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When an Old Lady Swore at Me

Every Friday for the past 6, nearly 8 months now I have been striking together with my 14 year old sister in front of our local County Council office in Mayo, Ireland. I have been involved with the youth climate movement for much longer – since last January, but weekly striking is an entirely different beast to the sporiadic giant demonstrations where you are in the middle of a crowd of thousands of energised, likeminded people. The act of sitting on cold pavement for six hours is a very different one to that of chanting and marching. In particular, you meet and interact with many rather curious individuals.

As part of my Climate Essay a Day challenge , I’ll be highlighting a few of the more remarkable interactions that I’ve had. I’ve found that you can learn an awful lot from them – even from the people who disagree with you and hurl obscenities at you.

One example of such an interaction was with an old lady who came up to as at a strike in November of last year. After already having been striking for months, I’d gotten used to dealing with difficult people – it is not uncommon to have someone sit down next to you for fifteen minutes or so, and explain why climate change is a hoax caused by the same homosexual frogs that are manufacturing the 5G network and that were behind the moon landing. You get very good at nodding and smiling in a vaguely inoffensive way after being in such situations. There are some people who it is worthwhile debating – some people have misconceptions that are easily cleared up or are debating in good faith, but the people who are most inclined to engage with you usually aren’t.

However, this old lady was clearly out of the ordinary from the beginning. To start with, she told us rather politely, if sharply, that we had no right to be striking in front of the local government building. When I quoted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Irish consitution, both of which enshrine the right to peaceful protest, she became angrier and claimed that she was a barrister and that she knew the law very well. At this point both my sister and I were highly uncomfortable. It was clear that this woman was not someone whom you could reason with – it was around this point that she began swearing at us, telling us that we “needed to fucking move right now” or that she would go and get the police. In response, I told her that I had a right to be there just the same as she did. In retrospect, I should probably have remained mute and let her shout her piece before running out of steam, but at times like these you gain a real sense of morbid curiousity. How far will she go? Is she actually going to get the police? I believe I may have goaded her, albeit in a polite and measured tone, to fetch the police if she felt that we needed to be removed from the premises. She was becoming more and more incoherent as she then claimed to know the President of Ireland and to be a “very important person”.

Although now I can hardly keep myself from laughing in remembering this event, at the time it was a highly traumatic experience. At one point, she had put her handbag on the ground, and reached in, and at the back of my mind I half expected her to bring out a knife. Luckily she didn’t, but words can often cut deep regardlessly.

This experience was highly unpleasant to go through, but it highlighted how lucky I am. There are many activists who face arrest or physical violence simply for speaking out. There are incredibly brave people from indigenous communities and countries with repressive regimes who have to deal with the fear of real consequences every single day. It may be unpleasant to be shouted at, but it highlights my privilege and how lucky I am.

We as climate activists in the west have a duty to amplify the voices of those who aren’t being heard and who aren’t given the opportunity to even speak. If I’m shaking after a crazy old lady hurls obscenities at me, how must it feel like to live in fear?

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