In a now famous video from the New York City protests on the night of May 29, a young woman tugs at the scarf that keeps falling below her nose and tells reporters that the destruction on display in New York and other cities across the country is understandable. “The only way they hear us is through violence,” she insists.
The woman in the video is Urooj Rahman, a Fordham-educated attorney who was working at the time in the Bronx Legal Services office. Her second appearance in front of a camera that night was when she was photographed at booking by the NYPD, wearing a faint smirk and a T-shirt that reads, “THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES REGARDLESS.” Along with friend and fellow lawyer Colin Mattis, the 31-year-old Rahman is charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail into an abandoned police car in the wee hours of May 30. Federal prosecutors took a particular interest in the case, and the two now face a minimum of 45 years in prison if convicted.
But if the vehemence with which the federal government has chosen to prosecute the two activist attorneys is shocking, the defense of their behavior by political allies is truly surreal, often tiptoeing right up to the line of suggesting that they were simply too young to know better. A viral tweet about the incident describes Rahman and Mattis as “two young and idealistic lawyers” who became “wrapped up in the BLM protest movement” (the bomb-throwing itself is written off as “a moment of madness.”) A New York magazine deep dive into the story leans heavily on anecdotes and testimonials from Rahman’s and Mattis’ teen and college years; we learn that Rahman was a “tough girl,” and that Mattis still carries his middle-school backpack. That the two are educated and professional adults in their 30s, with all the expectations and responsibilities that entails, merits only the briefest of mentions. Overall, the narrative suggests that Rahman and Mattis are just young starry-eyed idealists who just couldn’t take the agonizing slowness of enacting change from within the system.
Indeed, expecting professional lawyers to not throw an incendiary device into a police car is portrayed as a sort of middle-aged cluelessness, a sign that one is politically compromised or hopelessly unhip: “To be a lawyer,” the writer tells us, in prose so groaning you can almost see the eye-rolling, “is to agree to play by the rules, or at least to acknowledge that the rules exist, even as you seek to bend them. And it is this simplistic, romantic understanding of a lawyer’s job that is part of what has the government so provoked, as if going to law school is or should be a safeguard against breaking the law.”
As if. Or, as the kids say: OK, boomer.
The concept creep surrounding the notion of “youth” has been showing up in the discourse for a few years now, particularly in conversations about personal agency and accountability. Perhaps because of lingering sexist stereotypes about female innocence and virtue, it seems to apply to women more than men; take the #MeToo accuser who described herself as “a wide-eyed 26-year-old,” or a Jezebel article that excused then-28-year-old author and journalist Lauren Duca as “fairly young, and like many young people, still figuring it all out.” But it also, like everything else, has become politicized. Endless allowances can be made for someone nearing 30 who has the right kind of politics. But in many high-profile controversies, critics are far less charitable toward actual children and refuse to extend any possibility for personal growth to those guilty of dumb social media posts or adolescent outbursts.
The result is a bizarre landscape in which people agonize over calling the police on a teen who tries to rob someone at gunpoint, but enthusiastically cheer when a 12-year-old boy is arrested for sending racist Instagram messages to a professional soccer player. Or where a 28-year-old journalist can be “still figuring it all out,” but Maddie Ziegler must apologize in perpetuity for the offensive video she made at the age of 9. Or where the Molotov-cocktail-throwing corporate attorney just made an impulsive mistake out of youthful idealism, but the high school sophomore who made a racist Snapchat post is old enough to know better. (“If you’re 16 at a time like right now, where you have so much access to the internet to inform yourself, educate yourself, there’s really no excuse,” explained the 20-year-old college student who created a widely shared public list with the names and identifying information of alleged online racists.) In certain spaces, youth seems to be understood less as a stage of human maturity than as a protected class, one where belonging is a privilege—and from which you can be disqualified if your morals aren’t in proper alignment.
It’s also possible that this trend is being driven as much by generational strife as it is by politics, particularly for a young(ish), educated class who graduated into an economic meltdown with mountains of debt, no job prospects, and no choice but to move back in with their parents. Ten years after the Great Recession, millennials still struggle to find footing in the grown-up world, achieving major benchmarks like marriage, parenthood, and home ownership belatedly or sometimes not at all. They often feel, rightly or wrongly, that fate (along with entitled older people and also, lately, the coronavirus) has conspired to shut them out of these institutions. They’re the generation that coined the term “adulting” to describe the peculiar sensation that adulthood is something to be performed but never achieved. Perhaps it’s no surprise that they’re still reluctant to think of themselves as grown-ups—or that the mantle of youth, previously pulled out of shape by boomers with Peter Pan complexes and the kidults of Generation X, is being warped afresh by the clinging of millennials as they approach middle age.
American society has long held youthfulness, if not actual young people, in high regard (see: the multibillion-dollar industry designed to battle all visible signs of aging). But something has changed. The value of youth is now less about appearance, and more about ideological purity. The black-and-white moral righteousness that marks adolescent thinking has become its own aspirational brand. The Parkland kids are cultural icons. Greta, last name unnecessary, is an influencer-messiah. A historic protest movement fueled by restless young people, many left unemployed and at loose ends by an equally historic pandemic, fills our nights with noise. A historic election looms, as journalists write with prophetic confidence that the teens on TikTok will someday save us all.
The kids aren’t just all right; they’re righteous. Who doesn’t want to be that?
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.