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Fridays for Future: East Coast ‘Greta Thunberg’ joins protests of local environmental activism groups

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Feb 12, 2021

Sisters Mary Reed, left, and Ruth Hatcher, stand along the Route 9 bike path on Friday afternoon. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — In Aug. 2018, 15-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg skipped school for the three weeks leading up to her country’s election, to strike in front of Sweden’s Parliament building in protest of the lack of action for the climate crisis. Thunberg’s actions led to the development of an international movement of similar strikes, called Fridays for Future. Millions of people have now participated in similar strikes around the world, including 16-year-old Kallan Benson, of Annapolis, Md.

Benson has become known in her hometown as “the butterfly,” for the pair of butterfly wings she often wears as part of her weekly strikes in front of the Maryland State House. But on Friday, Benson chose to strike for the first time with Jefferson County’s weekly protesters along the Route 9 bike path, near Rockwool’s manufacturing plant.

“They’ve just been so persistent, and what’s going on is absolutely terrible. Coming out is the least I could do,” Benson said. “Being part of the climate community, we’ve been keeping updated with it.”

Benson said she first heard about the environmental concerns raised by Jefferson County groups Jefferson County Vision, the Eastern Panhandle Green Coalition and Jefferson County Foundation, regarding the potential pollution caused by the stone wool manufacturing plant at a meeting of the Climate Stewards of Greater Annapolis. In protest of the state’s, county’s and Ranson’s treatment of their concerns, the environmental protection groups began holding a weekly Rally for Clean Air every Friday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., in Jan. 2020.

“There is incredible power in persistent action. When you’re looking at creating change, people can’t ignore you after seeing you out there for three weeks or months, because there’s always pressure being put on them to create change!” Benson said, as she waved to Route 9 drivers from the warmth of a penguin costume.

Reece Benson, dressed as a dying T-Rex, lies near his mother, Kimberly Benson, who is dressed as a polar bear along the Route 9 bike path Friday afternoon. Tabitha Johnston

Benson said she, along with a family in New York, was the first person on the East Coast of the United States to begin participating in the Fridays for Future events. As a homeschool student, Benson has been able to plan her schoolwork around her strikes, rather than missing out on classes, as was the case with Thunberg. She has often been accompanied to the strikes by her mother, Kimberly, father, Carl, and 15-year-old brother, Reece, as she was on Friday afternoon.

According to EPGC President Morgan Sell, the number of rally participants doubled, due to local environmentalists’ excitement over Benson’s appearance.

“Having Kallan come here is an affirmation for us, to know that people care about clean air,” Sell said, mentioning she anticipated the number of drivers’ honks to double with the increase in participants.

“Typically, we’ll get over 100 honks. But today, I think there’ll be 200, because of the number of people here. It’s easier for them to see us from the road, when there are more people,” Sell said. “This is intended to bring awareness to not only the environment, but also to the heavy industry factory across the street and its proximity to local schools.”

According to Jefferson County resident of 60 years Bobbi Blok, learning from people near the plant that they can hear all of the horn honks has been encouraging, as she has persevered in participating in all but three of the protests to-date.

Kallan Benson, dressed as a penguin, stands with her dog, three-year-old Sage, and father, Carl Benson, on the Route 9 bike path Friday afternoon. Tabitha Johnston

“I hope when they hear the honks, they hear the anger and realize what’s happening. [Pollution] won’t just effect us here! It will effect the entire metropolitan area,” Blok said. “It’s exciting to see someone like Kallan, who’s a young person, supporting this.”

One of many environmental activism signs stands out in the snow along Route 9 on Friday afternoon. Tabitha Johnston