One at the London strikes told us how, completely unplanned, the protestors took over Westminster bridge. They had claimed buses, were mounting traffic lights and police were brought in on horseback to counter it.
We all saw the headlines on Friday 15th February 2019: in more than 60 locations around the UK an estimated 20,000 young people went on strike from school to protest the UK government’s inaction over the climate breakdown.
The national news coverage was impressive and important, but tended to lack the personal and has not challenged the ‘youth mob’ narratives that I have seen circulating.
There are several questions that need to be explored. What were the individual motivations to ditch the classroom? Was it just a free pass to party? How long had this growing hum of youth disquiet remained unobserved? How deep does it run?
I wish to give some tentative answers to these questions. I am a youth environmental activist with the UK Youth Climate Coalition, and for this protest I went down with a film team to document the Bristol protest with the University of Bristol TV.
With microphone in hand, I was justified in prodding and poking people’s environmental positions, an exercise which so often gets me in trouble at family parties. Here are my key takeaways.
1. Do not underestimate young people.
I had spoken to the event organiser earlier in the week – a 14 year old girl – and she told me that she was expecting about 30-40 people to attend.
As the clock hit 11am, there was an influx of young people literally running across the College Green, until there were between 1,000 and 2,000 bodies crowded around Bristol city council’s entrance singing ‘climate change has got to go’.
I was aware that from 11am onwards the strike was going to have various speakers, a staged ‘die-in’, and then at 1pm the official demands of the UK Student Climate Network would be read out.
Almost none of this happened. This was not through a lack of organisation, but instead because the chanting was sustained and overwhelming.
Young people adorned in school uniform started mounting the ramp to the council building, wet head to toe from marching around in the pond in front.
Several hours after the planned end to the strike, I could still hear the distant thud of chanting and marching as the protestors were taking their strike mobile. And how did the field look after the thousand strong protest left? Chalk art on the pavement and not a piece of litter in sight.
The demand for change was visceral. This was not exclusive to Bristol. Other UKYCC activists were dispersed around the country.
One at the London strikes told us how, completely unplanned, the protestors took over Westminster bridge. They had claimed buses, were mounting traffic lights and police were brought in on horseback to counter it. In Oxford, George Monbiot spoke and a march began.
2. Apathy is dead.
In jest, I opened many questions provocatively with ‘so you’re here to skip school?’. I was met with reproach. 15-year old Aaron said:"‘I’m not here to skip.
"I saw the strike and researched it further. I didn’t quite realise the impact climate change is having and will have on this world… I’m here because young people need to group together and be heard."
10-year old Matilda protested that she was here for the polar bears – yep, it’s still a talking point – and the melting ice-caps jeopardising animal well-being.
There was not one respondent who didn’t speak with conviction, a clear sign to me that perhaps apathy is no longer a currency that young people can afford.
Most youth were defiant that the government was gambling their future away without their consent. This lack of agency seemed to be central to the energy behind the protests; attendance seemed to be an exercise of 'reclaiming'.
I am a young person who shares these frustrations of agency, and sharing a communal space to feel this together reduced me to tears. Never in my life as a campaigner have I felt such a shared sense of urgency and never have I felt more optimistic that change is coming, and it has a fresh wrinkle-free face.
3. We won’t stop.
If the length and passion of the protest itself is anything to go by then I predict this protest to happen every month for the next year, minimum.
‘Empowered’ was a common response when I asked people how they were feeling. Empowerment is notably contagious, so it is likely that these strikes will only grow in numbers.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old activist who sparked the protests by launching the #FridaysForFuture campaign has been on strike for the past 26 weeks – that’s half a year. As one homemade sign at the strikes read – "we’re with you Greta" – so don’t expect this to be a one-time strike.
This week's strikes are being reported as a ‘rehearsal’ for the global school strikes for climate that will happen on the 15th March 2019, so watch this space.
4. The voting age needs to be lowered to 16
This is one of the protestors key demands, and I have to admit I was a little skeptical when I first heard it. When I was 16 - not too long ago - I was more concerned with Justin Bieber’s haircut that an impending climate breakdown.
But as I said, the sense of urgency now is too grand for young people to remain apolitical.
One 16-year-old I met was adamant for his stake in politics. Ben said: "They think we don’t understand voter responsibility, but the majority of the demographic here today are 15 to 18. That proves that young people know what they’re going on about. We need to break this stereotype."
I found this profoundly powerful: how is it possible that the age demographic that will be most affected by climate breakdown is currently denied entry into the conversation? Where is the democracy?
I leave feeling both deeply concerned, but also deeply inspired. I have been to many, many, protests, but none have had the texture and dignity of this.
Katie Hodgetts is an activist and campaigner for the UK Youth Climate Coalition and is on twitter at @katiehodgettssx