Greta Thunberg drew thousands of people to Civic Center Park on Friday — mostly young people “on strike” from school — but local issues owned the stage for 90 minutes before the 16-year-old Swede did for seven.
Colorado activists fighting climate change wanted to make things clear from the getgo: Thunberg is a force, but her celebrity is the only thing that distinguishes her from local activists doing similar work.
“The work that Gretta has done is absolutely beautiful and absolutely amazing, but when we’re acknowledging one frontline youth, we have to make sure that we’re acknowledging other frontline youth as well,” said Thomas Lopez of the International Indigenous Youth Council in front of the crowd at the Greek Amphitheater.
Thunberg was in the West for a visit to Standing Rock, the reservation in South Dakota that was the scene of vivid protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Social justice for native nations and other people of color equates to climate justice, organizers said. That was the theme of Friday’s rally, which was doused in the smell of herbs being smudged for an indigenous cleansing ceremony.
“Social justice is climate justice,” Renee Chacon, co-founder of indigenous rights group Women of the Mountain, told Denverite. “A lot of issues that we’re here for come from the exploitive nature of capitalism that has wreaked havoc on the earth. When there’s a big boom on the resources and because of the exploitive nature of the resources, the population locally gets impacted and they’re often poor and marginalized people that cannot fight in court to protect both their land and even their social policies.”
Teenagers and young adults from the Youth Council, Women of the Mountain, Earth Guardians, The Action Network and other groups revved up the crowd with speeches against oil and gas development (fracking) that they said drains the earth’s resources for the sake of money. They railed against pipelines on indigenous land and banks and governments that make money off of them.
And then Thunberg, the teenager who scolded the adults of the United Nations for failing to curb climate change with urgency, did her thing.
“The people in power continue to ignore us and to ignore the current best available science,” Thunberg said after acknowledging that the gathering was on Arapaho and Cheyenne land. “How dare they. How dare they leave this mess for their own children to clean up.”
She continued: “It is we young people and future generations who are going to suffer the most from the climate and ecological crisis. It should not be up to us to take the responsibility, but since the leaders are behaving like children, then we have no other choice.
Sisters Barbara and Brooks Hilton of Centennial, both teenagers, held homemade signs. One read, “I shouldn’t be here. I should be in school.” The other said, “Science and climate change don’t care what you believe.”
“The way that the world is working, the way that our politics is working, it’s just not OK anymore and it’s upsetting that the youth had to come together to fix something that the older generations did to the planet,” Brooks said. “But I also think that it’s beautiful that everyone can come together at a place like this, listen to the people who are 16, 35, 17, 26, all together, and talk about something that affects every single person every day.”
The outrage was everpresent Friday, but so were policy goals. One 8-year-old activist asked the crowd to lobby state politicians to ban single-use plastics in Colorado. Another asked for a ban oil and gas development where people live.
Thunberg’s consistent message was that young people like her should continue to ask for urgency — and that they can — until they’re the ones in power.
“We all need to do the seemingly impossible,” she said. “We didn’t start school striking because we wanted to. We didn’t do it because we wanted to gain attention or because it was fun. We did it because someone needs to do something and that someone could be anyone in this crowd.
“You don’t have to wait for someone else to do something. No one is too small to make a difference. Never forget that.”
Some teens were there to see Thunberg, no doubt, also because they want to exist in the future, some said.
It was 16-year-old Emily Emanuel’s first protest ever, but she sounded like a veteran from the ’60s. The Lakewood resident skipped school for the event like so many others.
“I mean this planet is fucking dying, man,” Emanuel said. “Like in about 50 years this place is going to be unlivable and prices for just, like, produce will be too expensive and we won’t be able to afford all the natural, good stuff for our bodies anymore.”
While teenagers led the way Friday, fourth graders from the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School were on hand to pick up the baton. Their teachers took them out of class and took them to the park for a different kind of civics lesson.
Nine-year-olds Ximalma Gonzalez Robinson and Harper Clontz each made little posters for the event. One had a picture of the earth with sad eyes and a thermometer in its mouth because “it’s sick,” Ximalma said.
She then informed Denverite that carbon dioxide from planes and cars is the problem. But she sees a solution in Thunberg, someone who isn’t “an old person,” to help preserve what she loves.
“I’ve always loved non-fiction things,” she said. “I love the earth a lot. And animals.”