One Marcher's Reflections on New York's People's Climate March

The People's Climate March ran its course, leaving in the wake of all those banners and drums a wobbly sense of accomplishment. Even the most ardent marchers, I suspect, doubt that the demonstration will have a real impact -- climate change is upon us and the powers that be are inveterately inactive, no matter the enormity of the crisis. But hope springs eternal, and even an exercise in large-scale futility is better than none.

It’s worth noting that there are degrees of futility. It’s not an all-or-nothing scenario. The march is not a failure just because it falls short of revolution. Who knows, maybe it will get the ball rolling? If nothing else, the march drives home our collective inconsequence and reveals just how unresponsive politicians and industry are to popular will. When we perish from superstorm and drought and flood and firestorm, we can play a major I-told-you-so card.

Like thousands of other marchers, I was driven by guilt as much as conviction. Nothing so motivates a man as undeniable displays of other peoples’ motivation. I mean, if the hobbled old lady made the trip by bus from Georgia, I could probably leave Brooklyn and make my way to the Upper West Side. So uptown I went, but not quite as far as the thousands of out-of-towners blithely aboard the express train. Next stop 125th Street!

It was a march more by name than nature. For the first 90 minutes, it was more of a People's Climate Standathon. Stuck in a motionless throng, I admired the stately buildings along the park, the ultrawealthy apartments and serene aeries. Even with the unbeatable real estate, however, it was dispiriting. A march without motion is a flop. It's one more Terracotta Army. The need to change the world gave way to a simple animal desire to move. I wanted to borrow a giant trombone and let rip an almighty “wuh-wuh” of disappointment. Then, after an hour or so, a great cry went up and we advanced 20 feet, as if in line for a wildly popular and exclusive disco.

It all seemed very inauspicious: How could we expect to make progress on climate justice if we couldn’t make our way down Central Park West?

At 12:58 a hush settled over the crowd, which stretched densely north, out of visibility. The silence, made easier by the stillness, was bizarre and dreamlike and holy. Then a joyful roar sounded uptown and came in a jubilant wave over us and on towards Columbus Circle. It made the eyes sting and the heart swell; the exuberant moment redeemed the entire event.

And it seemed to free the works, transforming the pileup into a parade. And what a parade it was! Reportedly 300,000 of us filled Central Park West, with placards and noisemakers galore! While passions and causes varied, there seemed virtual consensus (alas prevented by a handful of holdouts) that even at a protest, Vuvuzelas are incredibly annoying.

Comparisons to our other recent great protest -- Occupy Wall St. -- are inevitable. Unlike Occupy, this protest felt coherent and purposeful and tractable. Zuccotti Park kindled a communal anger but never a movement as such. The leaders repudiated unanimity and its constraints in favor of an inclusive and profuse groundswell -- a chorus of outrage. We shared a cause, they said, no matter how disparate our individual grievances. Solidarity of the wronged. It was a protest for our times, raw, decentralized and indecorous. 

Ultimately, Occupy spun itself out, falling victim to its own promiscuity, spite and lack of center. The People's Climate March, on the other hand, was a professional job. Mild and massive and orderly, it may not rattle the plutocrats, but it did achieve mainstream legitimacy.

The vastness of the crowd not only makes it harder to disregard, but it also has a sobering and legitimating effect on the protest. Occupy couldn’t overcome its perceived amateurishness, its punk posturing. The march, however, has monolithic, if unthreatening, credibility. That’s populism for you. Numbers tilt towards moderation, smoothing out the constituent shortcomings -- the untested idealism of the young, the nostalgic activism of the frizzy baby boomers, the make-believe warfare of the radicals, the defeatism of the realists.

The marchers largely avoided wing-nut antics and banded together respectably around the need for environmental action. The banners called for an array of causes, from the specific and wonkish “Tax Carbon” to the local and aspirational “East Hampton 100 Percent Green Energy by 2020” and the eco-scatalogical “Keep the Earth Clean It’s Not Uranus.” Only seldom did the cri de coeurs veer into the outright quixotic or anarchical, “No to Corporate Food Companies” and “Capitalism Doesn't Work.”

After bending eastward at the bottom of the park, I broke off from the march, buoyed by the experience. Sure, the critics will have their say and deride the event from this or that soapbox: It was a spectacle of ineffectualness, a liberal tantrum, a corporate sham, a wishful and acquiescent sideshow. It sure was. Who cares? In the end, there is no denying the vastness of the crowd.

Regardless of the outcome, hundreds of thousands of people walked together. And remote as it might seem now, such outings have changed history. They are our legacy, and it does good to join up and fall into step as a citizen, if only to reaffirm past achievements. The People's Climate March may prove a grand exercise in futility. Or not. At least we can now entertain the possibility.


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