Last Friday saw Central Virginia students missing school to demand action on climate change in ongoing Global Climate Strike actions in Richmond.
Dozens of Richmond area students skipped class Friday to demand government action on climate change. Part of the larger Youth Global Climate Strike, the actions included a march that briefly shut down one lane of Broad St. (east of Belvidere) and a rally at the state capitol.
The Richmond Climate Strike was organized by members of the local Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion (XR) chapters. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Democratic Socialists of America, and several other groups were also represented.
A group of about 70 departed from Monroe Park and headed through VCU campus, chanting and singing as surprised college students looked on. The group paused briefly in front of the Cabell Library before looping back toward Belvidere and on to Broad.
What began as a single police officer observing from a distance quickly grew to a sizeable police escort as the marchers took over busy streets. Police cars sped ahead of the procession, holding up traffic at intersections and following slowly behind.
On the lawn of the state capitol, students and activists took turns addressing the crowd, giving impassioned speeches and leading the group in songs (including, at one point, the Mr. Rogers theme).
Kennedy Wright, a 9-year-old climate activist, expressed concern for the way Virginia’s marine species are already being affected by rising temperatures.
“We need to find a way to save the ecosystem and ourselves,” she said. “I hope the politicians can fix the problem with good laws and more money for research.”
Wright runs Cool Kids Science RVA with her sister Jordan, who spoke about the increased threat of forest fires in California as well as the commonwealth.
“Here in Virginia, there are 24 counties with burn bans because, so far, it’s the driest fall Virginia has seen in 20 years,” she told the crowd. “There’s nothing we can do about the lack of rain, but we can stop contributing to making our planet hotter.”
Several speakers stressed the importance of viewing environmental issues in a larger social justice context and elevating the voices of people of color within their movement.
Laura Haden, a local XR organizer, sought to illustrate the link between the fossil fuel industry and broader policies that negatively impact people, drawing a line between Dominion and a controversial $1.5 billion redevelopment plan backed by the company’s CEO, Tom Farrell.
“The goal to be carbon neutral by 2025 is a really big goal because we immediately think of carbon-heavy investments that would be a new coliseum in Navy Hill,” she said.” We think of the developments that are being built while occupied buildings are allowed to fall apart at the hand and profits of slum lords.”
Stephanie Younger, a 17-year-old organizer with Virginia Youth Climate Strike, explained that although people of color are disproportionately affected by climate and racial justice issues, their voices are often excluded from conversations, or dismissed as divisive and aggressive.
“And I speak from experience as a gun violence activist who has been labeled that way,” she said. “Not only does the media portray us in ways that discredit and marginalize our voices, but a lot of us are heavily criminalized for exercising our first amendment right.”
“My call to action to all of you, especially the press, the schools, the police and political leaders is to give black and brown youth climate activists the same attention and energy you gave to our white climate activists.”
Several of the attendees had been involved in anti-pipeline actions in Southwestern Virginia. Mara Robinson, a longtime environmental activist who recently moved to Richmond from Floyd, spoke about working in a support role at the April 2018 “aerial blockade” on Bent Mountain involving 61-year-old landowner Red Terry.
“We have successfully stalled the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” she announced to cheers from the crowd. “However, we’ve had people living in trees in southwest Virginia to protect us from the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”
Claudia Sachs, a junior at Glen Allen High School, performed a song she penned earlier this year after attending an earlier climate action.
“My goal is that it becomes the anthem of the climate movement,” she said after the event. “Because we need strength and power and motivation, and I think music is one of the best ways to do that.”
Lyrics like “the California forests will be ash before we know it/The ice from the arctic will flood your streets and markets” predict a bleak future, but the notion didn’t come as a shock to the listeners.
The atmosphere of the event was as much about sharing grief and anxiety about the damage climate change will cause over the coming decades as it was about building political power.
Some activists, like Selene Norman, don’t have to look to future fears. Her idea of what the so-called climate crisis looks like comes from firsthand experience riding out Hurricane Irma in West Palm Beach, Florida in 2017. When an evacuation was ordered, she explained, many people lacked the resources to leave their homes.
“Gas stations were out of gas, hotels were expensive, hotels were booked out,” the Reynolds Community College student recounted. “So we were basically just sitting there waiting to die. Luckily it only hit us at a category 3, which is still pretty catastrophic.”
Actions like Friday’s strike help her deal with the anxiety of that experience.
“I applied to be an organizer — and now all those worries I had when I was in Florida — I’m able to manifest it to make a change.”
Sachs, echoing a common refrain, lamented the general public’s lack of concern about climate change despite the shrinking time frame left to meaningfully address it. Educating people, she explained, is the easy part. The problem is that many think they’ll be able to escape the rising seas and strengthened storms.
“As [Norman was] saying, if you can afford a hotel room in a disaster, or extra gas, or extra food, or you can just move, that completely is a privilege,” she said. “So I think that prevents people from seeing the urgency of it, but money is not going to save us from this climate crisis.”
After the rally, a group of students made their way to the Dominion offices at Eighth & Main to hold a die-in. As employees shuffled past and security guards watched from inside, more than a dozen tweens, teens, and young adults laid down on the sidewalk and remained still for five minutes. Afterward they slowly made their way to their feet chanting, “the oceans are rising, and so are we,” then dispersed.
“We chose the capitol location because we wanted to put pressure on the politicians who will be coming in in a month or so,” Sachs explained. “And we decided to march to Dominion because Dominion is really the company that is harming people on the ground and damaging so many communities.”
Top Photo by Sean C. Davis