Hundreds of students of all ages have joined the Cambridge Youth Strike for Climate. Zareen Taj, a local parent and activist, reports on the organising behind the scenes.
Friday 15 February brought together almost 500 students and some parents ranging from primary to secondary school age in our first Cambridge Youth Strike for Climate. A small group of interested parents and Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists had got together on a WhatsApp group to connect young people not on social media. It was obvious by about three days before the first strike that it was going to be big for a Cambridge protest. National XR reps had helped set up a Facebook page and an event page, but after that there was no one populating it so queries were fielded by interested parties such as parents and local XR members.
Leadership of the first strike was shaky; students ranging from 11-year-olds to 15-year-olds had stepped forward to publicise the strike on radio and to the local press but were unwilling to take decisions on the day. Parents were consulted to decide what to do and the police were able to capitalise on this insecurity to convince the crowd to move off earlier from the assembly point than planned. This meant that students arriving for the later time found a protest that had finished and was dispersing rather than one that should have only just assembled at the second point.
Word about the strike had been spread among the school students through WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram, but very few used Facebook and none email. A CND group based at Parkside used their weekly meetings to help build for the strike and found that a year 10 group had independently been coordinating at the same school.
Lacking a PA system, the students used a megaphone to sustain chants of ‘Seas are rising… so are we!’ and ‘Whose future? Our future!’ The first echoes of ‘Fuck Theresa May!’ were drowned out, but eventually 5 minutes of sustained chanting of ‘Ohhhhh Jeremy Corbyn!’ broke loose the anti-Theresa May chant again and this time no one was able to stop it.
There was no attempt to network among the students as the rally broke up, but in the weeks that followed there was a lot of background work pushed by parents eager to show that it was all the work of the kids.
An Eco-Council was set up. An 18-year-old was invited to co-chair the meeting with the 13-year-old and others set up as founders of the council. The meeting, six days before the March strike, was haphazard and dwelt on a letter to be distributed to Heads of schools and little emphasis on the upcoming strike. The students did not take minutes and it was left to committed parents to take notes and follow up actions over the following days.
Students were added to the adult WhatsApp group prior to the March strike but XR tactics and XR advisers dominated the discourse and the aims of the Youth Strike. Despite the fact that communications were supposed to have been sent by the Students’ Eco-Council that a strike was called by them for Friday 15 March, the letters to parents explicitly said that the action had been called by the non-violent protest group Extinction Rebellion, giving rise to rumours that XR are formulating a new youth cult!
XR were present in greater numbers at the 15 March strike. They provided over ten stewards, a PA system and insisted that no one reveal the route to the police.
The students were more organised with written speeches and encouraged by the parent group to appear as representatives of the Eco-Council when they took their place at the speaker’s position addressing the protesters. This immediately formed a hierarchy and students wishing to speak had to be approved by one of the Eco-Council.
Medics supportive of the strike attending in theatre garb had been asked by parent organisers to stay at the back and not overshadow the young pupils marching at the front of the protest. Similarly, the University students were asked to assemble on King’s Parade to cheer the arrival of the Youth rally as it came into the city centre but also to take up position behind the pupils and not anywhere near the front. By putting great emphasis on the ‘Kids Are in Charge!’ message, an image to match this was carefully orchestrated.
There is a tendency for parents to encourage students to affiliate wholly to XR and a desire to remain free from party politics. Socialist groups and Brexit campaigners seen to be joining the rally were frowned upon and there was fear from adults that they would hijack the cause.
The second rally did not have the bristling raw energy of the first rally, but it was more coherent and gave more direction to those assembled on what steps could now be taken. Chants for or against MPs were not allowed and much was discussed about keeping the protest strictly to climate change, as if it is a single issue, and not allowing other campaigns to insinuate themselves on the rally. This latter concern was voiced by some parent/adult organisers. It did not seem unanimous among the students who seemed to be more aware that issues of climate change were indeed linked to other campaigns.
XR will continue to grow with small and large actions nationwide but the recent swell of the #YouthStrike4Climate movement means that there is a lot of hope tied up with it. FridaysForFuture is a great initiative but has already caused a problem as far as the third month of strike action is concerned. With public exams soon to be underway, the young people involved are being forced to consider more creative action than just getting feet on the streets. It is obvious that this will lose its appeal and numbers will fall unless some obvious wins become evident.