Over 310,000 people filled the streets for the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. Freelance reporter/photographer Katie Moore was there and filed this report.
The People’s Climate March, which took over a wide swath of midtown Manhattan on September 21st, was billed as the largest climate march in history before it even took place. And the projection turned out to be right with over 310,000 people participating in the march, timed two days before the U.N. Climate Summit. But it wasn’t just a numbers game. The power also resided in the diversity of the voices present. The march was organized into six broad contingencies with indigenous and environmental justice groups leading the way. They were followed by labor activists, mainstream environmental organizations, anti-capitalists, scientists, and community groups. Field organizer Garrett O’Connor commented, “The organizations participating in the march are many, and the central focus of their everyday work varies greatly. Some are focused on immigration reform, universal healthcare, police violence, LGBT rights, and the list goes on. The march has given space to these groups to interact with each other and understand that climate issues affect everyone.”
On the ground, despite being packed in at many places, it was difficult to realize the scope of the march which stretched for over 25 blocks. But there was an energy in meeting people who had come from across the country and hearing different calls of action which ranged from veganism to investments in renewable energy to revolution. Thousands of signs were made that read “I’m Marching For ________” that people then filled in with their own responses which included “the future,” “mother earth,” “food sovereignty,” “penguins,” “U.N. action,” “gross national happiness,” and “all our children.”
At 12:58 p.m. there was a moment of silence for the victims of climate change, and at 1 p.m. there was a wave of sound that erupted symbolizing the climate alarm. The march made its way downtown for over a mile and wound down at 34th Street and 11th Avenue. There people could write what they wanted to protect from climate change on ribbons which were hung in a temporary installation. In the march’s attendance were big names such as Al Gore, Ban Ki-moon, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Ruffalo.
Despite some disagreements over issues such as the march’s route (which did not go by the U.N) and the inclusion of some groups (such as both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear groups), the march was declared a success with over 1,000 organizations participating and no reported arrests. Worldwide, the call for climate change action spawned over 2,800 solidarity events in 166 countries. In Berlin, Germany, marcher Laura Thépot remarked, “I’m very interested in the outcome of our planet’s health, even more so since my little boy was born. I would like to ensure that he has a healthy future. In any case, if this march goes down in history like they say it will, we can be proud to tell our son that this was his first demo.” Back in New York, hundreds of events were coordinated the week of the U.N. Summit including panel talks, teach-ins, and art exhibits.
The morning after the march approximately 2,500 people gathered in Battery Park in lower Manhattan for a follow-up action called Flood Wall Street. There they heard from author Chris Hedges, and climate activists from around the world. Organizers Lisa Fithian and Monica Hunken led the group in a short nonviolent direct action training and a song was introduced which went:
The people gonna rise with the water
We gonna calm this crisis down
I hear the voice of my great granddaughter
Singing shut down Wall Street now
The protest was formed to hone in on the role of corporations who contribute and profit from climate change. Marchers carried signs that read “Capitali$m has no solutions for climate change” and “Stop climate chaos” and many had committed to being arrested in an act of civil disobedience. The group marched a couple of blocks north to the Wall Street bull where they sat down in the street. Surprisingly, they were allowed to stay, blocking traffic for many hours. As the National Lawyers Guild took down the names of those willing to be arrested, the protesters sang, danced, and ordered pizza. Around 3:30 in the afternoon, they decided to get up and march further, which took them to the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway. Despite a brief scuffle with the NYPD and the deployment of pepper spray as protesters attempted to get further down Wall Street, the group held the space into the evening, chalking messages on the street and speaking about what brought them out. Around 7:30 p.m. police officers began making arrests after issuing dispersal warnings. 102 people were arrested including a man dressed in a life-like polar bear costume (which immediately produced memes including one reading “Polar bear seeks refuge from melting Arctic, gets arrested at #FloodWallStreet”).
Although the outcries concerning climate change were heard globally, the effect of the march is yet to be determined. While the leaders of the world talk about what to do at the U.N. and institutions like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund take positive steps to divest from fossil fuels (announced the day after the march), the movement for climate change action will have to grow, learn, and mobilize; and quickly if the 2 degree Celsius temperature increase scientists have warned about is to be averted. That means the movement must use the energy from the march as a starting point, perhaps even a tipping point of awareness and action. The change that is needed will take ideas and voices on the grassroots level. It will take both mainstream and more radical tactics. It will take collaboration and compromise. It will take personal responsibility and continued pressure on the major polluters of the world. It will take a shift in power and priorities. It will take outrage, celebration, and hope. At one point during Flood Wall Street protesters began chanting “We believe that we will win!” It was an ambitious and broad statement to be sure, but in the moment, after witnessing hundreds of thousands of people from across the country join together in the march and knowing that some of them are willing to engage in nonviolent direct action, it felt like it could be realized. After all, the future depends on it.
Photographs by Katie Moore