An estimated 1,000 people took to the streets of downtown Providence Friday to strike for political action on climate change. The youth-led protest was part of an international strike to demand climate justice.
Several climate action groups organized the local strike, including Climate Action Rhode Island, Zero Hour, 350 and the Providence hub of Sunrise. Attendees included high school students from across Rhode Island, as well as teachers, college students and allies of all ages. Their primary demand was for Governor Gina Raimondo to adopt a state-level Green New Deal, a piece of legislation intended to address climate change and economic inequality.
Siblings Kate and Peter Muhitch of Exeter West Greenwich skipped school and took a 30-minute train ride to participate in the Providence strike. Kate, a freshman at Community College of Rhode Island studying marine biology, and Peter, a junior at Exeter West Greenwich High School, decided that fighting for climate justice was more important than going to class on Friday.
“It’s all about priorities,” Peter said. He added that he hopes the protest will remind people that climate change is “a huge umbrella problem” that especially affects the youth. Peter started a sustainability club at his school and was joined by some of his fellow club members at Friday’s protest.
Although many of the protesters on Friday were youth like the Muhitchs, people of all ages joined in the action, from toddlers pushed in strollers to elderly marchers.
On the day of the protest, Raimondo was set to give a speech about the green economy in Boston, the Providence Journal reported. Earlier that morning, she tweeted about Rhode Island’s efforts to fight climate change.
“Here in the Ocean State, we recognize the dangerous reality of climate change,” she tweeted. “I’m inspired to see so many young people here in RI and across the nation making their voices heard today.”
The strike begins
At 10 a.m., the march began in Burnside Park, where crowds gathered to sing songs about climate justice and listen to speakers, several of whom were high school students.
“We are all here together because we know that this is an emergency! We know that this is the only planet we have, and if we want to live in it, we must take bold action today,” said speaker Estrella Rodriguez ’22, a recruitment lead summer fellow for Sunrise Providence and an emcee for Friday’s protest. “As young people, millions of us are standing all across the world to strike for our climate.”
Rodriguez spoke about the effects of climate change, including more frequent and intense forest fires, hurricanes and floods. “All around the world, climate disasters are impacting our lives. They are threatening our futures.”
Many speakers at the park said that politicians are not taking action on these issues. “By striking today, we are disrupting business as usual in Rhode Island. By striking today as part of the global climate strikes, we are making history,” said China Duff, a 17-year-old from East Providence and senior at La Salle Academy. “As I am speaking right now, entire work places and classrooms are empty. Why should we be sitting in class when our future and the future of our planet is at stake?”
This call to action was echoed by Evan, a 14-year-old from South County, Rhode Island, who told the crowd that his friends often say he can’t change the world by himself. “Together we are making a change and together we can fight for a livable future.”
March to the State House
After the speakers finished their remarks, organizers led the protesters in a march to the State House, stopping at the National Grid Energy Innovation Hub on the way. National Grid is a multinational electricity and gas utility that serves Providence, and its Innovation Hub is a building designed for discussion about a “clean energy future,” according to its website.
The organizers brought protesters to the hub “to make the connection for people that this isn’t about individual choices, it’s really about the fossil fuel industry, and it’s targeting institutions like National Grid,” Rodriguez said in an interview following the strike.
After a lunch break, the protesters picketed outside the State House before entering the building. They dropped banners from the second floor banister, displaying a photograph of Raimondo leaving the State House during Sunrise Providence’s previous climate change protest on Sept. 9.
During the banner drop, Yesenia Puebla ’21, an actions lead summer fellow for Sunrise Providence, read aloud the group’s demands for Raimondo. These included a commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2040 and 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030; enacting programs to ensure a just transition from fossil fuels to a renewable energy-based economy; investing in public transportation, weatherized homes and electric vehicles; funding programs to implement sustainable, regenerative agriculture and rejecting the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in Rhode Island.
After Puebla laid out the demands, the protesters returned to the State House steps for another speaker and more singing until the action wrapped up around 3 p.m.
Duff said in an interview that she and her peers must organize in order to make their voices heard “because we’re the ones who can’t vote, but the legislation that passes in our government actually impacts us a lot.” She added, “I really care about my future and the future of people who might not have a voice in this crisis but are impacted the most by it.”
Both Rodriguez and Puebla were disappointed that many University students didn’t respond to strike recruitment efforts.
When they tabled on campus and asked students to join the strike, many said they couldn’t attend because they had to go to class.“It was actually very disappointing,” Rodriguez said. “It’s something I didn’t expect.”
But Rodriguez added that some University students did show up at the action, including new faces she hadn’t seen before in environmental justice circles.
Despite her disappointment with the lack of University protesters, the overall turnout exceeded Puebla’s expectations. “It was a big ask for a lot of students to really go on strike, to suffer the consequences of what that means,” she said.
The crowd was largely young people, who are one of the “front line communities” that will be most affected by climate change, said Liam Hopkins, communications lead for Sunrise Providence.
Other front line communities include people of color, indigenous peoples, low-income people and those who identify as LGBTQ+, Hopkins said. “When we build fossil fuel infrastructure, when we allow these billionaires and their companies to poison our air and to poison our water and hurt our communities, it is always poor communities, it is always communities of color that are hurt first, and that will be hurt worst, and those are the people that we’re fighting for,” Hopkins said.