In the lead-up to the historic Climate March in NYC on September 22nd,, some activists have expressed doubt regarding the efficacy of mass demonstrations, and some have criticized the march as a toothless gesture, perhaps even a co-optation of a more militant environmentalism.
But history proves otherwise. There hasn’t been a movement in the history of the US that has succeeded without putting massive numbers in the streets.
Marches, gatherings, teach-ins and peaceful demonstrations create a venue for collective shared passion, while sending a message that resonates to form public opinion and political policy. And it should be well noted that the Climate March is the pivot point for a host of workshops, conferences, and planned direct actions.
Because it’s clear that we need more than just marches and rallies, climate activists have formed a non-violent movement to resist with direct action the powerful fossil fuel industry and their allies in government. Thousands of protestors have been arrested trying to stop the Keystone pipeline, tar sands, and in dozens of other direct actions around the globe against extractive industries which endanger communities and contribute to global climate change.
But the nascent climate movement also needs to show numbers. In the Women’s Suffrage, Labor, Civil Rights and Vietnam Anti-war movements, large demonstrations were always essential to organizing. Analysis of what stage the movement had achieved politically often determined whether peaceful rallies or more militant action were the most appropriate strategy.
Mass demonstrations act as a gateway to activism for those less inclined to be militant, or who can’t afford jail time. The March this Sunday is the opportunity for citizens of all ages and walks of life to express themselves, and it is likely some of the thousands might be encouraged to step up to active resistance. The opportunity is certainly available the very next morning when Wall Street opens, and a mass resistance is planned to call attention to connection between capitalism, corruption and climate.
Let’s all recognize that there are different tactics for different people, and that multiple strategies are available as we struggle for ecological balance and a sane climate policy. Its time for all hands on deck, and for positive dialogue on how to work collectively together to steer the boat out of the reefs, through the storms to open seas. It will take a lot of work, a lot of marching, and getting arrested while we are at it.
To put the Climate March in historical perspective:
On April 15, 1967, a march from Central Park to the UN against the Vietnam War attracted hundreds of thousands of people, and many draft cards were publicly burned. That event led to a massive demonstration in Washington DC that October, when 100,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Around 30,000 of them continued in a march on the Pentagon later that night. After a confrontation with the soldiers and US Marshals protecting the building, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. These actions reduced the popularity of President Johnson to the extent that he decided not to run for reelection. Hopefully, the Climate Change movement will affect the next elections. In 2012, climate was barely mentioned in the campaigns.
And it was just fifty years ago in 1963 that organizers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., used nonviolent direct action tactics to defy discrimination laws in Birmingham Alabama, a bastion of Jim Crow discrimination. King summarized the philosophy of the Birmingham campaign when he said, “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
Protests in Birmingham began with a boycott to pressure business leaders to provide equal employment opportunities and end segregation in public facilities, restaurants, and stores. When business leaders resisted, a series of sit-ins and marches intended to provoke mass arrests ensued. When few adults were left, organizers recruited children for what became known as the “Children’s Crusade.” Hundreds of youths were arrested, intensifying national media attention on the campaign. The Birmingham Police Department, led by the infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor, used high-pressure water jets and police dogs on children and bystanders. Media coverage of these events brought intense scrutiny on racial segregation in the South.
The Birmingham actions were followed by the March on Washington that gathered 200,000 by the Lincoln memorial, where they heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The next year, in August 1964, the Civil Rights Bill was passed by Congress.
In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr.and SCLC marched from Montgomery to Selma to oppose a steadfast opposition to black voter registration drives.
Twice the marches were turned back by Alabama state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas. The brutal scenes were captured on television, enraging many Americans and drawing civil rights and religious leaders of all faiths to Selma in protest. Finally on their third attempt, the protesters reached Montgomery, under the protection of National Guard troops. The Voting Rights Act was passed later that year.
So let’s salute the efforts and hard work of all the Climate organizers who have created this opportunity to “demonstrate” our opposition to the current impasse on climate mitigation. Please join this effort to bring historic masses to the streets of Manhattan, a front line city living on the edge of climate disaster.