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Truants on a mission: Berlin’s Fridays For Future

Every Friday, more and more youngsters skip school to join the global strike for climate change. As tens of thousands of under-age Berliners take to the streets, we meet the students behind the local movement.

Image for Truants on a mission: Berlin’s Fridays For Future

Photo by Devin Rüzgar

Every Friday, more and more youngsters skip school to join the global strike for climate change. As tens of thousands of under-age Berliners take to the streets, we meet the students behind the local movement.

Between Hamburger Bahnhof and the Natural History Museum sits Invalidenpark, a rather inconspicuous, bland patch of concrete and grass. Walk past the ‘park’ on a Friday at noon, however, regardless of gale-force winds or pouring rain, and you’ll see several hundred kids gathered there, armed with an array of colourful placards declaring “What I stand for is what I stand on”, “It’s getting hot in here so take off all your coals” or “There is no planet B”, and breaking into chants of “We are here, we are loud, because you are stealing our future”, as film crews and journalists buzz around them.

This is Fridays For Future Berlin, a weekly two-hour ‘school strike’ that raises awareness of climate change and protests against political inaction. It’s the city’s own incarnation of the global movement inspired by Sweden’s 16-year-old climate activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Greta Thunberg. In Berlin, the demonstrations attract between 500 and 1000 students on a regular week and erupt into tens of thousands in larger monthly protests. On March 15, in the campaign’s third-largest protest in Europe after Brussels and Paris, some 20,000 kids (under 20,000 according to police, over 25,000 according to organisers) and supportive adults marched to the Bundeskanzleramt and back, in a huge display of festive solidarity, while the neighbouring Natural History Museum opened its doors to the students with free water and round tables with scientists. Not surprising perhaps, for a city that has voted the Green Party into its Senat (according to recent surveys over one fifth of Berliners would vote green if elections took place now) and in which demonstrations against nuclear energy and coal draw huge crowds – the recent Wir haben es satt protest against industrial meat counted up to 30,000 people. It seems that in Berlin, Fridays For Future can only get bigger.

Image for Truants on a mission: Berlin’s Fridays For Future

22-year-old Luisa Neubauer is the figurehead of Fridays For Future Berlin, Germany’s answer to Greta Thunberg. Photo by Alexa Vachon

While Thunberg is and remains the global inspiration of the movement, its public face in Germany is Luisa Neubauer, a 22-year-old Hamburg-born student in Geography that splits her time between her Göttingen University and her activist work in Berlin. The pair met in Poland last December at the UN Climate Change Conference COP 24, where Thunberg famously shamed world leaders for their inaction, accusing them of behaving irresponsibly and stealing her generation’s future. Thunberg, whose Asperger’s syndrome allows her to see the climate crisis with “black and white” clarity, as she herself describes, had sat outside the Swedish parliament every Friday since August. This sparked an unprecedented youth movement in over 125 countries across the continents. “I was there in Katowice as one of Germany’s youth observers, and when I heard Greta, I was immediately taken. I was also frustrated because it was becoming clear that Germany won’t reach its 2020 target to bring down greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, purely because of the government’s lack of commitment. Her Friday strikes inspired me,” says Neubauer, who helped Thunberg and her dad handle the overwhelming media attention during the conference. “It was such huge pressure: everyone wanted to get a piece of her, she was really struggling with that.” Neubauer wasn’t new to the climate cause: following an internship with Greenpeace Magazine in 2014, she’s since been an active member of the Göttingen chapter of Fossil Free Deutschland and has contributed blogs for the German Huffington Post. But meeting Thunberg prompted her to change strategies: back in Germany after the UN conference, Neubauer rapidly mobilised peers through a stream of texts, emails and phone calls to friends, pulling together a 300-strong protest outside the Reichstag the following Friday, December 14, 2018. At this time, environmental fervour was already spreading across Germany, and 14 other cities held their own strikes that day.

WhatsApp to the rescue

Neubauer now works 15-hour days attending climate conferences, speaking on news programmes and lending her (photogenic) face to the protest (interestingly, from France and Portugal to Kenya and the US, it’s young women headlining the movement). So she needs help with coordinating the protests. The Berlin organising team currently counts between 10 and 15 members, mostly ‘older’ activists, i.e. university students with more time to dedicate to the cause and fewer restrictions in terms of parent or school permission. Moritz, a Berliner on a break from his degree in International Affairs, is one of them. “I am so excited; this is the first big social movement of its kind. It’s so inspiring to see nine and 10-year-olds with their hand-drawn signs asking adults to ‘grow up’ and stop messing with their future!” he beams. (Less inspiring are the online trolls and hate campaigns launched against his fellow organisers, indicative of how much attention the movement is receiving, and the reason Moritz prefers not to release his surname.) It’s a sunny day in February, and it feels so warm outside that the 21-year-old is only wearing a t-shirt – a sign of the global scourge to come? “Clearly, there’s no time to waste,” he says, relishing the vindictive weather conditions, while explaining the complexity of planning such largescale protests; there are currently 50 WhatsApp chats for Berlin, consisting of info channels, topical discussions and logistical planning. “The size of the city is a very relevant factor for our mobilisation,” Neubauer points out. While some parents accompany their children, many involved in their own Parents For Future groups, “seven-year-old kids can’t always take the U-Bahn by themselves to get to the protest. So we’re asking people to travel together from meeting points in individual districts.”

We are the first generation that will feel the harmful effects of climate change, and the last generation that will be able to do something about it.”

Moritz’s first strike was on January 25, when over 10,000 protestors came together at Invalidenpark on the day the Coal Commission met: the conference determining how Germany will phase out its coal industry. A complete coal-exit by 2030, not 2038 as the government has extended it to, is a cause particularly close to the heart of the Berlin group. At the strikes, kids bounce up and down chanting “Hey! Hey! Wer nicht hüpft, der ist für Kohle!” (“If you don’t jump, you’re for coal!”) in order to keep warm. The typical Friday demonstrations at Invalidenpark are set up like an open mic, where students, including younger ones, take it in turns to make speeches, while the crowd stays energised through dancing, bubble displays and songs. The reason for their attendance is simple; “we are the first generation that will feel the harmful effects of climate change, and the last generation that will be able to do something about it”, says one of the students in the crowd. Or, as 12-year-old Antoni puts it: “If we carry on going as we are, humanity will rot, which is stupid.”

A bio-bobo movement?

In her signature consensual style, Chancellor Angela Merkel benevolently called Fridays For Future “a very good initiative”, but Moritz and his gang are wary of politicians paying nothing more than lip service to their demands: “We don’t just want them to use us for their image.” His views seem to echo the same clarity Thunberg is bringing to the climate crisis: “We’re not linked to any political party and we’re not looking to win politicians votes or popularity. We’re not extremists or immature kids. Our demands are not controversial at all; campaigning to stop humanity’s extinction isn’t such an extreme thing, is it?” Moritz says. For Tadzio Müller, a climate expert who also works with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, it’s this earnestness and integrity that sets these activists apart. “These kids remind us that we’re fucked. As a movement, we’ve been saying that for 10 years, but we don’t get anywhere near as far as these kids do. They’re not a movement, they’re a generation. And it’s kids who can articulate a radical rejection of the status quo without getting stuck in ideological categories that so often consume the left.” In response to the criticism that bio produce, Ökostrom and clean cars are for bourgeois bohemians, and that only the privileged class can afford to lash out at a system they themselves profited from (Neubauer grew up in a well-off suburb of Hamburg, a fact that didn’t escape some uncharitable commentators), they offer up their innocence: they’re the guilt-free generation. They’re not responsible for a fossil-fuel-based system sustained by the dirtiest coal on earth, excavated in Germany’s open-pit lignite mines. Unlike the privileged adults of the ruling class, they can hold the gaze of Lausitz mine workers anxious to lose their jobs with the righteous determination of the innocent fighting for their own future. Müller sums it up: “Try and talk to a 12-year-old about industrial jobs in the Lausitz or Rhineland. You’re basically telling them, we don’t want to talk about your future, we want to talk about our present.”

Friday skive-day

This didn’t prevent Germany’s Education and Research Minister Anja Karliczek and her colleague in charge of Economy and Energy Affairs Peter Altmaier (both members of the conservative CDU) from urging students to demonstrate in their free time rather than during school hours, arguing this would exhibit a higher level of commitment. “But we’re not just skipping lessons,” 15-year-old Nele explains. “We are making a sacrifice by doing this during school time, rather than at the weekend when we’re free. We have to make up for our lessons, so it shows politicians how much climate change means to us.” Her friend Masha, who attends the Louise-Henriette-Gymnasium in Oranienburg, says that she and her classmates are risking “black marks” for every missed class, and that her school even purposefully scheduled exams on Fridays to penalise them. But Kira* and her five classmates, all 10th graders at Berlin’s Französische Gymnasium, don’t feel the same pressure: “As long as our parents can excuse our absence, we’re fine. The only problem is that there are classes we only have on Fridays… But overall, although they don’t really say it, I think that our teachers are mostly supportive.” As a matter of fact, the Berlin branch of the German teachers’ union GEW has spoken out in favour of the strikes, pointing to the educational value of Fridays For Future, both as curriculum learning material and as an empirical experience of one’s right to freedom of expression and assembly.

The real pros

Last month when Christian Lindner, head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), stated that climate change prevention should be left to Profis (“professionals”) and urged children to return to the classroom, his comments were met with a torrent of outrage across Twitter and other media. Many responses paralleled Thunberg’s emphatic dismissal of those professionals in power who “have not done their homework”, leaving her generation with the task of propelling them to do what needs to be done to save the planet. For Moritz, it’s clear: “The solutions to climate change are already out there; it’s up to us to push through the science.” In March, the movement acquired the backing of the actual ‘pros’ with 23,000 leading scientists in Germany, Switzerland and Austria uniting under the banner Scientists 4 Future, and signing a petition in support of the strikes. “We are the ‘Profis’ and we’re saying the young generation is right. And it is courageous of them to miss school,” explains Volker Quaschning of Berlin’s Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft. The Natural History Museum also supports the cause with their Naturkundemuseum For Future discussions and their open door policy during the strikes. But the ultimate highlight for the Berlin team is the prospect of Thunberg’s long-awaited visit on March 29. Brussels and Paris have already been graced with the motivational presence of the iconic global leader, and Berliners are expecting numbers to reach historic highs. “Greta’s charisma, global standing and clear message will have an even greater impact on our movement, I’m pretty sure of that”, says Neubauer. She hopes that, ultimately, every student in the city will be out striking each week: “We will not stop until the government has a clear plan for the climate in order to limit global warming to the agreed 1.5 degrees.”

*name changed.