When I was about 9, I marched in a Boston Earth Day rally, and I still remember the looks of worry especially circulating among the parents: the styrofoam cups were piling up in landfills and the ozone layer was becoming alarmingly thin. But the day was still mostly celebratory, promoting stewardship for the earth out of good-natured respect, not necessity, for the planet and local communities. Back then in the 90's, there were projections and ideas of what could happen if global warming continued, but this still seemed so far off, there was plenty of time to reroute the course.
Now in 2017, these projections are realities causing widespread suffering and inconvenience, and last weekend's Peoples Climate Movement marches sought to shine a nationwide spotlight on just how dire this situation is becoming. Whether you've developed asthma from poor air quality, are rebuilding your house after the original was swept away in a hurricane or mud slide, receiving treatment for skin cancer, or just giving up attempts for the perfect American lawn, life is quickly becoming defined by human induced climate change.
I was at the epicenter of the movement in Washington DC, and although the day started out with forecasts of rain, the sun quickly came out to warm up the thousands gathering in front of the Capital building. Organizers were aiming to appeal to as many people as possible and the march was organized by theme: energy, religion, jobs, science. (more here). I tried to visit them all, but the crowds were so thick I only found 4: Guardians of the Future (families, students, peace activists), Defenders of Truth (scientists, educators), Reshapers of Power (renewable energy), and Keepers of Faith (religious and interfaith groups). The intensity of sun and the crowds grew as morning turned to noon and marchers found their friends, admired signs and took pictures, got interviewed by students and news media.
Signage throughout the march was like walking through an encyclopedia of all the ways peoples' lives are directly linked to the compromised health of the planet, the personal losses and collective forced change. The polite concern of the 90's has been replaced by an urgent resolve to face the music and act immediately.
It seemed to take hours for marchers to assemble, as people streamed in on buses from around the country and filled every square inch of streets facing the Capital. Rows of water stations were set up as the temperature rose. People grew more and more impatient to march. Finally there was movement, various bands started up, chants gathered steam, and we headed like a giant locomotive down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Despite the wide DC streets, there was hardly room to walk and signs of "it's April and 96 degrees" reminded us of the alarmingly illustrative weather. The water stations ran out of water but everyone pushed on, helping the elderly and kids onto the shadier sidewalks.
And then, as Trump Hotel came into sight, waves of booing, hissing, and furious chanting "Shame, shame, shame!" flew through the crowds. Screams of "NOT MY PRESIDENT!" and a spontaneous sit-in started in the middle of the street.
The march culminated at the Washington Monument overlooking the White House, and people spread out across the streets, sidewalks, and public lawns. No one seemed to want to leave, gathering to hear musicians and speakers on a stage set up, sign petitions, share food. There was the Climate Ribbon public art project (theclimateribbon.org) where people could share their concerns about climate change on ribbons hanging in long lines of color like drying laundry. Someone started an impromptu pattern with discarded signs, calling others to help, eventually spelling out "climate" surrounded by a giant shining sun.
Late in the afternoon, the roar of the Presidential helicopter entourage flew over the Washington Monument, momentarily halting the music and people shouted and gawked at the figures striding across the South Lawn into the White House. Ten minutes later, the helicopters took off again, swooping low across the lawns of the Washington Monument into the faces of the protesters. But after a few minutes the next round of musicians started up and a guy with a drone camera organized hundreds into a circle around the protest sign patterns to take an aerial shot; even after the pictures were taken, people lingered in the circle, not wanting to leave, calling out chants to continue to unite and fight.
As much as I can't get the mechanical roar of the presidential helicopter out of my head, momentarily drowning out the grass roots efforts of climate activists, I also can't forget the thousands of other images from the day -- kids on their parents shoulders, all those determined feet marching in the heat, the defiant signs with hand drawn endangered animals and pleas -still- to remember Flint, to support the green technologies of the future. There are plenty of naysayers attempting to dismiss the efforts and organizational energy of this protest, trying to bury it with relentless political distraction about healthcare and foreign threats. But I'm not convinced we will be so easily distracted this time. There are too many aspects of climate change (health, global security, food, jobs) blurring the lines of traditional race/location/class/political party lines that so often sabotage American unity. A presidential term is finite and the Peoples Climate Movement is growing.