I got my sign ready the night before the demonstration. I thought about making a new one, using the UpRootTheSystem theme for this year, perhaps topping it with images of flames, as the Youth vs Apocalypse site suggested.
But, after looking over the sign I’d made for 2019 FridaysForFuture Climate Strike, I decided it still made sense. I added a short wooden handle.
‘Their Future’s At Risk’ underscored my intent. Like 2019, this was a youth led climate strike. I felt duty-bound to attend even though 90% of the protesters would be young enough to be my great grandchildren. There’ll be a few other old farts like me marching. And, I’m pretty sure that our shared attitude is one of solidarity. We don’t want to pretend that we were part of the planning, or that we had anything to do with the inspiration for the march. If it implies a confession, so be it. We — my generation and the ones before us – have put this generation’s future at risk.
For me, the guilt would be about calling myself a climate activist while I stayed home from a climate protest, fearing I might be out of place. Being out of place is part of the point. I also opted not to wear orange or red, as the young organizers suggested. When we marched, I would be alongside them, on the side of the street or up on the sidewalk. I wanted the marchers to understand that my activism aligns with theirs, and that my fears are for them, and for all the young people in my life. And I hoped to set an example for the adults we encountered along the way, saying with my sign and with my long gray hair, ‘They’re right! We must support them.’
Walking the last block of Market Street toward the Ferry Building, after coming up from the subway, I held my sign at my side. The mix of pedestrians — tourists waiting for the cable car, people hustling to work, street vendors hawking their wares, kids goofing around on skateboards – seemed like what you’d expect in downtown San Francisco at 10:30 on a Friday morning. I was as unremarkable as they were.
But, as soon as I walked into Embarcadero Plaza, I could feel the uptick in energy. Not the mellow energy of runners before a big race, the scene I’d witnessed dozens of times in my past life as a race director, but a palpable feel of purpose and rebellion.
At each corner of the big red brick square organizers rallied their groups. Bullhorns in hand, some of them were already firing up students with chants. ‘What do we want?’ – ‘Climate Justice!’ – ‘When do we want it?’ ‘Now!’ the crowd yelled. Other leaders readied the front line of marchers, dozens in a straight line all holding the top of a twenty-foot banner declaring from a background of orange and red flames, ‘Youth vs Apocalypse / #UprootTheSystem.’
Students just arriving milled around, unfurled their own banners or went to the corner that was handing out the signs already mounted on long polls. My sign held high, I stood off to the side and caught sidelong glances. Some of the young demonstrators stopped long enough to scan my sign. Some even caught my eye briefly, giving me a barely noticeable nod.
I saw the squad cars lined up across Market Street before I heard the battle cry, ‘Everyone ready!?’. Three bullhorn-wielding leaders stood facing the front line of banner carriers, shouting in unison. They looked over their shoulders for an OK from the cops, turned back to the crowd, ‘Everyone line up behind us.’
Dozens of groups spread out around the plaza rushed forward en masse and we were on our way. Five thousands marchers, flaunting hundreds of different signs and banners, spread out curb-to-curb across Market Street. We marched at a steady clip, our pace in sync with the resounding beat of a dozen drummers pounding on bottom of white plastic buckets.
Amazed by the pace, I threaded my way through obstacles along the curb, using my sign to intimate spectators into moving further back onto the sidewalk. After the first block, I had my stride and found my voice, joining in on the rhythmic back-and-forth exchange –
“Tell me what democracy looks like!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
The combined force of the young marchers was like a rushing river. But the leaders were as adept as cowboys riding herd on excited cattle. They slowed us down after we passed Main Street. And the front of the line stopped completely when they got to Beale. We were in front of PG&E headquarters.
One of the leaders, her voice now recognizable through her bullhorn, began, “PG&E doesn’t think there’s a climate emergency. They think they can take their time to transition to clean energy. They won’t admit that climate emergencies are already killing thousands.”
Then another speaker, “Spread out.” Marchers taking up the rear, moved even further back. Marchers clustered in the middle spread out further toward the curbs. I was suddenly surrounded. “We need to show PG&E that they’re killing people! We want you to all lie down, dead.”
I might have thought about the dirty sidewalk. I might have thought about being trampled as I lay on my back. But there’s no way I could remain standing while everyone around me got flat down on the ground. When the leaders called for a moment of silence for the 70,000 who had died over the past year from climate catastrophes, I looked straight up at the yellowing leaves of the young sycamore above me.
More trees, fewer cars. More truth-telling young climate activists, less bullshit from politicians. More people energy, less pollution from the energy grid. These thoughts went up through the sycamore branches and into the clear blue San Francisco sky. There will be many more deaths, I thought, many more climate catastrophes that these young people will endure. Their outrage inspires me and my biggest wish is to answer them with a message of hope.
I was slow to get up, not because I was injured, but slow because old people like me don’t spring to their feet like all the teens were doing around me. I was glad that no one offered me a hand; it meant that I didn’t look as old as I felt. Or maybe I appeared to be too out of place as I feared I might. I looked around as we started moving forward again, and decided a little interaction was in order.
I noted a kid with long curly hair sporting a Lick-Wilmerding sweatshirt. My godson, Ben, attended Lick High School so I called out, “All right! Lick-Wilmerding,” giving him a thumbs up with my free hand. He glanced at me and looked away just as quickly.
Unfazed, I turned to a cluster of students to my left. We were still moving slowly. “I’m with the Climate Reality Project,” I pointed to the logo on my sign as though it were my ID. “And I’m curious about what high schools are represented here today.”
A tall kid with a buzz cut, amiably enough, “I go to Oakland Tech.”
A girl in purple turned around to show me the Galileo High School logo on the front.
“Not just San Francisco high schools, then.” I looked at the blonde hanging out next to the Galileo girl who said, somewhat indignantly, “I’m not in high school, I go to San Mateo College.”
I was glad to have the pace quicken, feeling like a parent, or grandparent, who was just got told to mind his own business.
We made a wide sweeping left turn onto 6th Street. I stayed on the outside of the curve, so I found myself zig-zagging through an assortment of unhealthy looking folks without masks. They stood out alongside the young marchers who were nearly all wearing masks. Most of these people seemed down-and-out in one way or another, poor, homeless, drug-hazed, mentally ill or abused.
Their reactions were varied. I saw a dark, gray-haired man hold up his fist in a Black Power salute. I saw amusement on the faces of a middle-aged and a skinny, scarred woman of indeterminate age who were sprawled on a dirty blanket. And I saw grim-looking hustler stalk down the street shaking his head.
The demonstrators were marching along to a new chant, “Climate change has got to go . . . hey-hey, ho-ho . . . climate change has got to go . . . hey-hey, ho-ho.” It was not my favorite, sounding too cheerleader-ish too me. For the sake of the disenfranchised people whose neighborhood we’d temporarily taken over, I wished they’d been rallying for climate justice – ‘when do we want it – now!’
All climate activists, including these young marchers, fight for social justice as well. They know that the same economic powers that have led to a climate crisis also led to a society where too many people are simply unable to succeed. I wished the people on 6th Street knew that we were demonstrating on their behalf, that we want a future with a livable environment and a fairer social order.
I stayed on the inside of the curve when we turned right onto Mission Street, coming face-to-face with big guys in hard hats. They were hanging out along the chainlink fence that bordered their construction site, some with sandwiches in their hands, most with their cell phones held up toward the crowd. I turned my sign in their direction as we passed. ‘That’s right guys, their future’s at risk, and the concrete slabs you’re pouring are part of the problem. Please, show your photos to your kids; they’ll understand.’
When we turned the corner onto 7th Street, we were back to the booming rhythm of ‘Tell me what democracy looks like! – This is what democracy looks like!’ And I knew that we must be approaching Nancy Pelosi’s office.
We spread out once again, then lay down while speakers regaled Pelosi with their bullhorns, “You dismissed the Green New Deal. You are not committed to ending fossil fuel. People are dying. We can’t wait for climate action.”
Done with Pelosi, we marched back across Market Street and looped around to City Hall. And again, I marveled at the smooth coordination of this march. As we marched up McAllister alongside UN Plaza, a tall guy in an old sweat stained fedora started to interview me about my climate views, so I ended up in the rear of the march. When I finally stood in front of them, the wide steps of City Hall looked like a well-choreographed pageant. The wide banners at the top, tired protestors settling themselves and their signs into the descending layers below, the crowd fanned out around the foot of the stairs, we were ready to listen.
Until now, the energy, the action, the chants, the power and momentum of 5,000 people stopping traffic as they marched through downtown San Francisco dominated the experience. By the end, we’d become familiar with each other. I saw people I recognized and they saw me, impressed perhaps that I’d hung in there to the finish while some of their friends had peeled off along the way. Their commitment to the cause was obvious.
I recognized a Black teen who’d I’d first seen rallying the front line as we left Embarcadero Plaza, three hours ago. He was a big guy, limping, sweat dripping from his hair. His ‘Youth vs Apocalypse’ shirt was soaked and I saw that the heels of his socks were torn and wondered if the flip-flops he wore were a choice or an economic condition. Either way, my heart went out to him for his effort.
Over the next half-hour we listened. A loudspeaker and mic appeared on the City Hall steps and a robust young Black woman, her braids flared out around her shoulders, emceed a series of speakers. The mic was passed from person-to-person down along the steps.
“We are here fighting for our future . . .”
“Ignored by the people in power . . .”
“All they care about is money in their pockets . . .”
The emcee introduced a girl I could barely see on the crowded steps. An organizer for the Bay Area Youth Climate Summit, she said, “in honor of skipping school today (Big Cheer), let me tell what they taught us in sixth grade. They told us the planet was getting warmer because we didn’t recycle our water bottles properly. They’ve been lying to us all along . . .”
She also said, “My goddamned plastic bottle matters very little compared to the one hundred companies that are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The next speaker described the climate catastrophes that she and her generation could face. She broke down in tears as she said, “It terrifies us!”