The People’s Climate March – A Movement Beginning to See Itself

Photo: Natalie Cook
Photo: Natalie Cook

Rumblings of the People’s Climate March sifted through my inbox, my Facebook news feed, and casual conversations for months leading up to the day of the event.  The invitation was to call for strong action on climate from international leaders at Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s UN Climate Summit.  I was keeping an ear to the ground on the progress of my fellow youth climate organizers, but I had really no idea what to expect in New York. No one did.

I hesitated, wary of how much stake to put in a march, but I was ready to buy a bus ticket once I learned the mass gathering was initiated and organized by key environmental justice groups of the Climate Justice Alliance, with “big green” orgs in a collaborative support role. To me, this indicated some maturing of the “environmental movement,” which has long passed over the connection of environmental stewardship to social injustice and overlooked the leadership of indigenous and front line communities. Now that we are in a global climate crisis, the mainstream may be ready to consider their wisdom.

I wanted to participate in this historic turning of the tide, and I wanted to feel the multitudes melding, where the different pieces of environmental, social, economic, and political efforts calling for common needs – stability, well being, health, connection, thriving – would start to feel and act like a cohesive movement.

MN350 organized the buses from Minnesota to Manhattan – six buses, though they could have easily filled a seventh, if they could have only found another driver. Typically, MN350 sends a max of two buses to these kind of events. As the weekend approached, it was clear that people were turning out in force, migrating from cities, rural towns, and foreign countries. All told, there were 550 buses in NYC coming from around the US, while many others came by more creative, lower carbon forms of transportation, including handmade boats and a small crew who came on foot from California.

To make the most of the weekend, I rode up on Saturday to catch the Youth Climate Convergence a day early and planned to remain in town after the march to catch the Climate Justice Alliance Summit – critical opportunities for regional organizing.  Day of, I got to march with an excellent group of young people I am proud to know through the Will Steger Foundation– the Youth Environmental Activists of MN (YEA! MN), a gathering of the high school environmental club leaders from the Twin Cities metro area, all doing great work to empower their peers in actions advancing sustainability, on campus and in their communities.

Their bus arrived just in time for the start of the march – 11:30 am, and we rushed together though the eclectic, celebratory streets, only to find a wall of people, stacked thousands thick, waiting. During what turned into three hours of wait, we made acquaintance with a NYC based Ecuadorian couple waving a rainbow patchwork flag symbolizing respect for our Mother Earth, we shared pineapple with a local family from Mexico opposing plastic bags, and discussed youth movement building with a young activist from a local university. It was beautiful to see so many different people among us.

Gradually, through a group text system associated with the march and word of mouth through the crowds, we learned a bit more about what was going on and was in store. As it turned out, there were so many people that the front of the march had already moved up far beyond the five-block assembly area to make room for the hundreds of thousands of unexpected attendees. Rippling along that mass of people, the general commotion subsided in a moment of silence – honoring those who have died from the impacts of climate change and those who will suffer. Billowing up from the head of the throng was a roar of hollering – an alarm calling for action that seemed to come out like celebration. A cacophony of collective will.

The march began, in-by-inch, then step by step. A walking narrative of the movement, with marchers self selecting to walk in themed sections they identified with, beginning with indigenous people’s, climate refugees, environmental justice communities and others – acknowledging their legacy and right to self determination, followed by blocks calling attention to the rights of those who will inherit the earth from us and our ability to create positive alternatives to the destructive status quo. Streaming behind these blocks were all those who didn’t fit in the earlier in the line-up, thematically or physically, calling for bold action on climate change and/or demonstrating their will to make change, regardless of the outcomes of the UN Summit.


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