A Strike Against the Abyss

A Strike Against the Abyss

There are more than 3,000 climate strikes in 150 countries happening on Friday, September 20, 2019. In London, trade unionists and high school students marched together. In Mumbai, protesting students were soaked through by the rain. In Kiribati, which may be one of the first countries to be swallowed by rising sea levels, students chanted: “We are not sinking, we are fighting.” In New York City, the Board of Education responded to mounting pressure from students by agreeing not to penalize those who cut classes to participate in the strike.

The demands of the Global Climate Strike are straightforward, rooted in the science of the crisis. They call for a Green New Deal (“Transform our economy to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2030”); respect of indigenous land and sovereignty (“Honor the treaties protecting Indigenous lands, waters, and sovereignty”); environmental justice (“A transition that invests in prosperity for communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution”); the protection and restoration of biodiversity (“Protection and restoration of 50 percent of the world’s lands and oceans including a halt to all deforestation by 2030”); and the implementation of sustainable agriculture (“Investment in farmers and regenerative agriculture and an end to subsidies for industrial agriculture”). The strike is means to these ends.

Jezebel spoke to four students organizing for the climate strike in New York City. They described a moment of intense optimism and a kind of existential uncertainty that sometimes felt overpowering, the politicians fighting in earnest and those they see as just trying to look the part, and the profound challenge of imaging the future—one in which we rise to the occasion of the crisis and one in which we fail. “Part of the reason I’ve been striking is because, why should we be asking the teenagers [to fix this]?” one striking student explained. “That all should be thought of already! We didn’t cause it!”

Their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

“We shut stuff down.”

I’m a big part of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, and I think striking, especially with teachers and labor and people who can really shut down the city, is what we need to get done. Bill McKibben put out this piece saying that money is the fuel for the climate crisis, and it really is. I think strikes hit capital directly where it hurts. We shut stuff down.

We need to talk about doing more sustained strikes. We need to encourage more people to go out, get arrested, shut down streets. We don’t have the time to be complacent and wait until it’s too late. It’s not like oh we have to put chemicals in our air now to block out the sun. That’s not the future I want! We need to unionize, we need to band together, we need to force change.

— Lily Walsingham-Johnson, 21

“Last year, my principal did not like me.”

For the climate strike on March 15, 2019, we put posters up in the hallways at my school, but when we came back the next day, they were gone. So we put the posters in the bathroom stalls, because apparently they never take them away from there. We weren’t allowed to say “strike” on the poster, and we weren’t allowed to say the time and the place. So we just said, “Meet at the lobby after fourth period.” We had to be very ambiguous. I wasn’t expecting 600 people to show up to strike from my school, but there we were.

Last year, my principal did not like me. We held three climate strikes! But this year, my principal is all for it. This year, we have 30 teachers teaching about the climate crisis. And then they’re chaperoning the strike!

— Xiye Bastida, 17

“Education is seen as the epitome of preparing for your future, but why should we be preparing for our future when that’s not a guarantee?”

I think the power of the strike is more than just face value. Really, in the long term, climate change is going to affect many people my age in a way that is hard to imagine. Education is seen as the epitome of preparing for your future, but why should we be preparing for our future when that’s not a guarantee? Education is integral to our system, to our society. So if the climate crisis is important enough for kids to be like: I am going to give up my education to show how important this is, I think that says a lot.

Olive Wilson Raymond, 15

“It looked apocalyptic.”

I was visiting family back in Northern California, where I was born and raised, when the Paradise fire broke out. It quickly became the worst wildfire in California history: 250 square miles burned, thousands of homes were destroyed. My home town was very close to Paradise. We had ended up getting a lot of smoke, just a cloud of smoke encircling my community. And it was one of those things that were the air quality got so bad that it looked apocalyptic. I couldn’t even go outside. I have asthma, and that was such a scary situation to be in. My family had to cover the windows and doors to keep the smoke from seeping in, the community was handing out face masks, but the masks didn’t keep out the particles that were really harmful. It was making me nauseous and hurting my asthma, so my family had to send me home to New York City. My friends and family were still there, though.

I think it will be the biggest protest I have ever been involved in organizing.

When I got home, I started to research the effects of the climate crisis, and that’s how I came across Greta [Thunberg.] That was inspiring. On December 14, I started my own school strike—every Friday for the last 41 Fridays. It was only me for the first 10 weeks until I got my first visitors—a group of students who had heard about my strike. That’s when I finally started to feel like the strike was getting across with other students.

— Alexandria Villaseñor, 14

“That was the first time I saw the climate crisis—at literally my doorstep.”

I moved to New York City in 2015, when I was 13 years old. That same year, in 2015, the town where I’m from in Mexico suffered from flooding from heavy rainfall. That was the first time I saw the climate crisis—at literally my doorstep. We also have a river there that is contaminated from factory waste, and all that contamination came into the streets. So it wasn’t just about extreme weather patterns, it was also about contamination that came from fossil fuels. So I think I was an activist before I called myself an activist, and I think that happens to everyone. But the first time I thought of myself an activist was when someone else called me an activist.

Some of my peers, especially people who lived in the city their whole lives, their only encounter with the crisis was Hurricane Sandy. I go to a high-income school. It’s a public school, but it’s privileged. A lot of the kids in my school don’t live by the Gowanus Canal, which is contaminated by this waste. They don’t live in the Bronx. But there are a lot of places in the city that you can encounter the crisis and the structural racism that it is part of. But most of my peers were not exposed to that. So our conversations in school were like: what do we do? Most of the conversations were about… metal straws. So we, in the teach-in and the environmental club sessions we had leading up to the strike, talked about agriculture and fast fashion and fracking. All of these levels. What we did is we all picked one topic and taught each other what we were interested in. So I talked about indigenous sovereignty and how indigenous people have been taking care of the environment. Some people talked about fashion. And now so many of us thrift shop or do a clothing exchange. Things have changed.

— Xiye Bastida

“Why should we be asking the teenagers?”

It definitely has to be a dialogue between people in positions of power, the people in communities most affected, and young people. I think our voices are important, especially because we’re going to be the ones who have to deal with it. We present that emotional side, like, we need you to do something. That’s important to hear if you’re a 75-year-old person. But I don’t have the education or resources to make scientific discoveries, I don’t have the economic knowledge to remake these systems. But we need to know: what is an acceptable future? How do we solve that economically? How do we solve that scientifically? How do we solve that justly? It’s like: we can fix it, once we have those resources. That’s what politicians have to be doing. Part of the reason I’ve been striking is because, why should we be asking the teenagers? That all should be thought of already! We didn’t cause it!

Olive Wilson Raymond

“When I know they’re not in it, I can tell.”

I’m in Washington, D.C. right now, and I was meeting with senators yesterday and today. All of them, literally every single one of them told me: we’re going to let you lead the way! We’re going to let you save the future! But they are the ones who make laws! So to have people in power tell us that we’re going to save the future, it’s like: okay, but what happens now? We need people to step up now.

I attended a CNN climate crisis Town Hall and one of the candidates called the Sunrise Movement the “Sunshine Movement.” So you can tell from the language when someone is paying attention. When I know they’re not in it, I can tell. Some people just want to show their face, but I know they’re thinking: This is not politically possible. I know they’re thinking: They don’t understand the complexities of the system. I can tell they’re thinking we don’t understand, and that we’re being naive.

— Xiye Bastida

“We’ve had to adapt in the past.”

Talking about the future is a hard question because it’s inconceivable. Addressing the climate crisis will require such a large amount of change—a lot of it a change in mindset. Our values as a society will have to change: we can’t value money as much as we do, and we have to value health and other people’s wellness. There’s so much corruption with oil companies and these big Fortune 500 companies exploiting natural resources. That needs to be reformed and fast. But I think honestly it will take adjusting to live a plastic-free lifestyle, a fossil fuel-free lifestyle.

And it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that, at this point, we’ve gone so far that nothing can change that except for intense systematic reform. That’s hard for a lot people to deal with. But we’ve had to adapt in the past, like during World War II. At that time, it seemed inconceivable, too. But it’s what we had to do in order to survive.

Olive Wilson Raymond

“I want fast and effective mass transit and I want this whole transition to be just.”

I want fast and effective mass transit and I want this whole transition to be just. There are some communities who will require more help, more money, and more time than others. Historically black and brown communities, frontline communities—they’re just going to need more. I want healthcare for everyone, I want college for all. There’s a lot of stuff that’s tied into this.

— Lily Walsingham-Johnson

“I’ve heard a lot of my peers talk about climate anxiety. And like, how is that even a thing, you know?”

It is very scary to see that, when my mother was young, she wasn’t afraid of her future. She had all of these dreams and hopes of what she wanted to be. To see that it’s completely different now, it’s hard. We have moral authority in the conversation, but besides that we don’t have much power. I’ve heard a lot of my peers talk about climate anxiety. And like, how is that even a thing, you know? I’ve had dreams myself of wildfires.

For me, addressing the climate crisis is not only about saving our future, but saving our history. We have to learn from what has happened. And that’s why we’re calling for an intergenerational movement. Striking alone will not solve the climate crisis, but we need people waking up and being made aware. We need scientists, people who work in economics, politicians. We need that knowledge to move this forward. This is about our culture that is being put in jeopardy, our traditions.

— Xiye Bastida

“True democracy is really hard and very frustrating.”

True democracy is really hard and very frustrating, but once you get past the frustration of six-hour voting meetings it pays off. Just seeing the difference between how older generations and younger generations are handling this. The more I’m involved, the more I see that older people just don’t care. It’s such a generalization and I usually hate generalizations, but I’m flyering in Washington Square Park right now and every young person I walk by is like: I’ve heard about it. I want more information. I’ll be there—I’m trying to be there! I’m sending friends, I’m sending my cousins! And the older people I walk by are just like: no, no thank you. I see that a lot, even in other spaces. When you look at the Sunrise Movement, at different climate activism meetings, it’s mainly young people. I think that’s because it’s going to affect us more.

— Lily Walsingham-Johnson

“September 20th is not our goal, it’s just a catalyst.”

September 20th is not our goal, it’s just a catalyst. We want that to be clear. A lot of people are so excited about September 20th that we’re worried they’re not thinking beyond it. A lot of us, including myself, are going to the U.N. Youth Summit. We’re also going to the U.N. Climate Summit, like the actual summit, so to have four teenagers be there? We’re excited to be part of it. We’re going to be watching every word that comes out of their mouths, where they get their money from. We have people power, we have numbers. We’re going to hold them accountable.

— Xiye Bastida

“Every mobilization sets a new precedent and our voices get louder as the climate crisis gets more urgent.”

For the lead up to the strike, there’s been so much work to do. There are four working committees for the strike: logistics, outreach, art, and comms. These working committees had two representatives in what’s called the core committee that streamlines conversations between all the committees. I am on the logistics committee and the core committee, and so we planned the march route, to keep people safe. There’s been a lot of emails and phone conversations!

I think it was June 26 that New York City got its climate emergency passed, and it was because of the youth and the climate strikers here in New York City. So for the 20th, it looks to be the biggest climate strike that has ever happened in the history of the planet. That’s what we want to see: every mobilization sets a new precedent and our voices get louder as the climate crisis gets more urgent. That’s the power of grassroots work and the power of on-the-ground organizing. I think tomorrow will be the biggest protest I have ever been involved in organizing. It’s one of those feelings that you don’t know what will happen until it happens.

— Alexandria Villaseñor

Jezebel is participating in Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis. You can find more details about the effort and other participants here.

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