Last week, on March 15th, thousands of school children around the world walked out of class, striking for climate. It was likely one of the biggest climate protests in history (I have not seen final numbers on participation, yet), and is certainly remarkable as a global protest planned and executed by minors.
The question is–was anyone listening?
The Children’s Climate Strike
The children’s climate strike began with one person.
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, started cutting school every Friday last August to protest in front of Parliament. She had been inspired to act by the terrible heatwaves in Europe last year, as well as by the activism of the Parkland students. She intends to continue her protest until Sweden adopts policies in line with the goals established at Paris.
Thunberg began her strike alone, but began getting media attention and speaking publicly. She’s inspiring others to join the strike. She is not acting as an organizer of the movement, so far as I can gather. The March 15th strike was organized by three girls: Alexandria Villasenor, Isra Hirsi, and Haven Coleman. I’ve been saying “children’s march,” but Thunberg isn’t exactly a child. She’s 16, as is Hirsi, an age that some cultures have considered definitely adult. But Villasenor and Coleman are 13 and 12, respectively, and they are all minors, meaning they have little to no legal authority or power. Their age provides a ready excuse to anyone who wants to not take them seriously.
Indeed, some political leaders have criticized them for skipping school, which rather misses the point.
There have been other mass strikes over the past few months, mostly in Europe. The first mass school strike for climate in the UK was February 15. March took the movement worldwide. And while there has been plenty of adult criticism, many adult political leaders and activists are supporting the youth strikes as well.
What all this reminds me of is an old movie–released in the late 1980’s, called “Amazing Grace and Chuck.” Usually, when I refer to some item of culture, a movie or a book, I link to a site where you can read a description, but so far all the descriptions I’ve read leave out something fundamental–and the reason I’m bringing up this movie at all.
The movie is about a world-wide children’s strike.
Chuck is a gifted Little League pitcher who decides to stop playing ball until all nuclear weapons have been destroyed. As he explains, he has to do something, and so he’s decided to give up the one thing he does best–pitching. As personal protests go, it’s a savvy one, because it’s the one thing that is both entirely within his power (you can’t force a kid to play baseball) and likely to be noticed by grown-ups. But it’s not likely to trigger global nuclear disarmament–the adults around him see Chuck’s protest as noble but pointless.
But then other children also start quitting their extra-curricular activities. There’s no internet yet, but Chuck’s protest makes the news and other children hear about it and follow his example. The movement starts to spread. But still the adults react with condescension–obviously, this isn’t going to do anything. The kids are only hurting themselves.
Until an adult joins the movement.
Amazing Grace, an NBA star, quits the game and reaches out to Chuck. The two become friends, and the movement spreads among adult athletes–all striking for full nuclear disarmament. Now it gets serious. The strike is beginning to exert real political force, threatening the livelihoods and public face of some very powerful people. Anger erupts. Both Chuck and Amazing receive real pressure to call off the strike. Supporting each other, they refuse.
Finally, Amazing is murdered by monied interests connected with the defense industry. Chuck, heartsick, responds by deepening the strike: he stops talking.
Again, other children hear about his choice on the news and follow suit, and the children of the world fall silent.
Finally, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union sit down to talk. They sign a total nuclear disarmament treaty for a very simple reason; they miss the talk of their grandkids.
The movie begins with the words “once upon a time” and ends with the words “wouldn’t it be nice.” The implication is that such a strike could never happen and wouldn’t succeed if it did–the story is not intended as a blueprint for action so much as a statement of an ideal.
Except in the real world, a global children’s strike actually did happen last week. Now what?
Action vs. Protest
Does a political action depend on changing somebody’s mind?
That is a critical strategic question, one running deeper than whether the action is legal, even deeper than whether it is violent. Protest marches, generally, are aimed at convincing someone else to take a certain action–they can work, but the someone else is free to ignore the march. Boycotts are aimed at forcing change, since the target is not free to ignore the loss of revenue.
Boycotts are legal, though some forms of force are not. Force can be violent or it can be peaceful. It’s also worth noting that an action can be illegal, or even violent, and still depend on changing someone’s mind, just like a protest march. Chaining yourself to the White House fence in order to be arrested for some good cause is strategically almost identical to marching by the White House carrying a sign. Either way, you’re hoping the occupant of the White House notices and cares.
It’s not that true direct action can’t fail–lie down in front of a bulldozer and the owner of the bulldozer is likely to have you picked up and moved out of the way–it’s that action and protest succeed or fail for different reasons.
In general, strikes are direct actions, not protests. When autoplant workers walk off an assembly line, production grinds to a halt until their demands are met (or until management hires scabs). In contrast, Chuck’s (fictional) refusal to play baseball was a protest. Little League is basically only important to the players and, vicariously, their parents. For the players to shut down the game qualifies as ignorable.
Shutting down the NBA, on the other hand, would border on being a true strike, since professional sports is big money–but a strike by athletes for nuclear disarmament doesn’t actually put direct pressure on anyone able to disarm (unless the president at the time happens to be a team owner).
But for children to stop talking to their families? That is a true strike, and a nearly perfect one, since there is no way to break the strike by force.
The question now is whether the real children’s strike can achieve a similar perfection.
Strike for Climate
The children’s climate strike is, at present, a demonstration or protest. It’s an emotionally powerful protest, and perhaps it will change some minds. But it also might well be ignored. I’d like to see it transform itself into a true strike, something that cannot be ignored.
Perhaps adults will start walking off the job next. Or perhaps the kids will find something they can grind to a halt that powerful adults cannot do without. I honestly hope they do, as they are taking the issue seriously in a way that everyone needs to and most adults aren’t.
We really should not be depending on children to save the world. That’s our job. But until the adult world gets it’s act together, the world should take the champions it can get.