Cal Student Perspectives from People’s Climate March, Part II

The Student Environmental Resource Center (SERC) funded the travel expenses for a group of Cal students to attend the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. Here are a collection of their stories:

 Read Part I here

Jake Soiffer, 2nd Year, Creative Writing major

I spent all summer preparing for this weekend. On Sunday, I marched with over 400,000 other people in New York City as part of the People’s Climate March, including 50,000 other college students. My job, as a Fossil Free Fellow with 350.org, was to get those students there in a way that helped connect them better to the broader climate justice movement and that strengthened the campaigns that they work on in their school or hometown. I phone-banked to recruit leaders at 100 campuses, helped them set up networks and supported them in their organizing.

All this is to say one thing: I care a lot about how the march was organized and what it will and won’t do, and I think it’s really important for organizers and participants to be reflecting on that moving forwards—to know what we can do better in the future, as this weekend was just one of many steps. I’m writing here not as a representative of 350 or any other organization, but as an individual member of a movement that seems, to me, to have found itself at a critical moment.

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The march, a massive, parade-like centerpiece of a week’s worth of workshops, meetings, and direct action, was (as its advertisers promised) the largest march on climate in history. Combined with almost 3,000 solidarity events in 162 countries, it reached hundreds of millions of people by twitter alone. Marching, I saw college and high-school students, infants, octogenarians, union members, racial justice advocates, interfaith groups, polar bear suits, and some guy with a “STOP CHEM TRAILS” sign, along with the indigenous people, people of color and low-income communities who bear the brunt of the damage wrought by climate change and the fossil fuel industry.

Importantly, these groups led the march, both literally—the first few blocks were reserved for members of “frontline” or impacted communities—and figuratively, via the vast amounts of time and effort they put into the planning and recruitment process. This is important, considering the mainstream environmental movement’s tendency to discriminate against employees of color, silence indigenous voices, and otherwise reproduce the racist, capitalist and imperialist power structures that are at the root of global inaction on climate change.

It’s not all perfect, though. The march was heavily coordinated with the NYPD, never approached the UN (the UN’s climate talks this week were billed as the impetus for the march), included many not-so-great sponsors (notably corporate and Zionist groups), spent $220,000 on subway posters that appealed to bankers and hipsters and universalized the threat of climate change, and had no explicit set of demands, target, or agenda. For this, it drew criticism across the leftist media, including scathing critiques by Chris Hedges on Truthdig, Arun Gupta on Counterpunch, Quincy Saul on Truthout, and Natasha Lennard on Vice News, among others.

I follow and respect all of these publications and authors, and reading some of them in the lead-up to the march left me with a mixed-up feeling in my gut. Since I flew back to Berkeley from New York on Monday, I’ve been thinking a lot about these critiques—how right they are, but also how much they leave out and the questions they raise about what the climate justice movement needs and how we can get there.

Beginning with the most tangible piece: I was really angry about the subways ads. These were incredibly extensive, taking up half of one in every ten cars on the New York City subway for the weeks leading up to the march. In my experience, there were two that were the most common and the most bothersome.

The first wasn’t as problematic as the second. Set in a font and layout resembling those of a movie poster, it portrayed the Statue of Liberty up to her chest in water, with the caption “The Next One Won’t Be Biblical.” The artists who designed it describe it as playing “against popular catastrophe film stereotypes,” purposefully “commercialized” to “target a larger audience.” It was chosen with several other finalists by a panel of judges that included hip celebrities like Moby and representatives from advertising agencies and the Guggenheim—but few organizers or social justice activists (also, notably, only one person of color). It was then voted on via Avaaz’s liberal, internet-based network. When I voted, the only ad with “Climate Justice” in it was in last place. More to the point: those of us who believe in climate justice and fighting corporate power should not accept an ad that exemplifies corporate sensationalism and portrays climate change as a universal, victimless crime as the public face of our movement. It’s effective for turnout, but not for building a movement that reflects the world we want to see.

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The second ad was what truly irked me. In large text, it asked: “What puts hipsters and bankers in the same boat?” followed by a call to action for the march. Lennard is right for criticizing this: “Although a climate specifically inhospitable to bankers and hipsters would be a welcome place, the wealthy and the trendy stand to be among the last to have their lives ruined by environmental devastation,” she wrote the day after the march. Moreover, the financial industry is a huge part of the international corporatocracy that is, more than anything, the reason we can’t get anything done on climate change, and gentrification and cultural appropriation (commonly associated with the label “hipster”) are produced by the same power structures and hurting the same communities that are most affected by pollution and climate change. This messaging is counterproductive, exclusionary, and offensive. This isn’t what we wanted.

That being said, Lennard is too quick to characterize the entire march by that ad. The posters were only one public face of the march, and one shouldn’t really expect more out of a group like Avaaz, a liberal “clicktivist” network that has been accused of profiting off of and taking credit for local struggles. For many of us, the point of the march was to transcend that narrative, to bring climate justice to the forefront—that’s why putting impacted communities front and center and working with a broad coalition of labor, environmental justice and social justice groups from the get-go was so important. Many of us tried to incorporate a climate justice analysis into our organizing at every level around this march.Where I was, in the student contingent, it was an interesting mix of radical students yelling about climate justice and incarceration and liberal students yelling about polar bears and spreading end-of-the-world sensationalism. That is a good thing. Mixing those perspectives helps better connect our movement and provides an opportunity by which young activists who have only been exposed to whitewashed environmentalism can actually learn from those with a more justice-oriented perspective—allowing left-leaning organizations to operate as a “left pole” to the mainstream movement.

Another commonly criticized feature of the march was that organizers planned the march route in close coordination with the NYPD, and for that reason, it contained no civil disobedience and went nowhere near the United Nations building itself. Similarly, critics were upset with the march’s timing, thinking it irrelevant because it was three days before, instead of during, the actual UN conference.

There’s a central misunderstanding here: getting world leaders to sign an agreement on Tuesday that moves us towards a just and sustainable international economy in a meaningful way was never one of the primary objectives of the march—at least not for me or most of the other organizers I spoke to. The UN is dependent upon the kleptocratic US government and controlled by multinational corporations, and as such any solutions to come out of the talks (including carbon-pricing schemes)will keep power with the powerful and the fossil fuel industry thriving. That’s not the point, though. The point is that we’re looking forwards: to make real progress, we need a mass movement that is united and self-aware. To do that, we need the big green nonprofits to be taking leadership from grassroots and frontline organizations, who really know what needs to be done and how. We need to empower and radicalize millions of young people who currently think we have no hope for solving climate change or think we can do it by simply changing our lightbulbs and releasing scientific papers that prove it’s anthropogenic. We need labor to be on board and included. We need to be talking about the ways environmental work intersections with racial justice, corruption, anti-globalization, incarceration, and the struggle to free Palestine, among others.

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To do this, we need a lot of different types of actions, including illegal ones. However, it’s also really important that we have a moment where everybody is there, so that we can build these connections, radicalize the liberals, and make it clear exactly how huge this movement is. It’s not that we had no demands or agenda—we had an incredibly diverse set of agendas, with people and groups from many different struggles. It’s not that civil disobedience isn’t necessary. I have a close friend who is undocumented and would not have attended the march if there were going to be arrests. I know parents who brought their children so that they could see and be inspired by the movement—a really valuable thing!—and would not have done so if it was a disruptive or potentially dangerous space. Critics who say that every single action has to be focused on arrests and illegal activity miss something crucial: being arrested is an exercise of privilege because many people simply cannot afford to do so. If we’re trying to get the whole movement together, we need that police coordination sometimes.

That being said, we also need arrests because we have to directly challenge and disrupt corporate power. I don’t think we’ll solve climate change unless we literally put our bodies on the line, blocking bulldozers, sitting in at board meetings and demanding the destruction to stop. That’s why the People’s Climate March wasn’t the only thing that happened this weekend. Many of us put a ton of work into planning and spreading the word about Flood Wall St, a more radical event the next day that connected the dots between the financial industry and environmental injustice and resulted in 120 arrests, with no prior police coordination.

We also need education and training, which is why we gathered hundreds of youth organizers from around the country on Saturday for a Youth Convergence, which emphasized solidarity, direct action and anti-oppression work and included many indigenous voices. Critics have portrayed the march as claiming “you can change world history in an afternoon after walking the dog and eating brunch.” I hope that messaging didn’t come across to most, because a ton of effort was put into the dozens of issue-specific actions and educational events the two weeks surrounding the march, and the most important objective of the march was to strengthen our organizing moving forwards.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the last piece of criticism: that the march shouldn’t have allowed certain endorsers. One of the biggest controversies that arose about the People’s Climate March among activists and writers was the presence of a number of Zionist and corporate groups on the official list of participating organizations. These included the Environmental Defense Fund, which works closely with Walmart, McDonald’s and the petroleum industry and supports fracking, and the Climate Group, which “includes among its members and sponsors BP, China Mobile, Dow Chemical Co., Duke Energy, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Greenstone,” according to Hedges. Both are essentially agents of corporate greenwashing. Sponsoring organizations also included several Zionist groups, including the Green Zionist Alliance. Those of us who believe Zionism to be a fundamentally racist ideology and understand Israel’s attempts to rebrand itself as “green” as distractions from the violence it perpetrates on a daily basis should not take this kind of thing lightly.

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I don’t want to work with the corporate-front groups, but the problem is that I don’t yet know where to draw the line. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question. Chris Hedges is fuming at the march’s main organizers (which include 350.org) for letting the EDF participate, but 350 itself has worked closely with accepted grants from hedge fund billionaire like Tom Steyer, and (most disturbingly) still does not disclose all of its funding sources. Why berate the march for including the Climate Group but not raise concerns over 350’s involvement? Of course, there’s an order of magnitude difference here: I don’t consider 350 a corporate front, and the influential nonprofit has done good work beginning to shift the mainstream environmental movement towards a more international perspective and greater focus on direct action and justice. However, it’s still tricky, and I think the dilemma speaks to the difficulty of drawing boundaries in the movement more generally. In the end, I tend not to worry too much about these criticisms—not because I think the EDF and Climate Group are productively contributing to the project of creating a just future but because I think they are wholly irrelevant. This isn’t their narrative; they didn’t shape it, and I don’t think the story told at the march strengthens their case for market environmentalism. Unlike the EDF’s platform, the march was full of anti-fracking messaging. The takeaway here shouldn’t be that “big tent” organizing that includes liberal organizations is itself a mistake, but that we have to be very careful within “big tent” spaces not to replicate oppressive power structures and that we need to spend at least as much energy on more confrontational action.

I’m troubled and conflicted about the Zionist issue as well. From the beginning, march organizers should have been more intentional about what organizations we work with. When a group adhering to an ideology that justifies the slaughter of thousands (as well as the environmental injustice associated with the conflict) signs on to a climate “justice” march, it should sound alarms immediately—not weeks later when a pro-Palestinian activist raises the issue on the march’s Facebook event. Internal discussions about the dilemma should have sounded more like “This directly contradicts our values and our vision of the movement we want to create!” and less like “This could look bad in the media!” That being said, it’s much easier to begin the process with a set of expectations about the organizations that you’ll work with than to suddenly impose them half-way through and begin kicking out groups, as many were calling on march organizers to do to the Zionists. I don’t know if I would have heeded those calls. However, organizers should have done more to reach out to groups working to end the occupation. 350.org should state its support for the people of Gaza and the West Bank in their fight against violence and imperialism, as it did in support of the Ferguson protesters. The environmental movement needs to “show up” for other struggles more than it currently does, and being intentional about our public statements and who we work with is part of that.

In sum, many of the criticisms were that the march wasn’t “radical” enough, that it didn’t confront power. There’s some truth to this, mostly to the extent that the march wasn’t as intentional as it should have been about its messaging and coalition-building and didn’t highlight direct actions like Flood Wall Street enough. However, movement-building isn’t just about confronting and calling out bad actors via direct action; it’s also about building the world we want to see and the mass movement that will get us there. That means putting liberals and radicals in the same space, as well as gathering those who come from a background of privilege and see climate change as a universal threat in a space that emphasizes system change, climate justice and leadership from the frontlines. The march did that. That’s what makes it historic, not the numbers who showed up.

One last memory comes to mind: not long after I started work on the march, I came to one of the monthly organizing general meetings, joining a crowd of five hundred at the New School in Manhattan. I arrived too late to join the general gathering, but joined over a hundred others in the youth breakout room. This was a crowd of college, high- and middle-school students of all races and backgrounds from all over the city, with strong representation of communities of color like those in the South Bronx and Brooklyn that face environmental injustice on a daily basis. The room was packed, noisy, and full of energy and ideas. There were ten-year-olds there who spoke with an understanding of the systemic roots of climate change that blew me out of the water. There were college students who’d been community organizers since elementary school. The Climate Group wasn’t there, and neither was the Green Zionist Alliance. We weren’t marching, but we were doing work just as important as the march itself: meeting and learning from each other. I got to meet the movement, and because of that, I want to stay a part of it for a very long time. Building those connections was something I’m deeply grateful for—something we need more of in the coming months and years as we work together to build our vision in the world.

 

Part III will be published October 16th, 2014

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