Students organize, rally for campus climate strike

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Students gather on the Sunken Gardens to listen to speakers in the Climate Strike
PHOTO BY / NIA KITCHIN

Friday, Sept. 20, the Sunken Garden at the College of William and Mary was swarmed with students, professors and community members alike participating in a global strike for action on climate change. Crowd members waved brightly colored signs calling for a Green New Deal, advocating for natural resource preservation and voicing their opposition to fossil fuels. The cry heard around Old Campus Friday was “no more,” referring to strikers’ demands for immediate action. 

The Williamsburg Climate Strike was just one of many climate strikes occurring worldwide on this day, which organizers estimate around four million people attended. The strike at the College was hosted by the Williamsburg Sunrise Movement Hub, an organization focused on the climate crisis, and the William and Mary Young Democrats. These groups organized around a dozen speakers and performers to engage the crowd with different facets of climate change as an issue. 

“Politicians have failed to take action for decades, and we are saying no more,” Sunrise Movement member and event organizer Kelsey Wright ’20 said. “… We are fighting for a future where justice is central to decision making and oppressed communities are empowered and invested in. We have a vision of a vastly better future and we are striking today to show the power of that vision.”

“Politicians have failed to take action for decades, and we are saying no more,” Sunrise Movement member and event organizer Kelsey Wright ’20 said. “… We are fighting for a future where justice is central to decision making and oppressed communities are empowered and invested in. We have a vision of a vastly better future and we are striking today to show the power of that vision.”

The strike was compared favorably by speakers to the March 15, 2019 climate strike held at the College earlier this year. That event had roughly 40 attendees, while the strike Friday drew an estimated crowd of 450. This increase in attendance mirrors the recent worldwide escalation of climate change discussion and action spearheaded by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

“Structural change this big with so little time is going to take a social movement on a global scale,” Young Democratic Socialists of America member Colin Cochran ’21said.

“Structural change this big with so little time is going to take a social movement on a global scale,” Young Democratic Socialists of America member Colin Cochran ’21 said.

Speakers included student leaders of organizations like the American Indian Student Association, UndocuTribe and the Young Democratic Socialists. There were also performances interspersed with the speakers where students read spoken word poems and lead the crowd in song. 

Cochran spoke about climate change as a battle composed of numerous small fights, many of which have already been lost. He said that while it is easy to give up in the face of such an imposing opponent or feel removed from the issue, even small actions are powerful.

“We desperately need big change, but even a small change could have a massive effect,” Cochran said. “That is why we cannot afford to throw up our hands, because the people whose lives are at stake rely on our victories large and small. They can’t afford to be overwhelmed and hopeless, so neither can we.”

Cochran also denounced the College for investing part of its endowment in fossil fuels and questioned what it would take for them to divest.

“If you’re uncomfortable with that I’m sorry,” Cochran said. “I’m uncomfortable with sitting on our hands while thousands of people suffer and die from things we could have prevented. It is long past time to start asking these questions of each other and it’s time to start asking questions of ourselves.” 

Director of UndocuTribe Aida Campos ’20 spoke about how extreme weather in the global south caused by climate change forces people to leave their homes and migrate, further disturbing the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people — and this weather will only become more severe and disastrous.

“Relocation and migration will not slow down until we learn to take climate change seriously, both domestically and internationally,” Campos said. “Human beings will never stop trying to survive.”

While the event was largely student driven, two non-students were scheduled to speak at the event. Economics professor and department chair Sarah Stafford spoke to protestors about the importance of saving shoreline communities vulnerable to rising tides, imparting some of her economics-based knowledge to explain why losing these homes would be afflictive and create consequences beyond the coast. She identified climate change denial as an issue of education, and she called on those in attendance to do their part to help to educate their peers about the reality of the climate situation.

“There are too many citizens and too many elected officials who either refuse to acknowledge or just can’t acknowledge what’s going to happen and aren’t thinking about the future because it’s easier to bury their heads in the sand,” Stafford said. “But the sand is going to be eroded and their heads are going to be underwater if we don’t help them.”

The other non-student speaker scheduled to speak was State Delegate for the 93rd District of Virginia Mike Mullin. However, a day prior to the event organizers posted on Facebook that Mullin would no longer be attending due to his declination to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and Green New Deal Pledge and endorse the Virginia Green New Deal Coalition.

Wright addressed this change of events with the crowd. She said that she and other organizers had been in contact with Mullin about attending the event and signing the pledges for several weeks prior to the strike and had been clear that signing the pledge was a prerequisite for speaking at the strike. According to Wright, she and fellow organizers were told Nov. 11 that Mullin would be signing the pledges before the strike and thus planned on his attendance. This changed when Wright said that organizers were informed the previous evening that Mullin has a policy of not signing pledges and could not sign the No Fossil Fuels Money Pledge. Therefore, Wright and fellow organizers informed Mullin that he would no longer be invited to speak at the strike, as signing the No Fossil Fuels Money Pledge would be the minimum that they would require for him to speak.

“We want more than words and speeches,” Wright said. “We want commitments. We want action. We need politicians who are not afraid to make commitments and be held accountable. We need politicians who will stand for our futures and not the fossil fuel industry. And we need climate justice now.”