Tomorrow (Friday 12 April), there will be another wave of youth strikes for climate across the UK and the world. Mikhil Karnik reflects on the previous strikes and argues that protest such as these have the potential to change the young people taking part, and everyone around them.
Tomorrow will again see substantial protests in many countries, wholly organised by those still too young to vote but old enough to be forced to live with the consequences of the choices made by today’s politicians.
The school and college students striking for action on climate change have sparked a new movement. They could become significant players in the developing battlefield around climate change. The protests have grown in number, location and size, but they have also grown much more adventurous.
The Manchester event, four weeks ago, substantially larger than the previous month’s protest, more importantly was materially different to the earlier one. Again, the confetti of homemade placards, the chalking of pavements, and very young faces, the traditional left relegated to the occasional peripheral bystander. The static protest was more organised and included a speaker system, amplification and a running order, but the move to disobey the Police and sit down on the tramline, gridlocking the city, was transformational.
A protest that had been enjoyable stepped up; it became exciting, tinged with exhilaration, wholly unpredictable. It left the authorities impotent. The escalation was sparked by a few, but many more watched deeply uncertain as to whether to observe or participate. The hesitation – should we or shouldn’t we cross over to real rule-breaking, in direct disobedience of police authority – lasted long enough for those protesters to properly appreciate that something quite different was about to happen. But as the first handful grew one by one, those hesitating then tipped into action and learned that their decisions and actions really do count, as their numbers swelled to hundreds.
These rule-breakers left that day enthused and confident in knowing how to escalate protest, and confident in the knowledge that they present the Police with a real conundrum. Now the protest has the prospect of being yet larger, more experienced, more confident, more demanding and – in a land where heavy-handed policing against children, many younger than 16, remains an unattractive proposition to police chiefs – a wholly unpredictable event.
These demonstrations are being organised by a generation who largely bypass organising through Facebook (any presence on that platform is a scantly visited and sanitised version, capable of passing parental scrutiny) let alone by means of leaflets or meetings.
If the history of other movements is anything to go by, this current stage of development, fuelled by enthusiasm, has the potential for rapid growth, but it faces substantial challenges ahead.
As it develops, and in order for it to become transformational, it will also have to tackle real questions about direction, leadership and organisation. These questions may already be raging – if so, they are occurring in places where the traditional left and the wider climate movement have little or no presence, and very little (if any) influence.
What has become clear is that a new generation has awakened to the imminent, and very real threat posed by climate change; they are confident in their capacity to act, and are having an infectious effect on those around them. They have been changed by protest, and show every sign of being in the process of changing those around them.