Climate rally fills Malcolm X Plaza

Ethnic Studies students decorate Malcolm X Plaza before a Climate Justice rally Sept. 26 (Photo by MJ Johnson / Golden Gate Xpress)

Andrew Va’i pumped his fist into the air as his booming voice blasted through the speakers during a climate rally at SF State Sept. 26. “We are fighting!” The crowd thrusted their handmade signs high and returned his call with a thunderous roar. “Not drowning!” 

SF State students amassed at Malcolm X Plaza for a climate justice rally, organized by students within the College of Ethnic Studies, primarily the Asian American Studies department and other Pan-Asian student organizations. The rally was staged during the Bay Area Week of Climate Action, a regional push for climate change awareness. 

“Climate change is a reality for me just as much as it is a reality for my family on the islands of Oceania,” said Va’i, an Ethnic Studies graduate student from Samoa. Va’i delivered part of a spoken word poem at the rally. “There are people existing within the trenches and they are fighting, not drowning, they are living so proudly.” 

The rally was a student-led joint collaboration between Ethnic Studies departments and Asian American and Pacific Islander Retention and Education (ASPIRE), the Asian Student Union and the League of Filipino Students. Student activists within these groups took turns at the mic invigorating the crowd with calls to action against environmental racism, displacement, colonization and other issues surrounding students and the climate crisis. 

“It’s so important to have black and brown folks who are more affected by the climate issues that are happening to be involved,” said Shar Orquiza, League of Filipino Students chairperson and key organizer of the rally. “We wanted to emphasize this movement is not only happening locally but on a global level as well.”

Students held up colorful handmade signs on recyclable cardboard which included proclamations to “Save the planet,” “System change not climate change,” and “Impeach.” Some signs advocated for justice for Brandon Lee, an environmental activist and SF State alumnus who was shot in the Philippines and remains in critical condition.

“As students here on campus, our struggles are not separate from gentrification in the Mission, the land grabbing in Mindanao, Philippines and the many Polynesian communities whose islands are being threatened by rising sea levels,” said Rachel Perry, a member of Students Against Displacement, a student group that provides information and resources to tenants on their housing rights. 

Other students read poetry or rapped verses dedicated to solving the issues of climate change. Makena Rutishauser, an Asian American studies major, helped to organize the event by making posters and writing speeches for other students.

Sarah San Juan chalks a message at Malcolm X Plaza before a Climate Justice rally Sept. 26 (Photo by MJ Johnson / Golden Gate Xpress)

“We’re the next generation,” said Rutishauser, a freshman who handed out stickers eagerly to participants. “All these climate change problems surrounding us, we are going to need to solve ourselves. So, it’s important we stay involved.” 

Simmy Makhijani, a lecturer of Asian American Studies and Race and Resistance Studies at SF State who supported students in organizing the rally, said both organized and unorganized students connected the direct impacts of climate change, to the long history of colonialism, advanced capitalism, war and imperialism. 

“They got to witness themselves in their own power, in their own voice in a way they never have before,” Makhijani said. “It was emotional, it was empowering, and I think we still have a lot of work cut out for us.”