‘Into the Streets’ Offers Young Readers a Timely History of US Protests

Simone Jacques (with bullhorn), organizer of a youth-led protest against police violence, speaks during a march from Mission High School to San Francisco's Hall of Justice on June 3, 2020. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor moved millions of Americans to protest, donate to racial justice causes and call their representatives, but it was high school students who led marches of tens of thousands in Oakland and San Francisco. Members of the youngest, queerest and most diverse generation are fired up about changing laws as well as culture, and they aren’t waiting for permission from adults to take to the streets.

'Into the Streets' by Marke Bieschke. (Lerner)

That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have a thing or two to learn from history—the real history of America, much of which casts serious doubt on whether the country has actually made good on its professed values of liberty and justice for all. Young people today are carrying forward civil rights and labor struggles that have been ongoing for hundreds of years.

“I wanted people to know about how the United States had been shaped by the protests, and that a lot of the things young people get curious or angry about actually [have] roots,” says journalist and author Marke Bieschke, whose new nonfiction book, Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States, offers an accessible and engaging overview of American activism.

While marketed to young adult readers, Into the Streets is really a primer for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how people have historically organized against oppressive forces, starting with early anti-colonial Native American revolts and the Underground Railroad. Though it spans hundreds of years, the book spends the most time on the 20th century.

We learn that Filipino and Mexican farmworkers, typically pitted against one another by management, teamed up to strike for better wages and working conditions in the 1960s, initiating the biggest boycott in U.S. history and highlighting the importance of an intersectional movement. In the same decade, the Black Panthers expanded anti-police-brutality activism into a community service program with free breakfasts for schoolchildren, illuminating the related struggles of racism and poverty.

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The book also details how social movements can be used to maintain the status quo, or worse, set back civil rights causes. Similar to the racial discrimination in today’s mainstream feminist movement, for instance, the suffragettes of the late-19th and early-20th centuries won white women the right to vote while pushing an explicitly racist agenda. And much like the torch-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017, KKK members a hundred years earlier used flamboyant visuals and public violence as terror tactics against Black people and other people of color.

Contemporary, youth-led movements such as 2018’s March for Our Lives make their way into the book as well, and Bieschke is already working on a second edition that covers recent anti-lockdown demonstrations as well as the George Floyd protests. The updated edition will explore how Black Lives Matter activists of the 2010s, whom Bieschke covers in the Ferguson chapter, spent years laying the groundwork for today’s protests with media messaging, hashtags and social media campaigns.

“People could spring into action all over the world because they were familiar with the message, they were familiar with the symbols, and they were familiar with the hashtag,” he says. “People had been educated on social media. ... We’re seeing the deep work that goes into a movement come into fruition.”

Author Marke Bieschke speaks at a demonstration against corporate media after SF Media Co. shut down the 'San Francisco Bay Guardian' in 2014. (Courtesy of Marke Bieschke)

Bieschke got into activism as a queer college student protesting the 1990 Gulf War, and he’s heartened by the energy of today’s young people, especially the ways they’re finding links between different social movements and making them stronger as a result. “This latest Pride, which was replaced in many parts of the world with a Black Trans Lives Matter march, was so invigorating because this is what it’s really about,” he says. (Into the Streets covers the Stonewall riots of 1969, which were led by Black and Latina trans women and sparked the modern-day gay rights movement.)

With Into the Streets, Bieschke covers a lot of ground—enough to satisfy the omnivorous appetites of those who identify with multiple, intersecting social justice movements. “There’s a whole legacy of people questioning things like racism, sexism and homophobia,” he says. “I wanted [young people] to connect to that and feel that they’re not alone in that, and also contextualize where some of those struggles came from and where they are today.”

Marke Bieschke is giving a talk on the San Francisco Public Library’s YouTube channel at 7pm, Aug. 12. Details here.