riders to retrace the route of the Freedom Riders of 1961.
PBS selected forty young Americans to retrace the steps of the Rreedom Riders. Fifty years ago they were a handful of Americans who got on the bus to confront segregation in the Deep South. For Esther, this experience was uneven. In one respect, a sense that her personal concerns were not to be considered.
I don't feel like the bus was really a space to talk about Asian American issues. I feel like it was really focused on the historical aspect of black and white race relations within the South of the 1960's and so in that there wasn't a lot of space to talk about contemporary issues of race, and so it - I feel like it was kind of limited in that way.
But there was also a powerful sense of how the world, and issues of justice, have changed in the last fifty years.
There is kind of an oversimplified way of using Civil Rights tactics to activism today because oppression and discrimination have changed. They've gone from being more overt-like rules, and outwardly racist to more subversive, internalized kinds of oppression, and so it's more difficult to kind of pin-point and to rally around an idea because it's not as clear as someone spewing hate speech. I think oppression now is more insidious, it's more in our minds, and it's really hard for people to challenge that in themselves.
I used to be like that person who is just, you know, at every single - every single rally - Bush Rally, LGBT rally, rallies on immigration, but I think I've become more introspective and I've realized that as powerful as it can be to be among like tens of thousands of people, like at that immigration rally a few years ago, which was incredible, what actually changed? What came of that? And for me the kind of activism that I do is a focus on ideas and understanding systems of power, so I'm really passionate about talking to people about the things that I learn about and putting ideas out there and seeing what happens.
I just wanted to share some thoughts I had about history and geography and what that means for us today.
And I think about what it means to say to get on the bus today, and what are all the - what are all the potential meanings that come out of that, and that it's not just - it's not just a ride. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, you have to willing to say something that might put yourself in a position where nobody likes you and you have to be okay with that.
There were original riders that I had the opportunity to talk to and I was really touched by some of them. I mean, I had some really kind of profound conversations and I don't think I can ever forget those experiences. Hank Thomas was one of the original riders. He was on the ride, the most kind of infamous image of the Freedom Rides comes from - the firebombed bus. In 1961 he wasn't enough of a citizen to be able to ride on the front of a bus or to sit in a restaurant - to eat in a restaurant, but two years later he was enough of a citizen to be drafted into the Vietnam War. And he said he went because he thought that maybe someday he could come back and he would be seen as a citizen and it just brings up all these ideas and questions about citizenship and even if you're born in this country, what marks you like in or out, and with the way that we're living now is that ever going to change? I was born in the United States but I always get the question of where am I from, no, where am I really from. There's always this kind of move to push me into a category that I may or may not be a part of, and so that's really difficult, and I think that's a commonality that underrepresented people can recognize, and I mean that's a really painful piece about living in a country that celebrates all of these ideas about being free and being equal but it's not so, and why is it so hard to recognize that?
If Esther Kim is a reflection of the intensely personal challenge that prompts engagement, Melodia Gutierrez is the firebrand who believes in the power of collective action.
I'm a student at the University of Utah, I'm studying political science, and I just find political science fascinating. I don't think, I think the systems broken, and I love watching it, it's like my sports show - the Super Bowl, especially right now.
We're living in a more divisive atmosphere. We're living in a more racially charged atmosphere as a result of the immigration issues
Melodia is with United For Social Justice, a coalition of human rights groups currently focused on fighting anti-immigration legislation.
There was a time where I would go to sleep at night after watching the news so frustrated and just thinking of how can I help? And I thought our communities continue to be oppressed and I'm not doing anything about it, then I'm facilitating the process and I can't live with that. And so I thought, you know, I need to start becoming more involved and I need to do something about it. That's right, we've got to fund education, not deportation. As a child my parents were always involved in community organizing, educating the children - the neighborhood children, building churches. And so just learning community organizing from my parents and then experiencing the pain of not fitting in with the norm guided me in some aspect into social justice and activism. ...no to any state-led immigration reform, and say yes to human rights and social justice for all.
A huge benefit that comes out of these rallies and marches is showing there is opposition to some of these immigration bills that are being pushed through, number one. Number two it's encouraging other people to be involved. For the march we created a YouTube video in my apartment to gain support for the rally. And so it's a way to inform and a way to create a relationship and it's a really phenomenal tool. You know, when I think, you know, that about old activists not having that, you're just like, how did they create that movement without that? Social media is critical in activism at this point. I think we can see from the footage of Egypt how social media - I mean they had to shut down the Internet and they thought that would give them control - back control over their -over their people and it didn't. It's the same thing here. Social media without it, it would have taken us, I know that United for Social Justice for sure couldn't have gotten the amount of things we've gotten done in the past few months without social media. Well, you know I'll fall asleep planning, chatting on Facebook.
I'm pretty tired. It's really taxing, I haven't really done my homework the whole week, because I keep going - every time I get to my homework, I'm like, or even at work sometimes, and don't tell my boss, but sometimes I'm like, oh my God, there's like three things I need to do for this. And I end having to focus my energy on this. And as I've grown into this role I've had people that that don't like me or that say mean things and it's - that's really hard because the minute you take a position, the minute you are you know have that demarcation you 're automatically saying some people get on this side, some people get on that side.
No, we do not want Utah to become Arizona.
Some of my childhood friends have de-friended me from Facebook because I grew up super conservative, so they couldn't handle my positions. Other activists who have different styles of organizing, you know, may think I'm off my rocker a little bit, and it's really hard because you know yourself and you know where your heart is and you know all you want to do is support the common good and the good of the community.
Do you guys know what happened last night? This bill, HB497...
In the 2011 Utah State Legislative session, Melodia and others pushed back against efforts by the state to pass enforcement provisions on immigration. Viewed as a necessary crackdown by supporters, the new law swept through the session with overwhelming support.
I mean it's heartbreaking, my stomach hasn't stopped hurting. I think everybody, Ruby, when I just told her, Ruby Chacon, she cried. I mean this is serious. This isn't about just, just a game, you know, our way versus your way, this is actually affecting humans' lives.
I think the people in Egypt, the people in Tunisia, the people in Wisconsin, if they can get together and fight for their rights then Utah should be able to do the same thing. So hopefully this will serve as a reinvigorating time for us to come together as a people and unite.
I have a lot of hope. I think that there just hasn't been the right mix, the right chemistry of people, and the determination to work hard to make change happen, and if generations before us did it we can sure as hell do it too. So, I have hope.
How does one view of a just society reconcile itself with conflicting views? On a summer day, students gather in the Wasatch Mountains. The camp is run by the inclusion center, a group that teaches how to find respectful solutions to divisive issues.
Executive Director Inclusion Center for Community and Justice This Anytown Camp is a place where you bring young people together to explore their youth leadership skills.
Kilo Zamora has been working with young people at "Camp Anytown" for nearly twenty years. He's seen a lot of changes in how they view identity and activism.
And where we're at today as opposed to where we were, is there really was like, it's a black and white world. You're either this or you're that. You're a republican, you're a democrat. You're gay or you're straight. You're Catholic or you're non-Catholic. You know, whatever it might be. But the young people today live in a very multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gendered space. And because they live in this space, it changes the way in which they actually relate to their identities. All of these different ideas and identities are transforming the way in which they see themselves, and the way in which they're engaging with others.
Just put it on the page. We ain't judging nobody here. This is your culture. This is how we're going to express it, right?
I think it's a lot like standing in a river for them, and when you stand in a river, you can never stand in a river in the same place twice. So it's just constantly moving all the time. And so this constant, changing that's occurring in their environment, being informed in, kind of, the now, is really informing the way in which they create their own movement. They're just, you're - it's not uncommon to find young people who say, 'I identify with many movements that are happening right now.'
But how does an inclusive leader respond? Lets say when you go back to your community, you are asked to be a student body officer, you are asked to lead a faith group...
The definition of a community activist is being able to find the ways in which a system is inequitable, and then working to help the system expand itself. But as you do that, you face traditional values that have been there for long periods of time. And as you explore that, it's seen as a challenge. And in that place of challenge comes deep conflict, and that conflict comes out, historically, in many ways. One of the examples of that, that's happening in a contemporary way, is when we're seeing young people blogging about what is racism, what is sexism, and having other young people replying to that blog in hateful language.
Intern/Councilor Inclusion Center for Community and Justice I wrote this really touching blog post, really cheesy and really mushy, lots of camp emotions, and somebody commented anonymously on my blog about the other interns, specifically about how they were fags and spics and beaners, and trannies. It was just really hateful. Since we are such a strong community, the words that they say, sure, I don't know, they almost make us feel stronger, because we - it gives us another idea of what we want to break down in society.
So it's not uncommon that we are finding the place where the movement belongs, which is the place of inequities, and finding that as we speak out further and farther, that we are inviting resistance. Because in the resistance, in that space of friction, is where change occurs.
The conflict that produces change becomes part of the pages of our history. We remember the victory, but forget the pain of society confronting change.
Author, Freedom Riders Anyone who actually experienced those years will tell you that, that there were deep divisions. That just as many people who opposed the Vietnam War supported it. Just as many people who supported Civil Rights activism were very much opposed to, or at least were very passive. It's important to realize that not everybody took a stand.
From Henry David Thoreau to Rosa Parks, Americans have practiced civil disobedience - breaking laws they thought were unjust. One day they would be memorialized. But in their day, they confronted the pressure and pain of standing in a storm.
And I just had all of these thoughts racing through my head about, do I take this stand right here? And it is kind of a moment that I felt I had been building up to for a long time.
In 2008, Tim DeChristopher, a twenty-seven year old economics student took environmental protest to a new level. He walked into a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas drilling auction and started bidding on public land leases, even though he had no means or intention of paying for them.
I wanted to cause a bigger disturbance. I wanted to make some kind of a statement that this is not just a little issue that we need to hold a sign outside about. That this is a serious fraud against the American people and a serious threat to our future and it deserves greater action. I have seen the need for more serious action by the environmental movement for a long time. And as I kept hoping longer and longer that someone would step up and take that action and someone would make that sacrifice. Over time, I had come to grips with the fact that I might be that someone and that I might be my own best hope for my future. And I thought, if I do this, and worse comes to worse and I end up in prison for a few years, would I be able to live with that? And I thought, yeah, I could live with that, it would suck, but I could live with that. On the other hand, if I see this opportunity and see that I could potentially protect some of this land and keep some of this oil in the ground to give us a better chance at a livable future, and I don't take that opportunity, could I live with that? And I thought, no. I can't live with knowing that I saw an opportunity to make this difference and I didn't take it.
DeChristopher became a lightning rod. He was either a principled hero or an anarchist dedicated to destroying the system. You were either against him, or with him.
Tim was just sentenced to two years in federal prison. The prosecution clearly stated that they were looking for a harsh sentence. They were looking for incarceration in order to deter us from any future action, from what they consider to be criminal behaviors. If there was ever a day, if there was ever a moment in history for us to stand for climate justice, this is that moment.
I didn't expect nearly this much attention or nearly this much support.
And in the future we need to start doing similar things to what Tim DeChristopher did when we are faced with similar injustice.
I think it's an indicator of how eager people are for grassroots action in this country. People really yearn for that. People want to be involved. They want to do more than sit at home and send in their donation. They want to actively defend their future. And that is really what social movements are. They are groups of people who don't have legitimate access to power and have to find other ways of creating change.
One way to think about what activism is, is that activism - those forms of trying to change the economy, and the polity which step outside of the institutional channels which are already there. It's hard to conceive of why you would call a society democratic if the possibility of activism weren't there. If people didn't have the right and the capacity to step outside of electoral politics and to express their own conception of their future, to have some voice in the decisions which affect their lives.
In the fall of 2011, thousands of Americans across the nation, made a decision not to march, but to Occupy - to challenge the fairness of the economic system from Wall Street to Main Street. Their tent cities drew praise and condemnation.
I would still make the assumption that societies aren't stable, and that activism operates as a kind of check on the system and it keeps it from going too far in the direction of serving the needs and the interests of people at the top. So, yes I think the activist possibility is very much a necessary part of democracy.
It may be necessary for democracy, but it is seldom neat. Even if it is essential, it is often painful. The resulting change may be inevitable, but it will also certainly meet with resistance. But this notion of activism - of young voices raised - this path to freedom's promise - is undeniably American.
This is what democracy looks like!