Jun 20, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Gen Z comes of age protesting the death of George Floyd

Illustration of a diverse crowd raising fists and cell phones.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Generation Z is coming of political age as they join with thousands in protesting the police killing of George Floyd, and much of it is playing out online.

Why it matters: Generations that came before Gen Z went through similar awakenings. However, Gen Z is likely to continue engaging even after the protests end because of the power of smartphones and social media, per Axios’ Sara Fischer.

  • Those same platforms also allow this generation to support a movement without setting foot on the streets, by demanding companies "open your purse" in support of Black Lives Matter, retweeting others and more.
  • Video footage of police action is holding law enforcement accountable.

The big picture: The first Gen Zers, born in 1997, have cast aside their parents’ means of communication — newspaper, television and radio — for the internet, and they’ve been online from an early age. They're abandoning traditional media altogether in favor of the web and consuming their news largely via social media, CNBC reports.

The state of play: Many Gen Zers are flooding the streets with phones in hand to protest racial inequality and upload what they see onto social media, specifically TikTok.

  • TikTok started largely as a platform for sharing viral dances, but has quickly evolved into a space for political discourse for America’s youth as young people use the tool to share stories, according to Reuters.

What’s happening: Nearly 60% of TikTok users fall into Gen Z. Many are posting raw clips of what they see and experience both out in the world and at home.

  • Users have posted encounters with law enforcement while protesting — often before traditional media can get stories published or on-air.
  • Many of Gen Z’s cultural leaders — such as 16-year-old Charli D’Amelio, who has 60 million followers on TikTok — are using their platforms to talk about the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Gen Zers are providing their own analysis of police brutality against black Americans and sharing raw emotions over Floyd’s death.
    • Some are challenging older family members about police brutality and publishing the conversations — highlighting a generational rift, Business Insider notes.

Zoom out: Young Americans have long challenged the status quo and have driven change — often meeting law enforcement in the streets.

  • The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in 1960 to support the civil rights movement peacefully. It played a substantial role in organizing lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and was part of famous marches that include Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington.
  • In the late 1960s, many college students protested the ongoing Vietnam War by organizing sit-ins and marches.
  • Leaders had to rely on word of mouth, pamphlets, posters and songs to get people to support their causes long before the internet existed.

The bottom line: "There is a stubborn resistance to treating young people's political activism as normal, but the truth is that it's neither extraordinary nor exceptional," Jessica Taft, an associate professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, told the University of California. "Children and youth are not on the sidelines. They are protagonists in the fight for their rights and their well being."

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