People’s Climate March Really Was About the People

At the New Yorker, Hendrick Hertbzberg has the must-read reflection on the People’s Climate March on Sunday:

At Sunday’s vast and beautiful climate march, on Central Park West somewhere in the Sixties, I ran into Bill McKibben, a longtime acquaintance (he got his start as a New Yorker writer back in the nineteen-eighties). He was strolling at the edge of the crowd, unmolested, with his wife and colleague, Sue Halpern. We had a brief conversation about how the march was going (very well indeed), then he and Halpern strolled on—again unmolested, and mostly unrecognized.

If anyone can be called a leader, even the leader, of the People’s Climate March (and of the movement it represents, for that matter), McKibben’s the one. He dreamed the march up in the first place; he is its intellectual father, he wrote its manifesto, and he was its principal organizer. He is at once its Thomas Paine and its Bayard Rustin. Yet there he was, taking a walk down Central Park West like everybody else.

This was remarkable, and it was emblematic of what made this march feel different from other big marches I’ve been on for other big causes—for civil rights, against wars in Vietnam and Iraq, for nuclear disarmament, against nuclear power, for or against what have you. At those marches, most of them, leaders were a big deal, a major drawing card. The V.I.P.s spent most of their time in special tents to which admission required special credentials, and when they ventured out they were generally accompanied by phalanxes of aides and hangers-on. Not this time. There was a smattering of relevant celebrities, to be sure—the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Mayor of New York, Al Gore—but as far as I know there were no special tents, no special credentials, and no phalanxes.

But beyond the equality of marchers, there was an absence of what normally passes for “content” at protest rallies and marches:

Typically, at such events, the destination is an open-air field or arena featuring an elaborate speakers’ stand, with a backstage infrastructure of headquarters tents, satellite vans, and port-a-cans. The stand is festooned with microphones, amplifiers, and powerful loudspeakers. Rock bands and folksingers, the more famous the better, alternate with orators representing the various factions comprising the sponsoring coalition. At the People’s Climate March, there was no speakers’ stand, because there were no speakers. There was just the march and the people marching.

The crowd was big—three hundred and ten thousand, according to a scientific count conducted by a complex-systems mathematician from Carnegie Mellon University using data supplied by thirty-five spotters. It was probably closer to four hundred thousand, judging from the constant churn of people arriving and leaving. The crowd was noisy, with lots of impromptu chanting and singing and drums and noisemakers, including not a few vuvuzelas. (Remember the 2010 World Cup, in South Africa?) At precisely 1 P.M., an hour and a half into the march, the throng fell silent, suddenly and completely. Then came the wave—first a rolling tsunami of arms thrown into the air, travelling swiftly at us from the head of the march, two miles away, then, like thunder after distant lightning, a wall of sound, a deafening, exuberant roar of human voices all around. No speakers? Not quite. More like hundreds of thousands.

But that helps explain why the event didn’t get the kind of media coverage it deserved: there were no “big speeches” by identifiable celebrities or authority figures to quote. A few more marches like this one, though, and even the MSM may begin to understand that “debates” between “experts” who do and don’t “believe” in climate change exclude the voices that most matter.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.