Young Activists Pour Energy Into Protests, But What About The Election? With a presidential campaign and historic demonstrations unfolding, the country's youngest voters and activists are navigating the power of direct action versus electoral politics in real time.
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Young Activists Pour Energy Into Protests, But What About The Election?

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Young Activists Pour Energy Into Protests, But What About The Election?

Young Activists Pour Energy Into Protests, But What About The Election?

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now, former President Barack Obama recently addressed protests swelling around the country, and he urged young people not to forget about the election.

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BARACK OBAMA: I've been hearing a little bit of chatter in the Internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action. This is not a either or. This is a both and.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The country's youngest voters are now weighing their role in politics right now, as NPR's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Chanel Sherrod is taking a break from marching in the massive protest near the White House. It's 90 degrees, really muggy. And she's got a cardboard protest sign resting by her feet.

CHANEL SHERROD: Voting is not enough. We have to protest. We have to picket. We have to speak out on social media. We have to educate each other.

GRINGLAS: Sherrod is with two Howard University Law School classmates. Domonique Dille says there's an urgency to this moment.

DOMONIQUE DILLE: We've seen our parents, our ancestors. They've all fought, and we're still fighting in 2020. So we're going to keep this going until election and even past then.

GRINGLAS: At a park, I meet Raymond Sison and Natalie Spievack. After three hours protesting, they found a shady spot with some friends.

NATALIE SPIEVACK: I was feeling pretty pessimistic a week ago, and I'm more optimistic in this moment than I've ever been.

GRINGLAS: Do you feel like the traditional systems of, like, political advocacy has failed you guys as a generation?

SPIEVACK: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I do, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

RAYMOND SISON: There's so many issues to talk about. I mean, we're here talking about police brutality, but, I mean, student loans. There hasn't been anything that's been done for students here in America - like, one of the most indebted generations.

GRINGLAS: Everyone here is in their early 20s. They're all planning to vote this fall. That's not up for debate. And like most of their generation, they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Trump. Where it gets tricky, Spievack says, is trying to prioritize - do you spend your summer planning protests or organizing for Joe Biden?

SPIEVACK: That has been my biggest internal struggle over the last week and a half - is figuring out, what's my place in creating change?

GRINGLAS: It's a question a lot of young people are trying to navigate, especially Gen Z - voters in their late teens and early 20s who have grown up with endless school shootings, viral videos of police brutality and a political climate defined by Donald Trump. In Louisville, 19-year-old Sean Waddell organized a march for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT killed by police.

SEAN WADDELL: That could've easily been my brother or my sister or anybody.

GRINGLAS: Waddell called me from a birthday celebration in Taylor's memory.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Happy Birthday to ya. Happy Birthday...

GRINGLAS: Thousands released balloons and butterflies.

WADDELL: Seeing Trayvon Martin, seeing Eric Garner, black people dying over and over again before my eyes. And being told to go to our politician and seeing so little, it does take away our spirit.

GRINGLAS: But young people aren't disengaging. Youth turnout doubled between the last two midterms, according to CIRCLE, a Tufts University research group on young voters. They also found that in 2018, three times more young people attended a demonstration than in 2016.

DAUD MUMIN: We have no more patience to just sit around and wait for justice to be served on a silver platter. We have to go and fight for it. We have to go and take it.

GRINGLAS: That's Daud Mumin. He's an organizer in Utah with March for Our Lives, the group behind those big gun control marches after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Political advocacy and voter registration became a part of the group's equation, as well. But Mumin says young people of color especially have a harder time getting involved in campaigns and voting.

MUMIN: Electoral work is not the most accessible work. So when we tell African American people, are you concerned? - go and vote - it's almost offensive. It's almost a slap in the face.

GRINGLAS: Research suggests protest energy could boost the young voter turnout. CIRCLE says young people aligned with the Parkland gun control movement were 21% more likely to vote in 2018. Matthew Nowling with the College Democrats is hopeful about 2020.

MATTHEW NOWLING: Like, to harness that momentum from the movement is really connecting the issues of why people are protesting to direct Democrat party policies.

GRINGLAS: Nowling says protests over police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., inspired him to get involved in politics. Afterward, he watched the Obama administration taking action, actions the Trump administration has rolled back. It's a reminder, Nowling says, of what's at stake not only right now but on Election Day, too. Sam Gringlas, NPR News, Washington.

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