The Earth balloon — 12 feet high and weighing 70 pounds when inflated — traveled from Seattle to New York to take part in this past Sunday’s People’s Climate March. But after a 2,500 mile journey, the giant globe was stuck at 71st Street and Central Park West, and cops were getting nervous about the crush of people stuck behind it. Someone suggested moving the balloon forward a few feet to ease the congestion. “If people would just follow the Earth,” suggested Officer Cummings, sheepish in the presence of such an obvious metaphor. “We need help over here!” an organizer yelled out, and people rushed to grab the ropes. The crowd inched forward, spreading out. We did it, guys! We saved the Earth!
This past Sunday saw the biggest global climate change demonstration in history – organizers estimated a turnout out of 300,000 people in New York alone. In theory, the entire march had been organized by the climate change organization 350.org, but the reality on the ground was a patchwork of different groups, each managing its own bloc and its own agenda. Sting was there, along with Kevin Bacon and Ban Ki-moon. The goal was to pressure the delegates of the upcoming United Nations Climate Summit to take action, and nudge the world to grapple with climate change – but everyone already knew that it wouldn’t be that simple.
Last year, CO2 levels rose faster than they ever have, despite decades of alarm bells. A catastrophic drought is hitting California as the Louisiana coastline sinks into the ocean. The costs of inaction get higher and higher, and we aren’t even slowing down. What it would it look like to do something about it? What would that even mean?
In the 25 blocks from 59th Street to 86th Street, I counted at least four other globes, including a melting-ice-cream Earth that had been commissioned by Ben & Jerry’s in a canny bit of socially conscious cross-promotion. ("If it’s melted, it’s ruined," the slogan read.) The more elaborate floats had lined up early, planning for an 11AM kickoff, but at half past noon we hadn’t started moving yet. The streets were clotted with people, but there was nowhere to go. Streetlights flicked from green to yellow to red above our heads. Higher up, a police chopper paced back and forth. Every 20 minutes or so, a cheer would rise up from the crowd at random. Maybe this was it? Then it would settle down and we would go back to waiting.
"People’s Climate March isn’t talking about the crisis. The crisis is capitalism."
The floats eventually headed downtown through the office blocks of Midtown and across Times Square. The marching order went by an elaborate thematic choreography, which got muddled almost immediately. The front of the demonstration was reserved for people directly affected by climate change ("Frontlines to the Front"), primarily indigenous communities and Rockaways residents. After that came "We Build The Future," which put organized labor marching alongside mothers and children, followed by Food Bloc, Bike Bloc and the Anti-Capitalist Bloc (lumped together as "We Have Solutions"), with a mix of scientists and beekeepers trailing behind. Rabbis and ministers rode together in a makeshift ark – a log cabin built on top of a parade float — shaking hands and giving out bags of animal crackers that read "we are all Noah."
As the first marchers crossed 39th Street, you could see the row of cardboard sunflowers they were holding from blocks away. Behind them, one group pushed a faux-stone totem while another operated a giant Mother Earth puppet, waving ominously over the crowd. As each bloc reached the concrete spit outside the Javits Center, an organizer was there to tell them, "Thank you for changing the world!" When it was over, the cops cleared the streets, and the marchers filtered back into Midtown. The rabbis and ministers headed uptown to St. John the Divine and a tow truck hauled Noah’s Ark back to New Jersey.
"People’s Climate March isn’t talking about the crisis," an organizer named Winnie Wong told me. "The crisis is capitalism." The morning after the march, I was standing with her at Battery Park for Flood Wall Street, a kind of aftershock march for hundreds of activists who thought Sunday had been too tame. Bill McKibben, 350.org’s founder and the march’s organizer, stopped by, although he told us he was there as a friend, not a participant. "We’re not marching to celebrate," Winnie said. "There’s no celebration at all. It’s a confrontation. It’s a peaceful, non-violent confrontation, but we are there to confront." A man named Matt told me he had missed Sunday’s march entirely, coming down last night to sleep in Penn Station and then walking to Battery Park at five in the morning, just in time to watch the sun rise over the water.
Organizers told us that Battery Park was a Green Zone, a place for lawful free assembly, and that the arrests would only come once we had stepped outside the Green Zone in a spirit of civil disobedience. But unlike Sunday’s march, the NYPD hadn’t been told about any of this in advance, and there was no telling how thoroughly they had grokked the whole Green Zone concept.
"It's a confrontation. It's a peaceful, non-violent confrontation, but we are there to confront."
The idea was to surge toward Wall Street like floodwaters (the demonstration’s preferred metaphor), flowing into every available outlet. Organizers talked us up in the halting cadence of the people’s mic, pausing to repeat each line to the rows that were farther back. "Blood is the water in our bodies! (blood is the water in our bodies!) The oil and gas they are extracting is the blood of the earth! (the oil and gas they are extracting is the blood of the earth!)" Most people I talked to expected to be dragged into police vans the moment they set foot outside the park, maybe even before.
Instead, the cops held back. The first wave of marchers made it out of the park and one full block north before the barricades stopped them. The police stayed on the side, holding the barricades and trying to channel the crowd. The flood stopped traffic, weaving between freight trucks and double-decker tourist buses, but all the police did was watch. Once the block was taken, the protesters sat down and started singing. A Carbon Bubble balloon floated up and down the block, and a wiry, brown-haired man from the Industrial Workers of the World jumped on top of a phone booth to explain how we could seize all industry and discard whatever was unsustainable. After about an hour, the police plucked him out of the crowd like a lobster from a tank. Past the barricades, you could see them marching him into the van, one on each side holding him upright, his toes dragging behind him on the pavement.
They stayed there until dark, with a little over 100 people carted off by the end. You wonder, maybe, how so many people ended up in the barricades, or why so many decided to leave the park before they knew it was safe. As we walked out, a man explained it to a reporter: "I don’t want to look back and say, I went home that day." You only get so many chances to do something, so by the time one comes along you’re desperate for it.
Outside of a speech at the New School on Saturday, a man named Gene Fry was handing out CDs with details on low-till farming. There were people like that everywhere, pushing communist reading groups or geoengineering conspiracies. Fry wasn’t a nut though. He was just desperate, like everyone. He had charts with the same figures you see everywhere: rising CO2 levels, shrinking ice caps, all the usual horsemen. Three hundred thousand people in the street, and Fry had come away thinking he was the only one who knew how bad it could get. He had come all the way from western Massachusetts. By coming here, he could get the message out to 500 people, which was enough to make it worthwhile.
Why 500? Well, he had 500 CDs.