The 300 or so people gathered in Monroe Park on Oct. 15 in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t conform to my expectations of how protesters conduct themselves.
I thought Occupy Richmond would consist of boisterous students waving signs, political activists distributing literature and perhaps aging hippies reliving their glory days. To be clear, all of those elements were present, but they weren’t the most striking part of the demonstration. What stood out was the decorum with which the assembly proceeded.
From voluntarily banning smoking within the gathering to deciding between Monument Avenue and Kanawha Plaza as campsites for the night, discussions were carried out with a degree of respect and efficiency that I’d never expect to see in a Congressional debate. It could be argued that it’s easy to be cordial when everyone is in agreement on the issues at hand, but that wasn’t the case either.
As one speaker put it, “All of you have views that you’re not going to agree with the person right next to you … but we must respect the democratic process.” This reverence for the rules reflects the influential role that millennials, the teens and twenty-somethings who make up my generation, play in the occupy movements nationally and worldwide.
The millennials are, by all accounts, a straight-laced bunch, hesitant to question the dictates of authority. We’ve proceeded through childhood and early adulthood wholeheartedly accepting the societal promise that those who respect the rules and work hard will be rewarded.
Politically speaking, the millennials’ faith in authority has meant that we are less wary of the government than previous generations. As a result of this docile attitude, many people my age haven’t been particularly politically engaged. But it’s becoming more apparent that this previous political apathy doesn’t equate to satisfaction with the status quo.
The first portents of political unrest among young voters came during the last presidential election. Barack Obama was the perfect candidate for a generation that wanted change without conflict. He promised sweeping reform of the system we knew, and he offered this overhaul within the boundaries of the establishment. We could simply vote for him, carrying out our assigned task as citizens, then sit back and watch the change happen.
And vote we did. Millennial voters chose Obama over John McCain by a margin of 66 percent to 32 percent, a disparity that recalls the youngest sector of the electorate’s heartfelt excitement for their champion reformer. In contrast to this enthusiasm, the years since the election have proven disheartening. Though the great challenges of Obama’s presidency, as well as his successes, deserve recognition, there’s no sense of a change in the way that government does business or business influences government.
We now find ourselves at an impasse with the next presidential contest in sight. After participating dutifully in the last election, we have nothing to show for it and no candidate on whom to pin our hopes. And as our feeling of political impotence grows, economic prospects for the millennial generation continue to deteriorate.
Particularly distressing is that a college education, once touted as the path to career success, is more frequently becoming a crippling debt burden to graduates who can’t find work. Even those who succeed in securing employment often struggle to pay their debt obligations from the earnings of an entry-level job.
Such financial difficulties aren’t surprising because students in the graduating class of 2011 left college with an average of $22,900 in student-loan debt in addition to their diplomas. This was the highest average of such debt of all time and is part of an aggregate national college loan debt that’s approaching $1 trillion.
Consider this situation against the backdrop of the financial crisis. We watched the financial sector implode because of deregulation approved in the lobbyist-packed halls of Congress, irresponsible lending and a willingness to circumvent the regulatory laws that remained in pursuit of increased earnings. We’ve observed the extraordinary profits made by banks bailed out with our tax money, the passage of watered-down financial industry reforms and a government that’s too caught up in its own political theatrics to avoid a debt-rating downgrade.
Yet we haven’t witnessed anyone take responsibility, much less face legal punishment, for playing a role in this fiasco. The burning question is why the accountability that’s been expected of my generation when it comes to repaying student loans, keeping up on credit-card payments and generally conducting ourselves within the limits of the law doesn’t seem to apply to members of certain income brackets and political bodies.
As I sat in Kanawha Plaza Saturday night and watched the hundred or so protesters who remained after marching from Monroe Park, I couldn’t help but wonder if the protests will yield meaningful reform or simply act as a short-lived escape valve for pent-up frustrations.
Regardless of how the protests evolve, it’s clear that there’s a significant population of angry, educated, underemployed young adults in our country who increasingly are willing to confront authority in pursuit of economic and social justice.
That is a powerful thing. S
Brent Merritt is a local writer who works in marketing and keeps an eye on politics.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.