At 12:58 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 21, as many as 400,000 people were tightly packed into the streets of Manhattan. For a moment, they went completely silent. Then a wave of yelling and cheering came roaring down each block.
The People’s Climate March was organized in response to the landmark U.N. climate summit that occurred a few days later in New York City, making it just the right moment for pressure from the public on climate change. According to the march’s official website, more than 1,400 businesses, unions, faith groups, schools, social justice groups, environmental groups, and other organizations joined together to call for environmental justice. And it didn’t just stop in New York; people mobilized in historic numbers for climate change awareness events all over the world.
Maya McDonnell ’16, along with several other Wesleyan students interested in environmental issues, organized transportation and grouping to ensure that there was ample opportunity for the Wesleyan community to make it to the march. In total, Wesleyan students and recent alumni made up about 300 of the marchers.
“I happened to be right where the march turned at Columbus Circle, so you could hear the screaming coming down from, like, 20 blocks away, breaking the silence with so much noise,” McDonnell said. “It was really gradual from my perspective, which is what made it so powerful. I had goosebumps.”
The march was an inclusive event, with people representing a huge variety of groups marching together from 86th street and Central Park West to 34th street and 11th Avenue. While Sunday’s march was primarily a day for peaceful demonstrations to show the magnitude of people’s concern, the days before and after the march focused on specific demands.
The weekend also featured the NYC Climate Convergence, which gathered experts and leaders of groups who face the the greatest risk from climate change, to host workshops, lectures, and panels. The groups represented included indigenous people, who have experienced destruction and exploitation of their homelands; low-income people, who are disproportionately affected because they lack the resources to insulate themselves from the consequences of fossil fuel burning; and people who live in sandy climates, who feel the brunt of rising sea levels and superstorms.
“The convergences were about trying to come up with real solutions that won’t come from the UN,” said Ross Levin ’15, who attended the march. “Things like a massive green jobs program that would be democratically controlled, and a full and just transition to renewable energy by 2030, which various studies have said is completely possible and would pay for itself through health benefits, environmental and social benefits.”
Levin said that one of this weekend’s goals was to prioritize the groups that are being hit the hardest by climate change, in particular because the environmental movement in the past has been criticized of consisting primarily of white and upper middle class people while ignoring the tangible plights of less affluent groups.
A wide range of social justice organizations also marched, from Planned Parenthood to LGBTQ groups—causes one might not necessarily associate with environmental justice.
“One of the things I found the most interesting was the roles of groups that aren’t explicitly about environmentalism’s participation in the march,” McDonnell said. “Climate change is everybody’s issue; every social issue has a role within climate change. It impacts everybody and it’s everybody’s responsibility to take care of it, and I think that was really well exemplified by this weekend.”
The march was divided into six sections, with the primary groups representing each interest leading and allies following. Dividing up the march by groups, however, did produce some dissent.
“The march [was] becoming a parade,” said Deren Ertas ’16. “It’s become so highly regulated—and one thing that really surprised me when I looked at the map of the march was that there were different sections for different interests…. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? We’re all here for the same reason.’”
The day following the march saw much less division and was also, on the whole, less tame. Some three thousand protesters remained in lower Manhattan as part of Flood Wall Street. These protesters, wearing blue to represent rising sea levels, gathered for a massive sit-in in front of the New York Stock Exchange, blocking intersections and essentially trying to prevent those who work in that area from getting to their jobs. This act of civil disobedience concluded in the arrests of 102 demonstrators, some of whom were Wesleyan alumni.
Flood Wall Street was significantly more of a traditional “protest” than the march itself, which definitely had parade-like characteristics. On Sunday, there were babies in strollers, floats, music, and dogs marching. The police on duty casually leaned against the metal barriers as they watched protestors seep through the streets. On Monday, they were using pepper spray.
Although parts of the march seemed more like a celebration than a demonstration, it was certainly still a huge feat of mobilization on a global scale, which made it, in turn, an invigorating day for the Wesleyan students who participated.
“One of the ways that this march is relevant to Wes students is that it’s really exciting, especially for freshmen,” Levin said. “When I was a freshman, Occupy Wall Street happened; a lot of us went into the city and I know that that was a huge flashpoint. For some people, it was the first political action we had ever taken, the most prominent political action we had ever taken, and for a variety of reasons, it stuck with a lot of us.”
The organizers who led Wesleyan students to New York expressed hope that the march would incite more people at Wesleyan to push for the University itself to become an opponent of climate change.
“We have a lot of money invested in a lot of shit,” Ertas said. “I think students here have a stake in what the University invests in and we have a stake in making sure that those are responsible investments—not just in terms of making money.”
Ertas is not alone in her opinion. Fiscal responsibility is a concern for many Wesleyan students, especially when it comes to controlling the University community’s net effect on the environment.
“Our work is cut out for us at Wesleyan—it’s a very wasteful place, right at the center of the problems with capitalism that are causing the ecological problems in our world,” Levin said.
As for change on a global scale, the People’s Climate March is generally construed as a beginning for more inspired events and movements for climate justice.
“A lot of what’s been said about the goals of the march is that we can’t stop there; the march is not an end, it’s a beginning,” said Genna Mastellone ’17. “This is a place to make connections, to meet people, to see the power and strength of the movement, and to take that and to start doing things bigger than yourself. It’s a way to make people feel less hopeless about everything.”