In Stockholm, last year, a ninth-grade environmental activist started a school strike to call attention to the global climate crisis. On the steps of the Swedish parliament, initially alone, she protested the government’s complacency about the need to reduce carbon emissions. Each Friday afterward, she returned, and, quite quickly, other students joined her around the world, in a movement that became known as Fridays for Future. In the year since, that teen-ager, Greta Thunberg, now sixteen, has become the lodestar of a youth-led climate movement, likely the largest youth movement in global history. In the U.S., young activists are fighting for the Green New Deal and emphasizing an environmental-justice politics that prioritizes those who are already being displaced by climate change. The threat is existential, from their vantage, and the rhetoric is no-nonsense. (“I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg told Congress, in a special address on Wednesday.) If governments, run by adults, don’t act in the interest of the earth, then the future of the young is in peril.
In her speech accepting Amnesty International’s 2019 Ambassador of Conscience Award, earlier this week, Thunberg exhorted, “See you on the streets!” On Friday, September 20th, the date of the first of two international climate-strike demonstrations (the second will happen next week), there were actions planned on every continent, and in a hundred and fifty countries; an estimated four hundred thousand people participated in the strike in Australia alone. New York City Public Schools granted its 1.1 million students permission to skip school to join the march, which was scheduled to begin at Foley Square, in downtown Manhattan, and then proceed to Battery Park, for a rally at which Thunberg would deliver a speech. (You can watch a live stream of the march here.) Before noon, on the corner of Centre and Chambers streets, cars were blocked by a mass of marchers en route to Foley Square. A driver in a backward cap and a green shirt honked his horn incessantly, to hype the crowd, then started blasting his stereo. Adults in nearby office buildings shouted their approval. The marchers shouted in response, “Out of the buildings and into the streets!”
Andrea Tapia and Tahmina Ahmed are juniors at the Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, in Queens. They cited Greta Thunberg as the reason they felt galvanized to march today. “We’re socially conscious, but we don’t have the experience of activism. We really thought, It’s too much to not do anything at all,” Ahmed said.
Maxine Wanderer (center) with fellow seventh-grade students from the Institute for Collaborative Education, in Manhattan. “Our President doesn’t understand what’s right in front of him,” Wanderer said. “We can’t vote, so we want to say, ‘This is our planet. We cannot let it get destroyed by other people.’ ”
Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that an estimated sixty thousand protesters turned out for the march. By early afternoon, Foley Square was overflowing. Drummers started on their instruments. Adults chaperoned elementary- and middle-school students who didn’t seem to need supervision. A man who thoughtlessly tossed a tissue on the sidewalk was reprimanded by a steely-eyed blond child. Older kids wore crop tops and held signs about Wall Street greed. Girls were decked out in green eye makeup and green lipstick, and even had green ombré hair. The umbrella of the climate movement hardly seemed to cover the diversity of passions and interests on display. A faction from the outdoor-gear company Patagonia carried posters showing the face of a white woman and the text “Facing Extinction.” Just a few paces away, indigenous activists were giving media interviews. Kitschy, meme-heavy signs—“We took hot girl summer too far,” or a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic” with the words “He wouldn’t die of cold now”—bobbed alongside sombre ones about income equality and Hurricane Maria. Occasionally, chants, like “This is what democracy looks like,” punctured the loud chatter.
According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, an estimated sixty thousand protesters turned out in lower Manhattan.
Emilia Goued, seventeen, a student at Manhattan’s Clinton School, holds a sign in Battery Park.
One of many signs reading “There’s no Planet B,” a phrase borrowed from the title of a book by the English environmental expert Mike Berners-Lee.
This post was updated throughout the day of the march.