Young people file into a subway entrance; one girl stands on the side with a sign that says "Don't frack with Mother Earth."
Berkeley High students pour into the Downtown Berkeley BART station Friday morning, headed to the climate strike march in San Francisco. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Amazon, BlackRock and Nancy Pelosi were all due for visits from throngs of teenagers Friday.

Young people from Berkeley and throughout the Bay Area skipped school to put pressure on San Francisco politicians and corporations they say are contributing to an environmental crisis. Others stayed on this side of the bay, holding a huge rally at UC Berkeley and mini marches around elementary schools.

The San Francisco action, organized by Youth vs Apocalypse, was just one of countless similar events that took place around the world Friday as part of the youth-led global “climate strike” inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Berkeley students participated in a similar worldwide event in March.

For many kids today, “global warming” is no longer an abstract concept or a proverbial polar bear dying in Antarctica. They have an acute awareness of how the changing climate affects their livelihoods and a strong sense of urgency to do something about it.

“There’s a deadline on our existence and a deadline on when we can reverse this,” said Berkeley High junior Adrienne Mermin, 16. “When climate change and climate justice was connected to environmental racism, it became more than just ‘the ice caps are melting,’ and more ‘this affects all of us, and every single one of us can help stop this.’”

A crowd, holding up colorful protest signs
Young people from Berkeley march in San Francisco with activists from around the Bay Area. Photo: Arev Walker
A girl yells into a megaphone, with young protesters in the background
Young people march in the San Francisco climate strike. Photo: Lena Ostroy Harp

Mermin was one of the Berkeley High students who helped organize hundreds of her peers to gather in Civic Center Park at 8:30 a.m. Friday so they could take BART into the city together to join the larger protest. So many teenagers ended up showing up that the organizers had to send students to the BART station in waves so the platform wouldn’t get clogged. Once in San Francisco, they planned to march around downtown and confront the big actors fast-tracking the climate crisis.

“To me it seems so normal that I’d be fighting for my future on a healthy and happy planet.” – Hannah, 16

The students came up with specific chants tailored to each of the corporations, said Hannah Freedman, a 16-year-old Berkeley High junior who organized the event with Youth vs Apocalypse and traveled to the city with her classmates Friday.

Berkeley Unified predicted a total of 400 kids would “strike” from school.

Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng sent a message to parents Thursday saying she was surprised to learn that a “large number” of staff would be missing from campus Friday as well.

“We simply do not have enough substitutes to cover on a day like this, and even with support from district office staff, we know for certain that it will not be a business-as-usual day at BHS,” she wrote, but assured parents that students would be kept safe.

The teachers union did not organize to send educators to the climate march, but Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said many individual teachers chose to go to the march on their own, and added after publication that the union fully supports the climate strike. BFT also distributed lesson plans for teaching about climate change in class, and many teachers held on-campus “walk-ins,” he said.

The students’ departures count as regular absences from school, and the district misses out on significant state funds when kids aren’t in class. But the Berkeley High administration provided parents with information on how to excuse those absences so they don’t show up on their children’s records

Tons of teenagers in a park
Hundreds of Berkeley High students gather in Civic Center Park before joining the march in the city. Photo: Arev Walker

“BUSD sees the Climate Strike as a teachable moment empowering students in all grades to take thoughtful action about issues important to them,” said district spokeswoman Trish McDermott in an email. “Grade appropriate on-site events and lesson plans related to climate change are scheduled in district schools.”

She said Superintendent Brent Stephens had alerted San Francisco police that a large group of Berkeley students would be marching in the city. Stephens was spotted mingling with Berkeley High students in Civic Center Park before they headed to BART Friday.

Proud of my fellow Cal Bears @UCBerkeley out here at the #ClimateStrike #Berkeley

Ok I have to go back to lab now but governments and ppl please #DoSomething— Thomas P200 Burke (@FindMeInTheLab) September 20, 2019

During last spring’s climate strike, some adults accused kids of jumping at a chance to ditch school. The student organizers acknowledged that some of their friends also didn’t want to make the trek to San Francisco during a school day or couldn’t get permission from their parents.

So why not wait until the weekend?

“We get that question a lot from people sending us messages on Instagram,” said junior Arev Walker, 16, another organizer in charge of social media for the Berkeley High strike. “Friday is a work day. We’re protesting outside of federal and legal buildings where people are doing their work, so we’re ensuring our message is reaching the most people possible. And you’re making a statement by leaving school and showing everyone you believe in it so much that you’re willing to sacrifice a day of your education for it.”

“It’s about disrupting business as usual,” added Freedman. “To me it seems instinctual. To a lot of adults, it seems aggressive or out there, but to me it seems so normal that I’d be fighting for my future on a healthy and happy planet. The fact that it’s so criticized makes me angry and just want to do more.”

“We’re here to literally make some noise for climate justice.” – Aviv Schifrin, 17. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
“We’re here to literally make some noise for climate justice.” – Aviv Schifrin, 17. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

At some BUSD elementary and middle schools, there were school-sanctioned or parent-organized activities for kids too young to make the trip to San Francisco.

At Willard, students, who received lessons on climate change in science class all week, planned an “on-site strike march around the campus,” McDermott said. At King, students and staff made political art and learned about youth activism.

At Malcolm X Elementary, kids and parents held a pre-school rally on a street corner “in solidarity with the climate strikers.”

One parent there noted the irony of all the supportive honks they received from the gas-guzzling cars zipping by the protest.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...