High school students: leaders in social change

September 13, 2019
Secondary school students march against the Vietnam War in 1968.

The vast majority, if not all, of the things that Greta Thunberg says are delivered with precise accuracy; however, one of the 16-year-old Swedish high school climate activist’s latest statements has perfectly encapsulated the wider School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) movement.

Her comments, in an interview with The Guardian, that “we need a concrete plan” and “not just nice words” reveals how all climate activism should be rooted in mass action, rather than simple rhetoric.

The appeal for definite ideas is one that will determine the relative success of SS4C.

While previous movements have faltered due to a lack of clear vision, this has also been due to a correlation between this absence of forethought and militant rigour. Putting forward policy demands that recognise deficiencies in the status quo that need addressing is inherently a political act.

Liberal and market-based solutions to problems such as homelessness, health care, or, indeed, climate change, consist of vague platitudes that act as a depoliticising force, preventing effective action from being taken.

As we head into the September 20 high school-led strike, it is imperative to clearly articulate demands as a way of building popular support. Of course, such demands must offer a perspective of transformative change, rather than mere tokenism.

SS4C Australia’s proposals for: 1. no new coal or gas; 2. 100% renewable energy by 2030; and 3. funding of a just transition for fossil fuel-industry workers, are thus critical to the inclusively that lies behind each successful movement.

It can be difficult to draw connections between varying aspects of struggle and rebellion. Race and class are, after all, topics entirely separate from the issue of climate change, are they not?

More scientific analysis, however, dismisses this outright. One’s position in the world has an impact on how climate change is experienced. Those living in poorer countries emit less carbon per person than those living in richer areas. But the poor are already bearing the brunt of the disasters brought about by the climate emergency, as they do not possess the same level of development or infrastructure due to centuries of brutal imperialism.

Similarly, working-class people will be the biggest victims of climate change. The rich can afford to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, while workers are exploited by the same companies that pollute the planet for their own profit.

In this sense, the importance of understanding how struggles are linked cannot be understated. As seen with the anti-Vietnam War rallies, or the more recent marches against Pauline Hanson, high school movement support is contingent on building a broad base of activists who recognise that the same machine of white supremacist, patriarchal, hetero-normative capitalism is responsible for the ills of our society.

Australian secondary students mobilising for progressive change is not a new development. Socialist youth organisation Resistance, formed in 1967 by young activists at Sydney University, played a central role in the anti-war movement. In the 1960s and early 1970s, high school activists were at the forefront of protesting against the Vietnam War. In the decades to follow, secondary students not only protested against war, they organised and fought for better conditions within their schools.

An early event organised by Resistance, was a secondary student teach-in on the Vietnam War in July 1968, that drew 400 people. The first issue of Student Underground, a news sheet published by Resistance, appeared in September 1968 advertising an anti-war rally that drew about 2000 people, half of them secondary students.

In 1972, numerous strikes took place in individual schools across Australia. On April 10, 500 striking students from University High held a city demonstration. A meeting held between Education Action Group (EAG) students from University High and the Victorian Secondary Students Union (VSSU) resulted in an all-day student strike on May 31. An estimated 3000 students marched, despite education department threats that participants would not be allowed to sit for upcoming exams.

In June that year, Resistance called for a national secondary student strike, the first nationally coordinated secondary student strike in Australia. On September 20, tens of thousands of students were involved in strikes, walkouts, meetings in schools and rallies after school. The protests were far and wide: 500 students staged a sit-in at a Nowra high school; 200 students from Kingsmeadow High in Launceston protested about the lack of a gymnasium.  

At the 1977 Hiroshima Day demonstration in Melbourne, out of a crowd of 25,000, an estimated 5000 were secondary students.

By the early 1980s, tens of thousands of high school students joined hundreds of thousands of others at Palm Sunday peace demonstrations.

High school students have also led campaigns against racism following Pauline Hanson’s election in 1996, with secondary students organising protests and walk-outs from school. One such group was High School Students against Hanson, which organised 14,000 students to walk out on July 24, 1998 against Pauline Hanson and John Howard’s racism.

More recently, the Howard government’s push to invade Iraq sparked mass protests organised by secondary students, including a national walk-out of high school students against the Iraq war in February 2003. This involved more than 25,000 students across Australia.

Looking at Australian activists’ history of civil disobedience and social change, high school students have played a crucial role. The mass action on September 20 is carrying on this tradition.

[Leo Crnogorčević and Audrey McCarthy are year 12 high school students and members of the Socialist Alliance.]https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

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