When dozens of environmental organizations united behind Bill McKibbon’s 350 to organize a climate change march in downtown Manhatten, they promised it would be the biggest protest in the history of the movement. And boy were they right! But the march drew more than a crowd. Before the first traffic cones went down, the first banners were raised or camera tripods unfolded, the People’s Climate March had drawn fire for being too soft on stagnant government inaction, without firm goals or clear political objectives. It had drawn questions about the state of social movements in an age when marches aren’t spontaneous but meticulously organized months in advance, and it had drawn criticism for its ‘grassroots’ claims amid traditional institutional organizing tactics. It drew fears that a high-profile, single-day action would diminish the potential for sustained engagement.
Before Saturday’s event, organizers had also drawn the support and interest of political leaders, celebrities and a diverse cross-section of labour groups and faith-based organizations who were engaging in the climate movement for the first time. And when push came to shove, it drew media to an issue that has been dogged with little more than occasional, grim, scientific studies or minor policy announcements for the past three years.
With splinter-protests and follow-up events still occurring across New York and around the world – not to mention the UN climate summit that inspired the march in the first place – the legacy of the march is still being determined. But perhaps no better indication of its future measure of success could be predicted than by reviewing the intangible energy on-the-ground, up-close and personal. I was lucky enough to attend the march as part of a Canadian contingent of nearly 2,000 people from across our vast country. As an outsider, here’s 5 reasons why I’m confident the People’s Climate March really will go down in history, and more importantly, promote a future of urgent action in the US and beyond.
1. The Turnout was Evidence of Grassroots Momentum: The march was initially organized by a vast network of experienced professionals with some major funding from established institutions, so it’s not surprising that doubts exist about the authenticity of its ‘grassroots’ brand. But it’s impossible to deny that a truly grassroots community of passionate climate activists adopted the event as their own, especially since the turnout was roughly 4-times the already-ambitious estimate that organizers set. Amongst the nearly 400,000 marchers were fundraising heavy-hitters like Greenpeace, NGOs with corporate ties, massive trade unions, church groups and even political figures like Al Gore and UN reps like Ban Ki Moon. But there were also ‘ecosocialist’ groups, Occupy, Anonymous and Idle No More protestors, self-proclaimed radical environmentalists and anarchists, all marching with striking focus and congeniality. For every glossy, branded, pre-printed poster and hand-out T-shirt from a well-funded lobbyist campaign was another handpainted sign, paper-mache mask, screenprinted banner, cheeky phrase or riotous, spontaneous chant. There was no attempt or ability to separate various shades of ‘fringe’ from the blurry lines of a more mainstream contingent – and more importantly there was no need to. Even those skeptical of the strategies of the organizing body embraced the march as a unique opportunity, and each brought their own crowd to transform it into a truly collective and ownerless affair.
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2. Peace and Poise: Demanding Respect, Not Asking For Trouble: Despite a genuine and massive diversity of philosophies, opinions and demographics, the synergy was palpable. Fundamental values of peace, equality, sustainability and justice resonated universally and were upheld in the conduct of a welcoming convergence. Organizers and the NYPD were not prepared for the 30 chalk-full blocks of protestors, intensely frustrated and impatient for change. Yet, the number of ‘incidents’ were negligible. Local organizers and random participants took the initiative to free sidewalks and clear arteries that were blocking the march, guide tourists through the crowd and facilitate traffic where the organizing and security capacity fell short. Ahead of me, seniors were given space to sit and rest on their walkers, or offered spots on the rock wall along Central Park. A young boy amused himself by juggling a soccer ball through the crowd. People chanted but they also danced. Choirs sang. The mood was not only respectful but festive. Differences were not picked upon, but celebrated. Residents in the apartments above cheered and waved. From my position halfway through the parade, I saw no counter-protests or splinter black blocks, no detainments or arrests, no scraps and no despair. People were marching to demonstrate political willpower for livable future, not dissidence for the sake of action.
3. City of Discussions: More Than A March The patience and respect was especially impressive considering that the sheer size of the crowd resulted in sizeable logistical challenges. Over 500 busses and trains merged in the city, bringing marchers from across North America and beyond; this meant transit – and people – were pressured to move briskly in order to keep streets moving. It also meant that the route of the march itself was so clogged that many participants were waiting for more than 3 hours after the advertised start time before there was space to move. It was the ultimate ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario. Once the march was finally under way, visitors had to rush to make other connections before the procession even got close to its eventual destination. Finding colleagues among the crowd was sometimes impossible. Police struggled to keep marchers on the path and others out; the wave of marchers inevitably spilled over into neighboring streets. As cellular networks were overwhelmed with tens of thousands of calls, texts and countless terabytes of social media, communications worked intermittently. But there was an upside to these issues. Strangers with similar concerns and interests, stuck beside one another for hours on end without cell phones tend to interact, even in downtown New York. Atheists talked to faith-based activists, moderate green-business proponents talked to socialists and libertarians and Americans talked to Canadians. People shared stories of domestic climate impacts, fossil fuel projects and political struggles. Fascination and appreciation for this shared learning dominated heated debate. Even miles away from the march, in coffee shops and on public transit, marchers found each other through their signs and swag and got talking. It felt more like a place in the midst of a week-long convention than somewhere inundated with protestors for a single march. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio used the day to reveal new local mitigation targets, and there was hardly a sole in the city who didn’t utter the words ‘climate change’ that day despite the vast availability of Big Apple preoccupations.
4. Events Aplenty with No End in Sight: All of this good news would be for naught if the world forgot about it as marchers pushed aside the euphoria and physical exhaustion to hunker down at busy jobs as the work week started mere hours after the march broke apart. But that won’t happen, because Flood Wall Street – a climate and inequality sit-in – is forging on as I write this with a crowd of thousands and major media on site. The Global Climate Convergence hosted panelists and workshops before the march and continues to organize through its growing network in the wake of the walk. For its part, 350 has signed up tens of thousands of new supporters and is pushing hard for even more global awareness as mainstream media struggles to catch up to the proliferation of Tweets, Instagram photos and Facebook reports from the thousands of citizen journalists on-site at Sunday’s protest. And all of this is still before the climate talks even get underway at UN headquarters in the same city, which are bound to bring with them fresh protests and attention. Hundreds of solidarity marches and events have just wrapped up around the world, with even more still in the works.
5. Climate Justice Goes Mainstream: Consumerism Questioned While anyone who’s watched the 6-o-clock news or picked up a newspaper in the last five years probably has at least some idea of what ‘climate change’ is, the concept of ‘climate justice’ is really, sadly, still in its infancy. Organizers of the People’s Climate March have tried hard to frame it as a social movement – even a civil rights movement – as much as an environmental protest, but the reality is that most participants probably don’t understand just how profoundly damaging American consumerism is. And even those who do may struggle to see how colonial ideologies are causing immeasurable hardships for indigenous populations more than ever through global warming. I’m not sure that’s a situation that can change overnight, and I think a more honest motivation for the convergence that occurred is that North Americans are worried about their own safety, security, health and the natural environment they appreciate today. At the same time, the dozens off middle-school Quaker children who were sandwiched in between anti-tar sands and fracking campaigners where I marched were chanting for ‘climate justice’, not ‘climate action.’ The people I talked to were concerned with equality worldwide, not only within the US, and identified a growing inequality of natural resources, not just wealth. People talked about limiting – as well as converting – energy sources and consumption. The phrase ‘climate justice,’ at least, is growing rapidly in use, and hopefully understanding. The ties between globalization, capitalism and climate change will be further explored and discussed as Flood Wall Street continues. The People’s Climate March was another catalyst for these issues to percolate throughout the country, starting in a city that has spawned many of America’s best ideas and critical social progressions. But more than that, it was a beacon of hope for a more ecologically and socially conscious world.