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400,000 Marchers Sound the ‘Climate Alarm’ in New York City

Largest climate protest in history draws comparisons to the first Earth Day action in Manhattan 44 years ago

New York City: A massive river of humanity poured through the canyon of concrete called Manhattan this morning as the People’s Climate March kicked off. Advertised as the largest climate march in history, it was predicted that as many as 100,000 people would participate in the event. The actual turnout was four times as much.

Crowd shot of the People's Climate March in NYCPhoto by Annette BernhardtFrom those effected by Superstorm Sandy, to interfaith groups, to scientists and students and ethnic coalitions — every conceivable interest and identity group found its place behind various props, banners, and works of art at the People's Climate March in NYC today.

When I spoke with Senator Bernie Sanders earlier in morning, at a point when anyone would have been thrilled with 100,000 marchers, he was grinning ear to ear: "Success has been achieved. This is already a huge march. Best of all, many young people. We are going to send a loud message to Koch Brothers and their billionaire backers," he said.

Today’s event was the result of months of organizing and the participation of over 1,574 “partner organizations”  — from labor unions to faith groups to various social justice communities  — each of which turned out their members en masse. About 550 buses brought 25,000 people from all over the country. Many others took trains in, and then of course, there were the locals.

We marched today to send a very loud and clear message that citizens across the world are demanding action from their governments on climate change. Two days ahead of a United Nations Climate Summit in the city, marchers (including no less than the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon) hope to reinvigorate the climate movement and add momentum to the climate talks in Paris next December, where a binding global treaty on climate is supposed to be concluded. A similar effort failed in 2009 in Copenhagen. The stakes are high.

Earlier in morning, marchers assembled along 27 blocks on Central Park West, from 59th Street to 86th Street. The assembly zone felt like an ecosystem with countless niches. From those effected by Superstorm Sandy, to interfaith groups, to scientists and students and ethnic coalitions, every conceivable interest and identity group found its place behind various props, banners, and works of art.

At the head of the march was the group "Frontlines of Crisis, Forefront of Change" which included some of the people most hurt by climate change. Coryn Brito, volunteering for the Environmental Justice Club, said she turned up because her New York City community, the Bronx, has the highest rates of asthma in the country. Sondra Youdelman, executive director of Community Voices Heard, said that her organization of low-income union workers focuses on those living in public houses. "They have less resources so flooding is going to hurt them the most."

"I have 112 abandoned homes in my neighborhood. I am happy there are so many youth, but I'm not sure if people are listening," said Herbert Binger, a Jamaican who lives in Far Rockaway, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Renata Pumarol, with New York Communities for Change, said that her organization began to engage on the climate crisis after Sandy because for them, fighting for low-income communities and a livable planet are the same cause.

frontline communities lead the march Photo by Bjorn Philip BeerAt the head of the march was the group "Frontlines of Crisis, Forefront of Change," which
included people most hurt by climate change, such as victims of Hurricane Sandy.

It was no coincidence that historically marginalized communities, indigenous communities, and minorities made up the first group. March organizers had made it a mission to highlight those who have suffered most from extractive industries and climate change. The “People's Climate March Agreement," which was handed out to march organizers at planning meetings earlier this year, states that inclusiveness and diversity in this movement, and the march, "requires more than tokenism." Indeed, the genuine diversity of the marchers exceeded most expectations. A local New Yorker said it felt like Penn Station at rush hour.

Days ago, march organizers predicted as many as 10,000 parents would be bringing their kids. Intergenerational justice was on the minds of many. There were countless signs that professed "I'm marching for: the next generation." The problem of climate change is unique in that the real victims will be the generations following ours. I had the pleasure of speaking with Leo Polan, an eight-year-old, from New York. "My mom thought it would be good for me to come because it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for kids and grownups," he told me. "I want to stop gasoline cars from polluting, and I think each gas station should have a windmill." If only our nation's leaders could match Leo's creativity!

Faith-based groups were also out in full force. Marc Greenberg, the executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing is a practicing Buddhist, but his Jewish background informed his activism: "We have a phrase in Hebrew, tikkun olam, which means 'repairing the world.'"

As I wrote this dispatch sitting at a Times Square Starbucks in view of the march, I looked up and saw Reverend Sally Bingham standing in what looked like a giant wooden Noah's Ark. Bingham runs Interfaith Power & Light, an organization dedicated to mobilizing religious people across the country to put their faith into action. In an email exchange with me a few weeks ago she stressed: "No major cultural change has happened in this country without the voice of religious leaders. It is a justice issue and something that religious leaders of all denominations are called to address." (Later in the day, there was a multi-faith service, "Religions for the Earth," at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.)

Any denomination and creed you can think of was here at the march today, helping make the climate fight a moral cause, not just an economic and ecological one.

Two minutes before 1p.m., there was a moment of silence as the entire march ground to a halt. Everyone reached their arms high, some grabbing the hands of those next to them. At the strike of 1p.m., all marchers broke out in loud rallying cries, "sounding the climate alarm" by making as much noise as possible. The clamor was deafening. The 30 bands that joined in certainly added to the ruckus, which sent a shiver down my spine.

Late in the afternoon, march organizers released an initial count of 310,000 people based on the crowd density along the march route, but as the day wore on, there were reports of tens of thousands more protesters marching streaming down midtown Manhattan, outside the official route. At 5:00pm, organizers began asking marchers to disperse from the march route because the crowds had swelled beyond the route’s capacity.

Tibetan contingent, including a child, at the marchPhoto by Annette BernhardtThe Tibetan contingent at the march.March organizers predicted as many as 10,000 parents
would be bringing their kids. Intergenerational justice was on the minds of many.

Most marchers were in high spirits and optimistic about the future. But few had much hope that the upcoming UN climate summit would produce any concrete results, given that top leaders from several key nations, including Germany, Australia, China, and India would not be attending. One dreadlocked marcher, who requested his name not be used, looked more reserved than the multitude around him. "Honestly, I don’t think protests really work. We’re marching in the route they set out. I’m am just here out of…” he hesitated “…solidarity.” He said he planned to participate in some of the civil disobedience actions slated over the next two days. Tomorrow (Monday), hundreds of protestors plan to engage in acts of civil disobedience as they "flood Wall Street" and step up the pressure with "creative nonviolent direct action" during the actual UN meeting, which begins on Tuesday.

Certainly we all have days when we might give into pessimism in light of the facts. From 2012 to 2013, we saw more CO2 emissions than during any year since 1984. Our national political system is stuck in a gridlock, which makes implementing any significant climate policy next to impossible. And, to top it off, climate consciousness has to compete with other frightening events such as the Ebola virus outbreak and various violent regional conflicts across the globe. Marcher Bob Mason of Nashville, TN put it bluntly: "Since climate change doesn't execute journalists, it's hard to get attention and mobilization on the issue."

Seeing how around half of Americans — according to a recent Gallup poll — think that climate change is of no immediate concern, the enormity of the task of emissions reductions is humbling.

Yet, putting today’s march in historical context restores a sense of optimism. It’s been 44 years since another huge wave of ecologically-conscious protesters converged on New York City for the first Earth Day in 1970. According Denis Hayes, founder of the Earth Day Network, more than one million people attended that event in New York City. Joseph Lelyveld, reporting for New York Times, described the Earth Day as an “ecological carnival,” a celebration of an “exuberant rite of spring.” The air, we are told, “carried the unmistakable whiffs of marijuana." Many others, like Walter Cronkite on CBS News, were more reserved in their analysis: “No one now can know exactly how many took part,” the legendary journalist commented back then. “By one measurement, Earth Day failed. It did not unite...  Its demonstrators were predominantly young, predominantly white, predominantly anti-Nixon. Often its protests appeared frivolous, its protesters curiously carefree.” Back then, like today, no one could have predicted what would happen next.

With the clarity of hindsight, it was because of that public pressure — over 20 million people across the country turned out to celebrate Earth Day — the US Environmental Protection Agency was created. President Richard Nixon, not exactly an environmentalist, was compelled to sign a number of surprisingly progressive bills, including the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act. “I’d go so far as to say that, with the possible exception of the New Deal, it was the most fundamental restructuring of the ground rules of the American economic system that the nation has experienced” recalls Denis Hayes in the captivating People’s Climate March promotional movie Disruption,”

Drawing parallels between these two events, nearly half a century apart, gives cause for optimism. In fact, the People's Climate March and the movement behind it have the potential to be even more historic than Earth Day. "I was at Woodstock and Earth Day, and this has that [same] 'group mind' thing," said marcher Marc Greenberg. "This is your generation's Woodstock." Today, we saw less counterculture and more of a sophisticated middle-class coalition, he said. Back then "the cause was optional; today it is mandatory."

Perhaps the climate movement is more focused and serious. Leslie Cagan, a veteran organizer, said that today was different because the turnout was "diverse and dynamic, with all walks of life present." If only half of the people who attended today "do what they can," we may very well have something here, she said.

When I quite literally bumped into Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and the mastermind behind today's massive showing, I stuttered out the first question that came to my mind: Is this going to be bigger than Earth Day? "I think so," he said. "That's what we're working on here." 

Everyone here today thinks this is a historic march, but whether it makes history depends on what happens next. It all comes down to whether the people gathered here today can go home to do their part to build and broaden the climate movement. Can labor, faith, minority, and social justice groups continue to see their causes as being interwoven with our collective climate fate? Can students who have come from the 362 campuses across the country force their universities to divest endowments from fossil fuel holdings and engage their professors on some of the ridiculous assumptions of mainstream economics? Can those who didn’t attend in New York find ways to organize, protest, donate, and raise hell?  Can we all, personally and politically, start acting as if the challenge climate change poses is real?

One thing is certain: Although leaders from over 162 countries will be participating in the UN Climate Summit, history suggests that the real leaders are the thousands who marched today, as well as those who will protest tomorrow, and those who will organize over the months and years ahead. This broad coalition has the real potential to force long overdue action on climate change.

Björn Philip Beer
Björn Philip Beer is writer, in Charlottesville, VA. Follow him on Twitter at @BjornPhilipBeer

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