Op-Ed: A day of juxtaposition

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 3:54pm

On Friday, March 15, one week ago today, I participated in the Washtenaw County Climate Strike, one of more than 2,000 global climate strikes across more than 125 countries with an estimated 1.4 million people.

It was a day that touched every part of the emotional spectrum — eliciting hope, frustration, inspiration, anxiety, compassion and fear.

It was a day that started with more than 2,500 high schoolers, college students and community members walking out of their classes and obligations to demand real climate action for a livable future. These demonstrators stood in the rain and the cold, clinging to every word of nationally-known politicians like Abdul El-Sayed to 12-year-old students from a local middle school.

The passion of the speakers was met unbroken and undimmed, even as the rain started. Demonstrators held umbrellas right along with signs reading, “My future is not for sale, why go to class when the world is burning?" and “Carbon neutrality by 2030."

It was a day that brought the streets of downtown Ann Arbor to a halt as hundreds marched through them.

It was a day that packed the University of Michigan's Fleming Administration Building with protesters demanding climate action and transparency.

And it was a day that ended with the arrests of 10 individuals, including two high school students, who sat peacefully in University President Mark Schlissel’s office, asking only for a public and unfiltered meeting between the president and his community.

Walking home at 10 p.m. after the walk-out, rally, march and sit-in, I realized that above all, it was a day of stark juxtaposition between the undeterred passion of everyone involved in the day-long event and the refusal of the administration to grant the simplest of requests. It was a split between the peaceful protests of brave individuals and the escalation to arrests by the administration. It was divided between the fury of the generation who will live their lives in a world forever altered by climate change and the disrespect and disinterest of the generation in power.

At 1:30 p.m., the sit-in began with the reading of our demands, which we had reduced to a single phrase: “a just transition to true carbon neutrality by 2030.” The request was ignored — Schlissel was “out of town,” something that I found out is not uncommon when his students are demanding change.

At 4 p.m., we presented our immediate ask to the administration: an agreement to schedule a public, one hour, unfiltered, student-moderated, open-to-the-press meeting between the community and Schlissel. We agreed to leave if we got it.

I thought we would be out by 4:15 p.m., but the administration refused to commit to a meeting. They even refused to tell us whether or not Schlissel had been spoken to.

At 5 p.m., the building closed and we were threatened with arrest if we stayed.

At 7:45 p.m., after over six hours of peacefully sitting-in, a University police sergeant came in and threatened arrest to whoever remained inside the building at 8 p.m.

As about 50 young people filed out of the office, a contingent of 10 remained, standing silently.

At 8 p.m., the police arrested them, one by one, including two high school aged minors, whom the police detained and illegally questioned until their parents arrived.

Not willing to risk arrest, I walked down the stairs of the Administration Building and outside into the cold Friday night. I felt incredibly defeated.

If the University of Michigan — one of the top, most forward thinking and leading research universities in the world — cannot agree to a one-hour, transparent meeting to openly discuss its current climate policies, how will we ever fix our current climate crisis?

If the University of Michigan escalates to arrest when its students voice their opinion, how can we inspire action?

My sense of defeat began to recede, however, as I saw those who chose not to get arrested standing in the cold Friday night air and cheering in support until every individual was released. The longer I watched this group of strangers waiting in solidarity outside the Administration Building with undimmed and infinite optimism and compassion, the more my sense of defeat yielded to stronger feelings of hope, vigor and renewed energy.

It was inspiring being surrounded by those willing to risk the repercussions of walking out of class and work, by those willing to give up their day and night to sit in the president’s office for six and a half hours and by those were willing to put their bodies, their safety and their futures on the line to demonstrate their frustration with the utter inadequacy of the University's climate action.

It was inspiring to join a long history of sit-ins and direct action, particularly by indigenous people and people of color.

If you feel defeated, inspired, invigorated or scared, please reach out to me and see how you can get involved. We need everyone.

We are the generation that will live with the detrimental effects of climate change. We are the generation that will have to tell our kids what coral reefs used to look like and explain that many of the animals seen in children’s books have disappeared. We will be the generation who will see the already-existing systems of inequality exacerbated by climate change. We are the generation that will see the cities we’ve grown up in slowly washed away by the rising seas.

We are also the generation that will not sit quietly and wait until this future becomes the present. We will fight with the compassion, the perseverance, the solidarity, the love and the desire that carried us through this entire day. We will continue to sit in the president's office until we ensure that the University does its part in creating a clean and just future for all. Join us.

Julian Hansen is a member of the Climate Action Movement at the University of Michigan, and part of the organizing team for the Washtenaw County Climate Strike. Email: hansju@umich.edu