Excerpted From Charisa Smith, Youth Visions and Empowerment: Reconstruction Through Revolution, 75 Rutgers University Law Review 825 (Spring, 2023) (343 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CharisaKiyôSmithToday's youth activists channel revolutionary leadership and disrupt countless aspects of the status quo racial capitalist system, daring to demand a thoroughly transformed world. Diverging from other tumultuous, prescient periods of U.S. history--including the first Reconstruction following the Civil War and the countercultural revolution of the civil rights era (coined the Second Reconstruction)--the present era involves a critical mass of activists who center and problematize the entire underlying paradigm of political and socioeconomic order, as well as its historical roots of settler colonialism, resource extraction, militarism, and social Darwinism. Indeed, youth at the forefront of movements including the March For Our Lives for gun control, climate activism, the Movement for Black Lives ("M4BL"), and the #MeToo movement, incisively recognize that macro-level geopolitical and economic forces, social stratification, interpersonal and state violence, (cis)heteropatriarchy, and the climate crisis, are inextricably linked in both cause and remedy. These youth movements contend that reconstructing or reforming current systems of politics and economics will only reproduce their fallacies, whereas creating anew signifies actual change. Young activists likewise lament a lack of credibility among corrupt public officials and institutions, and a corporatized media that underreports crucial news and steers political outcomes. Visionary youth leadership perseveres despite the failure of U.S. schools to teach in-depth history or any hint of social theory, and despite the broader electorate's inattention towards global or anti-capitalist concerns.

Although modern youth activists build on the critiques and tactics of past moral fusion movements, and although they are certainly not the sole source of present visionary leadership, their framing discourse and strategies are already having a remarkable legal impact. These movements both resist prior presumptions about the law's fairness and utility yet also incorporate legal strategies as a necessary tool for creating previously unimagined, newfound models of self-governance and economic prosperity. Beyond offering hope of the sorely needed third Reconstruction that many progressive scholars and activists demand, youth activists project radical transformation vis-à-vis revolution, which involves prospective redistribution of power and wealth. Further, modern youth activists emphasize that the current stakes are higher than ever--human survival from climate catastrophe and mass extinction in the Anthropocene--an issue which President Joe Biden has promised to treat as an "existential crisis."

Part I of this Article discusses scholarly and activist conceptions of a third Reconstruction, first explaining why the current moment is more ripe for revolution in law and governance structures than for a third Reconstruction. Although academic and former Black Panther Angela Davis asserts that "[y]ou have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world [a]nd you have to do it all the time," much contemporary activism outside of youth movements either articulates a narrow perspective on the status quo or utilizes tactics that reinforce silos and disincentivize cross-issue organizing. Part I continues by analyzing the first two Reconstructions and the populist revolution of the 1890s, highlighting their shortcomings, discussing forces that led to their sabotage or demise, and surveying their lasting impacts on the law, society, and culture.

Part II then focuses on revolutionary youth leadership and youth movements' critiques of, impact on, and visions for the legal landscape. While much contemporary youth activism could be considered revolutionary, this Article selects four prominent movements as exemplary case studies due to their particularly diverse legal and extra-legal approaches. Youth organizers' commitment to climate justice; carceral abolition; defunding police and deportation apparatuses; eliminating gun violence; ensuring gender equity; and creating cooperative and participatory ways of governance, particularly illustrates the shaping of a new civic reality. Youth activists rightly insist that a robust multiracial society and a planet safe from climate crisis cannot coexist alongside unfettered global capitalism. As scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, "capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it." Although these four youth movements are already impacting our laws and institutions to a degree that is yielding historic results--including the popularity of democratic socialist U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March 2021 --the lingering problem of youth disenfranchisement threatens to stifle both activism and broader progress. Youth over age eighteen remain largely disenfranchised despite the November 2022 midterm elections yielding "the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost 30 years", with about twenty-seven percent of eligible residents between ages eighteen and twenty-nine casting a ballot, and with youth turnout in swing states being even higher.

Lastly, Part III of this Article recommends a way forward in light of hope for revolutionary change, current youth activists' impact on legal systems, the barriers youth movements face, and the reforms that have facilitated these activists' success. Crucial next steps include: a lowered voting age for all U.S. elections and public office holders; campaign finance reform and a reimagining of electoral politics; strengthened legal protections for activism and intellectual dissent; and expansion of community self-governance and participatory budgeting. Ultimately, intergenerational collaboration is vital for revolutionary, systemic transformation. Youth should become equipped and empowered to take the reins of legal and economic systems while there is still time to mitigate the existential damage that prior generations--and our entrenched laws and institutions--have caused.

Terminology and Parameters

This Article focuses exclusively on youth activism due to the distinctive characteristics of activism by individuals under age twenty-five today. Namely, youth have a unique analysis of the status quo (which has been missing from mainstream political discourse since the populist revolution and since limited factions of the civil rights movement targeted racial capitalism and U.S. imperialism). Young activists employ an intentionally multifaceted and comprehensive approach to social change endeavors, and youth activists commit to previously weak or fraught synergy between issues and organizations. Although this work aspires to elevate and support youth empowerment, it is inherently imperfect for a lack of direct youth input in the writing, and with an admission that the Author's own perspective is not that of a member of the centered population (youth). Future scholarship, advocacy, and collaboration on this topic can and should more directly involve youth, while also employing diverse modes of communication that reach a much wider audience.

Regarding terminology, a youth, or young person, will be defined herein as someone age twenty-five or under--a definition that accounts for physical and social science expertise, existing socio-legal and economic frameworks delineating adulthood, and the limitations that the United States currently places on individuals under age eighteen who may attempt, yet get systematically excluded from, political engagement, including voting. Although the youth population is far from monolithic, distinctions based on chronological age persist for pragmatic reasons. Copious neuroscientific and psychosocial research demonstrates that human psychosocial and neurobiological development are incomplete until our mid to late twenties, while youth cognitive abilities--implicating deliberation and logical reasoning -- typically resemble the abilities of adults by age fifteen. Additionally, adolescence is a transitional period marked by increased struggles with independence, self-identity, peer pressure, sexuality, and social location, coupled with a comparative lack of control over one's surroundings (in contrast to older adulthood). Importantly, U.S. and international health researchers also note that individuals between ages eighteen and twenty-five experience particular health disparities like higher mortality rates and lower access to all types of care. Further delineating the life stage and boundaries of those historically considered to be youths, psychologists and scholars have also begun discussing a period coined "emerging adulthood," which is "neither adolescence nor young adulthood but is theoretically and empirically distinct from them both" and which provides a necessary conceptual tool to understand how complex "psychological and social factors ha[ve] extended the process of becoming an adult well into legal adulthood."

Scholar Clare Ryan even argues that since laws are already beginning to recognize this liminal, pre-adult period differently--including the treatment of "parental support obligations, federal interventions, and punishment"-- further legal reforms and tools should accordingly "reflect emerging adulthood's unique economic vulnerability, developing autonomy, and capacity to learn from mistakes." Although this Article highlights activism by individuals age twenty-five and under due to the relatively consistent parameters set by official public health, law, and policy institutions, there is ongoing scholarship and precedent regarding youth rights and human development--including past work of this Author that directly addresses such issues. Some advocates posit that regardless of the parameters, social reforms must extend youth support services in the tattered social safety net until age twenty-five.

[. . .]

If anything, the lessons of American reconstruction and revolution reveal the cyclical nature of progress and the resilience of both legalized oppression and opportunity through legal avenues. With the resurgence of political repression, state violence, and socioeconomic strife, youth and adults alike have an uphill battle. Nevertheless, youth movements and youth themselves remain largely underestimated. This Article aims to recommend youth empowerment and legal measures towards that end. However, because centering youth voice and experience is paramount, any such analysis and accompanying legal advocacy must be constantly revisited and informed by youth who are directly impacted and who maintain one of the most critical perspectives on law and social change.

Associate Professor, City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law; J.D., Yale Law School; L.L.M., Wisconsin Law.