Schools closed, lecture theatres emptied and offices shut as thousands of people made their way to hear Greta Thunberg speak at a youth climate strike in Bristol.
Thunberg took to the stage to chants of “Greta, Greta!” from the crowds gathered. She told them: “We will not be silenced because we are the change, and change is coming whether you like it or not. Thank you and let’s march!”
Teenage organisers of the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate insisted that Friday’s event would be well run and safe, and dismissed as “patronising” concerns expressed by police and council officials at the scale of the event.
A crowd of 25,000 was expected to bring traffic to a standstill. Thunberg was due to take part in a march through the city after addressing the crowd.
At least two schools, Cotham and the Bristol Cathedral Choir school, closed. Some teachers at other schools planned to take time off to escort pupils to the strike.
Thousands of students from universities and colleges were due to attend. Some employers actively encouraged staff to take part in the strike, promising not to dock pay, while others turned a blind eye to absences.
Coaches brought protesters to Bristol from across the UK, and rail and bus stations geared up for a huge influx of young people, some with parents but many travelling unaccompanied.
The scale of the event has caused a security headache for Avon and Somerset police and Bristol city council.
The council’s executive director, Mike Jackson, and Supt Andy Bennett, the city’s police area commander, issued a joint statement saying they were working to manage public safety.
They added: “We want to ensure that anyone planning to attend is prepared and able to make their own safety and safeguarding arrangements. Parents are responsible for their children. The council and police are not responsible for unsupervised children.
“In terms of big crowds, there is the potential for trips, slips, falls and crushing.”
In a response posted on Twitter, Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate said they had “no time for being patronised”, adding that they had arranged for 60 metres of festival barriers, more than 80 stewards and a safe zone for young children.
They added: “But of course, in a public event everyone should also be aware of their personal safety at all times. Be kind to others and look out for each other.”
The organisers said they were honoured to be welcoming Thunberg for their 10th strike. In a statement, they said: “September 2019’s global general strike saw approximately 15,000 gathered on College Green and Greta’s high-profile presence as a figurehead for the global climate movement brings attention back to Bristol students’ fight for comprehensive climate policies.”
Thunberg’s speech was briefly delayed after organisers from the stage called for a stretcher and ambulance to help someone in the crowd.
Other speakers at the event were scheduled to include Mya-Rose Craig, 17, who recently became the youngest person to be awarded an honorary doctorate in the UK for promoting greater diversity in the wildlife and conservation sectors.
Some schools said they were supportive of parents who wanted to take their children, while others decided not to authorise absences. Two schools near College Green decided to shut completely.
Explaining why Cotham school was closing, its headteacher, Jo Butler, said on Thursday: “Due to the unprecedented numbers of people expected to attend the climate protest tomorrow and our close proximity to College Green, we have taken the decision to close the school.”
Bristol Cathedral Choir school said it had also decided to close due to the “unprecedented numbers [of people taking part]”.
The Guardian heard from children and adults across Britain, as far away as Scotland, who said they were attending.
Ishmael, a 13-year-old from Bristol, said Thunberg’s visit might inspire those who did not usually attend to turn out. “Lots of us are regular protesters. However, I think this might help others feel like pulling their sleeves up and joining in,” he said.
Willow, a 15-year-old from Gloucestershire, said: “It shows that it takes one person to stand up to something which is not right, and many, many people will stand with them. It shows that time is running out and we are in serious need of change. And it shows that young people should not be underestimated – we have a voice and we are strong.”
Alison Thomson had brought her daughter, Emily, 10, to the event. Alison said: “I thought she might be a bit young to come but she said this would be her only chance to see her speak so I agreed.”
Emily said: “I think it’s really important that people understand what is happening to the Earth.” She planned to return to school after the event to give a presentation on climate change.
Isaac and Maya Swann, 11 and 15, had persuaded their mother, Karen Davies, to bring them. Isaac said: “We wanted to see Greta and to join the march.” Maya said: “We want to help make a change. She’s really brave and inspirational, giving up part of her childhood to spread this message.”
Davies said: “I was against them taking time off but last night they came to me and said they felt if I was their age I would be there. They were right. I’d be in the thick of it. I sent an email to the school and they were supportive. I think many schools see it as educational.”
Ed Thompson, a housemaster at Clifton college, took overseas boarders aged 11-13 to the event, as well as the school’s “green team”. He said: “We have discussed Greta’s influence in school, and she is a true icon to all ages for her passion, determination, tenacity and likability. The word ‘inspiration’ is too often used, but she is a guiding light to the next generation for peaceful but powerful activism, and encouraging love and care for our environment, which is such a strong message for young people.”
It was not just very young people attending. The green energy company Good Energy, from Chippenham in Wiltshire, asked its 250-strong workforce to join the strike.
One of the strikers, Johanna Pettipher, who works as an accounts specialist, said: “Going on climate strike on the direction of Good Energy’s senior team feels like a blessing. In my last job, I had to take a day off work to go to the climate strike in October. Protesting is the best way to tell the world that we are ready for better.”