Youth political movements of the decade

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

All writing by Darcy Miller.

The Bigger Picture (London) — At The Bigger Picture, we’re going to be publishing a series of articles to round off the year, and this decade, to recognise young people's achievements in a variety of fields. In the first article of this series, we will be rounding up the biggest youth political movements of the last decade, ranging from pro-democracy protests in the Middle East, to anti-government demonstrations in Japan, and to anti-gun demonstrations in the United States.

School strike for climate / worldwide

Students at the London climate strikes in September 2019. Image by Darcy Miller.


Arguably the biggest youth political movement of this decade, involving millions of students across the globe, it began with one small act. On the 20th of August, 2018, one 15-year-old Swedish girl decided to not attend school and instead sit outside the Riksdag, her country’s Parliament, to demand that Sweden abides by the Paris Accords. She coined the “FridaysforFuture” movement which went global - a movement in which students strike from school on Fridays, marching on the streets to push for government action on climate change. That girl was Greta Thunberg, who emerged as the figurehead and leader of this global student movement.

On the 15th of March, 2019, a climate strike involved more than a million students, taking part in 2200 strikes across 125 countries; on the 24th of May, 1600 strikes took place across 150 countries. During the 2019 Global Week for Future, held ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, two general strikes took place, involving four million demonstrators on the 20th of September, the largest climate strike ever, and two million on the 27th. The most recent strike was held on Black Friday, the 29th of November, attracting two million demonstrators participating in India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the UK, the Philippines, France and the United States, to name but a few.

Climate strikes from November 2019. Top left: Tokyo, top right Sydney, bottom left Hong Kong, bottom right Leipzig, Germany. Images courtesy of Tokyo, Reuters, Green Queen and Time.


It is remarkable how symbiotic the strikes have been; some focus on single-issues in their respective nations, but all the strikes mesh together to create a cohesive whole, of millions of students trying to save the planet. For instance, during the Black Friday strikes, UK protests focused on the General Election, Australia’s focused on forest fires, and the US and France’s on consumerism. The strikes have brought students out onto the streets in countries like Japan, where people rarely speak out against the government. Thunberg, who has since gained millions of followers on social media and has become arguably one of the most famous teenagers on the planet, spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit, infamously declaring that she “shouldn't be up here... I should be back at school on the other side of the ocean… yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”.

Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN Climate Summit in September. Image courtesy of UN Photo/Cia Pak.


The young strikers have been met with scorn by some government officials; Gavin Williamson, the former Education Secretary in the UK, said students “shouldn’t be bunking off and it’s very irresponsible for people to encourage children to do so”. Australian Deputy PM Michael McCormack, the member of a climate-denying cabinet, dismissed the strikes as “a disruption”.

However, it is the young people foregoing school to protest on the streets who will be on the right side of history. Climate change threatens billions of jobs, could create a financial downturn worse than the Great Depression, could result in Osaka, Shanghai, Miami and Bangkok going underwater, and could cause hundreds of thousands more deaths if we don’t act. 12,000 scientists have endorsed the movement, and as Secretary-General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo says, “every young person taking part in Fridays for Future embodies what it means to act on your conscience.”.

2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests

Image courtesy of Politico and the Independent.


Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong have been raging on for more than 200 days now. Hongkongers have finally woken up to what is going on around them, Beijing’s attempts to deny Hongkongers of their civil rights and freedoms, and this year decided to go out onto the streets to demand that they are maintained. It took an extradition bill, which Hongkongers feared could result in Chinese authorities extraditing political dissidents from the island, to set the wheels in motion regarding the demonstrations. But Beijing has been chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy for a while now, claiming that the Joint Declaration which provides them their freedoms was “now void”. They have stripped pro-democracy politicians of their seats, mysteriously made booksellers and tycoons “disappear” only to reappear in Chinese custody, banned pro-independence parties, and criminalised “perceived insults” to their national anthem (that vagueness is very concerning).

Teenagers are at the heart of this political awakening, which has come to involve millions of Hongkongers, in some cases amounting to more than a quarter of the island’s whole population at a single protest. Former student leaders from the 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations have since marshalled these ones - students like Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow, who are now 23, 26 and 23 respectively, being 18, 21 and 18 respectively in 2014. While people from all walks of life have been participating in the protests it is young people, clad in black, donned in masks and helmets, who Hongkongers can rely on to always be out there on the frontlines, defending Hong Kong’s autonomy, even despite epidemic police brutality.

Police have used tear-gas, beat up demonstrators, shot them in the eye with beanbag rounds, and teens as young as 14 with live rounds. They have stood aside as white-clad thugs beat up protesters, and have deployed water cannons, disguising themselves as dissidents to sow discord amongst the demonstrators themselves. After police shot a 21-year-old, an 18-year-old in the chest, and a 14-year-old in the left thigh, young Hongkongers were not deterred. They occupied universities across Hong Kong for a week back in November, despite cold temperatures, the risk of arrest, and running low on food and water after being trapped in by police. Hundreds under 18 were occupying the universities. Cody Howdeshell, who travelled to Hong Kong from the US to take part in the demonstrations, told reporters that the frontliners “were 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, you see a few 20-, 21-[year olds]. But I’d say the average age is around 18, between 18 to 20. They have an amazing amount of courage and bravery.” A 16-year-old said that some die-hard demonstrators were as young as 12, stating that “we either leave together or die together. We would rather die than surrender”. A 19-year-old at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said "we try every peaceful means but we fail. We would probably throw petrol bombs and bricks because we don't want our friends to be injured. I'm willing to die for Hong Kong”, before breaking out into tears.

Scenes from PolyU in November. Images courtesy of Hong Kong Free Press and the Wall Street Journal.


Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and leader, has since withdrawn the extradition bill. But now demonstrators have four other demands; amnesty for arrested protesters, genuine universal suffrage, a withdrawal of the “riot” description and an inquiry into police brutality. And after months of violent protests that has wracked Hong Kong’s civil society and economy, the people of Hong Kong are still behind them. Citizens leave out food, money and clothes for protesters in metro stations; in September, hundreds of sympathetic Hongkongers drove tens of kilometers to an island where protesters were stranded to take them home, in scenes dubbed “The Dunkirk of Hong Kong”. In local elections held last November, which was effectively a proxy referendum on the protests, pro-democracy candidates won a staggering 388 of 452 seats. While some countries and corporations are too scared to speak out against China in fear of retribution and losing the country’s massive domestic market, many nations and corporations have stood up for demonstrators; the US recently passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, in which the President is required to sanction culpable Hong Kong and Beijing officials.

The protests continue, with no end in sight. But as most teenagers across the world are battling with their self-identity, engulfed by schoolwork, interpersonal relationships and the latest Netflix show, teenagers in Hong Kong are battling with violent police officers and pro-Beijing triad gangs, engulfed by tear gas, water cannons and live bullets.

Arab Spring / middle east

Images courtesy of VOC and


The Arab Spring took place at the start of the decade, involving as many as 20 million demonstrators who participated in pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world. It all kicked off when Mohamed Bouzazi, a Tunisian street vendor in his twenties, set himself on fire in protest against authorities on the 17th of December, 2010. This was the catalyst for widespread protests against Tunisia’s dictatorial president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who consequently fled to Saudi Arabia on the 14th of January, 2011, then inspiring further anti-establishment demonstrations across the Arab world.

By February 2012 demonstrators had managed to overthrow rulers in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, sparking civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria, major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan and other demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Palestine and the Western Sahara. Young people were major players in this movement, with US Institute of Peace’s Stephanie Schwatz asserting that the Arab Spring demonstrated “youth can be a force for change”. Social media, used by young people, was also credited by the press for helping spread the movement.

Scholars had previously expressed concern about young people becoming radicalised, due to a combination of high youth unemployment (over 15% in most countries where protests took place, rising to 30% in a few countries), low wages, and high prices for basic goods, but instead they decided to peacefully protest to push for change. This was in the face of harsh crackdowns from authorities - at least 61,080 people died as a result of the demonstrations, rising to hundreds of thousands by some estimates. In Bahrain, scores of protesters died from torture while in police custody, and demonstrators were beaten up, met with house raids and denied access to medical care. Not all of the protests resulted in a successful outcome; in some cases sparking civil unrest and political instability that afflicts some countries to this day, such as in Libya, Yemen and Syria; but it showed that young people were not afraid to challenge authoritarian, repressive governments, even putting their lives on the line to resist it.

March for Our Lives / united states

Image courtesy of CNN


On February 14th, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a former student opened fire on the campus, murdering 17 people. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history, which have become increasingly common - CNN research showed there were 45 school shootings this year. But what marked the Parkland shooting was the students’ response. They decided to take matters into their own hands to prevent another Parkland from occuring. “#NeverAgain”, they declared on social media, becoming activists overnight, with their near-death experience, losing close friends and classmates, awakening the fire of rebellion within them. The students were hell-bent on securing gun reform; banning assault weapons and the sale of high-capacity magazines, and strengthening background checks. One month after the Parkland shooting, a national school walkout was held, involving nearly a million students from thousands of schools. Parkland survivors and students like Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky, and David Hogg became well-known during the course of the movement.

Emma Gonzalez. Image courtesy of the New York Times.


On March 24th, March for Our Lives took place in Washington, D.C., with 800,000 students marching for gun reform there. Hundreds of other smaller marches were held across the US, amounting to two million people across the country. High school students were joined by elementary school students and young musicians like Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.

March for Our Lives has been successful, with Florida attempting to implement stricter gun laws, US companies distancing themselves from the NRA and “red flag” legislation (which allows authorities to take guns from people who pose a security threat) implemented across more states. It has since evolved into a youth movement, an organisation which is having an extensive influence over American politics, especially within the Democratic Party, in order to amend laws and pass legislation that will once and for all end the gun violence epidemic in the United States; holding forums, persuading young people to vote, and unveiling manifestos.

Black Lives Matter / united states

Images from various BLM demonstrations. Courtesy of Vox and ABC.


The harsh reality in the United States is that institutional racism is still deeply entrenched into civil society, white America struggling to let go of its racist past. For every $100 white families earn in income, black families earn a little over half that. Job applicants with “white-sounding names” are more likely to be employed than those with “black-sounding names”, sometimes by a factor of 50%. Black students are more likely to be suspended than white students. African-Americans make up 40% of the prison population despite representing 13% of the general population. They are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. The police officers who are responsible usually walk free. Police brutality is an epidemic.

“I can’t breathe”, gasped Eric Garner, on the 17th of July 2014. The white policeman in Staten Island, New York City, ignored him, maintaining the chokehold he had Garner in, killing him. Garner’s crime, which supposedly warranted his death? Selling untaxed cigarettes. It was an 18-year-old, Nupol Kiazolu of Black Lives Matter, who led protests in the city, opposing the harsh and unjustified police brutality which led to Garner’s horrific death. It was the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers that formed the genesis of Black Lives Matter as an international activist movement campaigning against violence and institutional racism against black people. And more often than not, it was young people who were at the forefront of this activism.

The most notable cases in the early 2010s that led to the formation of Black Lives Matter were, along with Garner’s tragic death, the acquittal of policeman George Zimmerman after he fatally shot 17-year-old teenager Trayvon Martin; the death of 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson; and the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy, by a Cleveland police officer. Each tragic death prompted demonstrations and rallies in cities across the United States by young people and old alike, all standing together in unity to oppose the structural racism and police brutality that can cause such horrors.

Over the years Black Lives Matter has mushroomed to more than 30 chapters across the United States, and the leadership over both chapters and the main organisation itself are completely decentralised and democratic. Activists hold vigils, rallies, and die-ins, featuring music by youth artists that serve as a rallying cry for demonstrators, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”.

Black Lives Matter has also become involved with activism at US college campuses, most notably at the University of Missouri and Claremont McKenna College.

In Missouri activists were able to successfully force the resignation of college president Timothy Wolfe after he failed to deal with multiple racism scandals; one African-American student, Jonathan Butler, went on hunger strike, the football team staged a boycott and demonstrators held rallies, die-ins, and mock tours to raise awareness about the scandals. At Claremont McKenna College demonstrators managed to secure the dean to resign after she mishandled several racial incidents.

The institutional racism that still persists in America today is unacceptable. So is the misguided belief by too many white Americans that racism is no longer a serious issue. It is heartening that some people, at least, are challenging that narrative. Young people are at the heart of this.

The Umbrella Movement / hong kong

Images courtesy of Jurist and Diggit.


On the 29th of September this year, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong marked the fifth anniversary of the 2019 movement’s predecessor, the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Deriving its name from the umbrellas which have been used by demonstrators to protect themselves from police officers’ tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons, the protests started in September after Beijing announced that they would not give Hong Kong democracy as promised. Instead, they could democratically vote for their leader, but only after Beijing screened them for approval through a 1,200 member-strong Election Committee formed primary pro-Beijing figures.

Rightly, Hongkongers were outraged. Without the right to vote, all they could do to make their displeasure heard was to protest, as they have done throughout history. And it was tens of thousands of students who kickstarted these protests, by boycotting class to stand up for their rights. A 79-day-long protest movement, involving hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers, then ensued, in which police deployed the violent tactics that have been on showcase in 2019’s protest movement. Eventually, a court injunction was used to clear protesters off the streets, and its figureheads have since been arrested and prosecuted.

But several students, including Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow, emerged during the Umbrella Movement as figureheads and icons; they have since become influential figures within Hong Kong’s current protest movement.

The Umbrella Movement was ultimately unsuccessful, and it looks like the anti-ELAB movement will not bear much fruit either, considering how much power Beijing wields. But what else can Hongkongers do to stand up for their rights and protest for a better world?

The DREAMer movement / united states

Image courtesy of Remezcla.


Before this decade began, in 2008, Cristina Jiménez and Julieta Garibay set up the United We Dream (UWD) youth-activism group in which Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants, advocated for their rights and a pathway to become legal American citizens, in the form of the DREAM Act.

But it was their activism in the 2010s that garnered the most attention and caused the most impact. In 2010, students from Miami-Dade County College, Felipe Matos (then 23), Gaby Pacheco (25), Carlos Roa (23) and Juan Rodriguez, marched 1500 miles to Washington, D.C. from their college in attempts to end the deportation of students and promote the DREAM Act, which would allow them and other young undocumented immigrants to become legal American citizens. In addition to their march, they held press conferences, fasted, lobbied lawmakers and notched up 30,000 signatures on a petition. Juan Rodriguez, the only legal immigrant out of the four marchers, met with President Obama that June. Two years later, 24-year-old Veronica Gomez and 23-year-old Javier Hernandez occupied Obama’s office to advocate the DREAM Act.

Eventually the former US President implemented DACA, which unlike the DREAM Act did not give undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal citizenship but instead work permits, Social Security numbers, and protections against deportation (as long as they were younger than 16 when they originally immigrated to the United States). Trump has since revoked DACA, sparking further rallies and walkouts; the Supreme Court is set to decide on the legality of the move next Spring.

For DREAMers, the fight continues.

SEALDS / japan

Images courtesy of the South China Morning Post and


Japan is not a country known for its political activism; if anything, the contrary. Back during WW2, hardly anyone resisted the fascist Imperial government, apart from a few members of Japan’s Communist Party, unlike in Nazi Germany where they was an underground resistance movement. With the exception of strikes by university students back in the sixties, this climate of social cohesion has persisted to this day, resulting in a de-facto one-party state led by right-wing PM Shinzo Abe (even though Japan has all the trappings of a liberal democracy). Our Tokyo correspondent, China Inoue, has reported that “people don’t really discuss their beliefs or opinions in Japan… not many people voice their political beliefs as it is frowned upon”. As a popular saying there goes, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる).

But back in 2015, students defied the status quo. They set up the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), organising rallies and protests against Shinzo Abe following his attempts to implement a bill which would allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (essentially, its military) to be deployed overseas - students were worried that he was trying to overhaul the pacifist nature of Japan’s constitution.

On August the 30th, 2015, SEALDs held a rally outside the National Diet Building, Japan’s parliament, in Tokyo, with up to 120,000 participants. These kinds of high turnouts had not been seen in the country in decades. SEALDs also organised study groups, held talks, created booklets and pamphlets and successfully utilised social media to spread the word. The wider group mushroomed into a number of local organisations, with SEALDs KANSAI set up in May, SEALDs TOHOKU in July, SEALDs RYUKYU (Okinawa) in August and SEALDs Tokai (Nagoya) in September. SEALDs also supported fellow Japanese demonstrators, particularly in protests against US military bases in Okinawa, and campaigned during the 2016 Hokkaido by-elections, which served as a proxy referendum on Abe’s defense policies. SEALDs became known for their unique style of protesting, in which they enlisted the help of DJs to play hip-hop and pop music; among students, protesting was in vogue again.

Almost a year later, on March 29, 2016, the SEALDs protested the inevitable, the implementation of the security bill a day later. Thousands gathered outside the Diet to protest. Aki Okuda, the 23-year-old Meiji University student and leader of SEALDs, led the demonstrations, chanting into a microphone. Students held signs reading, “take back democracy!”, “students against facism”, “go vote”, and “save our future”.

A few months after these demonstrations, the group disbanded. Looking at it clinically, it was a failure. As one SEALD activist, Takeshi Suwahara, declared when the security bills were passed, Japan’s democracy was “on the verge of collapse. The SEALDs were powerless to prevent it. But as 21-year-old Shunichiro Kobayashi told press, “it wasn’t a matter of success or failure. It was a matter of doing something”.

(English subtitles included)

Dakota Access Pipeline protests / united states

Image courtesy of Slate.


Native Americans were concerned about the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline spanning across North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. It would be constructed on their native lands, contaminating the primary water source of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who live at the Standing Rock Reservation.

So young members of that tribe started a movement, which they called #NoDAPL, in 2016. Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer, who was just 13, started a petition on along with 30 other like minded young Native Americans, aiming to prevent the construction of the pipeline. They spread the word on social media using the aforementioned #NoDAPL hashtag and #StandwithStandingRock.

Then, crowds of Native Americans, many of them young, occupied the area where the pipeline was planned to be constructed, and went on a 2,000-mile-long cross-country run in the summer to Washington, D.C, to advocate their cause and deliver their petition (which had since accumulated 160,000 signatures) to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

This was in the face of repressive and brutal authorities. Security workers let loose attack dogs on protesters that bit several people. Protesters said they were detained in “dog kennel”-like holding cells, and in some cases forced to undergo strip searches. Hundreds of police officers swamped the camps which demonstrators had set up during their occupation to turf them out, an overly large, unwieldy, and intimidating mass of authorities. Furthermore, they were armed with an unnecessary amount of weaponry, including concussion grenades, maces, tasers, and batons. They used tear gas, rubber-bullets, the concussion grenades, and water cannons against the demonstrators - in below-freezing weather conditions. A medic told press it “felt like a low-grade war”, while a 21-year-old demonstrator was allegedly hit with a concussion grenade that she feared may lead to the amputation of her arm.

Police using a water cannon against demonstrators. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.


Bernie Sanders, a progressive Illinois senator and Presidential hopeful, spoke out in favour of the movement, an indigenous movement spearheaded by young activists trying to protect their native lands. Obama, also, was sympathetic and prevented the construction of the pipeline.

But tragically, Donald Trump later forced through an executive order to continue construction of the pipeline, which is now operative. Such brutality and violence from authorities quashing down on peaceful protests is something we have come to expect in the United States. It is especially tragic that a brave movement led by young indigenous activists should be met with such hostility.

The Sunrise movement / united states

Image courtesy of The New Yorker.


The youth climate movement the Sunrise Movement is perhaps less well-known than its fellow environmental movement School Strike for Climate or its fellow US youth movement March for Our Lives, but it is arguably just as influential on the US political system.

Its first real impact was during the 2018 midterms, in which it endorsed pro-environment politicians and dissuade voters from opting for candidates who took donations from fossil fuel corporations, with an end goal of advocating the Green New Deal (GND); the GND is an ambitious climate-change mitigation programme which would see huge investments in renewable energy and overhauling infrastructure while at the same time pursuing social and economic justice. Half of the group’s 20 endorsements were elected in 2018, including the relatively young politicians AOC (at 29, the youngest woman in US congress) and Ilhan Omar, along with Rashida Tliab and Deb Haaland to name a few. In November 2018, 250 protesters held a sit-in in Nancy Pelosi’s office to advocate their cause, where they were joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; in December, more than a thousand demonstrators camped out in Nancy Pelosi and Jim McGovern’s offices in a second sit-in.

Sunrise Movement Activists, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018.


In recent months they have pushed for more of a climate focus during the 2020 Presidential elections, with activists sleeping on the steps of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) office in Washington, D.C., to call for a climate debate. They ranked the top three Democratic Party candidates in December 2019 based on their climate policies, ranking Sanders the highest at 92%, followed by Warren on 82% and Biden lagging far behind at 42%. Additionally they have impacted politics over the Atlantic, with UK Labour activists crediting the Sunrise Movement with inspiring their campaign for the GND to be implemented in Labour’s manifesto, which proved successful.

The Sunrise Movement certainly has a bright future ahead.