Youth Climate Strike in St. Louis

About 150 people gathered today, on the mall between the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse, for the local Youth Climate Strike. It was sunny but cold, and some of the activists worried about attendance.

Thousands were gathering in other states, in Washington, DC, and in capitals abroad. Haven Coleman, co-founder and co-director of the US effort, was in DC and said, “Today, the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of kids who are striking around the world are doing it not because we want to skip school, but because we are scared.”

Coleman is 12.

The global Youth Climate Strike built on climate activism by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish girl nominated this week for the Nobel Peace Prize; March for Our Lives, a gun-control movement formed and led by young survivors of the Parkland shooting; the Standing Rock movement, which was (originally) youth-led; and calls for a Green New Deal by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who is 29.

The US national organizers for the Youth Climate Strike posted this manifesto:

We, the youth of America, are striking because the science says we have just a few years to transform our energy system, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent the worst effects of climate change. We are striking because our world leaders have yet to acknowledge, prioritize, or properly address our climate crisis. We are striking because marginalized communities across our nation—especially communities of color, disabled communities, and low-income communities—are already disproportionately impacted by climate change. We are striking because if the social order is disrupted by our refusal to attend school, then the system is forced to face the climate crisis and enact change. With our futures at stake, we call for radical legislative action to combat climate change and its countless detrimental effects on the American people. We are striking for the Green New Deal, for a fair and just transition to a 100% renewable economy, and for ending the creation of additional fossil fuel infrastructure. Additionally, we believe the climate crisis should be declared a national emergency because we are running out of time.

Here in St. Louis, Noah Wright, 17, co-organizer of the local strike, was being interviewed by a man from a CBS affiliate. The reporter said he was 58, and that even when he was a kid they were talking about the environment. Now they were saying the world was coming to an end in 11 years. He seemed to think the Strike was both unnecessary and too late and said “AOC and the New Green Deal” [sic] wanted to put an end to all cars and airplanes. He demanded to know how Wright thought that was practical. Wright gave a surprisingly wonkish answer about policy then said gently that maybe the Green New Deal had been misconstrued; no one was trying to take away everyone’s cars and planes.

Wright and co-organizer Fatima Bucio, 20, had signed up to be State Leads with the national Strike organization, and that was how this event came to be. (They are pictured above.) Wright is a senior at Parkway West High School, in Ballwin, Missouri, a western suburb. Bucio goes to Southwestern Illinois College but is taking time off. Both hoped the Strike would capture the attention of politicians, who might be convinced to take action on climate issues.

I asked if the next step might be to hold elective office themselves.

“Later on,” Wright said and laughed.

“That’s an aspiration,” Bucio said. “It’s an idea, yeah.”

A few feet away, Jessica Rojas, from St. Louis, sat with her two children—Avery, five, and David, three—who were bundled up and holding cardboard signs. She said she had told David they were going out to save the world—and have gummi bears—and he said, “Yay!”

“We’ve been watching Greta [Thunberg],” Rojas said, “and I talk to my kids about climate change, and we read books on weather and climate, so they understand what is happening to our world. This is going to affect them too, so I took them out of school today and brought them down here. Years from now, they can at least be like, Yeah, Mom was on board too. It is important to me as their parent that they know I’m doing what I can.”

Fatima Bucio began drumming. “Show me what democracy looks like!” she shouted. The crowd yelled, “This is what democracy looks like!” Maybe half were of the age to have ditched school.

“When the earth we need is under attack, what do we do?”

“Stand up; fight back!”

Cars on Fourth Street honked in support.

There were several rounds of call-and-response, then Bucio spoke to the crowd. She said there would be 2,052 protest events this day, in nearly every US state and more than 100 countries. She said we were striking for clean air and water, for all our relatives, for the future.

“We cannot fight for any other issue unless we fight for this one,” she said.

A half-dozen others spoke in the open-mike session. One young woman said “plant-based, vegan diets” were the best thing we could do for the planet. The next young woman said putting our bodies on the line against oppression was the best thing we could do, and that we must be intersectional. A young man had skipped out of his job as a preschool teacher; he didn’t know what to tell four-year olds about not having a planet to live on when they got older.

A high-school student said they were here to demand action, not delay, on climate change, “one of the greatest crises humanity has ever faced.” He said climate-related disasters had cost the United States $80 billion in the last year.

“For reference,” he said, “this would cover 16 Great Southern Border Walls. That’s a joke.”

Noah Wright spoke for several minutes but said they had one message for politicians: “Take action, or we will vote you out.”

A young woman in the crowd shouted, “Noah Wright, 2036!”

Then the crowd crossed the street and began walking a circular route through downtown. A passerby yelled that he wanted to know if these kids were skipping school, and if they drove cars to get here.

An older activist in the march, who had a white beard and ponytail-nubbin, said, “Don’t engage, don’t engage, don’t engage, don’t engage. If you say you drove down here, he’ll say that you’re a hypocrite. Even if I drove down here, and even if I’m a hypocrite, it’s the case that fossil fuels are killing the world.”

As the Strikers walked the several blocks around the Courthouse, they passed a Hooter’s, several parking garages, the Peabody Coal skyscraper, and a Deloitte accounting branch. Traffic was made heavier by road construction, and the march had to wait at intersections. They passed a smaller mirrored building near the Courthouse, with a banner hanging on it that said Premier Traveler named its rooftop bar one of the world’s top-10 best. Expensive cars and black SUVs, one of them belonging to the St. Louis Fire Chief, were arriving for a function. Some occupants emerged in elaborate St. Paddy’s outfits and were beckoned in by the doorman.

Four older guys stood by a big pickup, near the entrance. “Parade Operations” was printed on the back of their dayglo vests. They were apparently partly responsible for whatever was happening in the building, but they had paused and were watching the march.

“What a joke,” one said.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.