What we have done to them

a dog wears a sign that says "I'm a dog and even I know this is fucked"

Thousands of people didn’t go to work or college or school that day just to be there. Not just in Berlin but worldwide. They were taking a stand – striking not to teach their employers or teachers a lesson but rather to make it clear to the most powerful people in the world that regular schmoes aren’t going to shut up until something is done about the climate crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people disrupting the rhythm of the city to drum the message out with the sound of their feet. And then also me, who doesn’t work Fridays and so just merrily popped over to the strike without disruping anything, like a snivelling little fraud.

I find crowds unnerving and confusing at the best of times. I always feel like there is a hive-mind style synchronicity happening that my body refuses to join. On the big stage by the Brandenburg Gate, the performers were yelling instructions: “Clap your hands! Now step to the right! Now step to the left! Now jump, jump, jump for climate justice!” My arms and legs paralysed, I simply stood awkwardly with bad posture in a nervous sweat, praying for these moments to end. The band called for us all to turn around and high-five the people next to us. I looked to my side and saw several friendly, smiling teens all high-five each other and then turn to me; they smacked my hand in turn and we grinned at each other as if we really were making new friends.

Chants began and petered out, but my face wouldn’t make the shapes and sounds it needed to; I was terrified I would do something wrong, shout too loud or sound too whiney, thus alerting the thousands of people around me to the fact that there was a useless wet flannel in their midst. I had crippling visions of me suddenly breaking and joining the chant, my voice a deafening reedy yelp, and then of the people around me becoming suddenly silent, all glaring at me for spoiling the mood and momentum. So I kept quiet; my protest was simply to be physically there, moving with the swarm. I wanted to sink into the crowd and be individually invisible, like one single speck of colour in a pointillist painting.

This was also the point, because the adults there were really just the background scenery; the main players were the children at the protest – a phrase I never expected to type. But there were so freaking many children there, and they were having a freaking amazing time. I have never seen so many kids in one place so visibly relishing every moment of a day out. Smaller kids were running around flinging their signs about with reckless abandon, not caring whose eye they would put out as warned by their prescient parents. Teenagers were sharing snacks in their friendship groups, snaking through the forest of people, hand in hand, playing their favourite tunes on their bluetooth speakers. Babies – hundreds of babies, toted around in papooses, on their parents’ backs and fronts, miraculously calm and relaxed despite being flanked by bellowing adults. This was a protest for the children, holistically and practically.

a balloon which says "free the air"

Even the chants sounded like something from an after-school TV ‘fun club’: we were encouraged to hop up and down to the chant of “Hopp hopp hopp, Kohle stopp” (‘Hop hop hop, stop coal’) or to jump around while screaming “Hey hey, ho ho, wer nicht hüpft, der ist für Kohle” (‘If you don’t jump then you’re pro-coal’). I was having vivid flashbacks of teaching English to kindergarteners, leaping around and teaching them rhymes to help them learn the farmyard animals. Some groups of young schoolkids had managed to procure loudspeakers and were stomping along together, endlessly repeating the chants at an eardrum-crackling volume, clearly ecstatic with the euphoria of childhood anarchy.

One kid had a sign that said “Why should I spend my final years at school?”. I wondered whether she had come up with that herself or whether one of her parents had made the suggestion to her. I wondered if her mother’s stomach turned when her daughter wrote that on the cardboard, just like mine did when I read it. Other children held signs that said things like “Save our future” or “The earth is getting fried!”. I wondered whether these children had been able to internalise the idea that they might not have a future on this planet or whether these were just words they had on a piece of cardboard. Could I imagine being aware of my own fairly imminent doom at the age of twelve? Would I have been able to comprehend that idea? These kids were smiling and laughing, but they did seem angry. But the general hyperactive mania of children does present very similarly to rage.

As we marched through Tiergarten, I fell into step with a group of teens who were playing some classic German grunge on their bluetooth speaker. One of the girls put on the beloved track “Schrei Nach Liebe” by Die Ärzte and they all started singing along, grinning, giggling. Suddenly another person in their group interrupted the tune sesh and started roaring a protest chant with their maximum lung capacity, and everyone else left off singing to join in chanting. They shouted for half a minute or so, then broke off, laughing, and went back to singing.

All these lovely, cheerful, silly, wild kids, having to protest because we are telling them that they are in grave danger. Schoolkids and teens listening to speeches about the literal collapse of civilisation. One Swedish kid dedicating her pubescent years, years that should be spent messing around making bad hairstyle choices and doodling on her notepad covers, travelling endlessly and working tirelessly to tell everyone else how direly we need to change. Her pigtails are so cute and so fun, but her face is so, so serious.

How will we ask them for forgiveness for what we did to them?

Rose T