When I was a 15-year-old school student, I had the permission of my parents and of the school principal to join anti-apartheid protests during school hours. It was 1981 and the Springboks – South Africa’s all-white rugby team – was touring New Zealand. We’d been calling out apartheid in South Africa for some time, including boycotts of South African goods and other actions, and the tour became a huge political event, polarising New Zealanders who were for or against the tour. Our school principal happened to be pro-tour, but he respected our right to protest and gave us permission to take time off school, on condition that we were not wearing our school uniforms at the demonstrations. As if we would!
Now, school students around the world are starting to speak up about climate change – something that’s obviously going to have a massive effect on their adult lives. Frustrated by current leaders’ almost total lack of action on the issue, young people are doing what they can do to make the most impact, to make their voices heard and to demand real action on climate change. But instead of acknowledging the seriousness of the issue and the bleak future reality faced by young people, some politicians and leaders are instead choosing to criticise and belittle the strikes.
In response to kiwi kids going on strike, National Party leader Simon Bridges suggested they should “strike” outside of school hours. Well hello, that wouldn’t be a “strike” then, would it? Workers don’t strike at weekends. The whole point is to disrupt the normal routine and thereby force attention onto the issue. Strikes don’t happen until other less disruptive methods have been tried and failed. Many of the students involved in these strikes have been writing letters to politicians, signing petitions, attending climate change protests and doing all kinds of other actions for YEARS – and are just as frustrated as the rest of us by the lack of politicial will to make a serious response to such actions. Striking is therefore a necessary action. Striking outside of school hours would just be another thing that politicians can easily ignore, and what’s the point in that?
Bridges also said that students will join the strikes just to get a day off school. This is completely irrelevant – there are many ways students can get a day off school if they want, from faking illness to playing sport, and the problem there lies with a school’s inability to meet the needs of the student. Even if a day off school is partly a motivation for some, every one of these students is going to be negatively affected by climate change if no action is taken. A day off school might be a bonus, but it’s not going to be the sole reason for striking. Participation in political action is also a learning experience – a lesson in climate change science, in politics, in activism, in democracy. These are all important topics for students to study. They will probably learn more by participating in the strike than by sitting in a classroom.
Judith Collins’ comment that “[t]heir little protest is not going to help the world one bit” perfectly sums up the arrogance, ignorance and selfishness of neoliberal politicians. It’s not a “little” protest, Judith – it’s an international movement, and you’d better take notice because these are the leaders of tomorrow. Their actions ARE going to help the world, because it’s their future and they’ve understood that if they don’t take action no-one else – certainly not you, Judith – is going to do anything about it. Right-wing politicians were similarly dismissive of our protests against the Springbok tour in 1981. It’s only a rugby game, they said, it’s got nothing to do with politics. But our actions in New Zealand did make a difference to apartheid in South Africa. We were part of a global movement that ultimately forced an end to a cruel system and changed the world. Judith and Simon need to be reminded of the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The teenagers striking in New Zealand, the UK, Europe and everywhere else that the movement is taking hold are already changing the world. They have to – their future depends on it. And we grown-ups have a responsibility to listen to them and to do what needs to be done to ensure they have a future.