September 23, 2014
“To change everything we need everyone.” The rallying cry for Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City captured the mobilization’s spirit perfectly. From the natural environment to the built environment, from our political system to the food system, so much has to be changed to confront what has been rightly called the biggest challenge facing our generation. With such a monumental task, it is no wonder the march’s organizers spent months reaching out to every segment of society, convincing them that climate justice was a cause that united all causes.
In full disclosure, I have long been a proponent of direct action. But Sunday’s march was different than previous demonstrations in several ways.
First, there was a choice of contingents. Each contingent had a designated starting point: students at 66th Street, food and water justice organizations at 72nd Street, cyclists at 74th Street, and scientists at 81st Street, to name a few. In the days leading up to the march, I asked myself where I fit in along these 30 blocks of Central Park West. On the morning of the march, I heard others going through a similar reflection. Perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but the march’s organizers had caused us to realize that the multiple spheres we each inhabit in our lives have a stake in acting on climate change.
Second, even by New York standards, the sheer volume of people on the streets was incredible. In dramatic contrast to demonstrations where one tends to encounter “the usual suspects” (definition: similarly-minded activist colleagues, whose familiar faces are heartening yet unsurprising), essentially everybody was a stranger on Sunday. It was moving to sense such solidarity amidst overwhelming anonymity, to see the range of ages and ethnicities, to look up at images of other climate marches taking place in 166 countries projected on billboard-sized screens. As I walked alongside chefs, gardeners, and factory workers in the food justice contingent, I spotted one 50-something year old woman whose sign read: “One more Republican against climate change.” So while 400,000 demonstrators might not be everyone, there were greater numbers and more diversity than many had expected.
Finally, as common sense and past experience would seemingly indicate, smaller demonstrations are easier to coordinate. But last Sunday, at exactly 1pm EST, a crowd of 400,000 defied this logic by falling silent and bringing a sudden mid-day stillness to the Upper West Side. In the distance, a whistle broke the moment of silence. Cheers began, which we heard first as a low rumble. They emanated from those at the northernmost reaches of the assembly area. As others joined in block by block, the roar grew and thundered southward like a wave breaking over midtown Manhattan. Perhaps I look too eagerly for metaphors. Yet that climatic moment seemed to represent the necessity and possibility of collective action.
After a long day at the People’s Climate March, I came home to the news that India and China would be skipping the UN Climate Summit this week. Following the march’s inspiring and hopeful atmosphere, this has been hard news to swallow. I’ve been thinking about the march, and I wish I could have asked one of my fellow demonstrators for his sign. He was a stranger, but his message really resonated with me. It read: “I can’t believe I have to protest this. Isn’t it obvious?”