Reflections on The People’s Climate March
Be ashamed to die until you have claimed some victory for humanity|
This quote was one of the many inspiring messages plastered on t-shirts, placards, banners, floats, balloons, hats, subways, buses and everywhere in Midtown Manhattan on September 21, 2014, as hundreds of thousands (the estimates are now more than 300,000) took over the streets to raise their voices against climate change and the conditions that cause it. The march on Sunday, the Wall Street sit-in on Monday and the people’s convenings were well-orchestrated events imploring the leaders of the UN Climate Conference for change.
It was an impressive showing. There were, of course, the dignitaries who captured the spotlights. Most notably, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio seized the moment to commit his city to reducing its carbon footprint 30% by 2030. Given the size of New York City, this would arguably be the largest contribution to carbon reduction in the United States.
The Hollywood types showed up, too. Leonardo DiCaprio made an impassioned speech and announced his formation of a new nonprofit dedicated to fighting climate change.
And, of course, Al Gore and Bill Clinton were there providing essential civic leadership.
Diverse Crowd of Everyday People
Most impressive were the everyday people representing a full spectrum of interests and concerns. The march was organized into sections for an array of special interest groups, including: researchers and scientists, front-line communities (most affected by climate change) and labor, interspersed with your everyday folk.
What they cared about was as diverse as the demographics of the crowd. Some of their messages were informative, many were prescriptive or provocative, most were serious and a lot of them were humorous.
They included youth (Our Future Our Choice), faith-based organizations (People of Faith for Climate Action), indigenous and other communities of color (Fighting for Climate Justice), vegans and farmers (“Animal Agriculture is the Leading Cause of Climate Change”), anti-fossil fuel advocates ( Stop Pollution Renewable Energy is the Solution and Tax Carbon Don’t Subsidize).
There were also lots of anti-big business contingents (Mr. Business Man What’s Your Plan?, “Big Oil Selling our Climate for Quarterly Earnings,” Systems Change Not Climate Change). And lots of moms, dads, grannies and babies offering their own views (You Cannot Put Profit Before Life, Denial is No Longer Working, A Fried Egg is No Yolk).
Indeed, Sunday’s march was a kaleidoscope of visual, audio and intellectual stimulation. You didn’t mind that it took two hours for the march to move. We had no idea then, but we now know and revel in the fact that it was because the streets were packed with activists. You were able to sense that we are on the precipice of a new movement for a more sustainable and just economy, despite the unresolved political, financial, technical and equity challenges that we are still working on.
The Weight of Those Not There
But as profound as that experience was, I experienced something even more weighty. The voices of folks who didn’t show up were even louder to me than the ones that did. I was confronted with a number of people who were unaware, uninformed or ill-informed about the march and its meaning.
I talked to a lot of native New Yorkers who did not know the march was taking place that Sunday and upon being informed worried mostly about how they were going to get to church and across town. Then there was a passerby in Times Square engulfed in the march who scoffed, “Do they really think they can change the climate?”
But then there were two older African American pedestrians who weighed on me most.
The first was a working class woman carrying her two heavy bags of groceries along 10th Avenue, likely on her way home. She stopped me as I was nearing the end of the march with an earnest and puzzled look on her face. She asked me to please explain to her the issue. She explained that she was from Haiti, apologized for her limited English, but wanted to understand what it was all about. From what she understood, it seemed agité (crazy). Could I explain what we were asking for?
I did my best, but I could tell it was an inadequate, impromptu street-corner conversation. Somewhat exasperated by my answer she finally asked “What does Obama think about this?” I said, to not complicate it any further, “he agrees”. And with that it magically seemed, if not understandable, at least acceptable. She seemed resigned that whatever it is, it must be OK.
Similarly, on the way to the subway from the march, an older black gentlemen sat outside at 8th Avenue and 37th Street watching the crowd. I guess I look like a sucker for questions, ‘cause he reached out to me: “Can you tell me what is going on?” I tried a simpler method this time. I said, “The march is about the future of our food, water, energy and all our basic needs.” And he replied, “Well, I support that, that’s important.”
Growing the Conversation
As amazing as the many moments were in New York this past week, these were the most memorable. I am reminded that we have much more work to do. We have to grow the conversation. Our trusted leaders must speak up so that others can hear. We have to ensure that low-income communities of color are participating fully in their own futures. We have to simplify the message, and, we have to do it quickly.
I left New York both energized and weary. This is a disruptive moment in the trajectory of humanity. The choices we make now will define us for another century and longer. The urgency of this work is not matched by the requisite capacities and resources to fight on all the fronts we face.
But, as reflected in the immortal words of Horace Mann, at least I will not be ashamed of dying for trying.