A Flawed Dispatch from the People’s Climate March

The march was exhaustively covered in the days and weeks that followed, which meant the spectacle had worked: people had noticed and people were talking. A year has passed though, and our collective attention has inevitably shifted. The march recedes, it becomes an abstract historical event associated with certain essential statistics. It withers, it fades. But the fundamental triumph was not publicity, and it was won that very day.

83rd at 8:07. Photo: C. Wood

1

There was no one particular witness for the People’s Climate March. Delegates at the upcoming U.N. climate change summit were supposed to see it, the “world” was supposed to see it, we its participants were supposed to see it, certainly the press was supposed to see it, but an hour and a half before the start there was nothing to see. The towers of midtown Manhattan faded into morning haze and traffic lights changed in unison above an empty street. Metal police barriers lined the city side of Central Park West, blue sawhorses lined the park side, and the space between was largely deserted. Clusters of cops stood idly at their posts and I stood uncertain with two friends between 82nd and 83rd.

That block was assigned to ‘Save the Arctic,’ ‘Wildlife Preservation,’ and ‘Healthy Lifestyles and Spiritual Practices’, all under the larger heading of ‘The Debate is Over’. A few people in blue shirts stood around a giant white cardboard iceberg, a group of robed people sat singing on the pavement, but at ten a.m. I was the only one there for ‘Wildlife Preservation.’ At 81st, leading ‘The Debate Is Over’, a small crowd in white lab coats stood around a massive chalkboard with a graph showing atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last ten thousand years. They, presumably, were ‘Scientists’ and they, along with ‘Beekeepers’ had the block before ours.

According to the organizer’s website, we were the fifth of six sections. ‘Front Lines of the Crisis/Forefront of Change’, ‘We Build the Future’, ‘We Have the Solutions’, and ‘We Know Who Is Responsible’ preceded us, and ‘To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone’ followed us. That was the all-inclusive narrative of what was billed as the largest climate change march in history. They were publicly expecting 100,000 people. Every single charter bus in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine was booked, and convoys and caravans had rolled in from every corner of the continent. That night the floor of every willing church, mosque, synagogue, and gymnasium within two hours had been filled with sleeping bodies. Every campground and every offered couch was occupied. Thousands opened their homes to strangers connected by only a shared interest in a broad cause and an admirable depth of trust.

And they were starting to appear. The eerie expanse of empty pavement quietly disappeared as the masses trickled in from uptown. People walked by offering stickers and pamphlets and the morning stillness gave way to the rising melting mutter of voices. A woman carrying an elaborate paper mâché contraption with two painted and bejeweled heads asked me if she could record me explaining why I’d come. I put my ear to the mouth of one head and listened to a man named Michael explain why he’d come here from Charlotte, North Carolina. Then at the other head’s ear I spoke into a mic, stumbling out something about wildlife conservation and research and seeing the big crowd. The device couldn’t hear me shrugging and I apologized afterwards. She just laughed and thanked me. The crowd was swelling, she had plenty of subjects.

I was not convinced that the march would alter history. I thought it was unlikely that even the U.N delegation would see much of it. I came because I wanted to belong to my particular moment in history, and in that I doubt I was alone. Every movement seems important to its participants and every age has its battles, but your time is everything to you. Now was our time and this was our movement. There was little prospect of tear gas and riot police: we were hardly putting our bodies on the line. But the menace is real, though the drama will play out over decades, not seconds. As any sincere movement does, it offered a purity of intention that no man alone can attain. Under the banner of climate change we found a meaning that transcended our own faulty aspirations. The street was slowly filling and whether or not anyone ever saw it was secondary. Participation in this moment, contribution to this movement, that is what we wanted.

Pedestrians ahead. Photo: C. Wood

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The front line was somewhere around 61st street and at eleven thirty they started marching. Back at 82nd we couldn’t tell. After half an hour I climbed the stone wall of the park: the street was full and unmoving as far as I could see. The others up there fired away with cameras and so did I, but we had no chance of capturing the scene. We were under the trees and even the NYPD helicopter overhead had to keep cycling up and down the avenue to see the whole thing.

An hour passed and we still weren’t moving. I could see the Beekeeper’s banners bobbing somewhere just ahead and a few tee shirts (“Primate Conservation Society”) and a few posters (“EXTINCTION IS FOREVER”) suggested that other people had turned out for Wildlife Preservation, but otherwise it seemed that the narrative had already succumbed to sheer numbers. So we gave up and joined the forward flow on the sidewalk that seemed to be bypassing the solid human mass in the street. The subsequent memory feels jumbled and hallucinatory because we must have seen tens of thousands of people in the space of ten blocks and thirty minutes.

An ancient woman with the taped-together sheets of paper reading: “KEEP THE PLANET ALIVE: DRIVE 55”. But she was so frail and looked so lost that I couldn’t be sure whether or not it was a self-deprecating joke. She moved slowly and the crowd passed around her and she disappeared.

Music rising and bursting as people parted for a ragtag marching band dressed all in red. Drums and chanting and megaphone shouts. Call and response cheers flowing and fading.

A “real” New York couple in crisp striped shirts and Ray Bans threading gingerly through the crowd, the woman’s face perfectly mapping that tragic region between revulsion and confusion.

A girl offering me a flier about climate camp, me declining, she snapping “Oh ok, so you don’t care,” as she walked away.

A huge contingent of socialists wearing black clothes and black masks and carrying black flags. “SAVE THE EARTH! / END CAPITALISM!” “CLASS STRUGGLE IS CLIMATE STRUGGLE”. Two men carrying a huge model Predator drone with the banner: “U.S. DRONE WAR: BEHEADING PROGRAM OF CLIMATE-DESTROYING EMPIRE”.

A cluster of bicycles, a woman with her skis strapped to her backpack, Earth as a scoop of ice cream melting down a giant cone. Greens and blues and whites and floral print but no tie-dye and faces, faces, a sea of faces all undulating eagerly to some instinctual beat. “GREEN ENERGY NOW!” “NO TAR SANDS!” A kid in a University of Michigan shirt: “Keystone Light, not XL”. “I’M MARCHING FOR maple syrup” “DON’T PANIC / but learn to swim” “I’M MARCHING FOR the Great Lakes”. Strollers and walkers and a staggering crush of humanity. “DO YOU HEAR US OBAMA?”

Many of the posters were elaborately decorated and carefully constructed. Some took six people to carry and must have taken days to make. Even more telling of the carrier’s temperament was their place on the for/against divide. Some signs promoted veganism, others condemned carnivory. Some promoted wind or solar or geothermal or tidal energy, others condemned fracking and oil pipelines. To their credit, march organizers provided blank signs that read “I’M MARCHING FOR _____________”. The event also drew a fringe that seemed at best tangentially connected to climate change (“END THE ISRAELI-AMERICAN BLOCKADE OF THE GAZA”). But I’m glad to report that most poster bearers marched for something.

We stopped at 74th near a huge dinosaur made of car parts and motor oil cans. It had been an hour and a half and the main column still was not moving. While the people at the front had the adrenaline thrill of leading 100,000 people through the heart of Manhattan, we at the back had begun to realize that there were far, far more than 100,000 people, which is a different kind of thrill.

At 12:58 there was a minute of silence in memory of the victims of climate change. The quiet spread up from the head of the march until an electric calm hung over the crowd. For a full minute all was still save the helicopter and the rustle of feet and fabric. A forest of linked hands arched over our heads and I thought the silence of a vast crowd might be more terrifying than its sound.

Then from the haze to the south a roar rose up and raced north and engulfed us. Hands to fists, silence to sound. It was us and also was not: It was something far greater, a fleeting facet of what people call Power with a wince because they know the word is only a crude approximation. So no, the silence is not terrifying. The silence followed by the roar is terrifying, because there you can feel (not see or touch or even hear) the staggering might of people united. And then the roar dissolved back into cheers and chants and drums and voices and, as it happened, we began to march.

The canyon. Photo: C. Wood

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At Columbus Circle the Interfaith contingent joined the march, led by a silver pickup towing a wooden ark with waving passengers and the banner: “WE ARE ALL NOAH NOW / PEOPLE OF FAITH FOR CLIMATE ACTION”. Behind it was a bagpiper and another endless column of humanity. Then we turned onto 6th Avenue, away from the park and into the canyons of the city.

We marched between twin palisades of steel and glass, dwarfed and awed. The buildings towered away to the hazy horizon and they towered away into the vague sky, and straight ahead the horizon met the sky in a narrow gap whose white light was our vector. Block after block after block hapless limousines and delivery trucks were stalled by the endless flow. Unsuspecting civilians gawked and took photos and worked up the nerve to dart through the crowd. We had shut down the Avenue of the Americas.

My friends and I broke off onto 47th looking for food. The street was deserted, barricaded at both ends and dark. The stores were all closed and every single one sold diamonds. And at the end of the block we hit 5th Avenue, where we were just three people in green shirts with a single poster in the laconic Sunday throng. I felt vulnerable. The world had not stopped turning, and we retreated to 6th Avenue.

The beast was still rolling, unabated and perfectly massive, and it took us back into the fold. The energy was alive, and the march was far larger than any one person could comprehend. Aerial photos were appearing on Twitter but even they could capture but a fragment. If I am to convey the experience of this event honestly, I cannot do it objectively. It can come only from my own flawed perspective, from impressions inseparable from my single place in the march. I was part of a human torrent that defied human comprehension, an odd paradox in which the participants cannot fully understand that which they have created and has become the context of their lives. It surrounds me, yet it defies definition. I have helped create it, I am in it, and yet I cannot see it. It does not know me or need me.

And in that sense the march was much like climate change itself. Our emissions of carbon dioxide have created this phenomenon, which has swallowed us. Some very basic chemistry and ten minutes is enough to obtain a basic understanding of climate change, yet the best minds in our species cannot point to climate change itself. This is not a failure on their part, it is an impossible task. Climate change is what writer Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, something that is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans”. It exists as surely as you and I, but its existence unfolds on planes that we can but dimly imagine. We can see manifestations of climate change all too clearly: rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, increasing storm intensity, increasing weather variability, increasing stress on the biological systems that make human civilization possible. You can perhaps understand why I prefer the term “global warming.” Yet none of those things are climate change. They are its effects. They are manifestations of something so enormous that we cannot fully comprehend it. It eludes us in space and it dwarfs us in duration. We see the shadows but never the shape that casts them.

As the saying goes, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But really, bullets going extremely fast kill people. Likewise, neither climate change nor Hurricane Katrina killed anyone, water, among other things, killed people. So, to stretch the analogy to the breaking point, water in devastating storm surges is the bullet, climate change is gun, and we pulled the trigger. Climate change per se might not kill anyone. But the events that it triggers, the manifestations of climate change, have killed thousands and will kill millions.

So the march was perfect, an incomprehensible crowd warning of an unfathomable threat. Perhaps society at large needs precisely these demonstrations to see that a nebulous thing is real, though they cannot put their fingers on it. No one saw the whole march, but no one denies its existence. We’re left with visceral impressions and the uneasy sense that we’re suddenly swimming in the ocean not the kiddy pool. We have unleashed upon ourselves something we cannot contain.

For the trees. Photo: C. Wood

4

Somewhere south of Times Square I got an automated text message from the organizers. They had expected 100,000 people; the initial count was 310,000. The march was now beyond anyone’s command — no remote central director or barrage of tear gas and batons or network of bright-eyed neon-tee-shirted volunteers could hope to control it. It was like some weirdly inverted ant colony in which a multitude of intelligent individuals coalesced into a gigantic dumb whole. Luckily for everyone involved it was a benign behemoth.

We were passing through the Theatre District with a student section riding the chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” People hung from windows and the sidewalks filled and stalled and the cops manning the barriers strained to hold people back and the electric assault of colored signs didn’t cease but for once it wasn’t the main show. “What does democracy look like?” “This is what democracy looks like!” And that, if nothing else, is true.

I thought of Timothy DeChristopher who, on trial for “obstructing” a BLM land auction, told the judge at the sentencing hearing: “With countless lives on the line, this is what love looks like, and it will only grow.” We didn’t have his courage — we did not march alone to prison but together to 34th street — but we were, in a massive clumsy way, asserting the same truth. When our moment came, we were not silent. “This is what democracy looks like!” “DO YOU HEAR US OBAMA?”

And then we hit 34th where a picket line of volunteers told everyone that we had completed the march and that there were still thousands of people behind us and that there wasn’t space for us all to gather. So thank you and go home, they were saying. We stood at the maw of Lincoln Tunnel, three blocks from Penn Station, and not much farther from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. It was a place built for moving people, not holding them, and it was a brilliant tactical move by the police. There was nothing to see and nowhere to gather. Had the march moved in reverse, Central Park would’ve been overrun until at least the following morning. Speeches, which were deliberately absent, would have been inevitable, and certain simmering elements of the march might have moved to another more active phase under the cover of darkness.

The crowd wasn’t exactly dispersing — the wide street was full as far as anyone could see — but it was gradually dissipating. The crush of bodies that marked the start had abated and people wandered around looking dazed and aimless. Reporters dashed about getting pictures and stories from those still costumed, a line of food trucks was making money hand over fist, and a fleet of busses waited to ferry us all away.

We got slices of pizza (without meat) from a little pub, and some similarly banal necessity would mark the end of the march for everyone else. My friends set off to find their bus and I walked to Penn Station. The sidewalk was still filled with marchers, I could see posters and bare feet and dreadlocks and green shirts. The subterranean turnstiles were crowded, the subway car was full, but after four stops there was a group of photographers comparing shots and nothing else to mark the events of the day. Two stops later and the car was empty. It was over, I was alone. New York had absorbed hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of hours.

I could hear the echoes: “This is what democracy looks like!” I could see the images: “I’M MARCHING FOR my grandchildren”. But they felt like memories of an exotic vacation, surreal and misplaced, conjured only to relieve the grind of routine. I had wanted to stay and see cops dismantling barricades under a grey sky while dropped posters desolate and curled drifted along the pavement. But I didn’t need to see it. I felt it. And I knew what had happened to all the energy.

It hadn’t evaporated like the marchers, it had shattered and a shard stayed with each of us. In the sudden deflated feeling of lost solidarity and the surprising ache of loneliness we all were confronting was the knowledge that we had been part of something bigger than ourselves. The crowdspirit and camaraderie born of shared purpose was gone but we carried its memory. If no one at all saw the march, that memory hundreds of thousands times over would be enough.

Our universal complicity is a devilish fact of climate change. Modern civilization is built on fossil fuels, and oil carried us all too and from the march. We are caught inside this vast and vaguely malevolent thing, contributing to its unthinkable magnitude even as we struggle desperately to extricate ourselves. But we who marched know too that we can be caught up in something good. We are irrevocably making history, but we can also make it intentionally. We had seized our moment.

The subway was empty, but I was not alone.

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