Should children take part in nonviolent struggle?

Children have the most to gain from victories over racism, heterosexism and climate-wrecking capitalism.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

In fifth grade I was introduced to children as nonviolent warriors. In one of our elementary school’s story collections I ran into a tale from the Norwegian resistance to Nazi German occupation during World War II. It was centered on the problem of preventing Norway’s store of gold bullion from falling into the hands of the occupiers.

The first step was moving the gold to storehouses on farms in Norway’s mountainous western coast. The next step — of getting the gold on ships to Britain, where the country’s royal family had already fled — was going to be a lot harder due to the patrols of German warships.

Ordinary Norwegian fishing vessels might stow gold under their fish and make it to Britain, but that left yet another problem: How to get the gold down the side of the mountain to the fjord — and to the fishermen?

Someone came up with the idea of wrapping the bricks of bullion in dull-colored cloth, tying the bricks on sleds used by children who lived along the fjords and asking the children to repeatedly sled down the hills to the shore of the fjord. There the children would be met by Norwegian fishermen who would in turn transport the gold to Britain, hidden within their routine shipments of fish.

The risk was high, even though children on sleds were a common enough sight on the mountains along the fjords. Some parents came forward, agreeing to have their children participate.

The endeavor was a success! Norwegian children prevented the gold from enriching the German war machine.

As a fifth grader, I was inspired. “Yes,” I thought, “if it’s a righteous struggle, why shouldn’t we children take part?”

Fast forward to my parenting days, with a fifth-grader of my own. Philadelphia’s transportation system issued a new rule: No smoking on buses and trolley cars. My young son Peter and I were riding down town, sitting near the back of a trolley. A man in the seat behind us lit a cigarette. Peter elbowed me and motioned, his face alive with his question: “Shouldn’t this man be challenged?”

I nodded, and non-verbally indicated that he could do it and I’d back him up. Peter turned around and told the man that smoking wasn’t allowed and he needed to stop.

I turned, too, in time to see incredulity written all over the man’s face. “Look kid, you’re telling me, a grown up, what I should do?”

I smiled and told the man that Peter saw the sign at front of the bus. “He’s serious about it,” I said, “so I support him.”

The man took a minute, then smiled and put out his cigarette. He then addressed Peter. “You’re reminding me of how I was as a boy, standing up for the right thing,” he said. “I marched with other children in Dr. King’s fight to end segregation in my town, Birmingham!”

“You were in Alabama — in ’63?” I asked. “When the city got the firefighters to turn their hoses on and mow people down?”

Like my son, the man was Black. He smiled proudly at Peter. “We gave those white folks no end of trouble,” he said. “My parents were scared, and we were scared too, but my parents let me do it. Rev. Jim Bevel led us. The papers called it the Children’s Crusade.”

He laughed. “We were mighty!”

Peter was all ears, and the man entertained us with stories of nonviolence all the way to our destination.

In my memoir “Dancing with History,” I relate another of Peter’s confrontational adventures with nonviolence while still a boy, in solidarity with the lettuce boycott called by California’s farmworkers. I’m confident books could be filled with incidents of children’s participation in nonviolent struggle — and why not? Who stands to gain most from victories over racism, heterosexism and now over a climate-wrecking economic system?

As a parent — and great grandparent eight times over —I go easily to a protective place, knowing that’s our grown-up duty. But I also believe there’s such a thing as over-protection. One of the things children need to learn is how to calculate risk, and deal with the fears that get in the way of thoughtful risks. Our wider culture accepts that need: adventure playgrounds, outdoor camping, rock-climbing and skiing are all about skills in responsible risk-taking.

Just as important, if we’re to have any kind of livable world in the future, we need young people’s participation in the challenging arena of nonviolent struggle and learning how to manage risk while engaging in action. That’s what Martin Luther King and Jim Bevel were about.

I remember the civil rights movement’s influence showing up during the Vietnam War, motivating teenagers to take risks for peace. A group of teens in Philadelphia asked Quakers to organize a summer project during which they would learn action skills, then practice them by protesting the Vietnam War. I’d found in working with my daughter Ingrid that standing on a box and expressing an opinion can feel like an enormous risk — a kind of “high ropes course” all by itself.

Peace activist and organizer Mike Yarrow and I made “soap-boxing” our most frequent exercise in the Quaker project we led for the teens. Twice a week over a dozen teenagers walked to a busy pedestrian street corner, put their box on the sidewalk and took turns speaking out against the Vietnam War.

This was 1964, still early in terms of Americans’ awareness of that war, when most citizens assumed that the government must be right and we soap-boxers must be wrong. Some people stopped and listened, but most disagreed, sometimes strongly. Most students said getting up on that box was the most frightening thing they’d done in their lives. I noticed, though, that coming up with responses to the crowd motivated the students to study and learn more about the issues.

In the first weeks of street speaking the young people’s hesitation of delivery protected them a bit from strenuous push-back by passersby. However, as the teens’ confidence grew, so did the degree of push-back, and as the push-back grew and the teens grew in competency, their confidence grew even more. This was just the cycle of empowerment we were seeking: handling one’s fears while taking a risk in order to feel one’s power and get the job done.

By the end of the summer project not only did the teens know more about Vietnam than many adults, but the teens also had a confidence that they could, in a group, handle a wide variety of grown-up behaviors, including the occasional drunk. Instead of meeting the growing political polarization of the ‘60s with anxiety, the risk-taking young people were discovering their own competency.

This might be the kind of project every American town and city needs in relation to climate justice. As in the ‘60s with Vietnam, the stake for young people is enormous. They will have to live with the consequences of today’s weak climate policies longer than adults will. Adults’ irresponsibility already poses risks on young people, and those risks continue to grow. Without pushing back, youths face anxiety and depression.

I wonder what could be more therapeutic than for today’s youngest generations to take a risk — within a team that’s trained and informed — and confront the grown-ups destroying their future. It could make a mighty difference.


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