Antanay Williams and a handful of her friends walked out of their North Philadelphia high school Friday morning and, like hundreds of others from the School District of Philadelphia, took an unexcused absence in order to attend a protest.
But at least her teacher won’t be mad. “She’s here,” Williams, 16, said.
Thousands of people left their classrooms and workplaces Friday to join a global, youth-led demonstration that was expected to be one of the largest mass protests related to climate change. At City Hall, the protesters arrived by 11 a.m., holding signs that carried messages including “global warming is violence” and “fight for the Green New Deal.”
Some protesters spilled into the streets, snarling traffic. Just after noon, the protest gave way to a march through Center City. At one point, a group of children younger than 10 walked down 15th Street chanting, “We trust Bill Nye, climate change is not a lie.”
“We can miss a day to save the Earth and have our voices heard,” said Williams, a junior at the U School. “If we don’t speak about it now, we might be dead later.”
Dubbed the Global Climate Strike, the demonstration movement started in August 2018 with Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, whose one-person protest has expanded into a worldwide phenomenon with thousands of individual events. About 100,000 protested in Melbourne, Australia, in what organizers told the New York Times was the largest climate protest in the country’s history. Another 100,000 protested in Berlin, and massive groups organized in cities in countries including India, Kenya, and Poland.
In the United States, the protests came ahead of Saturday’s first U.N. Youth Climate Summit, a day of action in New York intended to bring together activists committed to combating climate change.
Schools across the region instituted a variety of policies to deal with students who wanted to attend the protests. A spokesperson for the School District didn’t respond to a request for comment, but told WHYY that students who skipped school or left in the middle of the day would be marked absent. (New York’s school system had said its students would be excused.) Some were critical of the Philadelphia district’s decision, including City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a Democrat who spoke at the rally and elicited a roar of “boos” when she referred to President Donald Trump’s “corrupt administration.”
“You’re here because this is a matter of life and death,” she said.
In the Lower Merion School District, parents who wanted to excuse their kids for the day to attend the strike could fill out paperwork to have the day considered an educational trip, said spokesperson Amy Buckman.
The Cheltenham School District instituted a similar policy, allowing students to have an excused absence with parental consent, said Renato Lajara, principal at the high school. He said they handled Friday’s protest the same way they did when students walked out of school as part of the March for Our Lives, a massive, student-led protest to end gun violence.
“I admire their bravery,” Lajara said. “I can tell they were very passionate about it, and it’s something that’s important.”
Nadja Anderson-Oberman, a junior at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, said that she was excused from school, and that the protest was important for people her age, who aren’t old enough to vote.
“I can still show my support,” Anderson-Oberman said. “This is the most important issue my generation faces. If there’s no Earth, there’s nothing.”
Chris Morrissey-Grubb, mother of 8-year-old Laney and 6-year-old Jasper, said she checked her kids out of Fishtown’s Alexander Adaire Elementary School for the day to attend the protest. Morrissey-Grubb said she brought her children because she wants to send the message that people of all ages should respect the environment.
Laney, who carried a sign nearly the size of her body, has written letters to school officials about plastic waste in school lunches. Next week, she’s meeting with the School District to present a proposal.
Other schools encouraged students to take part, including Penn Charter, which tweeted about hosting its own “on-campus” climate strike.
Some teachers subtly encouraged their students to attend, like Sue Baranek, an environmental science teacher at Parkland High School in Lehigh County, Pa., who took a personal day to protest alongside Sarah Yenser, also an Earth science teacher at the school. Baranek said she likes to tell her students — those who are passionate about combating climate change — at the end of the year that “they’re part of my secret army.”
“We can’t be complacent. There’s too much at stake,” Baranek, 57, said. Added Yenser, 41: “This is why I got into teaching. I’m only one person, but I can teach a room full of kids.”
Activists affiliated with the strikes have a number of goals. Chief among them is ending global reliance on fossil fuels and ensuring “a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart.” Rachie Weisberg, one of the coordinators of the Philadelphia protest that included youth groups Sunrise Movement and 350 Philadelphia, said the city is uniquely impacted by climate injustice, saying “the climate crisis has disproportionately impacted our marginalized communities.”
Tonia Brito-Bersi, another coordinator, was a University of California, Santa Cruz student during the 2018 Carr Fire that burned more than 200,000 acres.
“We were really quick to normalize natural disasters,” Brito-Bersi said, “but I think this is a group that’s ready to talk about these issues.”
While the demonstrations are youth-led, teachers, labor unions, and politicians have pledged support. Most attendees on Friday were young people, but not all. Alice Dustin, 77, of Ardmore, said she remembers the Earth Day protests for environmental justice in the ’70s and felt a similar tug this time around to demonstrate.