Article: Young People, Protest, and Policy: A 21st Century Model of Social Change

Author: Maanas Sharma | Tags: , , , , , ,

Maanas Sharma discusses recent examples of youth-led political engagement, focusing on #EndSARS in Nigeria and #BlackLivesMatter in the USA and globally.

Each election cycle, some things are certain: countless campaign signs in front yards, even more campaign stickers, and a never-ending news cycle. More recently, the startlingly low voter turnout rates among young people have made headlines each year. A recent New York Times study of 24 developed, democratic countries found that young voting rates were lower than the general population’s in each of them (Symonds, 2020). Of course, this begs the question of why. I argue that the relative disengagement of youth with electoral systems — and traditional political institutions more broadly — is a function of disillusionment and a shift towards a more participatory form of democracy.


Admittedly, protest, particularly among young people, is not a new phenomenon. In the United States, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was one of the largest and most prominent organizations during the civil rights movement (Library of Congress, n.d.). During the Vietnam War of the 1960s, students around the world were the face of the anti-war effort (Furlong & Cartmel, 2011). However, research by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has tied the declining rates of voter participation to “a rise in other forms of citizen activism, such as mass protests, occupy movements and increased use of social media as a new platform of political engagement” (Leterme, 2020). Hence, I focus on two of the prime models of this newfound widespread, youth-led political engagement: #EndSARS and #BlackLivesMatter.


In 1992, experiencing rising crime rates, Nigeria established a specialized police force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), to bring justice to the country (Baker, 2020). The squad was afforded special privileges: it would act independently of other police forces, be given almost unchecked policing powers, and be composed entirely of plainclothes officers (Baker, 2020). With this unprecedented power, the agency acted with impunity, quickly accumulating accusations of harassment, extortion, and even extrajudicial killings (Adeoye, 2020). Though many in the country had expressed discontent with SARS for years, large-scale mobilization did not occur until early October 2020, when videos of violent harassment and killings by SARS agents went viral (Al Jazeera English, 2020). Disillusioned by past failed attempts to reform and disband SARS, protestors are instead fighting for a broader liberation from the underlying problems: police brutality, stifling corruption, and excessive state power (Chow, 2020). While this movement (noted as #EndSARS for this article) warrants in-depth discussions in and of itself, a comparative analysis alongside other youth-led change movements is more valuable in this context.


The Black Lives Matter movement was similarly born out of frustrations of racially biased policing, brutality, and incarceration (Black Lives Matter, 2020a). In both movements, the goal is to challenge the discriminatory, violent actions of the state. Indeed, both #EndSARS and #BlackLivesMatter organizers have acknowledged the deep connections between their objectives, saying that it is not possible to support one without supporting the other (Black Lives Matter, 2020b).


Although the two movements share apparent connections in their goals, arguably more important are the commonalities in their organization, demands, and composition. Understanding these will provide a model of not only how 21st-century protest may look but also how young people will organize and engage with democratic states in the coming years.


Among the most important is the organizational structure of the movements themselves. Both Black Lives Matter and #EndSARS are intentionally decentralized: by this, I mean that there is no sole organization that speaks for the whole movement, no individual leaders, and no organizational hierarchy (Barrón-López, 2020; Effoduh, 2020). In contrast to the unified, centralized movements of the past, Black Lives Matter and #EndSARS fight localized battles and have wide-ranging agendas. These require flexibility and democracy in mobilization that an overly rigid organizational structure would hamper. In other words, demonstrators are connected by a common goal, but tailor demands to best fit their community’s needs and situations — and the movements are organized to do so. Different subsets of Black Lives Matter advocate for slightly different policies, including local reforms like banning chokeholds, national moves like demilitarizing the police, and still more significant actions like radical education and urban policy (Somvichian-Clausen, 2020; Gonzalez & Olivastro, 2020). Similarly, in Nigeria, far from the targeted protests against SARS during early October, current demonstrations are calling for a variety of reforms ranging from progressive economic policy to radical challenges to the state (Smith, 2020; Effoduh, 2020).


Moreover, we can tie this structure to developments in today’s younger generation. More specifically, we know that young people consistently vote less than older people. However, they have a strong investment in bettering the community. Polls in Scotland found that the 16-24 age bracket was most likely of all age brackets to discuss politics and engage in community improvement (BBC News, 2017). Why this disconnect? Young people are skeptical of existing political institutions (Henn, Weinstein, & Forrest, 2005). Many find the system to be elitist (Henn, Weinstein, & Forrest, 2005). Others feel traditional politicians and political parties don’t understand the newer generation culturally (BBC News, 2017) and are failing to account for their issues — such as the repercussions of recent economic depressions (Furlong & Cartmel, 2011) or climate change (Wilcox, 2021). As a result, young people are less engaged not only in voting but in traditional political and community institutions as a whole (Furlong & Cartmel, 2011). Instead, engagement has come in a more ‘atomized’ form. Youth prefer actions that are more targeted and in which they engage directly. Indeed, since young people were the first protestors in #EndSARS and critical members of the Black Lives Matter movement, these sentiments are very apparent in their structure (Adeoye, 2020; Ogala, 2020). Specifically, the way that both movements’ organization allows for localized action is a natural extension of the youth’s proclivity to engage in such a way.


Finally, it would be disingenuous to explore either movement without highlighting the role of social media and the internet — hallmarks of young peoples’ “normal” lives and, as we will see, their political lives as well. Both movements were initially created as hashtags on social media and spread rapidly alongside troubling video accounts of violence: countless videos of police-killed Black people for #BlackLivesMatter and an unknown man shot and left for dead by SARS agents for #EndSARS (Taylor, 2019; Al Jazeera English, 2020). And social media remains integral to the movements. Demonstrations have been organized and populated at a moment’s notice using apps (Kazeem, 2020; Bryant, 2020). Notably, the internet allows people to share ideas in outlets not controlled by the governments and create necessary coalitions to pressure the government. In Nigeria, Christians march alongside Muslims, LGBTQ+ individuals march alongside cisgender-heterosexual traditionalists, and young people march alongside the generations past (Elliott, 2020; Job, 2020; Kazeem, 2020). The benefits of the internet are more pronounced for issues that primarily affect marginalized populations, such as Black Lives Matter: due to pre-existing power relations, the government is less moved by the affected group’s demonstration alone (Washington, 2020). In short, brief, young peoples’ use of the internet has been integral to these modern movements every step of the way.


All in all, young people appear to provide a blueprint for protest in the 21st century. Motivated by their reluctance to engage in political institutions (though the effectiveness of this choice in the long run is an important question to consider), they engage in social movements characterized by decentralization, intersectional organization, broad demands, and the use of the internet. This new blueprint admittedly has its problems — performative activists on the internet give the impression of support but do not show up to demonstrations and the presence of large numbers of protestors no longer pressure the government like they used to, for example — but both #EndSARS and #BlackLivesMatter have already had some promising results (Sharma & White, 2020; Taylor, 2019). In the U.S., Louisville city lawmakers passed “Breonna’s Law” banning no-knock warrants following the no-knock police shooting of Breonna Taylor; cities and states across the country are reallocating police funds to social services; and other reforms at the subnational and national level appear imminent (Duvall & Costello, 2021; Somvichian-Clausen, 2020). In Nigeria, youth voices have been increasingly powerful, being included in national panels on police brutality, and current president Buhari’s political support has decreased drastically (Adeoye, 2020; Maclean, 2020). Although organizers, academics, and politicians alike continue to debate whether this new system of protest will be successful at addressing long-standing, systemic issues in the long term, it has proven effective at forcing the government’s hand in the short term (Crutchfield, 2020; Taylor, 2019).

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Last Updated: 3 June 2021


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Maanas Sharma is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Public Policy. At his core, he is passionate about transdisciplinary equitable policy and incorporating social-scientific understanding to quantitative policy solutions.