In song and pictures: Billy Bragg joins youth strikers for climate day of action
Cambridge experienced both a Black Friday and a Green Friday this year, as the Youth Strike for Climate marched with activist and songwriter Billy Bragg, an Extinction Rebellion die-in took place, the UCU (University and College Union) picketed the university, the Grand Arcade car park was blockaded - and that was just the daytime.
The day belonged to Billy Bragg, who stole the show both musically - with wonderfully reinventive versions of some classic songs - and through speech, thanks to his uplifting encouragement of a new generation of activists from someone whose caustic intelligence took him to the front line of political commentary from 1978, with Rock Against Racism.
Using the wall of King’s College as a stage, the youth strikers set up shop and proceeded to issue damning verdicts on the state of play in the battle to put the climate emergency first and foremost on the political, cultural and financial agenda.
Having marched from Shire Hall at 10am, around 600 protesters arrived at King’s Parade in full fettle. Organisers Cambridge Schools Eco Council opened the talks, thanks to compere Nico Roman, 11, who introduced Billy, who said: “What a powerful march that was, I liked the cowbell [pictured in gallery], that was really impressive, whoever is on that.”
Nico said Billy would be back later and a speaker from Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, who said: “The injustices of globalism live on in capitalism” and cited the arms trade, the fashion sector and the higher education sector as complicit. He urged all universities to desist from fossil fuel investment. “They hope to rebrand themselves not as climate criminals but as part of a rigorous science-based institution.”
Molly from Hills Road Sixth Form centre spoke next.
“I’m here because when I’m older I don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren that we made climate change possible,” she said. “If you care you will come and join us in protest.”
A Socialist Worker speaker then denounced the political system that has enabled racism to encroach once more into public life. “You are the antidote to racism,” he said. “That is the way forward - victory to you.”
Arthur, 12, from Perse School, then told the assembled crowd how he felt. “I’m not sad or angry about how little work has been done on climate change,” he said, “I’m just confused about how little politicians do and how so many people can put aside the facts and carry on as if nothing is happening. Recent research shows that CO2 levels were last as high as they are now six million years ago, and sea levels were 20 metres higher than they are now.
Harry, 11, from St Paul’s Primary School, got everyone cheering when he said: “This Black Friday doesn’t have to be black, it can be green - let Green Friday begin!"
Three more speakers and a wonderfully gifted young songwriter called Rachel followed. Rachel’s self-penned songs included Before, a song about pioneering mental health campaigner and former mayoress of Cambridge, Lady Ida Darwin, who was the wife of 1896-97 mayor Sir Horace Darwin.
Another “which I wrote two nights ago” was so fresh it seemed to lack a name and concerned a future “where the now has turned to mist” and a lack of belief in “our leaders, who lead us to lose”.
“A big hand for Rachel and her songs,” said Billy Bragg as he took the stage. “How powerful is that at 15 years old, that’s amazing.” Much laughter accompanied an amusing reworking of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ which included (listen below) the lines “Late last night I heard a screen door slam/And a youth strike for climate took away the prime minister” to raucous encouragement.
Before starting a thoughtful version of ‘King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood’, he said: “It’s amazing being here, my first demonstration was a Rock Against Racism concert and it was my first opportunity to understand that I was joining something that has been going on for years, part of a long and great tradition that goes back to the miners strike, right back to the suffragettes and before them these people in 1649 called the Diggers, who deprived the landlords and turned around the dispossessed common land to make the wasteland grow. They may have been dispersed when the orders came to cut them down, but their vision lingers on.”
Third in a four-song set was a song which became a singalong, on cancelling debt to the developing world - the Bob Marley song, ‘One Love’, with its chorus of ‘One love, one heart/Let’s drop the debt and it will be all right’.
“A big thank you to the organisers today,” Billy said before the final song. “One thing I heard during the march was the chant ‘this is what democracy looks like’ and unfortunately we live in a society where democracy isn’t working and you can do something about that if you have the chance to vote on December 12. This is another song and maybe further down the line you might consider this is not a single movement. When you read about #metoo, about Black Lives Matter, our colleagues in Extinction Rebellion, this is an accountability movement to hold the powerful to account, so may I suggest you change the words to ‘This is what solidarity looks like'.”
From the volume of cheers that followed it’s apparent that there will be a lot of “This is what solidarity looks like” chanting in the months to come. The cheers on King’s Parade as the final song - an updated anti-dystopian remake of ‘Waiting On A Great Leap Forward’ concluded - were heartfelt.
Nico took the microphone and said: “I would like to thank...” and Billy Bragg interjected: “Call me Bill - and a big thanks to Nico too.” Nicely done, and more huge cheers.
As adult speakers then followed, the first from UCU’s Cambridge branch, who have been on strike for six days over pensions and pay, and others from the academic world who raised concerns about the university being “complicit in climate injustice”, Billy walked to Great St Mary’s Church nearby and gave a TV interview in which he decried the soothsayers peddling climate denial.
“People will always try and talk them [protesters] down, find an excuse. People don’t understand the emergency we’re in and these kids haven’t got a voice, they have to stand by and watch while the choices are being made and some of those choices are negative, and they have every right to be heard.”
Bill Bragg made a lot of friends in Cambridge today.
Later in the afternoon a silent rebellion took place at the Grand Arcade and a ride-out started at from Parker's Piece to Guildhall, all against a backdrop of Black Friday shoppers trawling round for the 'bargains’ that are the crack cocaine of the consumer society.