December 11, 2019

Students Combat Violence, Climate Change

CLIMATE STRIKERS: About 40 students and other local residents gathered in Hinds Plaza on Friday, December 6, joining an international strike to protest inaction in the face of climate change. A lockdown at Princeton High School due to a swatter threat prevented many students from attending the rally.

By Donald Gilpin

Combating both “generalized violence” and climate change, all in the same day, may have become the new normal for high school students.

At least that’s what many at Princeton High School (PHS) faced last Friday, as students, slated to lead a mid-day climate strike in downtown Princeton, found that a call to the school threatening “generalized violence,” according to the Princeton Police Department (PPD), necessitated a shelter in place until the school’s 3 p.m. dismissal time.

The announcement of a district-wide lockdown came at around 11:15 a.m. during lunch at PHS, where Junior Nate Howard, Princeton Student Climate Initiative member and a leader of the climate rally, was, ironically, attending a lunch meeting of the PHS branch of March For Our Lives, a student-led group that supports legislation to prevent gun violence.

According to Howard, the threat was announced just as the group was discussing how a broad decision striking down gun control could lead to more shootings. “What you might expect when there’s an announcement that lunch is over and we need to be in locked classrooms is chaos,” Howard said. “Yet, in some ways, it’s a bad sign that, instead, staff and students reacted calmly because we’ve been through this before.”

He continued, “We’ve grown up normalized to the threat of school violence, and we do regularly-scheduled lockdown drills. The lack of hysteria shows that we’ve become normalized to this violence. Schools shouldn’t face these kinds of threats. They should be places of safety and learning.”

The PPD determined that there was no current threat at PHS, but they remained on site at the high school and maintained a presence at other district schools as well. “The threat was non-specific and our investigation continues,”
said PPD Chief Nick Sutter.

After-school and evening activities on Friday went on as planned, with a police presence on and around campus. Police stated that the anonymous call, which reported a potential threat, originated outside of Princeton.

The state chapter of March for Our Lives tweeted, “This is just a small reminder of what life is like for American students. We are not safe and we need change.”

A March for Our Lives PHS statement added, “This is why we need common-sense gun laws, both in New Jersey and nationally.” The organization advocates
raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, banning assault weapons, strengthening background checks, and enacting comprehensive gun control legislation at the federal level since 80 percent of New Jersey’s gun deaths are caused by guns from out of state.

Climate Strike

Meanwhile the student climate strike, somewhat diminished in the absence of the PHS students who hadn’t been able to leave the locked down building after 11:15 a.m., continued unabated in Princeton’s Hinds Plaza adjacent to the Princeton Public Library.

As world leaders gathered at the United Nations’ annual climate conference in Madrid and young people protested across the country, about 40 Princeton participants, many with posters bearing demands such as “Climate Justice Now,” “Take Ownership of Our Future,” “Stop Compressor Station 206,” and “Save Our Planet,” listened to speeches by a handful of speakers calling for action.

Proposing a call to action to stop using plastic bags, Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice Chief Activist Robt Seda-Schreiber stated, “We feel overwhelmed and helpless at the worst possible time. We must rally and prevail for our children and grandchildren.”

PHS junior and rally co-leader Martin Mastnak, who was able to exit PHS before the lockdown, urged the protesters, “The movement for climate justice involves social and political justice. We will keep fighting. Unless we together bring climate justice to those suffering most today, we will all suffer together tomorrow.”

Warning of imminent dangers from global warming, local ninth-grader and environmental activist Zahra Loue noted, “Climate change is killing our planet. I want the people in power to do something. Climate action needs to happen now. Climate justice needs to happen now. Time is running out. You need to stop thinking about your money and think about the earth.”

Sustainable Princeton Executive Director Molly Jones cited the Princeton Climate Action Plan as “a great step forward.” She continued, “Now we need to carry out the actions to support that plan, to reduce emissions and make our community more resilient.” She urged the audience to contact state legislators in support of the bill to ban plastic bags, which is currently being deliberated in the state senate.

Other speakers included Central Jersey Environmental Defender Outreach Coordinator Linda Powell, who called for widespread opposition to natural gas pipeline projects in the state, and representatives for the Eastern Service Workers, who advocate for low income workers who are hit hardest by extreme weather events, which are increasing due to climate change.

Lee Clark, Phillipsburg City councilman and watershed uutreach manager at the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, spoke to the gathering about the urgency for taking action and holding the legislature accountable.

“We are the generation that will stop climate change,” he said. “Movements like this are significant not only for the reasons we organize, but for who we organize. It’s very rare to see a movement like this led by young people, that is spoken through the voice of young people, that is seen through the perspective of young people. When we see it today it is a sign that we’re passing the mantle to the next generation.”

A press release announcing the Princeton strike stated, “The future of humanity is in jeopardy. We refuse to ignore a crisis that overshadows our lives. We refuse to wait until it is too late. We refuse to let our earth be irreparably damaged in silence. Politicians and their lobbyists have allowed our planet to be destroyed. They need to stand up for our future or step down.”

Kaitlin Barakat, of the NJ League of Conservation Voters, added, “We have to keep fighting so that people of power do what they’re supposed to do.”