System Change Not Climate Change
Voices From the People’s Climate March
By Matt Fu
For the last 10 years, I have been a part of a civil lawsuit in New York City over the wrongful and illegal detainment conditions almost 2,000 of us endured during arrests at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Despite our lawyers’ claims of unjust treatment, the experience was mostly just a powerful moment to reflect on my own privilege from inside the belly of the racist and classist prison industrial complex.
Those protests saw estimates of 500,000 anti-war and social justice advocates in the streets protesting the re-nomination of George W. Bush for a second term and the largest political convention arrests in history.
When I heard that my settlement check would be coming around the time of the People’s Climate March in New York City in September, I had to put aside some reservations about the event. I knew the march was propped up by many of the same large environmental groups that arguably have fumbled the ball addressing critical issues about environmental equity and climate justice, but I decided I should cling to the stark serendipity of the moment. I elected to use my settlement money to fund my trip to New York City so I could cover the events as a broadcast journalist for Olympia’s local radio station 106.5 KOWA-FM.
The journey that began with a four-day Amtrak trip across the country with 180 west coast community activists on the People’s Climate Train took me through a week’s worth of vibrant preparations and several days of actions. I experienced three-story warehouses in Brooklyn teeming with paints, materials, and artists alongside several days of workshops and panel discussions across the city with the likes of Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, Kshama Sawant, Oscar Olivera, and Immortal Technique.
I housed up in a Queens crashpad with the staff of the Center for Biological Diversity, legendary environmental justice intellectual Carl Anthony, and friends from Bellingham committed to fossil fuel divestment. A 10-hour day in the streets on Sunday marching with 400,000 other people and a small Palestine solidarity contingent, followed by a second full day protesting with 3,000 others ready for direct action in the Flood Wall Street mobilization. That evening our Wall Street occupation and direct action led to me spending a night in close fellowship, under arrest and in custody of the NYPD with ninety-nine brave souls, two super heroes, and a polar bear.
Now, putting aside that my favorite type of glasses are rose-colored, myself and others truly believe that what transpired when 400,000 people converged on New York City for the People’s Climate March was the first collective moment for a new social movement. This new movement is powered not by the bleached-white and affluent odor of older generations and organizations, but by younger, braver brilliance coming often from the front lines of highly impacted communities in the environmental justice movement. It was an impressive week, with hundreds of grassroots organizations from across many boundaries coming together, not only to march and protest but to collaborate, workshop, share, and do the tough work of coalition-building. Also striking was that some of the strongest and most popular echoes coming out of all the events were starkly anti-capitalistic, sometimes revolutionary in tone. These voices connected the dots explicitly between institutionalized oppression and the devastating effects already wrought by climate change as well as a strong criticism of the entrenched, institutionalized leaders of the large, paternalistic environmental organizations.
Certainly it was recognized that not nearly enough was being done to combat climate change, and that environmental leadership inside and outside the system was broken. A grassroots approach that looked to the perspectives and voices of those hardest hit by climate change and entrenched oppression was what was most needed. Even during the most sanctioned moments of the main march, for every tired group calling obliquely to “save the (blank)” there were two groups calling for direct strategies and aggressive actions to grind mechanisms to a halt.
“System change, not climate change” was an undeniable refrain that even the lead environmental organizations, subservient to the capitalist paradigm, had to respect and acknowledge as valid. Bill McKibben (leader of 350.org and a main organizer of the march) recognized this when called out by both Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein at a tense evening panel discussion. The discussion also featured Seattle city council member and socialist Kshama Sawant, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Like most occasions of such large scale, the real power rested not in the big names and headlining events, but in the small conversations, shared experiences, and modest exchanges of the thousands of activists from local, grassroots community groups. All of us were there for a shared purpose: to answer the call and use this moment to highlight the impotence of international and American leaders on climate change. Community groups also sought to bring environmental justice issues to the forefront, and further the important work of creating the alternative, grassroots power structure through coalition building and skill-sharing of what makes our communities more resilient.
In part two of this article, I will talk more about the march, direct actions, and arrests as well as, more importantly, highlight some of these voices. From local community organizers from the refinery city of Richmond, California, a diverse and empowered city battling with the disproportionate impacts felt from the fossil fuel industry, to activists battling water privatization in Detroit. From Indigenous organizers in North America fighting extractive industries on their lands, to the presence of veteran activists from the Global South who’ve battled the IMF and neo-liberal financing forces that exploit their lands and peoples, there were thousands of hard-working, wise community organizers and activists sharing their wealth of knowledge and experience with one another.
These are the voices that all agreed that what is most important is what comes next, what happens when we all bring this experience back to our home communities, and these are the powerful stories now echoing in the heads of 400,000 energized people across the country.
For audio archives and further coverage of the People’s Climate March, People’s Climate Train and the Climate Convergence, please visit http://www.kowalp.org