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Thousands of Portland High School Students March to City Hall to Call for Climate Justice

Five plastic chairs labeled for each of the city commissioners went unoccupied throughout the march.

Thousands of students marched to Portland City Hall on Friday, as part of a Global Youth Climate Strike organized by Fridays for the Future, an organization started by Greta Thunberg.

Students arrived in clusters after walking out of class to the Oregon Convention Center at 11 am. Signs read: “The world should never be hotter than Danny DeVito” or “Sex! Now that I have your attention: Save our planet.”

But the underlying message was serious.

Another sign read, “You’ll die of old age, I’ll die of climate change.”

This was the first major climate march since September 2019, in which an estimated 7.6 million demonstrators participated globally. Just like two years ago, Friday’s event was a worldwide effort with marches in 80 countries, such as Bangladesh, Uganda, Poland and Argentina. (Thunberg spoke in Berlin, where 100,000 people participated in the strike.)

Since 2019, the climate landscape has changed. A record-breaking heat wave enveloped Portland, leaving 67 Portlanders dead. A pandemic beleaguered small businesses, and racial justice protests turned downtown into a wasteland last summer.

This strike wholeheartedly acknowledged these changes. Before leaving the Convention Center, everyone was asked to mask up (a request followed nearly universally) and maintain social distance to the best of their abilities.

“I hope that they’ll see that we still care about the climate and that COVID didn’t make us not care anymore,” said Anna Latterll, a sophomore at Franklin High School.

The demands set by Portland Youth Climate Strike are lofty goals: a complete switch to green infrastructure in Portland, clean and secure housing for everyone currently living on Portland’s streets, and for the city to cut down its reliance on fossil fuels.

Some mentioned the proposed expansion of Interstate 5 through the Rose Quarter, which advocates say would disrupt a majority Black neighborhood that was already ravaged once by the construction of I-5 in the 1970s.

At City Hall, seats set up for Mayor Ted Wheeler and other elected officials remained empty for the remainder of the event. But that did not prevent speakers from conveying the urgency of climate change to the crowd.

“Last September, a little over a year ago, wildfires swept Oregon. In Portland, we were about 22 miles from the fires,” said Naomi, a 15-year-old climate organizer with Sunrise PDX as she spoke at City Hall. “We weren’t extremely close but they felt close. They felt close as anxiety and fear needled me. They felt close because their smoke was polluting the air.”

The protest wasn’t just about climate change, though. Many signs and speakers called for the intersection of climate and racial justice.

“We must constantly remember that white climate leaders are constantly being centered at the front of the movement,” said Danny Cage, an organizer for NAACP Portland and the Sunrise Movement. “Stuff that nowadays white climate leaders have been saying about our environment being destroyed is what people of color and Indigenous people, not just in America but across the world, have been saying for forever.”

Another student brought up animal rights.

“I believe we believe we’re the dominant species and we don’t share this planet with other living organisms,” said Hayleigh Roth, a senior at Cleveland High School. “That’s not true at all. I would like to see us do our part, and take responsibility and protect the planet.”

Overwhelmingly, students expressed unending frustration at the current response to the climate crisis.

“I’m sick and tired of all the rich billionaires out there doing absolutely nothing to stop it,” said Iain Traylen, an eighth grader at Pacific Crest Community School.

But Friday’s protest was also a message of hope to some.

“I’m definitely concerned and [climate change] is something that I dwell on and it stresses me out,” said Luke Hendrickson, a junior at Grant High School. “But seeing all these students today has given me hope that we can actually make change and solve all of these issues.”