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Iowa City's Contribution to the Student Climate Strike, featuring Greta Thunberg

by Grace Oeth & Madalyn Whitaker
Photos by Hayley Anderson

On Friday, October 4th, 2019, thousands of people gathered in Iowa City’s downtown district to participate in one of the many student climate strikes occurring around the world. Their purpose: to demonstrate the mass concern shared among the Iowa City community about climate change and the local and federal government’s reluctance to acknowledge the environmental crises younger generations face. Despite the similar motives that the strike shares with other protests happening internationally, this specific gathering was visited by one of our current society’s leading environmental activists, Greta Thunberg. As a 16-year-old teenage activist from Sweden, Thunberg’s words and ideas have not only been elevated by her social media presence, but also through her extensive work in giving speeches to the public and world speakers about changes that need to be made to save the general population from impending and inevitable climate catastrophes.

Thunberg’s appearance in Iowa City was announced on the previous Wednesday on her Twitter, which explains why many people did not expect a large group of people to attend the strike, but the massive crowd that did gather astounded everyone that attended. As everyone crowded around each other on the corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue, many awaited to see the young activist currently inspiring change around the world.

After a thirty-minute delay, Greta appeared alongside local high schoolers and members of the community involved in organizing the event. Many people spoke before Thunberg, including Dawson Davenport, a local author and former Bicultural Iowa Writing Fellow through the Iowa Writers’ House, who writes about his indigenous background and environmental concerns in Iowa. As Davenport spoke, he expressed concerns relating to the Native peoples who originally owned the land in which Iowa City rests on, and how we are taking advantage of that space to essentially cause more destruction to the planet. Davenport called out the University of Iowa specifically, demanding that they shut down their coal plant. This topic was also discussed by local high school students from City High, encouraging the crowd to chant, “President Harold [of the University of Iowa]—no more excuses!” One of the young speakers stated, in response to the large crowd gathered in the historical city, “Imagine what would happen if the University gets on board. Imagine what would happen if the government gets on board. Imagine what would happen if world leaders get on board.” There were four speakers that proceeded Davenport, by the time Thunberg’s time to speak came, the crowd was ready to hear what we were supposed to do to save not only Iowa City, but the rest of the world. 

A child holds a hand-drawn sign, demanding the world be saved. Photo by Hayley Anderson

A child holds a hand-drawn sign, demanding the world be saved.
Photo by Hayley Anderson

As Thunberg was introduced, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. The first word she spoke was a breathy “wow,” taken aback by the crowd in front of her. Starting her speech, she thanked everyone for the amazing turnout. Thunberg’s speech was short but impactful. In a few short minutes, she addressed the lack of maturity shown by government officials who chose to ignore the climate crisis and in the same breath encourages the public to keep persisting because if we don’t, then nothing will ever be accomplished: “Us teenagers and children shouldn’t have to take on this responsibility, but when government officials continue to act like children, someone has to be the adult in these situations.” To much praise, Thunberg stated “The world is waking up to the change. And change is coming. It is coming whether they like it or not.”

After Thunberg finished, the crowd was asked to strike through silence. They were asked to sit down—if they were able—for eleven minutes, to represent the estimated eleven years it will take for populations around the world to start witnessing the irreversible effects climate change will present. The crowd was so silent the hum of the buildings could be heard, dogs barking off in distant neighborhoods, the clinking of forks and knives on plates at the outdoor patios of restaurants nearby.  During these eleven minutes, attendees silently held up their signs, allowing the allotted reflection time to ponder over what others had to say. Many signs read different messages of unrest and anger regarding the state of our planet. There were depictions of coal burning, promotions of veganism, and images of the world set aflame. Political signs were held high, representing candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. “White Silence is Violence” and “Climate Change is a Human Rights Issue.” When it was announced that the eleven minutes were up, the crowd slowly rose back to their feet. We were thanked for attending the strike. The mood as everyone dispersed was not one of celebration but one of a collective understanding that the road ahead would be long, but Thunberg’s speech was the realistic encouragement we needed. “We must not allow ourselves to give up. That is simply not an option.”