Fifth monthly Cambridge Youth Strike demands climate justice
So it’s the longest day of the year (June 21) and the sun is shining for the fifth monthly Cambridge Youth Strike protest in Cambridge, and - because this is 2019 - there's disorder in public places, though not from the protestors.
While cycling to the start of the event at Shire Hall for 10am I slow down to cross at Jesus Lock footbridge and there’s a bloke ranting at the top of his voice at the world with vicious intent and some alarming threats.
Welcome to England V2019. The decision is: do you report this to the police? Is it just some drunk-the-morning-after jack the lad having what passes for his idea of fun, or is it hate speech? Crossing Jesus Lock footbridge there’s a young family, a couple talking in an Eastern European language, a group of a dozen Chinese tourists… could I guarantee their safety at the other end of the footbridge? After some soul-searching I decide he was a lost brother and of no danger to anyone but himself. Nevertheless it was a close call.
At Shire Hall the pupils and students - by students I mean primarily those of A-level age - are gathering. There’s 20 stewards waiting near the car park in yellow vests to marshal the event through the streets of the city.
On a bench outside, Jona David uses a microphone to list the things that are “unjust and irresponsible” about the adult response to impending climate catastrophe. Things like species extinction and Pacific islands already facing rising sea waters.
“Do we want these things to happen?” he asks.
“No,” bellow the assembled youth from 34 local primary and secondary schools.
The day's theme being biodiversity and the impacts of climate change on nature, many of the youngsters were in costume or had animal or bird face-paints. Next up Harry, aged nine, describes the plight of the elephant, before Aarifah, 12, moves the chanting up a gear.
“Show me what democracy looks like!” he yells into the microphone.
“This is what democracy looks like!” comes the response.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
At the edge of the crowd is a bunch of younger lads apparently passing by on their walk to school. As they listened to the talks one lad turned to the next next and said: “Let’s bunk off school and join the climate march.”
“Why not?” he persists. “They clearly don’t care about it.”
“They clearly do,” came the retort.
Who the “they” and “it” are is for you to surmise!
Going down Castle Street the 200 or so protesters had to stop at the traffic lights and as they waited two double-deck buses crossed paths with great difficulty in the historic old city, and were joined by a lorry of about the same size. The marchers had to watch while this kerfuffle sorted itself out, showing once again that even when you’re on the advance guard of a new generation of protestors to save the planet, you still have to bend the knee to traffic.
On the top side of one of the buses was an advert with a big tag line - “Vegan” - and a picture of a pizza. Well at least I think it was a pizza because on this hot day the smog and pollution around the vehicles obscured my view. I dashed off to Waterstones to meet my daughter Flo and her and partner Thijs’ daughter, Lilly. Little Lilly is three months old, and it’s obvious the damage that’s already happened to the Earth will have to be addressed in her lifetime. How much? Well look at it this way: I reckon climate change will have been a factor for one-fifth of my lifetime. For four-fifths I’ve been living my time with climate change in the background. But for Lilly, that fraction changes. Quite possibly somewhere between two and four-fifths of her time will be taken up in effect of climate change damage wrought by previous generations.
So off we all go, to the protest, past the busker at Great St Mary’s church who is singing Elvis' I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You, past the traffic warden who is booking a car parked in a loading bay outside Benets, and we sit down on the wall and wait for the campaigners to come into King’s Parade via Downing Street.
And then here they come, these young heroes and heroines of their age, the bravehearts and the scared, the champions of a cause that has no rulebook or previous, smarter and savvier than they were when they set out at the start of the year. The speakers understand the game now. “We’d like to send a message to whoever the new prime minister may be," says one lad addressing the crowd in his crooked school tie and ill-fitting jacket. "We will strike again and again and again until our voice is heard - until climate change is properly addressed.”
Big roar from the crowd blocking King's Parade for that.
So why so few degree-level students in a city with two universities? Maybe they gravitate more naturally towards Extinction Rebellion. But maybe it’s something else, perhaps something as simple as social conditioning. What the youth strikers have achieved is to terminate the idea that by being old you’re necessarily smarter. Or more compassionate. Or more adaptable - and it’s this last one that is the Darwinian challenge to other generations, perhaps including 20-somethings. The youth strikers' challenge is: “Come up with something better, and stop blocking solutions, or get out of the way.” We all know what happens to species that can't or won't adapt. Maybe it happens to generations too.
The youth strikers represent an inversion of the natural order. The older generations are not seen as worthy of emulation as they are accused of becoming increasingly self-serving in a time of crisis. It happened in the Sixties too, of course, a movement to overthrow the old order, and maybe it happens for every generation in some way or other. But this time is unique: the unrest is coming from children and young people, who will vote the “unjust and irresponsible” out when get their chance - and it’s just a question of whether that day can come in time.
* Streets for Life, hosted by Extinction Rebellion, will block traffic in Cambridge on July 6.
More by this authorMike Scialom