I’m back from the People’s Climate March—and it was an incredible experience to share with hundreds of thousands of other people.
As I shared this weekend, organizers expected 100,000 people to show up in New York, but they crossed their fingers and hoped for 250,000. By noon yesterday, when my section of the march had already been standing in place for two hours, city police officers told us that the numbers were much higher than they’d expected and that participants were behaving well! (Apparently other attendees asked the police about their expectations as well.)
By 3 p.m., we learned that the count had reached 310,000 marchers. And this morning, March organizers and other participants reported a final estimate of over 400,000 people: marchers swelled the march route beyond capacity and organizers had to ask people to disperse. A 2-mile route became 4 miles long!
Through the #PeoplesClimate hashtag on Twitter and a Jumbotron at Columbus Circle, we also saw photos and commentary from marchers around the world. According to the People’s Climate March tally, 2,808 solidarity events held in 166 countries between September 20 and September 21.
What the Press Has Said
“A few blocks from the march, in a hotel conference room on Lexington Avenue, Secretary of State John Kerry convened a meeting of foreign ministers of the 17-member Major Economies Forum, focused on climate change, and Todd Stern, the chief United States climate change negotiator, held back-to-back meetings throughout the day.” —The New York Times
“Mary Francis, carrying a sign proclaiming herself an ‘angry granny,’ said she came to the march from Oklahoma.
‘This is a problem that my generation has created,’ said Francis, 72. ‘My parents didn’t know about this problem. But my generation knows and we have to do what we can to fix what we can.'” —Politico
“Take a look at the different groups participating and the various messages they brought to the streets. This of course doesn’t represent all of them, but it does capture a selection that ranges from the poignant to the picturesque.” (Photo series.) —Slate
“Years from now, if world leaders listen to the alarm being sounded by citizens to take meaningful action to curb climate disruption, future generations may look back at the People’s Climate March as the watershed moment when the tide turned in the fight against climate disruption.” —Sierra Club
So many activists hope the March signals change. It’ll take more than hope to make it so.
We’ve Signed Petitions and Marched through the Streets. Now What?
Last year, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman proposed a 4-quadrant model of civic participation: participation may range from thin to thick and from symbolic to impactful.
“In a campaign that uses thin engagement, the campaign’s organizers know what they want you to do and simply need you to show up and do it. In thick engagement, the campaigners ask you for your creativity, your strategic sensibilities, your ability to make media, research, deliberate or find solutions – the campaigners know they want to do something, but ask you what you think they should do. Engagement that’s symbolic, or based around voice, is intended primarily to show your support for, opposition to or identity with a cause – there’s little expectation that your voice will lead directly to change, but there’s reason to believe it can change the climate in which that change could occur…
On the other side of the spectrum, engagement that is instrumental or focused on a specific impact and outcome seeks change through passing laws, through influencing authorities to change their minds, by building new institutions and infrastructures, or through other paths to a tangible, specific outcome. On this side of the spectrum, engagement tends to lead towards measurable outcomes: bills passed, meals served at a homeless shelter, corporate policy changed by a boycott.” —Ethan Zuckerman, Beyond “The Crisis in Civics”
The coalition behind the People’s Climate March—the many-faced group of researchers, writers, speakers, organizers, and non-profits featured in the film Disruption—used thin forms of activism to build popular interest months ago. For example, Avaaz, a March co-sponsor, promoted an online petition for local, national, and global action to adopt clean energy sources; that petition has been shared more than 257,000 times on Facebook and has over 2.1M “signatures.” I’d classify this as a thin and symbolic action: it cost signatories little and the common concern of 2.1 million people is no light matter.
By contrast, the Sierra Club used its post-March membership note to tout the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and encourage affirming and mostly pre-written public comments on the Plan. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune argues that this plan, designed to reduce maximum emissions at coal and gas plants, offers critical regulation to move the U.S. forward. I’d classify this action as less thin than the Avaaz petition and potentially more impactful too: it encourages citizens to engage an executive agent (EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy) whose staff can make tangible nationwide change for a generation or more and to contribute a specific comment to a public feedback loop.
But because the Sierra Club provides detailed draft language, using its website to submit a public comment requires less inventiveness or personal investment from people than the Citizens Climate Lobby’s thicker process. Since 2010, the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) has proposed that the federal government tax carbon-based fuel and issue dividends from that revenue back to the public. It also coordinates regional and national training sessions that help citizens lobby their Congressional representatives and publish original letters-to-the-editor in their local newspapers.
“After we put down the bullhorn and the signs, we put on a jacket and tie, walk into an office and sit down to have a conversation with the people who represent us in Washington, the people who have the power to alter the destructive course our civilization has taken. —Citizens Climate Lobby
The #FloodWallStreet group is taking a more symbolic, expressive, and embodied approach by physically blocking Wall Street as a protest against political and economic inaction on climate change.
This week, #FloodWallStreet protesters staged non-violent disruption around the iconic Wall Street bull and submitting to arrest by evening. In an Al Jazeera article, one of the organizers explained why the group is speaking up and acting up:
“We all depend on this planet, but some are more insulated from its undoing than others. Some will be bailed out, but most won’t. Some will find a way to profit as the waters rise, but many more will drown. The challenge of stemming climate change is not just a matter of raising consciousness and spreading awareness; it is [also] a struggle for democracy and survival…
“The action was inspired by a call from communities at the front lines of the climate crisis to take nonviolent direct action against the corporations driving the extractive economy. To that end, we’re planning a mass sit-in at the symbolic center of the global economic order.” — Nathan Schneider, Al Jazeera America (@nathanairplane)
A View From the Back of the Crowd
Some of the #FloodWallStreet sit-in protesters were part of the Red Zone of the People’s Climate March yesterday. In that zone of the march, activists directly named Western militaries, international financing institutions, polluting multinational companies such as Exxon, specific energy sources like the Canadian tar sands, and development methods like the natural gas fracking project planned for Cove Point, MD.
The Red Zone also featured speeches on the intersections of resource-driven wars, national and international poverty, corporate pollution, gentrification, and state violence. I walked with marchers in this section on Sunday: it was where my bus had been assigned and included issue contingents that bus-mates have been working with through the year.
But this location during the march meant that I didn’t personally see the “front-line communities” that Nathan Schneider writes about. Nor did I get to enjoy the company of the identity and faith groups that formed the last section of marchers (my colleague Peterson Toscano was part of this Purple Zone alongside MCC’s Rev. Nancy Wilson and thousands of other people).
Because of this, I have plenty of groups to connect with over time, starting with the Climate Justice Alliance. Being one of 400,000 means directly experiencing only a micro slice of an event like the People’s Climate March. Front line groups were present and vocal, and their work continues across ethnic lines and beyond the current spotlight.
I had a two-fold wish, however. First was that there had been a way for marchers further back to connect with what was happening at the front of the march, whether by live audio or silent screen, without needing a smartphone. My hunch is that this connection across zones would have helped to keep participants and bystanders more on-task and focused no matter how long we had to wait to start.
My second wish was that the PCM organizers—international and local—had (a) spent more time reinforcing the logic of the march structure and (b) shared a master list to help groups identify and connect ahead of time with the other groups that they would be adjacent to during the march. Too many of the people I talked to had questions about the relevance of some Red Zone participants and so only after we talked about these participants’ reasoning did they seem to accept that yes, there was in fact a common thread between the financiers of Wall Street and the financiers of key multi-national polluters and lobbyists, and no, highlighting that thread was neither coincidental nor aggressive. I don’t know if either of these changes will be possible for future collaboration, but I think it could increase even greater cohesion among coalition members and individual activists.
While riding up toward the start of the March, I read a story about one of our activist ancestors, Bayard Rustin: it turns out he had similar thoughts about the March on Washington logistics in 1963.
“Rustin pushed hard for an expensive ($16,000) sound system, maintaining ‘We cannot maintain order where people cannot hear.’ The system was obtained and set up at the Lincoln Memorial, but was sabotaged on the day before the March. Its operators were unable to repair it. Fauntroy contacted Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his civil rights liaison Burke Marshall, demanding that the government fix the system. Fauntroy reportedly told them: “We have a couple hundred thousand people coming. Do you want a fight here tomorrow after all we’ve done?” The system was successfully rebuilt overnight by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.” —Charles Euchner, Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington (via Wikipedia)
In the meantime, the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT), the Environmental Justice Network, and other grassroots groups like it will keep pushing for coordinated and system-shifting actions, challenging the non-democratic deliberative customs of the traditional green movement, and they’ll do all of this until the collective “we” achieves the success we define… and we should expect our definitions of success to change as we learn from and with other groups and organizations across the activist landscape.
“What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough, not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of a journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” —Alain de Botton
“What do we want? CHANGE! When do we want it? NOW!” makes for a good chant but is weak and vague as strategy. Instead the future belongs to those who will connect across organizational and community borders and help others to generate grounded, specific solutions on specific ground- and system-level problems—problems like those addressed by CCL, EQAT, EJA, the Climate Justice Alliance, and all other groups that made the People’s Climate March what it was. As I’ve said this week, Earth respects no borders. This means our attempts to promote greater responsibility, awareness, and knowledge cannot be bounded either.
If we each use whatever participation methods we have available—thin, thick, symbolic, or impactful—we’ll quickly realize that many more than 400,000 people care at least as much as we do. None of us is alone!
Did you attend the march? If so, what did you notice while you were there? And what do you hope will come of it?
UPDATE: The Climate Justice Alliance, one of the multi-demographic coalitions that literally led the People’s Climate March through the streets of New York, was barred from the 2014 UN Climate Summit this week. “The exclusion of community members who live on the frontlines of the climate crisis show that today’s climate decision-making arenas have been taken over by a corporate agenda that prioritizes destructive profit driven policies over the wellbeing of families, workers and communities,” organizers wrote in a press release published on Monday, September 23.