Climate Crisis

R.I. Students Strike to Protest Lack of Climate Crisis Action

Some 1,000 activists, mostly students, marched and protested Sept. 20 in Providence during the Global Climate Strike. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — The Global Climate Strike went local in a big way last week, with a large turnout by students from across the state leveling criticism on Gov. Gina Raimondo and National Grid.

The Sept. 20 series of rallies held along a circuitous march from downtown to the Statehouse had a broad representation of youth from Rhode Island colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. The students focused on global inaction to address the climate crisis, while local organizers from the Sunrise Movement and Climate Action RI, a chapter of the national group 350.org, focused on the environment shortcomings of Raimondo and the state’s primary natural-gas and electric utility.

There also was plenty of dancing, singing, and individual acts of protest during the 5-hour event, including a couple on both ends of the political spectrum from the University of Rhode Island (video below).

Speakers advocated for spreading climate activism through protests and pressuring politicians to endorse climate crisis legislation, such as the Green New Deal, a nationwide public works initiative to address climate adaptation and mitigation.

China Duff was one of a handful of speakers using a megaphone to rouse the crowd of some 1,000 assembled at Burnside Park.

“Here in the Ocean State we are going to see climate change even sooner than expected as we are already above the warming threshold determined by climate scientists,” the La Salle Academy senior said. “Because of this we need our elected officials more than ever to take action today. We can’t wait any longer.”

Evan Travis, 14, spoke of being terrified by global warming after watching the documentary Before the Flood. After attending the Youth Climate Strike in March, he found solace in the organized activism offered by the Sunrise Movement.

“I have confidence in this movement that we are making a change and we are saving the world together,” Travis said.

Other students said the more modest climate crisis protest on March 15 inspired them to mobilize classmates and join the Sept. 20 event.

“We need to be here to show our support … there needs to be something done about it,” said Greta Redleaf, a sophomore at St. Mary Academy Bay View. “Demand that our governor do something about it.”

The spirited march left Kennedy Plaza, went down Washington Street, and stopped at National Grid’s Energy Innovation Hub, on the western edge of the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Sabin Street.

Protesters called this “clean energy” “community space” greenwashing. They criticized the multinational utility for paying politicians to protect its profits. Rather than shifting away from natural gas, the company is building infrastructure to support fracking and fossil-fuel power generation that creates pollution.

“This company has a monopoly on our basic needs,” said Climate Action RI organizer Nicole DiPaolo during the rally outside the National Grid facility. “We are working full time and fighting for a livable future on this side, while these executives are making thousands of dollars every day to destroy it. It has got to stop. The catastrophe is here and it is growing and it is up to us how far we will let it go.”

The march reversed direction, heading along Sabin Street past the Rhode Island Convention Center and on to a rally outside the Statehouse entrance. Speakers criticized Raimondo for fast-tracking fossil-fuel projects and for failing to sign a pledge refusing campaign contributions from National Grid and other fossil-fuel companies.

Other speakers said the youth-led movement is intended to inspire a generation.

“For all you high-schoolers out there, we often shrug off the notion that we can make a difference; that we actually matter; or that we are useful; or that we can do something about anything. With climate change we can,” said Suraj Sait, a student at East Greenwich High School.

Voting matters, he said. “It’s time we show politicians how important climate change really is. We need to make it our generation’s cause.”

Students from some 30 Rhode Island schools, most with excused absences, said they were looking for collective action to combat global warming, and many spoke of individual steps to support the cause, such as embracing a vegan diet, reducing plastic use, and pressuring elected officials to take action.

“While individuals can contribute different things, it’s all about governmental change, systemic change in order to combat climate change,” said Sumaiya Sayeed, a Sunrise Movement member and a student at Brown University.

“This is our planet and this is our future and we’re not going to have one if we don’t do this,” said Mirelle Hadley, a senior at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington.

Sunrise Movement activist Yesenia Puebla said politicians such as Raimondo and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., have ignored repeated requests to take steps to address the climate crisis.

“So, I’m willing to be as annoying as possible, disruptive as possible, until my brother has a livable future,” Puebla said of her 11-year-old sibling. “This is a climate emergency and we need to take action now.”

Some 4 million people worldwide joined the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike. The goal, Puebla said, is to have 10 million people in the United States join a strike in 2020.

“We’re going to have a lot of people fighting against us … because no one wants to lose their power and that’s why we’re here ya’ll,” Puebla said from the Statehouse steps.

A climate picket line was created outside the Statehouse as protestors walked through security to enter the building.

During a final rally in the rotunda, protesters chanted “shame” at Raimondo for endorsing a natural-gas cooling project, a facility, they said, will further jeopardize struggling environmental justice neighborhoods along the city’s industrial waterfront. A large photo of Raimondo was unveiled showing her climbing into an SUV and ducking away from a Sept. 9 Sunrise Movement protest at the Statehouse.

“How embarrassing for her that she cannot speak to the youth, that she cannot speak to everyone here today,” Puebla said. “Shame!”

Raimondo was far from the Sept. 20 protest, speaking in Boston at the Horizon 19 conference, a two-day forum that looked to address the climate crisis though corporate and government partnerships.

One of the final speakers, Ayanna Rowe, 17, a student at Classical High School, noted that even young people realize that time is running short.

“The reason I’m here today is because we have 11 years,” Rowe said. “Eleven years is all we have to heal our planet before it’s too late. And even less time for frontline communities. We can’t delay anymore. The time is now.”

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