Peter and I got off the subway at 42nd Street because I wanted to stop at Times Square to see some civil disobedience. I’d read on Gothamist that the People’s Climate March organizers had compromised with the NYPD after months of negotiations over the permit. When organizers agreed not to lead the march through Times Square, the NYPD loosened up and granted official permission for the thousands converging on the city to take to the streets.
The city had recently witnessed some unscheduled mass demonstration. After a Missouri cop shot Michael Brown dead in the streets last August and the people of Ferguson came out to express their outrage, solidarity rallies sprung up all over the country. Scanning Twitter on the night that demonstrators sat in Times Square and shut down traffic, I wanted nothing more than to be there with them. That was real disruption. Maybe there would be some dissent lingering in the square a month later.
“It looks pretty much as fucking horrible and normal as it always does,” I said.
“Well, these little street stands aren’t normally here, I wonder what this is.” Peter works in midtown. We stood outside a joint called Oren’s that he sometimes goes to for coffee. “There’s like barbecues and smokers set up.” No sign of disobedience, just tourists sitting on little chairs set up by the curb eating artisanal cheeses from pop-up shops. “Where is everybody?” I asked plaintively.
“There they are,” said Peter gesturing up towards 42nd where a column of 400,000 people paraded down the street.
“Oh,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Police were set up at every intersection on the route. They stretched plastic ribbons along the crosswalk at waist height to control the flow of traffic. On each of the successive avenues, all the way to 11th, cars idled for marchers carrying picket signs and flags. We fell into formation in front of the “Youth Choose” contingent and a banner reading “Our Future, Our Choice.” Another read “1% – Hands Off Our Future.” They wore brightly colored capes and face paint and carried vuvuzelas.
The first sign I saw said “Cut Human Population in Half.” “Well, shit,” said Peter. “That will solve some problems.”
I walked up to a girl wearing a white lab coat, distributing neon green pamphlets. She handed me one. “Rx to CONGRESS: EXPEDITE RENEWABLE ENERGY.” I asked her what she was up to and she launched into a rap with a rehearsed tone that I recognized from my days of standing on a street corner with a clipboard imploring people to ‘take a minute for civil liberties.’
The idea was to “reduce fossil fuels and start focusing more on the environment than focusing on, you know, blowing up things over across the seas.” A noble enough goal. Environmental destruction, she says, will claim far more lives than AIDS and cancer and the effects are already being felt more strongly in places like China and India. “We gotta do something, or else.”
Peter circled around taking pictures of the scene while I talked to her. He quickly intuited that the longer he trained his camera on the person I was interviewing the more they clammed up. Something about the little tape recorder I got from Radio Shack two days before made people lean into it and talk. But the camera made them uneasy. When looking through the photos we got that day I saw one shot Peter took of the lab coat canvasser. She was casting a sidelong glance directly into the lens with an uneasy look while I asked her colleague a question. With a camera and a recorder, we were actually treated like the press — and therefore with the utmost suspicion.
The impression I’d gotten from the Gothamist article is that the march route was going to steer clear of Time Square and technically it did, heading east at Columbus Square, then south on 6th Ave, then west on 42nd Street at Bryant Park. And while I was hoping to see some action, this particular complaint seemed to me like a distinction without a difference. I walked up to a cop and tried to ask why the route had been detoured. “This is Time Square,” he said and then ushered me and several others onto the sidewalk.
There was a pleasant atmosphere among the demonstrators who, at least in this segment of the column, were mostly white, college-aged kids. I kept thinking of the Chris Hedges article in TruthDig at the end of August, wherein he called this event a “climate-themed street fair.”
“Our only hope comes from radical groups descending on New York to carry out direct action … March if you want. But it should be the warm-up. The real fight will come once people disperse on 11th Avenue.”
We weaved through the marchers at a pace towards 11th.
I spotted an older man holding two pieces of cardboard that read “Ban Oil, Gas, Coal” and “Civil Disobedience Is The Only Way.” His name was Bill and his son is a PhD in environmental science.
“I am in favor of civil disobedience if that is what it will take to slow down the growth of the fossil fuel industry.”
“Do you think this is civil disobedience?” I asked.
“No,” he said. The march was radical but it wasn’t what he had in mind. “Civil disobedience, to me, would mean stopping all the cars on the road … You’re making a big stink. You’re not taking action.”
As we talked, marchers passed by us shouting the standard “Hey hey, ho ho” cadence of festival protests.
“After this march, go down to Flood Wall Street tomorrow so nobody can go to work! Civil disobedience means you block the New Jersey Turnpike so nobody can drive on it.”
Bill says we need to “speed it up,” referring to action to combat global warming. He’s been involved in environmental activism since he was a kid. He asked me if I’d ever heard of Reverend Billy and, thinking he was talking about the late conman Mr. Graham, I demurred. “He’s a guy that does serious protests. He was in jail yesterday for protesting.” Turns out “Reverend Billy” is a performance artist named Bill Talen who leads “The Church of Stop Shopping” in anti-consumerist and pro-environment rallies internationally. He was around during Occupy Wall Street.
“Now I haven’t gone that far,” Bill says referring to Talen’s arrest, “but I admire him.” Would he be willing to get handcuffs slapped on him? “I can put it this way. My son is an environmental scientist. In Virginia, in a recent election, a Republican running wanted to fire the leading environmental scientist from the University of Virginia and he got 47% of the vote. If it means my son having a job or my being arrested, I’d prefer to be arrested.”
He was referring to the “Climategate” scandal at UVA that lead to the sacking of President Teresa Sullivan before her reinstatement two weeks later. Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli is the Republican in question who lost the governor’s race in 2013. Bill’s answer didn’t exactly fill me with activist fervor. It just sounded personal, or — if I may — local rather than global. And this coming from a purported advocate of civil disobedience.
A recent George Mason poll found that only 13% of Americans would be willing to get arrested during the fight to stop climate change. That’s with the curious caveat, “if they were asked by a person they liked and respected.” Presumably that percentage drops if the call to action is made by an abrasive stranger.
Each time I picked an individual to stop and talk to several hundred people streamed past. We were on the banks of a 42nd Street river. I cast a line over to two young women with painted faces named Patty and Anna, two recent graduates from University of Minnesota Twin Cities. They carried a sign reading “Resist! Love Your Mama.”
“We drove twenty four hours on a bus! There were six busses that came out from Minneapolis … with a plethora of organizations and universities. All kinds of different affiliations.”
“We need a cultural paradigm shift for us to keep living on the planet in harmony with all other living things and that’s not happening right now,” said Patty.
“Start a dialogue, get visible,” Anna chimed in. “What we want this demonstration to do is inspire people and motivate people enough to go back to their local communities and start doing work there.”
“Intensify local initiatives that are already happening,” Patty added. Peter stepped in and asked for a photo. These two women were there on their own initiative and while their statements seemed sound byte-ready, I could tell they weren’t just giving me planned talking points. But when I put to them the question I asked most everyone I interviewed — Are you optimistic that this march is going to help? — they said they were hopeful that this would inspire people to go back home and do something substantive.
Further down the street I saw a lanky young man, Ben, handing out a leaflets. I asked what it was. “It’s a socialist perspective on the environment?” he intoned, handing it to me. It was titled “Save the Planet from Capitalist Destruction!”
“We are saying that the problem is capitalism. The way the economy is structured to secure profits is leading to environmental destruction. We need to change the way the economy and society function.”
I asked him if he thought that change was possible. “I think that it’s very encouraging that so many people are showing up, but I have some differences with the way the march is organized. It actually involves a lot of participation from big corporations and politicians and people that are actually part of the problem. So I don’t think this will change anything in the short term.”
Ben wasn’t kidding. Here’s Chris Hedges again:
“Some of the groups backing the march are little more than corporate fronts. The Climate Group, for example, which endorses the march, includes among its members and sponsors BP, China Mobile, Dow Chemical Co., Duke Energy, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Greenstone. The Environmental Defense Fund, which says it ‘work[s] with companies rather than against them’ and which is calling on its members to join the march, has funding from the oil and gas industry and supports fracking as a form of alternative energy.”
At the very least, this probably means BP and Dow Chemical will try to exploit the march for good press as they can claim to be on the side of environmental action. But since the march organizers wrote no charter, planned no speeches, and have no specific platform, what does this corporate backing actually buy? “Their presence,” Hedges says, “exposes the marches failure to adopt a meaningful agenda or pose a genuine threat to power.” So it’s not that they signed on to trick 400,000 people into marching in favor of burning fossil fuels. Rather, the very fact that these groups endorsed the march is proof that they’re not afraid of it. It’s like signing a petition you disagree with because you know the petition won’t amount to anything.
“I think it’s going to take militant action by unions, by working people against the bankers, against the big corporations and the governments that are giving the OK for environmental destruction and damaging policies like fracking, which Obama supports,” Ben went on to say. I asked him how he defined “militant action” and he said we need more protests with clear demands, “strike action, and even more revolutionary action.”
The leaflet promoted an organization called “Worker’s Power,” a “revolutionary, communist organization … in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky.” It wasn’t any more keen on specifics than Ben was. “Lines of direct communication and international solidarity actions uniting union bodies and federations across national borders exist and have occurred. … Should the working class and its organizations take advantage of their collective strength and take militant action, they could shut down key sectors of the fossil-fuel industry.” It certainly sounds like a dry old Leninist sheet. There’s a hammer and sickle insignia printed at the bottom of it. But I don’t think the vagueness in their leaflets indicates some covert strategy they’re waiting to reveal to the public. It makes me think they’re not sure how to step up the pressure, either.
I asked him if he was among the 13% percent of Americans who said they’d willing to be arrested for civil disobedience. “Yeah, sure.”
At this point Peter and I happened across a group of young men and women with fruit and vegetables taped to their heads. I leaned up against the barricade and held my recorder out to them.
“Could you tell me a little bit about your, uh…form of protest?”
Peter helped me out. “You have the best outfits we’ve seen today.”
“Well, thank you,” said a young man named Thomas who wore a cape and held a halved gourd. “We are Vegetable Warriors.”
Finally, some real militants.
“It’s troubling, the kind of solutions people come up to deal with climate change. And one is genetically engineered plants. And they’ve just taken it too far, and now we’re alive and fighting back.”
“It’s also the same corporations that do harm to the environment that do the modifying,” said a young woman named Nephele wearing cabbage epaulets on either shoulder, linking Monsanto to the fossil fuel industry. I didn’t know where to begin when trying to verify that claim.
“Where are you guys coming from today?”
“Uh, the Vegetable Kingdom.”
“Where might I find that?”
Nephele was from Greece. Denise, holding a cornstalk and wearing the pineapple helmet, was from Chile.
The oldest of the bunch, David from Maine, was sporting carrot forelocks. “I just showed up here in the beginning, just on my own, and I then saw these guys putting on vegetables and fruits. And so I asked them, you know, can I join in? And they were like, Yeah! And so that’s how I became a Vegetable Warrior.”
Peter snapped a couple pictures. I genuinely didn’t want to sound like I was mocking them but when I reviewed the shots later it was clear to me that they were not exactly pleased with my tone or line of questioning.
Were the Canapé Crusaders optimistic?
“The real impact comes after the fact. If it’s something that gets reiterated every day, not necessarily marches but the habits that are instilled that are productive. The aim of this march was towards policy makers who are not listening. And it probably won’t open their ears enough but I think the demonstrations that could happen afterward, where civilly disobedient or not, will open them up a little bit.”
I began to slump when hearing yet again that the best thing that would come out of this march was the desire for more marches, but I perked up at the phrase “civilly disobedient.” Do we need more radical, militant action? Even the self-styled “warriors” wouldn’t pick up that mantle. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but it seemed to me like the Greek Nephele and Chilean Denise were particularly at pains to avoid the title of “militant.”
David did made an interesting point (after a brief aside on the innate capacity for language possessed by plants that he admitted sounded “ridiculous.”) “When it comes to militance, I don’t see why you can’t do that and this. There’s this idea of collective effort, the idea that if you get everyone together you can fight apathy. Because global warming is so damaging and so overwhelming … it’s hard for us to even imagine.”
I asked if any of them would be willing to get arrested for their beliefs. They answered in the affirmative, though Denise said “I’d rather be arrested in my own country than here.” That’s a stark indictment of our justice system, coming from a young woman who must have grown up hearing about Pinochet’s deseparecidos and still would rather take her chances with the cops back home than get locked in an American prison.
Shortly after meeting the sentient produce I walked up to a young man carrying a sign that read “Eating Animals Is Destroying The Planet – Eat Like You Give a Damn.” He was the first of many vegan activists who marched on September 21st. The vegan crowd, it seemed to me, actually had something to add to the argument. I’d wager that most Americans can probably rehearse the basic scientific arguments for the threat of global climate change, from the Greenhouse Gas Effect to the Hockey Stick. The truth of the devastation visited upon the environment by the meat and dairy industry is, shall we say, more inconvenient.
“I think it’s pretty simple,” Tim the Vegan told me. “We eat a lot of meat in this country and throughout the world and the way it’s produced is both torturous to the animals — they live short, miserable lives of terrible suffering in bad conditions — and the environmental effects are catastrophic, frankly.”
According to a February 2009 article in Scientific American, “our diets and, specifically, the meat in them cause more greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and the like to spew into the atmosphere than either transportation or industry.” These conclusions were based on a report from the United Nations’ own Food and Agriculture Organization. Of all the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, animal consumption accounts for 14.5%. Research from the Environmental Research Letters journal calls for humans to cut their animal product intake by half.
It’s estimated that only 3.2% of Americans follow a vegan diet. About 10% more say they have a largely vegetarian diet. These are self-reported numbers, and as someone himself who has been trying to limit his fauna intake, I wonder how many of the respondents caved and ate a burger the same week the study was published. Further complicating matters, I think, is that the study comes from a publication called Vegetarian Times and the sample size was a small but significant 5,050 people. It’s the same trepidation I feel when reading what must be the vastly inflated proportion of churchgoers in this country. But if it is, in any case, an accurate figure, that that means of the 400,000 marchers who came out to protest, only 13,000 of them were putting their activism where their mouth is.
“It’s the easiest way for any individual to drastically reduce their personal contribution to climate change,” Tim said. Much more effective than turning off the lightbulb when you’re not in the room. Following the trend, he was impressed by the turnout but “cautiously optimistic” about what the march would accomplish.
We made it to 11th Ave where the stream of marchers formed a kind of human tide pool. So-called “Peacekeepers” for the People’s Climate March were directing people to push back into midtown the next block down. A human chain had formed at the intersection to keep people from straying downtown. It was my first opportunity to talk to someone directly associated with the march organizers. I intended on asking where things were headed from there. But as I approached her, she waved me off. “I don’t want to be interviewed or anything.” Then she turned her back on us.
I shrugged at Peter. “Fair enough.” It was the first time anyone declined to talk all day.
Undeterred, I walked up to a tall, bearded guy wearing rollerblades and one of the orange t-shirts all the organizers had on. He glided around the intersection like a figure skater doing a routine about traffic conductors.
“Are you guys directing people back into midtown, not to go down 11th?”
“Uh, well, NYPD are getting super… I’m also not supposed to give interviews.”
“Is that from the organizers? Who said you’re not supposed to?”
“No, it’s just general good practice. I can’t comment one way or another.”
“But we do need to lessen the congestion down there and to open this avenue up.”
An older man walked up and asked if this was the end of the march.
“No!” said the organizer magnanimously. “There’s a block party going on still.”
I have to say I was a little confused. The volunteers were clearly warned not to talk to the press. I can’t speculate as to why they’d want to play such a public hand so close to the chest. Maybe they wanted to keep everyone on message? Or — given the vagueness of that message — prevent volunteers from getting too specific.
I managed to accidentally get an interview with Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change. She told me about a plan to get companies and countries to agree to a carbon pricing plan. (They later announced some encouraging figures.)
“We’re here today with our colleagues from all over the world marching because the gap between what people on the streets are saying and what people on the negotiating rooms are doing has got to be closed. The urgency from the streets has got to be felt in the negotiating room — so we’re in both, and we’re trying to close that gap.”
Rachel Kyte has undoubtedly done more for substantial action on climate change through her own professional efforts than anyone I talked to. Was she optimistic? “I don’t think that this kind of coming together of people from every walk of life has been felt on the streets for quite some time. And the pictures from Sydney and Melbourne and Auckland and Chicago and London and Dublin and Berlin and Paris are incredible. And I haven’t felt this kind of energy for awhile. And it’s young people marching and they’re asking for clean energy, they’re asking for clean air, they’re asking for a carbon price, they’re asking for rational economic choices in the face of pollution. I don’t see how this cannot be responded to.”
Then there was Brynn, a registered nurse since 1976, who came four hours from Pennsylvania representing the Physicians for Social Responsibility. He was wearing maroon scrubs and his sign read “Climate Change Is A Health Crisis.” “The polls have shown that public attitude is starting to accept the facts of climate change despite Fox News and right-wing apologists and politicians. It’ll take time. But I think our country made tremendous changes on women in the workforce and gay issues.”
“It’s the forces that are fighting this that make it more difficult than it needs to be.”
I started chatting with a woman named Haley, who wore a button that said “EcoSocialist.” She wasn’t a member of any organization. Someone handed her the button when she was walking down the street.
“I’m joining because I believe in it, of course. It’s very moving to see all these thousands and thousands of people. People are not fooled, are they? They know what the situation is.” She lived in New York but her family was marching in London. (She had one of those accents we colonials are so susceptible to.)
Haley was encouraged, she said, “particularly with an administration like Obama’s because he’s very conscious and sensitive. And I think he’s very well aware of the situation, anyway. It’s big business, isn’t it?”
Isn’t it, indeed. But one begins to wonder: what is the purpose, exactly, of raising awareness of an issue that everyone, including the President of the United States and the UN Secretary General, was already well acquainted with? One of the chants we heard that day went like this:
Hey! Obama! You talked the talk, now walk the walk!
At this point I was beginning to experience my own energy crisis. It was a grey, humid day. The rain was politely holding off until the parade was over but it felt like we were inside a greenhouse. A lot of the congestion on 11th was from exhausted marchers sprawled out on the sidewalk. I turned to Peter. “Do you want to get a beer?”
Salmon-like, we doubled back on 42nd against the stream.
I was quietly bemoaning the lack of strife and civil disobedience when a police officer approached me from behind. Peter had snapped a shot of him and his partner as we’d walked past.
“Are you taking pictures for recreational purposes?”
In a pitch higher than I thought my vocal chords could register, I stammered “Yes” then “No” then “Not exactly.” Peter swung back and calmly replied, “We’re freelancers.” (He’s a natural, I say.)
“Oh, okay,” said the cop. “You guys looked important.”
We paused to talk with him and he said that this was the most peaceful protest he’d seen since he was on the force. This was a young cop, mind you, and bold tattoo patterns peeked out from under the sleeves of his uniform. But if everyone else here had the radical, anti-authority instincts I’d just displayed, I imagine things stayed pretty peaceful at the People’s Climate March.
We passed a crew of 9/11 “Truthers,” that deranged lot who always turn up at these protests like estranged relatives at the reading of a great auntie’s last will and testament. I thought it would be a lark to ask one of them what their conspiracy theory could possibly have to do with climate change. (The answer wasn’t worth transcribing.)
There was a faction of chanting black-shirts in the crowd at this point and one of them had fashioned a bandana and hood into a makeshift balaclava. I don’t know if they were going for that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria vibe, but they sure looked the part. Didn’t manage to get an interview, I’m afraid.
Peter got a shot of a man dressed as a polar bear posing for photos with passersby. I’m pretty sure I later saw that Polar Bear on Twitter getting arrested by the NYPD at one of the Flood Wall Street sit-ins, where, as Hedges predicted, there was some minor civil disturbance.
The only bit of trouble I saw the whole day was when we passed two men angrily shouting in each other’s faces. A lot of profanity went back and forth before another marcher pulled one of the men away.
“What was that all about?” I asked the guy still standing on the sidewalk. Apparently the others were carrying signs about the Israeli Defense Force’s horrific bombing campaign in Gaza. He shouted something about where Hamas’ money comes from. Some global heat you just can’t get away from.
An hour later, we were drinking beers in Bryant Park. Despite the carnival disruption of the afternoon, a pleasant but typical evening descended on the city. Groups lounging on the grass, tourists taking pictures, music playing at a courteous volume from the speakers at the outdoor café. “Back to business as usual,” said Peter. “Some added refuse on the sidewalk, some float props, but Bryant Park is as beautiful and manicured as ever.” That’s the difficulty with trying to confront an abstract challenge. It’s easy to go back to normal.
A couple days after I came back to Philadelphia I discussed the march with my dad. He was about my age when he went to Woodstock and, I’m proud to say, stuck around until the end to hear Hendrix. There is a function to these kinds of gatherings, he said. It’s the solidarity and excitement that’s fostered from seeing a whole bunch of people who feel the same way all assembled the same place.
“But,” he said, “that doesn’t necessarily translate into political change.”
Then one night a couple weeks ago I went to the Free Library of Philadelphia where I’d learned Henry Kissinger would be flogging his new book. I posted myself near the entrance and handed out leaflets that gave a brief summary of some of war crimes the old toad committed while in the service of two American presidents. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while people filed in, so too appeared a small group of a dozen or so people to protest Kissinger’s appearance at the library. It was a ragtag contingent but a rowdy one and I happily joined in once I ran out of leaflets. I felt genuinely buoyed by the spontaneously assembled picket line. I expected to be the lone weirdo taking a stand, but I learned I wasn’t alone. It was only afterwards while walking home under a light drizzle that my enthusiasm began to wane. Our side has been hassling Kissinger for decades. But what is there to show for it?
On the website for the People’s Climate March right now there is a video boasting in bold white letters, “WE MADE HISTORY.” Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is seen addressing an audience, saying, “I hope the peoples of the world listened.”
I wonder if anyone else is sick of hearing world leaders call for hope and optimism as if they were solutions in and of themselves. Maybe we should stop pretending we’re hopeful and resolute and admit to each other that really we’re quite disillusioned and pretty pissed off. When the hope breaks down into despair and the optimism turns to desperation, perhaps people will actually start behaving as if the odds are really against us.