Large crowd of people outside Portland City Hall building.

The action started at City Hall. (Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

“A lot of us are of voting age and we can run for office soon – if leaders aren’t taking climate action seriously, they’ll lose their jobs.”
— Ukiah Halloran-Steiner

Come to the Climate Strike just wanting to skip math class, leave riled up and informed about freeway expansions and corporate villains. The organizers behind today’s Portland Youth Climate Strike (PYCS) protest want to get people involved in climate action however they can.

Thousands gathered at today’s march, walking as a group from Portland City Hall across the Burnside Bridge before stopping at Revolution Hall where they were greeted by attendees of the Portland Climate Festival. The goal of the strike was to take aim at Portland’s ‘climate villains’ and build the climate movement. The energy was potent – aided by hundreds of creative protest signs and some costumes, as well as some much-needed sun overhead – and organizers hope it will lead to progress.

Since the last climate strike in Portland, the youth climate movement here has only grown. The youth-led campaign against the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion has made national headlines, stirring up powerful conversations about the impact of freeway expansions that were previously niche and firmly in the adult domain.

So, even though this year’s strike didn’t gather as many people as some in the past, organizers think it made an impact.

Adah Crandall, who organizes with the Youth vs ODOT campaign and helped plan this protest, told me she sees this strike as being a catalyst to something bigger.

“The one in 2019 was bigger, but I think this one was more intentional,” Crandall said.

When I talked to Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, another member of Youth vs ODOT who also helped organize this year’s strike, she said she’s excited to see how many people are willing to join the ranks to demand action.

“It’s really just about seeing how many people are mobilizing and putting pressure on politicians to take bold climate action. A lot of us are of voting age and we can run for office soon – if leaders aren’t taking climate action seriously, they’ll lose their jobs,” Halloran-Steiner said.

One of the purposes of this march was to have local politicians sign a pledge promising to lead on climate action, and take actions like opposing “new investments in fossil fuel production and infrastructure at every possible opportunity.”

Portland City Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Carmen Rubio, Multnomah County Commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Sharon Meieran, Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba nd state representatives Maxine Dexter and Khanh Pham all signed the pledge, though Hardesty and Jayapal didn’t make it to the event in person.

Halloran-Steiner said she hopes everyone who signed this pledge votes to oppose freeway expansions like the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, which aims to expand I-5 from Portland to Vancouver across the Columbia River. She also hopes more adults will go from merely supporting the youth, to protesting with them. “Young people are supposed to be out living their lives,” Halloran-Steiner said.

While teens headed the group, there were plenty of adults in the crowd. Among them were members of nonprofit advocacy group Bike Loud PDX, who joined the ‘bike corking’ team to help block off the streets from people driving cars so people participating in the protest can get through safely.

And although many of the youth leaders have been focused on transportation reform, ODOT wasn’t the only subject of the PYCS participants’ ire. Along with the department of transportation, the group also came out against other ‘climate villains’: fossil fuel utility company Northwest Natural, crude oil storage and shipping company Zenith Energy, and the Portland Business Alliance, which protesters say has lobbied to prevent local climate action.

During one point in the march, Grant High School teacher Suzanna Kassouf (above) took the megaphone to give a quick rundown on NW Natural, saying the company uses greenwashing tactics to make it seem like their product isn’t contributing to carbon emissions.

“There is no such thing as renewable natural gas,” Kassouf said. “NW Natural: we’re going to take you down.”

Michael Fairhurst, who is a member of the climate action group Extinction Rebellion, spoke about the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) outside their building, asking them to take accountability for financially supporting polluting projects, especially regarding their involvement with the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

“There are no profits on a dead planet,” Fairhurst said, addressing the PBA.

After the march, people were invited to the Climate Festival at Rev Hall, where they could hear speakers and listen to live music. Environmental groups like 350 PDX, 1000 Friends of Oregon, Beyond Toxics and No More Freeways had booths set up where people could learn more about their missions and get involved.

To Danny Cage, a youth activist who spoke at the beginning of the festival, one of the purposes of a gathering like this is to show people they’re not alone.

“You are supported in your fight for climate justice,” Cage said.