American protests go global: Could it be a generational awakening?


The scale of the US protests, and the thousands who have gathered in Paris and London, illustrate that many are angry with their governing systems and institutions.

A man and a woman hold hands aloft in Hyde Park during a

A man and a woman hold hands aloft in Hyde Park during a “Black Lives Matter” protest following the death of George Floyd who died in police custody in Minneapolis, London, Britain, June 3, 2020


Protests in solidarity with the mass US protests have occurred in the UK, France and Israel. The rising global consciousness that links the US youth experience of racism and police brutality appeals to people abroad who may see inspiration in the American uprising.

While much of US politics is today viewed with despair or sympathy abroad, to people seeing the US tearing itself apart, the protests look like a generational shift of youth anger over lack of opportunity; an economic wasteland left behind by older generations; and continued racism that was supposed to have decreased.

The scale of the US protests, and the thousands who have gathered in Paris and London, illustrate that many are angry with their governing systems and institutions. This had been apparent before in the UK and France, with movements such as the “Yellow Vests” or the protests in suburbs of Paris where second and third generation immigrants live. There is despair among the young in the UK, for instance, over the Brexit trajectory, reversing the decades of their childhood under the historic Schengen agreement, the formative agreement that laid the foundation for the free flow of goods and people across EU internal borders.

In some ways the uprising in the US and its coat tails abroad reflect a feeling that the promises these people were told years ago by their parents and grandparents have proven to be largely elusive.  For instance, they were told stories of economic mobility and job opportunities only to find out that tuition and health care were prohibitively expensive. They were told that racism and inequality would decrease, only to find a more authoritarian militarized police and a system that has the greatest wealth inequality in the history of many Western democracies.

American billionaires profited off the COVID pandemic: According to headlines, they received $220 billion from March 18-April 10 while some 20 million people were driven out of work in the US. This means the COVID-19 crisis and lockdowns may have compounded the younger generation’s feeling that the country was slouching in the wrong direction, feeding a growing sense of directionless anger and resentment, apathy and disillusionment.

While the impetus for the US protests was the killing of George Floyd, a black man, the spark tapped into massive rage across the country.

In some ways, Floyd’s death was symbolic of a much larger trend in police violence against unarmed black men – but it was also something more. What it represents has not been fully understood by media, which is often out of touch with the younger generation. This is akin to the death of Tark el-Tayeeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, who set off the Arab spring by burning himself alive in 2011.

Sometimes the spark that causes something, that speaks to a generation, takes place and leads to a groundswell of awakening that was always there. This anger in the US may mix many currents together. It includes anti-racism activists and some far-left activists, but it clearly speaks to a large swath of society.

While some politicians tried to discredit the protests by claiming they are run by “Antifa” – or even “organized crime” and “white supremacists” – the reality is that most of the protests have no flags or clear ideology. What unites them is they are young people. The images of people in Santa Monica, or people lying down on a bridge in Portland, illustrate that this is a mass generational uprising.

LET’S COMPARE today’s generational rising with American history.

The famous Woodstock festival in 1969 attracted 400,000 people. In the last week, 9,000 Americans have been arrested at protests. There have been protests in 140 cities – 296 protests in all. Tens of thousands of police have been deployed, as well as National Guard and other military forces. There were more than 17,000 Guard called up this week along with some 1,600 active duty personnel. 

There are now 62,000 National Guard deployed in the US, but some are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis as well. They are thought to be involved in at least 23 states. 40 cities are under curfew; more than 100 journalists have reportedly been attacked by police while covering the events. 24.7 million Instagram photos have been tagged with “Black Lives Matter.”

While there are few estimates for the overall number of people who took part in these protests, even an estimate based on the number of known protests cross-referenced with the number of photos tagged and cities under curfew illustrates that millions may have taken part. At the very least some 300,000 have participated.

In Newark, some 12,000 were estimated to take part in just one protest. Most reports say each protest averages thousands. And they are not decreasing after a week. The 9,000 arrested would not likely reflect more than one percent who participated, meaning the numbers probably exceed a million participants nationwide.

IT’S HARD to quantify what is unprecedented about this, but no one in recent memory recalls such a widespread number of protests, or the number of troops sent to quell them.

Consider the impact Rodney King had on a generation of Americans: In 1991, his severe beating by four Los Angeles police officers was also filmed by a bystander. The following year’s LA riots were sparked by the non-conviction of those officers; 63 people died, and more than 2,300 were injured. 

The difference today, however, is that many in media are not in touch with the younger generation. There appears little thirst for giving the protesters a platform. This is what differentiates this generation’s rising from those of the Vietnam era or other eras.

The Beatnik generation of the “flower power” generation had a direct influence on popular culture. But the problem today is that much of legacy media and elite popular culture does not seem to have a window into the minds of those protesting. This is likely why the protests have been so large and the violence so widespread. This generation faces huge obstacles to success.

The gatekeepers of major media or other professions have become more powerful – and the ability of people to break into professions if they were not born in several well known US zip codes and didn’t attend the right high schools may be insurmountable. They have gotten used to the power of social media as a kind of equalizer – the Janus faces of US President Donald Trump using the same medium – and they have unfurled their banners without having access to air their grievances.

The level of violence is shocking, and yet US politicians on both the Right and Left grasped at easy answers. Former Obama administration officials Susan Rice brought out the same playbook that has been used for years, claiming “the Russians” were linked to the protests. Politicians in Minnesota, where the uprising began, claimed that cartels, white supremacists and domestic terror were behind the young people protesting. Trump claimed it was Antifa.

But these narratives are out of touch. It’s like grandpa dusting off conspiracy theories from back in the day to explain a new generation.

THE US now confronts a major challenge. The two US candidates for president were born in 1942 and 1946. When they were in their twenties it was still illegal for a white person and a black person to marry in many American states, before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case overturned the infamous laws. That means Joe Biden and Trump were the same age as the US protesters at a time when a black person and white person couldn’t even marry each other in places like Virginia.

They were in their thirties and forties when the first personal computers and cell phones were invented. They were in their fifties when Google was founded. That means they were already “old” when everything we take for granted today was being founded. And that represents America’s leadership. Not one generation out of touch, but two or three generations out of touch. The Vietnam War was a transformative event for US leaders, whereas for today’s young people, they don’t even remember 9/11, the event that plunged their country into the chaos that led to today.

It is racism and police brutality that sparked the riots. This kind of police brutality was supposed to have stopped in the 1990s. Yet Minneapolis police regularly use brutal tactics, like putting their knee on the neck of suspects, hundreds of times since 2015. It’s like time went backward from when Rodney King was beaten in 1991. Unsurprisingly, many young people don’t want time to go backward, but they are also not yet able to articulate their demands for the future.

They don’t have their Jack Kerouac or Martin Luther King. And they will need one soon.



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