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Free Youth Now: An Introduction to Youth Liberation

Sunday 7 February 2021

Liberation is More Than Equality

Liberation is more than equality. What I am concerned with is not simply equal rights, but youth liberation, and liberation for all people. 

Many people, including the well-known child rights advocate John Holt, have advocated for full equal rights for youth. Others have suggested that we do away with the legal presumption that children are incompetent and that age-based laws should be subject to strict scrutiny (which roughly means the law must be "narrowly tailored" to achieve a compelling government interest).  

These are important ideas, and the work of achieving equal rights is certainly valuable. But focusing only on equal rights doesn't go far enough. The question we ought to be concerned with is this: equal rights to what? (To be fair, in his book Escape From Childhood, Holt makes the point: that equal rights for children won't mean much in an unjust world). 

So what do we mean when we say "equal rights for youth?" In order to understand the depth of this question, we need to situate youth liberation within a broader context of a violent society.*

Youth are oppressed. But not all youth are oppressed simply based on age. Many youth are also oppressed based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, nationality, and other sources of identity. And despite their relative position of power to youth, adults still live within a broader system of violence -- a carceral, racial capitalist colonizer state. 

With this very brief framing in mind, we acknowledge that "equal rights" might be an inadequate measure of human dignity in a country that was founded on a social contract that excluded everyone but propertied white men and that continues to systematically enact violence against Black and brown people. 

So, let's turn back to the question: equal rights to what? 

Is it the right to vote in an electoral system that consistently marginalizes Black, Indigenous, and other people of color? 

Is it the right to participate in an exploitative capitalist economy and struggle to make a living under poor work conditions? 

Is it the right to a lawyer and trial by jury in a criminal system where Black and Indigenous people are far more likely to be incarcerated and experience state-sanctioned violence than white people? 

Is it the right to own property that was stolen from Indigenous people? 

Equal rights for youth must mean more than this. It must also become rights that are equal to a meaningful realization of human dignity. It must aim for youth liberation. I'll explore the concept of youth liberation more fully in a future post. But here are some initial thoughts: 

First, crucially, these questions need to be asked and answered by youth. As a legal adult who was raised under decidedly unfree conditions, I can hardly begin to imagine what a liberated young person's life could look like. In fact, I may never understand what a truly free childhood means. So it makes little sense for me and people like me to try and define a vision of youth liberation on our own. 

Second, ageism and age-based discrimination are thoroughly and deeply entrenched in the laws, social systems, institutions, relationships, and psyches of the U.S. and other colonizing, colonized, and settler-colonist states. Like structural racism, it's built into the foundations of society. It will take generations of effort to understand, deconstruct, heal, reimagine, and ultimately work toward a new future. 

That said, I (a white, adult member of a settler-colonist state) believe youth liberation means creating a more just and liberated world for all people. It means rethinking our assumptions about education, the economy, social structures and relationships, and the role of the State in our lives. It means achieving conditions of liberation in all aspects of life. 

This leads to an even more important question: What would it mean to be able to secure a dignified life? This is what I aim to continuously ask. This is a question that will lead toward liberation, not simply equality. And this is a question that can only be adequately answered collectively. 

Merely demanding "equal rights" for youth is incomplete. Even if equal rights were achieved, that framing allows those with power to dictate the terms of oppression while justifying the status quo because everyone is now "equal." That won't do. It won't lead to liberation. If youth have "equal rights" but are still stuck within broader oppressive structures, then we have failed. 

Like any other liberation work, it's an ambitious project. But without a broader goal of universal liberation, youth liberation risks being subsumed into the oppressive structures from which it seeks to escape. 

When we talk about youth rights, we need to talk about youth liberation -- and liberation for all people. 

*I wish to acknowledge and express my gratitude for a conversation with Latrel Powell, a friend and classmate at UCLA Law School, that inspired much of this post. 

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