Report from Berlin – 25,000 Confront Politicians on Climate Change in “Fridays for Future” Protest with Greta Thunberg

Everyone knows going to school on a Friday can be a drag, but for thousands of students in Berlin this past Friday, March 29th, the reason for abandoning their typical class routine was much more meaningful than a simple escape from studies and homework.  As part of the larger ongoing “Fridays for Future” movement, the protests in the German capital are a weekly occurrence, and are meant to pressure politicians to react immediately and drastically to address the threat of global climate change. However, this week was somewhat unique, as the crowd of largely young protesters were joined by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish environmental activist making international headlines as the inspiration behind the Fridays for Future movement.

Around 25,000 protestors gathered at 10 a.m. near the central train station in Invaliden Park, which is sandwiched between the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (“Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie”) and the Federal Ministry for Transport & Digital Infrastructure (“Bundesministerium für Verkehr und digitale Infrastruktur”). This location was strategically chosen in order to ensure the sight of the crowd and the sounds of its chants were inescapable for ministry officials. The presence of police as a security measure contrasted with the almost festival-like atmosphere of the event. Various orators, including a host of activists and students, gave enthusiastic and compelling speeches, while musicians also had their turn in front of the amassed audience, as musicals performances ranging from hip hop, ska, folk, and funk had most of the crowd dancing and singing along. Following this sort of celebrative opening, the event then took to the streets, as protesters began the march to the Brandenburg Gate, where the final rally was to be held.

The path of the march went through several blocks of central Berlin, and included walking past the Bundestag as a means of sending a message to German leaders, particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel. A plethora of clever homemade signs were waved as marchers progressed, with a personally favorite of mine being one inscribed with, “Gandalf wouldn’t let this happen!” As protestors screamed chants of “We are here, we are here, because you are robbing our future!” (“Wir sind hier, wir sind laut, weil ihr unsere Zukunft raubt!”), on-lookers and bystanders watched the spectacle with emotions ranging from admiration and sympathy to amusement and bewilderment. Despite the intimidating size of the crowd, there was also a sense of joviality and unity amongst participants that could not go unnoticed. From young to old, one issue has brought these people together, and one goal drives them: to protect the planet for future generations.

The protestors’ march ended in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, which saw the main event of the day, Greta Thunberg’s speech. Preceding speakers stressed the necessity of climate action on an international level, and, in particular, the importance of upcoming European elections. Nevertheless, the crowd was preoccupied by the presence of the international starlet of their movement, Thunberg. Her brief, yet heartfelt speech began with a fairly ominous statement: “the older generations have failed tackling the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” She criticized the indifferent attitude taken by public leaders towards global climate change, and stressed the need for humanity to evolve in its collective behavior. She finished her speech with a promise to continue in relentless activism, saying, “this is only the beginning of the beginning. Trust me.”

The conclusion of Thunberg’s address was followed by the gradual dispersion of most of the crowd, and march attendee Angelina Göschl, a student in Education for Sustainable Development at Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, saw value in the protests as a means of pressing policy and was impressed its organization. However, she also expressed some concerns, stating, “the participants in these protests are growing, and, in this context, it seems to affect a change. But still, in my opinion, the politicians do not take the students seriously enough. To influence policy, it is necessary to get more groups engaged, such as parents, employers, and so on.”

Indeed, whether or not, or to what degree, this movement will truly influence the attitudes and actions of policy makers remains to be seen, as the institutional and political barriers to change are considerable. Nevertheless, Thunberg and her supporters hope a consistent and passionate voice of civil outrage can prove to be a catalyst for the sort of imminent and transformative adjustments necessary to adequately address the global climate crisis.

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Graham Gibson is a second-year MPP student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy from the United States. He specializes in International Political Economy and Public & Non-Profit Management and has a Bachelor's in History from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He served as a staff writer for his college newspaper and worked at two non-profit research institutes during his time as an undergraduate. He currently serves as a student assistant and editor for the WBS blog. His areas of interest include governance, sustainability, economic and financial policy, history, and urban development.