Alexandria Fletcher-Flynn Herr
Thousands of youth protestors in more than 60 different cities around the United Kingdom joined in on a ‘school strike’ against climate change on Friday, February 15th. In Oxford, a normally sleepy university town, a surging mass of schoolchildren and teenagers gathered in Bonn square. A young girl in a maroon crop top stood on top of a garbage can, leading the crowd in a chant: “Hey! Ho! Climate Change has got to go!” She was brandishing a cardboard sign overhead, which read in block capital letters: "I'm too young to watch porn, but I'm still seeing our planet get f*cked!" Other signs in the crowd added teen twists onto traditional eco-protest slogans: “If you can get teenagers out of bed you know there’s a problem,” read another.
The energy of the protest might be largely attributed to the crowd’s youth. The protests have grown out of 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s school strikes. Since summer of 2018, Thunberg has embarked on a solitary protest of climate change, sitting alone outside the Swedish national legislature during school hours with a cardboard sign that reads: “School strike for climate”. The image of her sitting alone in the depths of the Nordic winter, bearing a stoic expression, neck wrapped in a scarf and braids poking out from underneath a hat, spread quickly on social media. Thunberg rose to international recognition for her one-girl crusade and was recently invited to speak at Davos and COP 24, where she drew media attention for saying that the assembled world leaders were behaving like irresponsible children. Thunberg’s school strike has turned the focus of the climate change debate to an issue of intergenerational justice, making the point that it is her generation that will be most affected by the issues of climate change. That shift in the framing of the debate was the spark that unleashed a wave of activism: suddenly, climate change has become a youth issue.
This intergenerational justice question is central in the demands of organizers; in England, organizers from Youth Strike 4 Climate are asking, among other things, that the government declare a climate emergency and that the age of voting be lowered to 16 so that youth can have more of a voice in environmental issues. That sense of urgency was reflected in the crowd gathered in Bonn square on Friday. “They’re only focusing on Brexit. It’s not that important,” said one 18-year-old protester named Shamira, “this is a bigger issue. It’s our future.” Another protester, Leo, aged 12, said he was skipping school to show that kids could have an important voice on climate issues: “It’s important to us because we have a future as well. All the adults will be gone by the time it’s a real problem.”
While some kids in the crowd were skipping school without the permission of parents or teachers, others were accompanied by adults. Luca, 11, was there with his father Neil, who said he hoped his decision to let his son skip school to protest would, “send a message to his classmates that it’s something they can all take part in.” His son was more straightforward. “I don’t want to die,” he said, with a weak laugh.
The protests this Friday were only one of many planned future protests; another day of action is planned globally for March 15th. Looking around the crowd, I got the sense that this was the only the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. There was something electric about these teenagers and children, united in their adolescent passion and energy. Near the end of my interviews of protestors, I struck up a conversation with an older protester who was attending with his daughter. We were cut off halfway through when his seven-year-old daughter, noticing the crowd was leaving the square to march down the road, abruptly snatched the sign from her dad’s hands. “You stay here,” she told him, “I’m marching now.”
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