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At New York March, Activists Work to Connect Capitalist Culprits to Climate Crisis

At the largest climate march in history, activists made a point to tie climate disruption to those seen as most responsible – major corporations and governments.

Protestors march down Sixth Avenue during the People's Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014. (Image: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)

The largest climate march in history, which saw some 310,000 people channeled through New York City streets, according to organizers, brought hundreds of environmental organizations and advocacy groups under the umbrella of the People’s Climate March on September 21. In the run-up to the march, some critics argued that in order for the coalition to incorporate so many people it had to become apolitical. The march lacked a clear message and had the markings of a corporate PR campaign, some said.

But on Sunday, along the four-mile march route, cordoned off by New York City Police Department officers and barricades, individual activists and organizations made a point, with visuals and chants, to tie climate disruption to those seen as most responsible – major corporations, the financial industry and the governments that allow them to pollute with impunity.

Signs read “Capitalism is killing the planet” and featured messages that promoted divesting from fossil fuel companies, investing in wind, solar and other alternative energy sources, and remaking the global economy to promote justice and sustainability. Some marchers called out the corporate connection more directly: “ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, send those bastards back to hell!”

Mcnair Scott, a Brooklyn-based organizer, said that while the march mobilized the masses and had a general message to take action on climate change, a smaller, targeted event planned for Monday would connect global warming back “to the villains of the climate crisis.”

On Monday, organizers, many affiliated with the Occupy movement, planned to “flood Wall Street” with hundreds of activists calling for an economy that protects people and the environment over corporations and profits. The direct action will include acts of civil disobedience, including a sit-in, organizers said. “It’s a continued focus on the perpetrators,” Scott told Truthout. “Now is the time we can bring this [economic analysis of the climate issue] into people’s consciousness.”

“Today is huge,” said Jack Boyle, a native New Yorker and Occupy veteran, referring to the hundreds of thousands of people who attended the climate march. “Tomorrow is speaking directly to Wall Street.”

The climate march, attendees told Truthout, was focused on bringing out the masses and showing national and world leaders that there is a huge constituency passionate about addressing climate change with real solutions, now.

“It sends a message to leaders around the world that there are a lot of people who will support them,” said Paul Emile Anders, of Massachusetts, with an organization called Feisty Doves, which advocates for the use of nonviolent action to protect the climate. He said the march – a potential “tipping point for the environmental movement” – would also be a rally call for other, direct actions – like the Wall Street sit-in on Monday.

The People’s Climate March host committee adopted a code of conduct in July, in part, to “encourage the broadest and most diverse involvement possible,” and “to help create a family-friendly mobilization.”

The march included a diverse mass, of all ages. From high school and college students to veterans, beekeepers to bicyclists, hardcore activists and organizers to liberal Democrats, the message most stressed was an old one for the environmental movement: We must band together to protect the environment for the sake of future generations.

“We want our kids to inherit something that isn’t trashed,” said Christine Cimini, who traveled to New York City from Vermont with her wife, two children and friends to attend the march.

“It would be so scary to die like a polar bear,” 8-year-old Chloe West, Cimini’s daughter, told Truthout. “The food chain can begin again, but the earth can’t.”

One protestor, Ben Weiss, criticized the march for its timing and location, and said that UN headquarters in New York City is “where the action is.”

“We are not going to be corralled like lambs,” Weiss yelled to marchers across police barricades. “We are going to roar like lions.” He distributed flyers calling for a demonstration at the UN from Sunday through Wednesday, while world leaders are meeting for a climate summit.

“[The march organizers are] teaching the people in power that they can get a million people to march, and it won’t mean a thing,” Weiss told Truthout.

In addition to a few city and federal officials, and some celebrities, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon participated in the march on Sunday, and told MSNBC, repeating a march slogan, “There is no Plan B because we do not have a planet B. We have to work and galvanize our action.” Next year, leaders will meet in Paris for a climate change conference aiming to draft an international agreement to cut carbon emissions.

Zara Anucha, an environmental studies major at York University in Toronto, said most people think of Canada as a liberal country, already focused on environmental challenges. In reality, she said, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline, while Obama is not saying clearly whether he is for or against the tar sands development.

“This is something that affects their livelihoods, their lives, their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives,” Anucha told Truthout, in regards to why she thought so many attended the march.

At a time when climate scientists are reporting that the effects of human-made climate disruption are near or at a point of being “irreversible,” humans are feeling the effects of climate change in real-time: increased and ongoing drought in California, stronger storms and extreme weather events, like Superstorm Sandy that hit New York City in 2012, and rising sea levels that are threatening small island nations and coastal communities around the world.

While march organizers didn’t endorse specific policies or proposed legislation, march attendees offered a variety of ideas to address climate change: A man from Hawaii supported applying free-market principles and building a solar and hydrogen-powered energy grid, many were opposed to building the Keystone XL pipeline and supported a ban on fracking, and a California woman with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby aimed to convince Congress to implement a carbon tax. Many more, especially those also planning to attend the direct action targeting Wall Street, said corporations, the financial industry and capitalism at large were most to blame for the havoc climate disruption has and will continue to create.

At the southern edge of Central Park, a few dozen people sat cross-legged, meditating, some with their eyes closed. The peace and tranquility of the “Earth Vigil” was punctuated by noisy marching bands, whistles, chants and drums from marchers staggering a few blocks down Central Park South before turning down Sixth Avenue along the designated march route.

In early September, “the World Meteorological Organization said the level of carbon dioxide in the air in 2013 was 42 percent above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution,” according to The New York Times. This has resulted in the planet warming by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit compared to the preindustrial era, and subsequent land ice melting and sea levels rising.

On Monday morning, climate activists said they would meet in Battery Park in lower Manhattan, where parks, subway stations and streets flooded during Sandy, to hear from speakers, including Chris Hedges and Rebecca Solnit, and participate in nonviolent direction action training. Organizers encouraged participants to wear blue and join in a sit-in on Wall Street. The idea is to tie political and corporate inaction on climate change to the global economy’s heavy reliance on carbon emissions to sustain profits and economic growth.

Scarlett Russell, a community organizer from San Francisco, helped greet charter buses filled with marchers from around the country early Sunday morning along 86th Street. At the end of the day, at the other end of the march route, she said, “Something of this magnitude is impossible to ignore.”

The climate march, she said, works toward the same goal as more direct actions, like the Flood Wall Street demonstration, “a bolder statement,” she would also attend to increase public awareness and political pressure to lower carbon emissions and hold the worst polluters accountable.

“Organizing is like a flower,” Russell told Truthout. “You need all the petals for the flower to exist.”

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