Social Studies

Students Swarm the Capitol Grounds to Protest Climate Change

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 15, 2019 5 min read
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Hundreds of students rallied at the U.S. Capitol building today calling on lawmakers to take quick steps to curb climate change, as thousands of other U.S. students held their own rallies in nearly every state.

“We Don’t Want to Die,” read a banner students unfurled moments before beginning a program of speakers, chants, and reminders to write and lobby legislators to pass a version of the Green New Deal, a controversial platform that couples economic projects with a timeline for winding down fossil fuel consumption.

About 400 to 500 people showed up at the Capitol—far fewer than the more than 200,000 who showed up to protest gun violence during the 2018 March for Our Lives, the last major youth protest in the nation’s capital. But those numbers don’t fully convey the shape of the movement. Today’s walkout is a worldwide youth phenomenon: Students left class to protest in cities from Hong Kong to New Delhi and in countries from Finland to France.

Students waved signs, listened with rapt attention to the young organizers’ speeches, and chanted “Stop denying the Earth is dying,” and “Hey hey, ho, ho, fossil fuels have got to go,” and even sang a clever song, “When the Youth Go Marching In” (set, of course, to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”).

“We strike for clean air; we strike for clean water. We strike for treaty rights, for racial justice,” said Nadia Nazar, 16, a Baltimore climate-change activist and the first to speak from the small stage. “We strike for our lives, for a planet in which we can live and prosper.

“We are the first generation to live under climate change and the last to be able to something about it,” she said.

The students were joined by some adults, who mostly stayed out of the way. Some were there to cheer on the students’ work; a few bewildered tourists took photos. One older woman held up a “Grandmas for Greta” sign, referring to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who last fall began skipping her Friday classes to protest at the Swedish parliament building, and who quickly lit the fire behind the international climate strike movement.

Students came from a variety of Washington-area schools, including Montgomery Blair High School, in the Montgomery County, Md., school system, which reportedly had more than 100 students in attendance; Woodrow Wilson High School in the District of Columbia; and South Lakes High School, in Fairfax County, Va.

Though the rallies were a stone’s throw from the powerful seat of Congress, U.S. lawmakers appeared to be in short supply at the rally—save for Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, who proudly introduced her daughter, Irsa Hirsi, one of the main organizers of today’s rally.

Diverse Attendance

The march seemed to attract a fairly diverse crowd, a notable feature. Race has been a subtext in most modern activist movements, including Occupy Wall Street and the March For Our Lives, both of which were at least initially predominantly white. Meanwhile, protests by communities of color—as in Flint, Mich., where residents tried to call attention to poisoned water—have strugged to attract the same level of attention.

The environmental movement writ large has suffered from this problem, calling to mind images of organic produce and Priuses that only the well-off can afford, even while it’s generally communities of color that are affected by climate change.

In her speech, Hirsi underscored the racial subtexts of modern protest movements, noting how she struggled as one of the few people of color in her high school’s green club: “It was a bunch of white kids talking about their camping trips.”

Even as she ascended to work with state-level environmental groups, that didn’t change much. And so she urged protesters to consider peers who weren’t able to attend.

“Striking, while it is an amazing form of activism, is extremely inaccessible,” she said, noting that many students cannot access transportation down to city hall to protest or cannot afford to face punishments for skipping class. “We shouldn’t shun people for not being able to participate; let us remember our privilege in being here, and thousands of indigenous people whose work came before us.”

Civic Connection

In the K-12 world, student activism has posed some difficult questions for the civics field.

It’s started to underscore the divide among civics advocates between the values of traditional civics education, which can tend to feel a bit stuffy and remote to students, and a more dynamic “action” civics, which focuses on students trying to solve a civic problem, but is sometimes criticized as leaning too far into activism.

Asked about their government courses, several students from Montgomery Blair High School immediately brightened up, saying they did feel that their government classes gave them useful tools—especially, in knowing their rights to protest.

“Tinker!” said Angella Desir, a junior, referring to the famous Tinker v. Des Moines case, which established that students retain 1st Amendment rights, including the right to protest, so long as it does not substantially disrupt school. She’d studied it in class.

For a senior, government classes inspired more confidence. As a first-generation American student, she didn’t always feel comfortable going to public demonstrations, afraid someone might try to write her names down, said the student, who requested anonymity.

But her AP Government course gave her the knowledge that “I’m allowed to do this kind of thing,” she said.

(Interestingly, in contrast to the March for Our Lives, in which many D.C. area schools in effect gave students the day off, the students attending today truly did engage in an act of civil disobedience: Montgomery Blair administrators refused to give students an excused absence for participating.)

Deirdre “Dede” Barron, 17, who attends South Lakes High School in Fairfax County, wasn’t as sure about the value her civics preparation. “I feel like they put more emphasis on the system rather than what you can do to change the system,” she said.

Barron, who aspires to be a politican, noted that her school’s solar club has helped a handful of Fairfax County schools adopt solar panels—all financed by students.

So what happens next for these young activists? It’s the same question that faces youth-led gun-violence movements.

“Hopefully, there will be more discussion [among politicians] of the Green New Deal,” the Montgomery Blair senior said.

Barron shared those sentiments, but also noted smaller ways that young people, and adults, can make a difference.

“I hope people take a step back from their daily lives, the habitual things they do, and make a change—whether it’s changing their diet or choosing a car brand,” she said.

And long term?

“Dede Barron, 2036,” she said.

Photo: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., center, introduces her daughter, 16-year-old Isra Hirsi, after speaking at the International Youth Climate Strike event at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, March 15, 2019. Hirsi is a co-organizer of the event. --J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.