The logistics were terrible, I could not find my water bottle, and I was nursing a painfully injured foot–but I was bound and determined to attend the People’s Climate March. And I did it. So did my Mom. And so did over three hundred thousand other people.
We got a late start organizing my trip to New York–various other aspects of my life got complicated this month–and by the time we looked for a ride, all the seats on the charter buses for marchers were sold out. A good sign, obviously, but how were we to get there? We don’t drive that far just for day trips, it uses too much gas. Finally, we got seats on a Greyhound, just before that bus sold out, too. On the road, two or three charter buses passed us.Everyone, apparently, was heading to New York.
New York is always a popular place, of course, so all those buses didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the march. The women sitting right behind us turned out to be fellow marchers, but our first unambiguous sign that we were involved in something big was in the subway. There, crowds gathered, waiting to get on trains headed towards the staging area, but nobody could get on because the trains were already completely full. We spotted signs, political t-shirts, and children dressed as animals in the crowd. Volunteers walked the platforms shouting directions to marchers from out of town. It is an awesome thing to realize one is part of an event, a human tide, a giant and momentous we.
Both times I marched for the climate in DC, the event began with a rally. We gathered together before the stage in a large, amoeba-shaped crowd. Then, as a few people at a time stepped out and began marching, we stretched out into a parade the way a weaver draws a thread from a cloud of wool. But this march in New York was way too big for us to form an initial amoeba, so the organizers had us all assemble on the route itself, with one length of street designated for people being affected by climate change already, another for scientists, another for religious people, and so on. So far so good. But despite all this planning, we soon found ourselves almost literally crushed in an ever-tightening crowd. Rumors passed in from the margins held that not the side streets feeding in to the march were also full of people. It was obvious a lot more people had shown up than even the organizers expected.
The designated started time–11:30–came and went with no sign of movement at all. We chatted with each other, squeezed together to let medics or the occasional ambulance pass (the ambulance was not for any of us, we were just in its way) and let volunteers lead us in chants to keep our spirits up. Still no movement.
If you’ve ever seen a freight train start, you’ll know why we weren’t moving; the engine goes forward, then, a few seconds later, the car behind it moves, then the car behind that…each car must wait until the one ahead of it has moved to be able to move in turn. The cars at the back might get going a full five or ten seconds after the engine starts. Our march was the same, since none of us could walk until those ahead of us gave us room. How long does it take for one person to step forward, out of the way of another? Seconds at most. And yet we stood there, waiting, for forty minutes before the movement of the crowd worked its way back to us. And we were in the first quarter of the parade. I hate to think of how long the people in the back must have stood waiting.
Moving with the Movement
It’s a curious thing about being in the middle of a protest march–there’s no way to really tell what’s going on. Everyone around starts cheering and you don’t know why because you can’t see anything, so you just go with it and start cheering, too. This happened several times before we even got going. The women next to us called it “spontaneous joy.” Chants propagate up and down the line and die away. The crowd stops and starts and stops again for reasons that could be hundreds or thousands of feet away. There is no telling. The march becomes a giant organism, a curiously gentle mob, and individual marchers can only look at each other, shrug, and laugh, and join in. The reason for the march itself is not silly, but cut adrift as they are by the sheer press of people, the marchers sometimes are.
One of the reasons to attend a political demonstration is precisely to become part of this enthusiastic super-organism. A man walking next to me reveled in the camaraderie. He told me he was from a part of New Jersey where people look at him funny if he even brings climate change up. It makes him feel lonely. Still, he stays involved. He supports–largely through money–both the Pachamama Alliance and The Hunger Project. His name is Marcus Bass and he wanted me to write about those organizations, not him. And I will, in a subsequent article.
Most of the signs and chants–in the parts of the march I saw, at least–were curiously generic. I heard and joined in chants like “The people/united/will never be defeated!” and “Tell me what democracy looks like/this is what democracy looks like!” and “Hey, Obama/we don’t want no climate drama!” and a few others I remember from protests past, but none specifically addressed the issue of the moment; showing political support for climate action ahead of the UN Climate Summit the next day. Few of the signs mentioned the UN. Most displayed fairly generic pro-environmental, anti-climate change messages: “Cook organic, not the Planet;” “Climate deniers have no morals;” “Can you swim?”
This apparent lack of focus may be a side effect of the “everyone in!” organizational approach of The People’s Climate March, or perhaps it is only that international policy and the procedures of the UN are hard to draw on posters and don’t rhyme with anything.
Or maybe it is just that everybody knew that what would speak to the political leaders was our sheer number; no one is going to brief President Obama on the wording of our signs. Our signs and chants were not for him but for each other. In coming together, we gave each other an opportunity to talk to like-minded people, to network, to suggest, even to criticize–there was a sizable contingent of vegetarians actively trying to get other marchers to give up meat for the climate (not a bad idea, actually; the carbon footprint of meat is huge). A march is also a chance for marchers to find and call attention to the connections among their different concerns–I fell to talking with a woman who has just started a company that will help people with asthma anticipate attacks based on air quality and weather. She says asthma rates are on the rise and is the single biggest health problem among children. And while no one knows for sure what the connection is, asthma attacks and poor air quality are strongly correlated. AND, poor air quality and climate change have the same cause in pollution. That’s why she came out to march. Her startup is called Wellwatch7 and her first name is Sworna–we traded email addresses but not last names.
This march was also an opportunity for people to dress up. I saw a few polar bears and so forth at the other marches, but nothing like what I saw here. There were dancing fairies in green sparkles, a woman all in blue robes and blue paint and trailing a twelve-foot train of trash and blue fabric (she must have been the polluted ocean), various animal masks, and an inexplicably tall bicycle. A man in a narwhal mask (his sign said “save the unicorns.” Narwhals are arctic creatures) and a man in a unicorn mask (“Unicorns are a myth but climate change isn’t”) met, apparently by chance, and took a picture together.
Some people appeared marched dressed, not in playful costumes, but in the uniforms of unusual lives. When my foot started hurting too badly, we stopped to sit for a while and ended up back in the section for religious groups. Most of these people looked ordinary and some might well have been strays such as me and my Mom. A few carried signs reading “Jew” or “Methodist” or “Baptist.” Perhaps their coreligionists clustered around those signs like knights rallying to battlefield standards. But there were also large, conspicuous groups marching together behind banners that took multiple people to carry. We saw two different groups of robed Buddhist monks (one wearing black, the other saffron) ringing bells as they walked, several dozen variously attired pagans beating drums and burning sage, and a large wooden ark carrying five or six Christian preachers in variously colored vestments and one man in ordinary clothes who carried his own sign “Atheist on the Ark!” Towards the end of the march I fell into step behind a tall, slim man in black robes. He looked like he could be a pagan priest but turned out to be a Franciscan brother. We discussed St. Francis for a few minutes, whom he cited as the patron saint of ecology.
With all this, the most striking thing about the march was its size–the weight of moving humanity and the length of the route. My mother, who is from New York, declared that the pavement in The City is harder than pavement anywhere else. Her feet hurt, too, and with my injury I was limping noticeably. It made the march seem much longer. There was no rally or even clear destination at the end of the march. Instead, the route simply began dividing and dividing again, like a river delta, and the march dissipated. Dehydrated and in pain, I felt dazed. My heart wasn’t in the demonstration anymore, but it didn’t matter how I felt; I’d been counted.
What It Means
The People’s Climate March succeeded in being the largest climate march to date. Between 300,000 and 400,000 people gathered that day in New York to send a message to our nation’s leaders. Among the marchers were such notables as Ban Ki Moon, Dr. Jane Goodall, and Al Gore. And in other countries almost as many again joined coordinated marches for the same reason on the same day.
Did it matter? Predictably, the media coverage has been minimal. I’m gathering information on that and plan to organize “comment bombs” for media outlets that didn’t cover the demonstration at all. But climate change as a subject is all over the news now, not as a controversial topic that “some” environmentalists care about, but as a real thing worth talking about for its own sake. Today I walked into the farmer’s market and was greeted by a volunteer gathering signatures for a climate-related petition. President Obama spoke boldly on the subject yesterday and seems entirely serious about it.
So, yes. We might have changed the world.