by Marguerite Chandler
“The people united, can never be defeated!” The voice in the bullhorn is echoed by many voices. The sound mirrors what I see. There’s a huge yellow banner on 16-foot bamboo poles that says in 3-foot, capital letters, “WE KNOW WHO IS RESPONSIBLE.” It’s carried by four men: a muscular, young, black guy with a tight Afro; a white, collegiate-type; a greying black man; a white, middle-aged, bearded hippie. Single pennants are held high by a teenager and a bespectacled, older man in business suit. Behind them is a Reggie band, playing music from popular favorites to calypso. In front of the banner are black, Trevon Martin-age teens in T-shirts and hoodies, young parents with excited, preschool kids running around, a heavy-set black woman, several older white women, athletic coeds with long, shiny hair—all of us holding handles of a 15-foot diameter, yellow nylon circular banner with the “WE KNOW WHO IS RESPONSIBLE ” message—for the people in the high-rise buildings along Central Park and the media helicopters above us. This is the spirit of the People’s Climate March: tremendous creativity and diversity within unity of purpose.
For six months, the organizing groups planned the logistics: marches in 156 countries plus a major 3 ½ mile NYC March, requiring staging from 65th to 86th Streets on the West side of Central Park, a march route to Columbus Circle, across Central Park South to 6th Avenue, down 6th Avenue (home of FOX news and Madison Avenue) to 42nd Street, thru Times Square to 11th Ave. Expecting 150,000, over double that number converge into the March, coming in wave upon wave from planes, busses, trains, and subways from across the USA and around the world. It felt buoyant like a homecoming parade.
A Quaker friend and I sign up for our discounted train tickets just two days before the March. My first inkling that this will be really big is the fact that the link for the train from Trenton, NJ to NYC is already marked “Sold Out.” Coordinating transportation on all the busses and trains from across the country must be a nightmare. So many people decide to come at the last moment.
We leave our apartments at Pennswood Village in Newtown, PA at 8am to catch a train from Princeton Junction and arrive in NYC at 10:26am. Coordinating so many different, civilian groups to do something this massive is a marvel. The emails I’d gotten in advance remind people to be “flexible and positive.” Our first opportunity shows up at the Dinky train station in Princeton. The Dinky isn’t running. The shuttle bus got lost, so a van shows up to take us to the Princeton Junction station. We mill around waiting for the organizers who have our discounted train tickets. Just before the train arrives, we get out tickets and fill the train. From the start, the mood is jubilant. Strangers chat with one another easily, sharing their information about the March and the concerns that bring them to it. Hispanic families with their kids, a multi-national group of Temple University students in business suits, a young white couple with their toddler, moms and daughters, fathers and sons, clusters of suburban, older types, Indian women in saris, black grandfathers with young teenagers—we’re all converging on New York.
Our first need is to use a bathroom at Penn Station, and although there are port-a-potties all along the March route, it’s the only bathroom break we get until we arrive home. We carry a minimum of water and food and wear our most comfortable walking-shoes. Luckily the day is overcast, around 76 degrees, muggy and threatening thundershowers, but we are determined to march no matter what. Nancy is 81, I’m 71, both veterans of marches and campaigns over the past 50 years: civil rights, women’s reproductive rights, the environmental movement, Hands Across America, Earth Day. Both of us are white, married, middle class grandmothers who live in very comfortable circumstances. I’ve been an activist since my Peace Corps years in the 60’s. Nancy’s worked for the United Nations Economic and Social Council and lived and travelled with her husband in several foreign countries for a Church World Service program for “responsible parenthood.”
Getting from Penn Station to the line of march by subway seems the way to go. As we contemplate the long lines of people waiting to buy tokens, a female, fellow marcher about our age sells us an unopened $5 subway card. Not surprisingly, the subway cars are packed, but a long-haired man in jeans with straggly, grey hair and beard makes room for us just as the doors are closing. Our benefactor from Augusta, GA, another fellow from Washington, DC, and a young woman from Palestine are crammed body-to-body around us as the subway lurches from stop to stop. No one can hold on, but we are packed in so tightly, no one can fall down either. We all talk and laugh at the crowded conditions.
As we come out of the subway at the Natural History Museum onto the street, we are greeted by thousands of people overflowing Central Park West as far as the eye can see in all directions, everyone carrying placards, signs, banners or wearing costumes and T-shirts with all manner of slogans, representing a wide spectrum of causes: Clean Water/Clean Air, NAACP Wisconsin, VOTE, Peace,
No Fracking, I’m Marching For “fill-in-the-blank” posters, Give Bees A Chance, people with make-shift bike-floats, System Change/Not Climate Change, parents with babies and toddlers in double strollers, Solar/Wind power/Alternative energy, people in slogan-decorated wheel chairs being pushed by others, marchers with hats and headdresses (my favorite was Aqua Man in his blue, iridescent tights and blue wig).
We join the march at 77th street at exactly 11:30am. Fay Stoyall and Wendall Harris, two older black people seasoned by their civil rights activism, organize games for their black teens (and the younger white children and all the rest of us) who are restless: chanting, singing, flapping the circular banner in “waves,” or raising it up and down to the count of three and then allowing every-other person to run under it and switch sides (a game that the youngest children never tire of). Fay and Willard are here representing NAACP Wisconsin, and they and their busload of teenagers have ridden a bus all night to be here. Over the next several hours, Fay says, again and again, “I’m glad I’m here. This is an historic moment!” Wendall and Fay’s enthusiasm never flags. and their laughter, caring, and broad smiles buoy us all.
The plan was to have everyone in place by 11:00am. There are six separate staging areas to choose from, each represented by an enormous yellow banner. No one assigns us a place: everyone picks the banner they want to march under. The first banner (THE FRONTLINES OF CRISIS, FOREFRONT OF CHANGE) represents indigenous peoples and those most impacted by climate change. The second banner (WE CAN BUILD THE FUTURE) is for the ones who are the hope for re-building a more just world—families, students, elders, labor and others. The third (WE HAVE SOLUTIONS) is for those working to create a just transition: renewable energy, food and water access, and environmental organizations. The fourth (WE KNOW WHO IS RESPONSIBLE) is for peace and justice groups who call-out those who are holding back progress, e.g., fossil fuel corporations. The fifth (THE DEBATE IS OVER) is for those who have the facts, who know that taking action is a moral necessity—scientists, interfaith groups and others. The sixth (TO CHANGE EVERYTHING, WE NEED EVERYONE) is everyone else: representatives of cities, states, countries, neighborhoods, NYC boroughs, LGBTQ, community groups. Every sector also has several marching bands of various sizes and type.
At 12:58pm, the planned moment of silence occurs to commemorate the victims of climate change worldwide. Silence is signaled along the March by holding hands and lifting them above our heads. It’s astonishing to see this tumultuous energy suddenly become quiet and reflective, as the signal passes quickly through the crowd, block by block. Even the children are quiet. After two minutes the silence ends with a great, noise-sounding “climate alarm,” an alarm that has been ignored for too-long. Thirty-two marching bands, church bells, our voices, noisemakers, and drums sound as one.
Nancy and I have chosen to stay with Wendall and Fay in the fourth of the six major groups, helping to hold the circular banner. The number of people in front of us is so massive that we stand for two hours, waiting to move forward. People share food and stories, bring bottled water to those who hold the poles for the overhead banner. Helicopters fly over, giving us an opportunity again and again to spread out and “wave” our circular banner to catch their attention. Another black elder with a bullhorn and a great smile leads cheer after cheer, his call draws a roar of response from the crowd: “What do we want?… Climate justice…When do we want it?… NOW!” or “The People, United, Can Never Be Defeated!” or “Hey, Obama, we loved your speech. Now let’s practice what you preach!” or “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!” Over the next several hours as we wait and march, wait and march, the chants become more creative and varied. The person behind the bullhorn changes too, with our leader inviting (and coaching) even the youngest children to lead. Two of the children (4 year old Harry and an 11 year old girl) make up their own cheers. Our leader says, “We have to teach the next generation. They’ll never forget this experience!”
People take care of each other, trading off the work of carrying the banner on the huge bamboo poles or holding the circular banner’s handles, recruiting whoever is nearby and willing to spell people as they fatigue. There isn’t a single trash can along the route (apparently to prevent bombs from being placed in them), but despite our numbers, there is almost no litter anywhere. The police are present along the metal barricades, keeping people from entering the march except at specific entry points and stopping the march to allow traffic to flow through at major cross-town streets, but they are restrained and friendly. Marchers greet them and thank them for being there.
It takes us 3 ½ hours to walk to the end of the march at 11th Avenue near the entrance to Lincoln Tunnel. An enormous block party greets us with food vendors and displays. Apparently the People’s Climate March needs to clear the streets by 5pm so the police can reopen the streets to auto traffic. Volunteer March marshals need us to move quickly. “Finish strong!” they urge. There are so many people in the March that the last two sectors behind us have to leave the streets before they finish.
Nancy and I collapse on the sidewalk along with many others, completely spent. The last walkers arrive by 5:30pm, and by then most of the displays and vendors have dispersed, but the mood is still vibrant and joyful. Finally there are containers available for trash, separated by recyclables (mostly water bottles), land-fill items, and large stacks of placards and “poles” (no wooden or metal poles were allowed, providing another opportunity for impressive creativity).
Amazingly in a crowd of 310,000 people, Nancy and I both encounter people we hadn’t seen in years from other causes and other parts of the country. It really is a small world after all. She meets people from Arkansas and Georgia, DC and NJ. I meet some of my Pachamama Alliance buddies from Massachusetts.
With such an enormous crowd, the general plan of marching in six sectors provides enough structure that everyone who wants to to innovate and create their own way of participating: great simplicity and great complexity. The spirit throughout is upbeat, diverse yet united in support of a just, peaceful, environmentally-thriving world. One person comments with tears in her eyes, “I’ve been waiting for this moment [of everyone coming together] all my life.” The March demonstrates an astonishing convergence of interests.
Having snacked on oatmeal cookies, almonds, and water all day, Nancy and I are too tired to think of eating a meal, and we walk the last 10 blocks to Penn Station where we catch the 6:14pm train home, arriving back in Princeton Junction at 7:35pm. Exhaustion has set in by then, and we are grateful to have my husband Richmond drive us home.
Reflecting on the day’s events, I see how every one of us plays a different role. Some of us march. Some of us plan logistics. Some of us pray for the success of the March. Some of us attend a football game or babysit for a grandchild. Some of us go about our daily lives oblivious of the March until the next day’s news. But the future of all of us is connected, whether we know it or not. Perhaps this moment is best captured by a postcard someone hands me at the March. On the front of the card is our one, beautiful, blue Earth floating in the black ocean of space. The text says, “Too Big to Fail–Be a Climate Change Voter November 4—People & Nature Before Profits.” On the flip side it reminds me of what we all want: “Clean Air. Clean Water. Healthy Communities.” The amazing 2014 People’s March for Climate Change is over, but we are at the beginning of a new awareness of each other and the next steps we need to take.