BRATTLEBORO — Young people carrying signs chanted, “The planet is changing, so why aren't we?” and “No more oil, keep the carbon in the soil!”
The youths - hundreds of them, and by some estimates, more than 1,000 of them - converged on Pliny Park and High Street, joined by protesters of all ages and from multiple communities in the biggest protest here since a 2012 march opposing the re-licensing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Later, a crowd of all ages marched to the Town Common, where they called for swift action against the rising environmental and financial devastation of climate change.
Police closed off parts of High and Main streets for the protest, one of 30 climate strikes in Vermont on Sept. 20.
“We planned for 500 people,” Sonia Silbert, training coordinator with 350 Vermont, one of the coalition of nonprofits that organized the event, told the crowd on the Common. “We blew that estimate out of the water. On a weekday!”
In more than 1,000 climate strikes in the United States and 4,500 worldwide, protestors attracted more than 4 million people. The rallies kicked off a week of action to tell the powers that be that the people and the warming planet can't wait.
Though the scientific community has come to overwhelming consensus that there is a climate crisis, there is not a lot of agreement on what to do about it in a politically polarized nation.
Young people are filled with idealism, mixed with rage, over the dimming prospects for their future - and the adults in charge have no plan.
One of the organizers of the Brattleboro action was 350 Vermont, the state affiliate of 350.org. Both entities build awareness of the climate crisis and to create a public movement around the human effects of changing weather patterns.
According to the international group, spearheaded by environmentalist, author, and activist Bill McKibben, who lives in Ripton and is a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College, “This March, global levels of CO2 passed 400 parts per million. The safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million.”
This dichotomy of passionate activism versus the town government - both in terms of how much the town can realistically do on its own to address global climate change, and what it legally can do - came into sharp focus three days earlier at the Selectboard's regular meeting on Sept. 17, when the board rejected a proposal to declare a climate emergency [story, this issue].
State organizations work together
According to Abby Mnookin, of Brattleboro, who heads the Mother Up program for 350 Vermont and who served on the coordinating council for the strikes, the Vermont actions emerged from the efforts of people representing more than 20 grassroots organizations.
“Here in Brattleboro, lead organizers included high school students, 350Vermont, and Extinction Rebellion, as well as some other organizations and individuals,” Mnookin said Tuesday.
She listed four demands, written by the council, “with lead effort by Middlebury College and high school students.”
The strikers called for “comprehensive and immediate solutions to the climate crisis - like the Green New Deal - that are rooted in the respect for and dignity of all people.”
“Support for just policies at every level of governance that invest in our communities and transition rapidly to a clean and renewable energy economy for all, with livable wages and union jobs.
“A commitment to keeping fossil fuels in the ground and no new fossil fuel projects.
“A just and inclusive movement that centers frontline communities most affected by our world of intersecting and overlapping oppressions.”
Giving voice to youth
Mnookin said that participation “varied school by school and sometimes teacher by teacher,” calling the region's schools “generally supportive” of striking students and the effort.
She said the Putney School bussed more than 70 students and faculty. Marlboro Elementary bused grades 5 through 8. Large contingents from Hilltop Montessori middle school and Neighborhood Schoolhouse walked to the strike.
Hundreds of students from Brattleboro Area Middle School and Brattleboro Union High School walked out for the strike “with some amount of school approval,” Mnookin said. Elementary-school students in town needed to get signed out with a parent or guardian.
Students from Kindle Farm School in Newfane came, and one teacher “brought her class(es) down by bus,” she said.
Students, she said, “did the bulk of the organizing within/for the schools,” while she and other adults in town coordinated the logistics, including the use of Pliny Park and the Town Common.
And while adults stepped in for announcements and acknowledgments, youth and their voices - in various forms, including song, poetry, and unbridled rage - took center stage.
“As a kid, and now as a young adult, all I have ever thought about is dreams and a future of my own making, but now I have no choice but to start thinking about a solution to have those dreams and a future with a planet on,” said Z Muhammad of Brattleboro.
“We produce, produce, produce without thinking of the consequences,” they said. “Money won't matter if there's no planet for money to be on, if there's no planet for us to be on, and we can't sit by and ignore this crisis.”
Iris Morehouse, 13, of Putney, read her poem.
“Our world is like a rose, and this rose is wilting,” she said. “So let us stop. Let us water the rose, let us help it grow.”
Three students from the Putney School - Sierra Clark, Janice Demings, and Sophie Banks - spoke on the “intersection of climate and racial justice and how we cannot address one without the other,” Clark said.
“Many developing countries have been in crisis for years now,” Demings said, addressing the tendency people who are less privileged to suffer the effects of climate change disproportionately. “Many places and people had 12 years left 12 years ago,” she added.
A student from Marlboro who introduced himself as Whit led a song with confidence unusual for a 9-year-old, starting with an invitation to the audience to provide percussion.
“The Earth is our mother,” he sang. “We must take care of her.”
Django Grace, 13, a student at Hilltop Montessori School, pumped up the crowd.
“We watch as the Amazon, the lungs of our planet burn, and we feel powerless,” he said. “You know what? I don't think we should have to feel powerless anymore.”
“So today we stand,” he said.
An international face of a youth movement emerges
Internationally, the strikes were inspired by the actions of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist from Sweden, who skipped school for a higher calling: to call attention to insufficient global action on the issue of global climate change by demonstrating at the Swedish parliament.
Thunberg has said that she found inspiration in the teen activism of surviving students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after a devastating school shooting.
Other students followed Thunberg's lead, and soon a movement blossomed.
Thunberg gained global notoriety after she spoke at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland last December.
“The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you,” Thunberg, then 15 years old, told the assembled leaders. “Maybe they will ask why you didn't do anything while there still was time to act. You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”
Mnookin said this latest action took place on Sept. 20 because Thunberg would be speaking in front of the United Nations on Sept. 23. The seven days following the strike was designated a week of action.
One such action includes a protest on Saturday at Merrimack Generating Station. The plant, in Bow, N.H., is “the last coal-fired power plant in New England that doesn't have a shut-down date,” Mnookin said.
In anticipation of this action, rally participants were invited to a training session for those looking to face arrest.
Mnookin told The Commons on Tuesday that future events - perhaps another Climate Strike on the day after Thanksgiving (“black Friday”) - could be in the offing to “amplify youth voices.”
As the rally concluded, Scott Ainslie, an internationally recognized blues musician who helped with the sound, picked up his vintage steel guitar for a song to send the youth and their supporters back into the schools and into the world.
“Sam Cooke sang this tune,” Ainslie said, exhorting the attendees to “leave the [town] commons as clean as we want them to leave our world.”
“Long time comin', but change is going to come,” Ainslie sang. “Oh, yes, it is.”