I had no idea that September 20 would be so huge. Greta Thunberg said to a reporter as she marched in New York: “I would never have predicted this.”
It was just over a year ago that Thunberg, now 16 years old, began skipping school every Friday to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, demanding action to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Her action sparked student climate strikes at first in Sweden and then in many countries, culminating in the greatest coordinated demonstration of students and youth in history. Her spark landed on the flammable tinder of millions of young people ready to embrace her message.
On the morning of the New York City student climate strike, I turned on the TV and saw a report of huge, spirited and loud demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, held the previous day. I was both surprised and inspired.
CNN then crossed to the protests underway in New York City. A reporter, surrounded by chanting and noisy young people with signs, many homemade, was smiling and excited, as hundreds of thousands of people converged on Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan.
Then reports came in of actions in country after country, from the imperialist centres to poor countries of the periphery, with estimates of four million people participating.
These snowballing actions were organised by young people locally, nationally and internationally with help from climate crisis groups. This shows that a layer of young leaders has emerged, and formed networks.
Thunberg’s message is that the looming climate catastrophe threatens the future of young people everywhere, who will bear its brunt. One chant in New York City was: “You had a future, and so should we!”
Before the climate strike, Thunberg addressed the United States Congress and said: “I have not come to offer any prepared remarks at this hearing. I am instead attaching my testimony. It is the IPCC [International Governmental Panel on Climate Change] Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.
“I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science. And then I want you to take real action.”
'We’re here to write a new story'
There were actions in about 50 cities in the US, some in the tens of thousands, such as in San Francisco. The largest was in New York City, on the eve of the September 23 United Nations Climate Action Summit.
About 60,000 people gathered for a rally to kick off the march. Many joined as the march wound through downtown Manhattan. There were other feeder contingents and people who went directly to the end, resulting in more than 250,000 demonstrators.
At the rally, co-founder and director of the Sunrise Movement Varshini Prakash and Vic Barrett from the Garifuna peoples of the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent spoke. Their speeches were recorded by DemocracyNow!
Barrett said: “My people are an Afro-indigenous community. Despite overwhelming adversity, we organised our community and emancipated ourselves from [French then British] colonisation. My ancestors did this to protect the children to come. I am one of those children.
“But the struggle continues for me and my people. Again we are being pushed from the lands we settled, the lands that my family has inhabited for generations. That land will be underwater in a few decades if we continue on the path we are on…
“Indigenous lands all over the planet are being flooded, poisoned and destroyed. My Black brothers and sisters are being gunned down by police. Migrant children are dying at the border. Trans folks are being murdered. Violence is in the air that we breathe…
“All of us here know that, for decades, our government and governments around the world have consciously put in place policies that have caused the climate crisis we find ourselves in, an emerging crisis threatening my generation with untold violence.
“We’re here to write a new story.
“In 2030, the history books will show that faced with imminent destruction, people on the frontlines fought back; that young people rose up around the world to demand immediate action; that starting on this day, September 20, 2019, everything began to change.”
‘This generation is taking over’
Prakash said: “We have grown up seeing the political establishment fail us.
“For as twice as long as I have been alive on this planet, we have known about the crisis. For just as long, the wealthy and the powerful have profited off pollution, have lied to millions of people about the science, have choked our democracy with their Big Oil dollars and stolen our futures.
“Today, this generation is taking over!
“Our days of waiting for justice, our days of waiting for action … of waiting to be heard are over!
“Today we are putting our feet in the streets, and we are not stopping until we get it done!
“Today, kids don’t have to feel small and alone and powerless, because we have a movement that is globally shaking the roots of our society.”
Along the march, climate strikers were chanting: “Hey, hey! Ho ho! Climate change has got to go!”, “We are trying! Trump is lying! The Earth is dying!” and “What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? Now!”.
DemocracyNow! interviewed strikers, including 12-year-old Isabella, who said: “I’m here today because I believe that age doesn’t matter … we can’t vote, but we still have a voice here.
“I get really worried about our future, because I keep seeing posts that say, ‘Oh yeah, by 2030, the world would be at its peak, that we can’t do anything anymore.’ And I keep thinking, ‘Why don’t people listen, when things are right in front of their face?’”
‘Our future is connected’
Daphne Frias told DemocracyNow!: “I’m 21 years old. I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker from West Harlem. The reason I’m here is because I’m tired of climate inaction. I’m tired of our world leaders ignoring what’s really happening to our Earth, and profiting off of the extinction of our planet, prioritising profit over lives, instead of lives over profit.
“My Latina community disproportionately faces climate change because of the institutions that are placed in our communities. We have fossil fuel plants. We have garbage waste plants and many other infrastructures that pollute our environment.
“Being disabled … we don’t have the privilege to up and leave when a natural disaster occurs.”
Alina Hassan said: “I’m from the Bronx High School of Science. And my sign says ‘ExxonMobil knew about climate change 50 years ago, and they did nothing about it.’ They actually paid money so they could deny it. They spread propaganda against climate change. And we need to hold them accountable.”
The crowd chanted: “Exxon knew! Exxon knew! We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”
At the huge rally in Battery Park, at the end of the march route, Artemisa Xakriabá and Thunberg both spoke.
Xakriabá said: “I am 19 years old, and I am from the Xakriabá people in Brazil. I am here today representing the more than 25 million indigenous and traditional communities … together we protect 600 million hectares of forest.
“I am also here as a young woman, because there’s no difference between an indigenous young female activist like myself … and a young female activist like Greta. Our future is connected by the same threads of the climate crisis.
“The Amazon is on fire. The Amazon agonises year after year for the responsibility of the government and its destructive policies that intensify deforestation and drought.
“We, the indigenous peoples, are the children of nature, so we fight for Mother Earth … We are fighting for your lives. We are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our sacred territory. But we are being persecuted, threatened, murdered, only for protecting our own territories. We cannot accept one more drop of indigenous blood spilled.”
'Change is coming'
Thunberg told the crowd: “Right now we are the ones who are making a difference. If no one else will take action, then we will … But we are not just some young people skipping school or some adults who are not going to work. We are a wave of change.
“Together and united, we are unstoppable … We will hold those most responsible for this crisis accountable, and we will make the world leaders act. We can, and we will."
The UN Climate Action Summit of world leaders took place three days later. The New York Times reported that despite the protests, China made no new promises to take stronger action and the US said nothing at all. US President Donald Trump reportedly listened for 10 minutes then left. A host of countries made only incremental promises.
Thunberg attended the meeting and spoke. Her voice quivering with rage, she attacked those present for their inaction: “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
She concluded: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”
Trump and other recalcitrant world leaders should take heed of Thunberg’s words in Battery Park on September 20: “If you belong to that small group of people who feel threatened by us, then we have some very bad news for you, because this is only the beginning. Change is coming, whether they like it or not.”