Reflecting on my emotions walking with the global climate strike
Friday for Future feelings of a 35 year old European
On Friday, November 29, I took three hours out of my calendar, left the office and went to join the climate strike in my hometown of Vienna, Austria. It was the fourth global strike, but the first time I made it to the actual walk through the city’s streets. Back when the third strike happened, I only joined after work, when most people had already left.
I join the 10,000 to 20,000 people about 20 minutes after start, and walk behind a dad carrying a sign towards them from the front. The empty streets feel special to me. Where normally a hectic Friday afternoon commute would try to make its way home, the street I drove many times on my own in a car2go to pick up my wife, is now calm and silent. The occasional police motorbike hints at the upcoming crowd that is not calm and not silent. A day before, the European Union followed the most progressive of its member states in declaring a climate emergency.
When the top group swallows me, I choose to stay in front, in the first hundred people or so. I feel warm and take off my hat and sleeves. There are folks from all age groups, school kids, students, parents, elderly, some walking on crutches. A drum band of six or seven 50-somethings are marching in sync to their beats, with their leader walking backwards and instructing them to switch between many different drumming patterns they must have rehearsed many weeks before, because they now groove so smoothly.
A student in front of me suddenly turns back and starts screaming „What do we want?“ – at first, no one responds, and he asks the people around him to join. With his voice already husky, he starts again and more people respond „Climate Justice!“ – „When do we want it?“ – „Now!“
The chant has become one of the most used in the worldwide uprising. Like before, that day, millions around the globe will march the streets to demand political and economic action against the political and economic impact on the environment. I join the chant for a few repeats.
As we march on, we approach the city’s economic branch office. They recently started to embrace climate change as part of their agenda. Organizers of the event, and informed citizens, however criticize their announcements as unsubstantial and want to remind decision makers that they’re being watched and judged by their actions. The march stops in front of the office, where a few officials are looking down from a balcony taking pictures.
I’m in the front of the pack and not in the part facing the office building. We stop under a bridge on our way to the city center to wait for the others. People notice that the massive train bridge gives the chanting extra echo and power. They get louder and louder. The space also gets more packed because people from the back are moving in. The intensity is impressive to me. It doesn’t feel claustrophobic, even though now and then young people would peek me with their signs or we step on each other’s shoes. The atmosphere is peaceful but engaged.
Someone in the central audio truck is reading and explaining FridaysForFuture’s central demands. His voice cracks. I can not see him but feel enormous respect for the commitment of the movement’s key participants.
Teachers start aligning their students. The march is considered an officially accepted school event, combined with a deep dive on political education before and after the event. Some kids say „can we go home?“ but the teachers take attendance seriously. They have joined the movement alongside doctors, scientists, religious communities, parents, grandparents, and many others. As we start moving again, we pass a church that carries a sign reading „Earth First“.
The audio track starts playing „Don’t stop me“ by Queen. I let myself fall back to get closer, as the song and its energy draws me to it. I want to be in the group that reacts to the music. Where I’m now, people are only humming along, but not more. I want more.
When I’m there, organizers are carefully tapping people’s shoulders so they won’t be harmed by the electric car carrying the audio truck. We are now listening to „Can’t hold us“ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Behind the truck is a large group of teenagers singing and jumping along. I hurry up not to be left behind, drawn in by the energy. It starts to rain lightly.
One girl who is dancing a few rows in front of me throws her arms into the air and looks up with closed eyes everytime the line „this is the moment“ comes up in the song. I can’t stop watching her, as my emotions mix up. I feel deeply inspired by her, respectful for all the other young people’s commitment, sad and fearful for the crisis we are in and what it might do to them, guilty over my own inaction on the issue in my life so far, embarrassed by my laziness and comfort zone when making choices, avoiding conflict that comes up when I’d start advocating for the things I believed in since my own teenage years.
We are now in the final long stretch of the march towards the ministry of the environment, and the music is echoing from the apartments and office buildings on the left and right. Passengers are standing on the sidelines, smiling, shaking their heads, taking photos and video. I feel proud marching. But at the same time, I feel heavy responsibility sink in over the fact that I am one of the many adults who have thought it’s enough to vote for the Green Party their entire life but still took 50 short distance flights a year.
Next up is a German song with a similar theme. Again, they all sing along and embrace the lines that are most important to them with closed eyes. They take turns carrying their signs, which you can tell are carefully built and re-used every time. They cheer to the people on the truck repeating key demands and chant back even for the hundredth time.
I can’t shake any of my emotions and I don’t try. Watching a young boy with glasses and hearing aids on both sides chanting and chanting, holding his older sister’s hand, both marching on, smiling at each other, then again looking forward and focusing on the chant, I start crying. Like waves, I feel heavy regret and remorse build up. I choke over the hopefulness in the people around me and their fearless commitment of holding people like me responsible.
The audio truck starts playing a remix of Greta Thunberg’s UN speech she gave in September. This older sister knows these lyrics as well. She doesn’t sing though, it looks more like a prayer, lip-synced. Greta Thunberg is on a sailing boat in the ocean at this moment, in time to get to the UN climate summit in Spain which starts next week. More than before, I understand the historic leadership she provides for all these people. It is fundamentally inspiring for so many, and for a few seconds I imagine what it would have been to have had such a figure in my youth. Then I’m quickly drawn back to the present.
We are now in the high rise office district near the city center. Banks, insurance companies, media companies. People are looking out the glass windows, smiling a smile I can’t decipher. Something between amusement, pity and arrogant neglect. I wait for one of them to have eye contact with me and wave him to come down. He smiles the smile. This is my only action that day.
We’re crossing the bridge to the ministry. I will not attend the final gathering because I have meetings in the office coming up. The rain has moved on. On the bridge, I look back and see a full rainbow emerge. A small boy besides me notices it as well, and I say „it’s a full rainbow“. He smiles. I take a picture. The rainbow goes right through the office building.
Everything that goes around comes back around.
I leave the march after the bridge, and walk to the underground train station. The streets are closed because of the protest and there’s a huge traffic jam. Most cars have only one or two passengers. Some drivers honk, the trucks honk the longest, although they see that it will take at least another half an hour for the road to be opened again. One angry driver honks non-stop for over a minute. I wonder whether I should go over, but I don’t. I take another photo. My battery is almost done.
I ride back, moved and overwhelmed. The rainbow was almost too cliche and romantic, but the traffic jam and anger right afterwards leveled out all beauty and were emblematic of the division that is between the hopeful demonstrators who demand action against the climate crisis and the ones who act to worsen it.
I enter the office thinking about the latter group. A colleague asks me how it was and I say „I cried“.