I teach comp, mostly to freshmen. The next class that I keep planning, that keeps getting put off, is entitled, “Women, Modernity, and Revolution.” The title is pretty self-explanatory. But today I want to talk about one section of the course and the way it speaks to problems in contemporary protest movements. The section considers representations of social revolution as narrated by a young girl. My texts are the graphic novel, Persepolis, the film, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the young adult novel, The Hunger Games. I want to talk about these texts today (somewhat distantly) because they all present, in various ways, a very specific fantasy. All of these works use a young girl as a narrator because she offers a seemingly neutral, purely spectatorial viewpoint. Children are not expected to be political actors, so here is a subject that does not have to take a side. For the child, merely observing seems to be a natural, even a neutral position. These texts suggest that only bad or dead parents would not work to maintain this stance of neutrality and inaction until age 18.
However, in both these texts and in real life, the nimbus of “adulthood” surrounding either side of age 18 is a little confusing. Protective, panicked, outraged, or exasperated responses to militant political action often use the figure of the child—who cannot know her own mind, or foresee the consequences of her action—as their primary rhetorical stage. This often has nothing to do with the specificities of age 18. Some of you may remember an email that a prominent Berkeley professor wrote last year, complaining that the undergraduates involved in the occupation movement were always coming to her asking for help, always expecting her to defend them against the university. Or you may remember the complaints after the freeway protests, that anarchists were leading unwitting children unto the freeway (three juveniles were arrested, but not taken to jail; their parents were called). Finally, some of you may remember one strain of negative reactions to the Oscar Grant riots: the concern for the safety of Oakland’s children (not just in the riots, but also presumably sleeping in their downtown Oakland beds).
And I’m sure you are all aware of the student protests in Chile right now. You may or may not be aware that the student protest movement in Chile has a longer history. I lived there in 2006, and want to speak about my experience then to provide some ground for a more detailed discussion. Five years ago, students in the public and private school systems went on strike across Chile. Students occupied their schools. The largest, most prestigious universities got the most press, but smaller high schools and private schools were also occupied. According to La Tercera, more than 500 schools were on strike. More than 350 schools were taken over by the students. This led to a general strike that included high school teachers, truckers, and other worker unions. During this time, I was mostly in Santiago. The second-largest city in Chile, Valparaíso offered more of a dance party occupation, or Santa Cruz-esque, atmosphere.
On the days of the general strike in Santiago students had barricaded the area near the University of Chile’s main campus by pulling dumpsters and trashcans into the middle of the street and then setting them on fire. This worked for some time to protect the crowds and the looters from tear gas and water canons. I want to note that adult, middle class Chileans—the Chileans that I was living with and working with at the time—were scandalized, just shocked! that Chilean police would use tear gas and water canons on “mere children.” But this reaction only confirms the thing that I want to emphasize here –that the masked people setting the trash cans on fire, and breaking the windows downtown, and looting the stores, were the very young students, the junior high and high school students, not just 18 plus adults attending university. The students that I spent the most time talking to that day were thirteen and fourteen. In many parts of the crowd, very few people had reached their full, adult height. I’ve never seen a black bloc before that was composed of so many short people.
The protests in Chile now—what is now being called “Chilean Winter”—have a wider target, and are no doubt composed of some different students, though the photographs and news reports suggest that the population is still very young. However, in each case, both the actions of the students—and the police response to these actions—produced a kind of panic that is, I think, perhaps more easy to critique when it occurs in other political terrains. The language of this panic made me think of No Future, a book by Lee Edelman. The book is about a strain of homophobia that gets excused by the familiar refrain—“we must save and protect the children,” from the gays, in Edelman’s account. The book argues that this sentiment leaves us perpetually deferring political action, and political change, as one generation of children after another grows up. But this language of panic arises around the coupling of “the children” and militant political action as well, though it is less talked about, and though today’s youth may have more experience as political actors than many of their older, critical peers.
It is hard to talk about ageism and not sound like a jerk, I think. You end up creating these categories that don’t fit people, their beliefs, or their experiences. Nevertheless, I think it needs to be talked about, especially if, like me, one works with eighteen year olds every day, especially at a moment when a good chunk of the student protest movement in America consists of teenagers, not all technically, legally “adult.” I want to be able to talk about working with these political actors, not shepherding them or showing them the light. Chile then or now is certainly not the only instance, but it serves as a rebuttal of sorts, from the younger students and political actors in our midst. I think we can safely assert that they don’t need us, or anyone else, to save them.