Young people in San Antonio joined fellow youth climate strikers around the world on Friday and Saturday with rallies and events that also drew the cooperation of many in the local cycling community.
Friday’s and Saturday’s climate rallies at Main Plaza downtown were held in tandem with youth-led climate strikes around the world, timed ahead of a United Nations climate summit in New York. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, has become the face of the movement with her solo demonstrations that culminated in her sailing to the U.S. to address lawmakers last month. “I don’t want you to listen to me,” Thunberg told members of Congress on Wednesday. “I want you to listen to the scientists.”
In San Antonio, the events stood out from previous climate rallies and marches because of the presence of middle school- through college-aged youth. About 100 people attended on Friday and at least 150 on Saturday, with more than half made up of young people.
“I care because our youth generation, which I’m a part of, is about to inherit what is left by the last generation,” said Parth Ghawghawe, 17, a senior who skipped his classes at Brandeis High School to help organize the event. “Personally, I would love to share the beauty of our planet with future generations, but at this rate, it’ll become a story instead of a reality.”
Saturday’s event also included a “die-in” staged by around two dozen cycling advocates. The group, joined by several people on scooters, arrived as climate activists addressed the crowd. Cycling activist Samantha Flores took the microphone to tell of her experiences and led the group in lying down on the plaza in protest of recent deaths and ongoing safety issues for San Antonio cyclists. Flores dedicated the action to Tito Bradshaw, an important figure in local cycling killed in an April hit-and-run.
For Flores, the issue is very real. Riding home from work at night last September, the 24-year-old was hit by two hit-and-run drivers and left for dead with severe injuries. She was only two blocks away from a designated bike lane she would have used on her way home, she said. But, for Flores, bike lanes are not enough.
“The last time I ever saw my body as it was then was in the silhouette of the headlights behind me,” she said, describing her experience. “The fact of the matter is we are not adapting and not growing as our city’s needs grow.”
“We have a two-pronged battle – as far as the cycling community goes – of changing the car culture,” said Bryan Martin, 35 and interim executive director of cycling advocacy group Bike San Antonio. Martin said that inside Loop 410, “we need to lower the speed limits and add protected bike lanes, or both.”
Many among the two dozen cyclists agreed that protected bike lanes are a necessity. “I want the streets safe. I want to be on everyone’s radar [when I ride],” said Lauren Bartholomew, 63.
“I’ve driven a vehicle for more miles than I’ve cycled,” she continued, “and I want every vehicle owner to think … car, pedestrian, scooter, and bicycle. … You have to have all those things in mind … until we get safe bike lanes.”
Die-in organizer Janel Sterbentz, former director of Bike San Antonio, tied the group’s advocacy to that of climate activists. More bike infrastructure means safer streets and encouragement for people to ditch carbon-emitting vehicles, she said.
“Once we make our streets safe, people will feel more comfortable, we’ll get people out exercising,” she said, noting the physical health benefits of pedal-powered transport. “It’s a win-win-win” for the bike community, public health, and the environment.
Martin agreed. “We’re trying to create a coalition between cyclists and people who are involved in the environment,” he said. “We can’t attain our air quality if we don’t put protected bike lanes in. We can’t cut down on congestion and cars unless we make it possible for people to actually ride bikes in the city.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg attended Saturday’s rally, dropping to one knee as the cyclists lay on the ground. “It’s inspiring,” Nirenberg said of the youth climate strikes around the world.
“This is exactly how it starts, and this is exactly what we need,” said Nirenberg, who made pushing for climate action in San Antonio a major policy goal of his first term but has been criticized for some of the concessions made in the current draft of the City-led Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
Before Nirenberg addressed the crowd, some people had taped signs up to the side of the Municipal Plaza Building. “Nirenberg, we know who owns you,” one of the signs read. Nirenberg referenced it in his speech.
“You own me,” Nirenberg said. “The people of this community own me.”
A handful of people in the audience heckled the mayor, with some shouting of “shame,” “shut down the coal plants,” and “hold CPS [Energy] accountable.” Many more in the crowd cheered when Nirenberg urged them to support the passing of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan on Oct. 17.
The plan calls for San Antonio to, by 2050, shift away from fossil fuels enough that the city starts taking in or offsetting as much of the greenhouse gases responsible for rapid global warming as it emits. The newest draft of the plan has been criticized by some environmental and social justice groups for dropping many of the details about how this could be achieved.
“Keep the pressure on,” Nirenberg said, when asked how people can translate the weekend’s enthusiasm into real change. “Help circle the allies and repel the forces of regression on this issue because we know every day there are people with malintent trying to twist the cause of climate change for their own political purposes.”
Briauna Barrera, a San Antonio organizer who’s been working to spur the City to action on climate, said young people’s enthusiasm for the recent rounds of climate protests is “almost a matter of zeitgeist.”
“It’s super gratifying to see that energy there, especially in San Antonio where sometimes the movements feel kind of stagnant,” said Barerra, 24.
The sprawling city’s physical separations and lack of convenient public transit make it difficult to gather large groups in public spaces, she said, adding that much of the history of social change in San Antonio and the figures who fought for it have been forgotten or obscured.
“There have been these great movements in San Antonio, like the pecan-sheller’s strike with Emma Tenayuca, but it’s almost like that great radical organizing history is suppressed so that people don’t even know their own organizing roots,” she continued. “Robert E. Lee had a freakin’ high school named after him; there’s no Emma Tenayuca high school.”
Senior reporter Iris Dimmick contributed to this story.