At least the war on the environment is going well’
Story and photos by TIM LEHNERT/ecoRI News contributor
It was an impressive turnout for the People’s Climate March in New York: some 310,000 people slogging through Midtown Manhattan to demand United Nations action on global warming. That total included nine busloads of Rhode Islanders who had departed at daybreak Sept. 21 from the Statehouse and the University of Rhode Island.
I boarded a yellow school bus on Smith Street along with my daughters, ages 12 and 9. (To my mind, those non-procrastinating marchers who had reserved early and gotten a comfy coach-bus ticket constituted our version of the 1 percent).
Our bus got stuck in traffic on a Bronx highway. As we sat there, our most boisterous member, a woman wearing jeans and a black top, led us in a call-and-response chant. Left side of the bus: “Get it started!” Right side: “Fire it up!” She also brought a roll of yellow tape that read, “White Collar Crime Scene Do Not Cross.” We needed someone like that; we were a pretty quiet bunch.
Our bus arrived late, but it didn’t matter; there was such a throng that things didn’t start promptly. Our group melted into the crowd once the doors opened at 84th Street. The Rhode Island contingent, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was scheduled to meet at 71st Street and Central Park West. Ninety minutes later, we were within a block, immobilized in a crowd underneath some scaffolding surrounding the Dakota Building.
That is where Willie, a white-haired protest-march veteran from Narragansett, happened upon us. He too was in search of the Rhode Island group. He saw our Rhode Island sign, and told me he had grown up in our Cranston neighborhood. He provided me some trivia on the role of the Dakota in the filming of the 1968 film “Rosemary’s Baby,” and then he was gone.
That was perhaps my favorite aspect of the day, the random chance encounters. Somebody gave us a small, handmade, blue and green cardboard bird and told us to pass it along. We carried it for several hours, and then gave it to some kids we met along the way.
At 6 p.m., we were sitting in our bus, tired and hungry, waiting to return home. My daughters held up tiny “You are awesome” notes to amuse the bored college students slumped on the sidewalk outside. The students laughed and one boarded our bus, handed my daughter a sunflower, and departed.
Earlier in the day, we had escaped from under the Dakota and had just gotten out into the clogged street when there was a moment of silence for people living in climate-crisis zones, those who have already experienced the significant effects of a changing climate. (Not long ago, I would have thought of people on small islands in the South Pacific, but there were residents of Queens, N.Y., and New Jersey at the march whose homes had been inundated in Hurricane Sandy).
The moment of silence was followed by a burst of shouting, whistling and drumming. My daughters and I repaired to Central Park for a protein-bar lunch, and rejoined the march as it moved along 59th street, now with a little breathing room. We never did find the Rhode Island group, but no matter, periodically current or expat Ocean Staters would see our sign and make our acquaintance.
It was billed as the People’s Climate March, and unlike a concert or festival, there were no stars up on stage before whom the masses were expected to bow. Sure, the usual suspects — Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting and Al Gore — were there, but I only learned as much the next day.
Still, while the march was multi-generational and multi-ethnic, and there were labor groups, Native American activists and faith-based communities present, it wasn’t a total cross-section of the population; after all, you needed the luxury of a completely free Sunday, as well as the means and organization to get to New York City.
Two days after the march, I spoke with URI physics professor Peter Nightingale, who captained one of the Rhode Island buses. A homeless man Nightingale talked to at the march told him that from his perspective, the marchers constituted the elite. It’s all relative, and perhaps the somewhat-stable middle class has the luxury (and obligation) of caring about such things.
The marchers were at their best when they were being creative: banging drums, playing bagpipes, and costuming themselves as chickens, polar bears and pigs. And there were the homemade signs. Some highlights:
• “Cook organic, not the planet”
• “Chicken Little was right”
• “Your grandchildren are more likely to die from climate change than terrorism”
• “The dinosaurs never saw the asteroids coming, what’s our excuse?”
• “At least the war on the environment is going well “
• "Next time there’s a solar energy spill, let me know”
• "Climate change — those who deny it, supply it”
Of course, the matter of climate change is deadly serious. Naomi Klein writes of the carbon debt we have accumulated. It’s no longer a matter of making some changes around the margins so that bad things don’t happen in some distant future; we need to start paying the Earth back now for the damage already wrought.
True, and many people acknowledge as much; still the mood at the march was genial and there were good vibes throughout the day. Humor may be a way to diffuse a reality, and a future, that can make one feel scared, depressed, angry and helpless. Nightingale told me that as a member of Fossil Free Rhode Island and the Westerly Raging Grannies, he often shows up at meetings, hearings and protests in a rainbow wig, happy to “look like a total nutcase.”
My younger daughter posed the question that surely occurs to everyone: Does a protest make a difference? March organizers wanted people to flood the streets to show the U.N. that there is widespread support for addressing climate change.
And people responded; I saw signs from Michigan, Virginia, Texas and Saskatchewan (“Little population, big problem”). President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were implored to get it right on Keystone, the Alberta tar sands and fracking.
Will the elites act? Immediately, probably not. More than 300,000 people — plus hundreds of thousands in parallel marches in cities around the world — is a lot, but the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York draws 3 million people.
The entrenched opposition to action on climate change is substantial. As we walked past the mammoth, impersonal corporate towers on Sixth Avenue, their tops were obscured by fog. Next day, no doubt, it was business as usual on the 50th floor.
When we got near the end of the march, an organizer told us that the finish point had become congested and suggested that we disperse early. We walked down to the ferry terminal off the West Side Highway and used the bathroom. We continued from there on our trek to the pick-up point, and soon came upon the “VIP Heliport” behind some chain-link fence covered with green tarp. The noise was deafening. We peered in and observed a middle-aged woman in yoga pants get in a helicopter and take off. Evidently, there is work to be done.
One could dismiss the People’s Climate March as a feel-good event for the already converted. Nightingale concedes that if the march is just a one-day blip, then not much has been accomplished. He suggests, however, that a collective event is energizing — that marchers will return home and engage further. I think he’s right. Maybe it’s a like a religious service, you spend time with people who believe in something similar, and that can inspire you to do a little better, particularly if you are someone like me who is just muddling through.
Some argue that the Climate March was too safe. It was orchestrated well in advance, with extensive consultations with city officials and the NYPD. Are the powers-that-be saying, “We’ll give you Sunday, have your march, get it out of your system, then you can go home and it’s back to growth at any cost.”
Perhaps, but it’s simply not possible to stage something on such a massive scale without addressing logistics. Planning is essential in creating a really big tent, where all kinds of people can come together, if just for one day.
Participation in a mass event doesn’t preclude more radical, direct action, and that was what happened on Monday following the official march. One thousand activists affiliated with Flood Wall Street occupied New York’s financial district. That protest ended, perhaps predictably, with pepper spray and 100 arrests. We didn’t see any such confrontations on Sunday, and I was thankful for that, but my hat is off to those who put themselves in harm’s way once the big party was over.