‘Why are we here, Mummy?’ My four year-old son asked, as we joined the swathes of Extinction Rebellion protesters in Glasgow’s George Square in September 2019. ‘The ice caps are still melting. This isn’t really going to help the polar bears, is it?’
I was slightly taken aback. Caspian had always been fascinated by wild creatures. He devoured books about extinct and endangered animals, went vegetarian on his own initiative, and watched nature documentaries religiously. His every instinct seemed in synch with XR’s aims, and he regularly talked about wanting to help the animals and environment. Until, that is, he came to his first actual protest, bearing a sign almost as tall as he was, with ‘Strike!’ on one side and ‘I Love My Mother Earth’ on the other.
Despite having written an entire book on protest and the media I struggled to answer his question.
‘It’s about letting people know what’s happening,” I answered as he looked around at the other children. ‘It’s about getting people to come together to make changes, to ask people in power to make changes that will help stop the ice melting and help the animals.’
As Caspian shrugged off my answer, I saw he’d drawn the attention of some photographers. I wasn’t sure about strangers taking his photo, as he seemed uncomfortable, so we moved off and I took my own pictures instead. He was excited to see a few pupils from his class, and he admired the large stone lions at the edge of the square. But as time went on he grew fractious in the searing autumn heat.
‘Well that’s why we’re here too, isn’t it?” I tried to explain. “It’s not just about animals. It’s about climate change too.” But it immediately felt unfair, burdening him with further grief: he was serious enough as it was. ‘Let’s get an ice-cream,’ I offered, and we left the square. Caspian dragged his sign along the ground, then asked me to carry it. We found a café. Distracted by ice cream, his questions stopped. The protest really hadn’t interested him at all. Yet I was still surprised. Why?
Afterwards, I thought about the book I’d written. While it wasn’t critical of protest, it strove to take a wider view, and see protest as one tool among many for the political activist. I realised, in the wake of George Square, that this applies to children, too – perhaps especially to young children who are easily intimidated by large gatherings.
A big protest, at such a young age, had been a bit overwhelming for Caspian. It hadn’t suited him – and perhaps he raised some valid points as to its efficacy, too. He had every right to. I shouldn’t have assumed he’d find the experience valuable or enjoyable.
Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives to mass protest. For younger age groups, taking part in online events can be a great way to feel a sense of community and to learn more about the issues without being thrown into potentially overwhelming situations – of particular importance to children who struggle with anxiety. As a parent, too, it can seem risky to take children to protests when there is always some potential that they will become rowdy or dangerous, especially in the current political climate, with more restrictive laws and violent reactions.
Children can write letters to political representatives, though, and send pictures to their favoured protest groups, or get involved in school-based awareness campaigns and initiatives such as tree-planting, litter-picking. Or they can simply educate themselves and their friends about the issues we all face.
Nowadays Caspian’s preferred way to be involved – which in a way I’d known all along – is through art, writing and learning.
Whatever his eventual thoughts on the effectiveness of physical protest, and his own role in that particular form of political activism, he’s had an experience that he’ll always remember, and still talks about, as he patches together his political awareness and learns to use his own freedom and agency.
For my part, I have learnt to respect how every individual has their own journey, and always will. Caspian now wants to be a film-maker, and recently wrote his own comic book, ‘Sad Times’, in which the world ends, but the aliens save the last of the humans.
Whichever way his story goes, I am glad that protest formed part of his education, and gave him a grounded understanding that he’s not alone in his concerns. For me, that’s one of the most crucial and valuable roles of protest in all its forms: the knowledge that our beliefs, our compassion, our concern for the future, and in our intention to continue, are common, and global.
Dr. Christiana Spens is the author of Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR (Repeater Books) and The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists in Western Media (Palgrave Macmillain). She writes for publications such as The Irish Times, Prospect, Aeon/Psyche and Studio International. Her website is www.christiana-spens.com and her Twitter is @christianaspens