Throughout history student protests have been instrumental in driving social and political change. Young student demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa drew global attention to the plight of black people and ignited similar protests by students across the world that helped to result in international sanctions. In turn, these sanctions played a key role in dismantling the apartheid government.
Today, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have walked out of their classes to join a worldwide climate strike amid growing anger at the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating environmental crisis. The question about the merits of young people protesting raises its head once more.
Few would disagree that climate change is the biggest existential threat humanity faces. Too often politicians remain focused only on their current term in office and on short-term policymaking to meet the immediate concerns of citizens and ensure they get re-elected. We need braver politicians to rise to the challenge of averting climate catastrophe – and to cooperate to keep global warming below 1.5C – by reimagining some of the unsustainable assumptions that underpin our economy. That includes making the case to the public that this will help us all, taking on powerful vested interests along the way.
This may well be the main lesson to take away from Brexit. Whichever way we voted, the narrative pursued by many – media and politicians alike – over the past few decades promoted the negatives and short-term effects of being in the EU more than the benefits of staying in. When the time to vote came, it should not have been a great surprise that so many wanted to leave. The referendum was decided not in 2016, but by a political culture set fast in the decades before it.
'Education through meaningful protest'
We can learn lessons from this in tackling climate change. Seemingly radical and bold policies which would mean we would have to change the way our economy works in the short term would require a break, perhaps an unpopular break, from the status quo – but it would benefit us and future generations in the long term. Are our politicians prepared to make the difficult arguments and take on vested interests, like those from the fossil fuel industry? Are we prepared to do what is needed and vote to save the planet for our children and grandchildren?
Despite some politicians scoffing at most of the students demonstrating – claiming that they were there simply to avoid “double maths” – one day is never going to be a deal breaker when it comes to a student’s future grades. And, by striking on a school day, they got the national and international coverage they needed. This not only increased the debate among students about climate change but, at a time when media coverage is dominated by Brexit, they managed to move the debate in the mainstream media. It was an operation that any leading public relations firm would have been proud of.
The impact of these student demonstrations should not be marred by the very small number who protested in the wrong way I have witnessed first-hand the enthusiasm of students protesting when I, in my youth, organised protests for international causes for justice and, in particular, against the illegal war in Iraq. From experience, I can tell you that you can never be in a position to manage all protesters, and you can only do your best, using stewards who are volunteers. Even though I – along with other protest organisers – would always condemn the actions of the unhelpful minorities, such condemnations are not always reported. This can be frustrating, as it detracts from the arguments being made about why you are protesting in the first place.
I am confident that today's student protests will lead to the promotion of the same values of integration and inclusion I learned. The power of uniting and bringing together people from all backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, faiths and no faith around one uniting issue cannot be underestimated. It enables young people to look beyond their conscious and unconscious bias, to meet people they would never normally encounter and, despite their differences, learn they have more in common with each other than what divides them.
This lesson cannot be taught in the classroom. However, by uniting over global issues that impact all of them, it can also help them understand the local issues they are facing – from poverty to knife crime. Protests, then, can be seen as part and parcel of what makes us a healthy democracy. The right to protest, the right to assembly and to freedom of speech were hard-won, and have been even harder to hold on to. To look down on, or to discourage our young people from such a seminal moment in their engagement with the democratic process, and their rights as citizens, rights that are not afforded to many of their counterparts across the world, is short-sighted.
Unlike the anti-Iraq War protests, however, which, of course, did not prevent the war, I ask myself if this latest wave will lead to the real change needed to save the planet, or if, by the time protesters change the mindset of the country, it will be too late?
Education through meaningful protest can become the most powerful tool to bring about real change in the world. Young people throughout history, from the civil rights movement to the Velvet Revolution, and more recently the movement for gun control by schoolchildren in America, have always been at the forefront of the fight. Their protests have helped to shift attention to issues of global injustice and, in many cases, helped to change them.
Are we and our political leaders listening to them and, if we don’t, how will this affect both their future behaviour and the ability to effect change in society as a whole?
Harris Bokhari is a national board member of Mosaic – The Prince’s Trust mentoring programme, and founder of the Naz Legacy Foundation