Hundreds of Thousands of Climate Marchers Make History

Sunday’s climate change protest in New York was bigger than the 1963 March on Washington. What’s next?

Cole Stangler

Organizers are reporting that 400,000 marched in the streets of New York on Sunday, and thousands are descending on Wall Street today. (Flickr / Stephen Melkisethia)

The People’s Cli­mate March wasn’t just the biggest envi­ron­men­tal protest ever.

As the planet’s carbon problem has become more dire, mainstream green groups are developing a penchant for direct action.

If the esti­mates of orga­niz­ers are cor­rect, then the 400,000 peo­ple who marched in Man­hat­tan on Sun­day took part in one of the largest mass mobi­liza­tions in Amer­i­can his­to­ry — more than the March on Wash­ing­ton and right up there with the biggest of the anti-Iraq and Viet­nam war rallies.

I feel so tiny right now, but I feel like I’m a part of some­thing huge,” says Eri­ka Weiskopf, a stu­dent at Swarth­more Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, who came to the march with dozens of class­mates. It’s amaz­ing to be here with peo­ple who have the same pri­or­i­ties that I do. It’s nice to not feel alone.”

We real­ly need to do some­thing now,” says Ryan Wade, who took a bus to the ral­ly from Philadel­phia. Cli­mate change is already hap­pen­ing. It’s start­ing to impact us and it’s only going to get worse.”

Ini­ti­at­ed by 350​.org and the online advo­ca­cy group Avaaz — and planned to coin­cide with a piv­otal Unit­ed Nations envi­ron­men­tal sum­mit — the People’s Cli­mate March pieced togeth­er a gigan­tic coali­tion that exem­pli­fied a big tent.”

Indige­nous and front-line” com­mu­ni­ty groups already deal­ing with the effects of cli­mate change led the march. Next came high-pro­file pub­lic offi­cials like New York City May­or Bill de Bla­sio, Unit­ed Nations Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Green groups like Food & Water Watch turned out mem­bers in droves. So too did local unions like Team­sters Joint Coun­cil 16, the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion, Trans­port Work­ers Union Local 100, and Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union locals 32BJ and 1199. Anti-cap­i­tal­ists of all stripes trailed behind, in a pro­ces­sion that stretched near­ly four miles.

It’s incred­i­bly impor­tant to show that hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple are uni­fied in want­i­ng to see action tak­en and that is what’s most impor­tant about this,” says May Boeve, exec­u­tive direc­tor of 350​.org. We haven’t been able to do that before.”

The march also under­lined an ongo­ing, ground­break­ing shift in U.S. envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­tics: As the planet’s car­bon prob­lem has become more dire, main­stream green groups are devel­op­ing a pen­chant for direct action.

It is true that in recent years there was a reluc­tance from the Sier­ra Club to do these kinds of larg­er, nation­al events,” says Sier­ra Club Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Michael Brune, who famous­ly end­ed the group’s long­stand­ing ban on civ­il dis­obe­di­ence when he tied him­self to the White House gate and was arrest­ed at a Key­stone XL protest on Feb­ru­ary 13. I think as new peo­ple have come on, we real­ized that is a role we have to play.”

I asked Brune what he thought of Nao­mi Klein’s lat­est book, which argues we need to ditch cap­i­tal­ism to save the planet.

I think we do need to see a more rapid [inclu­sion] of eco­nom­ic, social and polit­i­cal val­ues that will enable us to address com­mon caus­es,” Brune says. What we call the eco­nom­ic sys­tem that emerges from that, that’s unclear to me. But I think Naomi’s cri­tiques are strong and valu­able and some of the solu­tions she offers are prac­ti­cal and helpful.”

Despite the march’s impres­sive size, and the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al head­lines it gen­er­at­ed, ques­tions linger over its over­all impact.

The march had no offi­cial set of demands, and a quick stroll along the slow-mov­ing pro­ces­sion revealed a cacoph­o­nous mix of mes­sages. Posters stat­ed every­thing from Cook Organ­ic — Not the plan­et,” Car­bon Tax Now,” No Coal Exports” and Stop Cap­i­tal­ism” to Horse Abuse Is Not Roman­tic — Stop Horse Abuse.”

Some on the Left have derid­ed the action as lit­tle more than a PR stunt, designed to fundraise rather than build a movement.

Oth­ers wor­ry the march will not trans­late into any­thing concrete.

May Boeve, from 350​.org, dis­agrees. Plen­ty of those who made the trek to New York are already engaged on issues in their home­towns, she says, and con­nect­ing with a larg­er move­ment will give those cam­paigns a boost.

Mass mobi­liza­tions play a par­tic­u­lar role, which is, we get to see each oth­er in the move­ment,” Boeve says. We get to be wowed and amazed by what we’re capa­ble of, by how we’re grow­ing. That gets trans­lat­ed into vic­to­ries on a num­ber of key fronts.”

Cli­mate week in New York isn’t over just yet. Today, three years after Occu­py Wall Street, thou­sands of pro­test­ers are expect­ed to Flood Wall Street,” risk­ing arrest at the New York Stock Exchange. The mes­sage: Stop Cap­i­tal­ism. End the Cli­mate Crisis.”

Al Gore prob­a­bly won’t be there.

Cole Stan­gler writes about labor and the envi­ron­ment. His report­ing has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Repub­lic and Inter­na­tion­al Busi­ness Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at] Fol­low him @colestangler.
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