Wednesday, October 1, 2014

1567. People’s Climate March Was a Huge Success; What to Do Next?

By Kamran Nayeri, October 1, 2014
Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014

What was accomplished
The September 21 People’s Climate March in New York City was a huge success.  Over 310,000 people consisting of hundreds of contingents of various origins and interests marched in New York (some have put the number of marchers as high as 400,000).  The organizers report that 2,807 similar actions took place in 166 countries during that weekend.  In New York, contingents representing environmentalists, trade unionists, students and youth, indigenous activists, community organizations, religious and political groups and many others represented the breadth of support for immediate effective action to stop and reverse global warming and catastrophic climate change.  Although dozens of similar protests took place elsewhere in the U.S., thousands of participants came to New York on 550 buses, many trains and planes to give the march a national character.  Also, the march had an international character because it was in response to the UN September 23 meeting of heads of state and corporate leaders to address climate change.  It is not secret that only an internationally coordinated response can successfully address climate change.  Among marchers there was not just high-profile environmentalists like Bill McKibben of, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Goodall and Vandana Shiva but also key politicians including U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Al Gore.  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also joined the March.  President Obama sent a supporting Twitter message.  While mainstream media did not cover the march in proportion to its importance there was positive coverage of its in the New York Times and other influential mass media.    

Still, it is doubtful if many participants returned home thinking that the U.S. and world elite have heard their message and will now collaborate on a plan to slow and then stop emission of greenhouse gases in a timely fashion.  Two-decades of fruitless international “negotiations” have made any thinking person skeptical about the intentions of capitalist politicians and corporate leaders who are after their own narrow self-interests rather than the health of the planet and its peoples.  The key accomplishment of these protests was the broad collaborative effort of many constituencies who are serious about putting an end to greenhouse emissions and address other planetary crises and the message they sent to the rest of the people of the world.  We can build on the success of this march and similar events to continue bottom up pressure for change in climate and public policy in the U.S. and worldwide.  To this end, I like to take up a few lessons from our recent experience. 

“Left-wing” criticism of the People’s Climate March
There was considerable hesitancy on the part of some socialist organizations and personalities to embrace the opportunity to build the climate actions called for by the organizers of the New York march.  In Oakland, California, where a very successful rally of 4,000 was held on the afternoon of September 21 some socialist organizations in the Climate Change Not System Change local coalition that initiated the process were hesitant to work with “reformist environmentalist groups” like and Sierra Club.  Some even did not think a successful event can be organized because they knew the local socialist groups have little political influence to bring in a crowd and they already excluded working with environmentalist groups in their minds.  It took a lot of discussion for almost everyone to be convinced that (1) a successful event can be organized and (2) it is not only OK to work with “reformist environmentalist groups” but it is imperative that we do so. 

A similar attitude was expressed toward the main event in New York. Chris Hedges some of his articles I really like wrote an article for on August 30 entitled “The Last Gasp of the Climate Change Liberals.” He said: 

Our only hope comes from radical groups descending on New York to carry out direct action, including Global Climate Convergence and Popular Resistance. March if you want. But it should be the warm-up. The real fight will come once people disperse on 11th Avenue.” 

Thus, he counterposed the massive People’s Climate March (which he estimated in his article to be about 200,000) to the “radical” action on the following day that happened to bring together 3,000 to stop the traffic in Wall Street area and lay the blame for climate change on “capital.”

Anne Petermann who had already criticized the organizers of the march earlier for lacking any demands wrote in Climate Connections on the eve of the march an article entitled Confronting Climate Catastrophe: Direct Action is the Antidote for Despair; Or, Why the UN is Worse than Useless and we need to Flood Wall Street!  She too counterposed the mass march of well over 300,000 people to the “direct action” of 3,000.

Clearly, Hedges and Petermann have proved wrong.  Few people anywhere in the world would hold that the Flood Wall Street action of 3,000 people was the main show and the People’s Climate March of over 3000,000 a merely side-show.  

Petermann has also proved wrong about a lack of demand—nobody else seems to be in doubt what the main demand of the marchers was: STOP CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE NOW!  Unless, of course, Petermann wants the marchers to agree on a plan of action on how to carry this demand to a successful conclusion!  

Socialist groups who finally poured their energy into building the very successful rally in Oakland have no doubt that working alongside the environmentalist groups was key to its success.  They too have come out of this experience stronger. 

“Gasps of despair” better exemplifies the state of individuals and organizations that either sat outside of these mass events or counterposed to them “radical” actions of the “enlightened” few.  

It does seem that the meaning of “direct action” is muddled in the discussion no doubt due to decades very low levels mass struggle in the United States.  Lessons of anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the U.S., not to mention lesson from the world revolutions seem to have been entirely lost to some, including Hedges and Petermann.  In the revolutionary socialist and labor movements, the concept of “direct action” was never severed from mass action. The reason is simple—radical social change can never be the work of any elite group’s action.  Only the working people can change the course of history.  And the fight against climate change is nothing less than changing the course of history.  

What about Flood the Wall Street march? 
How about the Flood the Wall Street march of 3,000 that happened on Monday September 22?  In “What Is Wrong With the Radical Critique of the People’s March” in The Nation, Jonathan Smucker and Michael Premo correctly criticize Hedges’ ultra-left sectarian position.  As participants in both People’s Climate March and Flood the Wall Street march they correctly argue: 

“What Hedges overlooks is how easily direct acts of revolt can be dismissed or repressed, if they are carried out by a small number of people who are not visibly tied to a broader social base. This is why Flood Wall Street’s mobilization in relation to the PCM (People’s Climate March) was so vital.”  

I think Smucker's and Rremo’s article is an excellent contribution to the discussion among socialist and ecological socialists involved in the movement to stop catastrophic climate change and I urge everyone to read it carefully.  However, I also wish to add a note that the so-called “escalated tactics” of the Flood the Wall Street march could not have served the movement well because it was not a mass march contrary to idea of “flooding” in its name.  It remained an elite action because it would have been much larger if only the communities that organizations claimed to represente participated in it.   Furthermore, blocking the traffic and holding “capital” responsible for climate change do not advance our movement.  Raising consciousness and organizing on a daily basis do.   And I submit the latter is much harder to do than the former—to patiently explain, educate, agitate and organize. These will require close collaboration with many other groups currently led by reform-minded leaderships, especially the environmental groups, especially  The bulk of those who came to the People’s Climate March came because of the work of these organizations and that more reason why instead of “escalating tactics” we need to spend more time working with them building future protests.


Anonymous said...

Kamran, may I beg leave to agree both with you and with Chris Hedges? Of course the gathering of hundreds of thousands gives strength to demands for change; but Hedges is right that the big March restricted the demands themselves to rather vague ones, and your phrase does not go beyond them. We need the concrete demands-- and if we really don't agree on them, then we need the dialogue that the disagreement brings out.

Chandler Davis

Kamran Nayeri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kamran Nayeri said...

Dear Chandler,

Thank you for sharing your view on this very important question.

What in Hedges' or your own opinion should have been the central demand of the mass demonstration in New York on Sept. 21?

Climate change is both an environmental and a class question at the same time. It impacts all life on Earth, including all human life. It is a class question because fossil fuel-based capitalist industrialization is the main deriver of it.

Thus, it is natural for the environmentalist movement to take the lead on this question at this stage of political development in the United States. In an apt terminology, it's constituent parts are compared to an ecosystem. It includes, for example, the Christian evangelists' climate action group that has 400,000 members. They think fighting to stop climate change is a Christian thing. Should we not welcome them in such mobilizations (and who are we not to welcome anyone in a mass mobilization)? And if so, what demands can bring together all these hundreds of groups?

The People's Climate March did have a central message--if not a slogan--STOP CLIMATE CHANGE NOW! All who participated understood this to be their common goal. The media got this message and related it to the world. Why is this a deficiency?

Of course, it would have been better if the marchers all agreed that the problem is the industrial capitalist system and called for an ecological socialist world instead!

But that is not where we are in mass consciousness. The socialists and ecological socialists (including myself) have the task of providing a bridge in consciousness from the environmental concerns of the population in general to class consciousness of that ties climate fight to others that point to the need to transcend capitalism and begin building an alternative society that lives in harmony with itself and with the rest of nature.

Given the fact that everywhere, including in New York, socialists and ecological socialists remain a tiny minority with little or no influence in society our task remains one of education and patient explanation which we can do through our media, public meeting, etc. The road to our utopia runs through broad mass mobilizations such as the People's Climate March within which we campaign for our views while being among the best activists and organizers. Thus, "vanguardist" actions (I call them elitist because I am not even sure if many of these personalities and groups are actually in the vanguard) of a few separate from the masses as Hedges, Petermann and others have agitated are simply mistakes that deter from the strategy of mass education and mobilization and discredit the socialism and ecological socialism (despite their best intentions).

Another way to see that theirs is an utra-leftist sectarian error, consider Petermann article that I cited. She who has been active in the climate fight for some time describe how she tried to get the UN to do the right thing and could. Why then she lashes out at others who harbor the same illusion? Are they not entitled to the same experience and education as Petermann?

Of course, we have little time in climate fight. The window of opportunity is narrowing down quickly. But there are no shortcuts to mass consciousness. Getting impatient with the rest of climate activists who are not socialist or ecological socialist is certainly not the right course. We still need to patiently explain and hope for the best.