Yesterday’s third march for the climate in Brussels set a new record for attendance, as we report elsewhere. And the movement is not only growing in scope, but also in weight. Increasingly, school authorities are making allowances for students who take time off classes to attend the demonstrations, for example by making arrangements for catch-up study at other times. The tertiary education students – from universities and colleges – who grew the numbers from last week’s 12,500 to 35,000 yesterday, are themselves in the middle of exams, so were giving up their own revision time rather than actual classes.
The growth in numbers has been overwhelming in the short time the marches have been taking place – a tenfold increase in only two weeks. And praise has come from two important sources, the one more improbable than the other.
“I support the demonstrations of these young people,” commented Marie-Christine Marghem, federal environment minister, interviewed by the RTBF. “Sometimes civil disobedience is necessary.” The youth movement made her feel a kind of “motivating pressure,” she said.
“We want to move more rapidly, and with the pressure that is being exerted, more and more ministers will become conscious of the urgency of the situation,” she said.
For Professor Fons Van Dyck of the Free University of Brussels (VUB) the movement corresponds to the typical 10-90 pattern of social movements, where 10% are leaders and 90% followers. “The 3,000 of two weeks ago are the 10%,” he wrote. And there is fertile ground for growth.
“One in two Belgians are anti-establishment,” he said. “People have lost faith in the established systems.” The catalyst, he said, was the march in December for climate action, where 75,000 people took to the streets, while the following week in Poland government representatives voted against several important issues.
Finally, he compared the students’ movement to the anti-nuclear weapons demonstrations of the 1980s, the largest of which, in 1983, drew a public of 350,000, still the largest march to take place in Belgium.
Meanwhile Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is recognised by the Belgian movement as its spiritual inspiration, took to Twitter to praise her Belgian counterparts.
“A Belgian journalist just told me 35000 students are school striking in Brussels today.! Heroes!#ClimateStrike #Fridaysforfuture #schoolstrike4climate,” she tweeted. Thunberg strikes every week on a Friday in Stockholm for the same aims as the Belgian movement, until now led by 17-year-old Anuna De Wever.
As the main demonstration was taking place in Brussels – without incident, police said – similar gathering were being held in other parts of the country.
About 700 school students marched in Namur, and about 2,000 in Liege, where mayor Willy Demeyer said he would be willing to meet participants. In Antwerp (photo) 500 students gathered, while in Lier in Antwerp province, police carried out an action aimed at catching truants – but the action was not, a police spokesperson stressed, aimed at climate marchers.