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The People's Climate March May Have Been Huge, But It Wasn't 'Historic'

A controlled march, however big, has only limited political force. Which is why it's important for people to remain in the streets even when it's not officially sanctioned.
Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

There are no strict guidelines determining what events get to be "historic" in advance of histories being told, but few dates are rightly imbued with that kind of infamy or glory in their present time. And September 21, 2014, should not be among those dates.

But before the People's Climate March drew to a close on Sunday, activist groups and media outlets were already proclaiming the rally to be "historic." Organizers could fairly call the event, which reportedly drew more than 300,000 people into the streets on Manhattan, the largest march in protest of climate change in history. For everyone but historians of protest sizes — history is a heterogenous field, after all — it's not clear that "biggest ever" also means "historic" here. Those of us who recall marching in the vast throngs that nudged slowly through city streets in 2003 to protest the Iraq invasion remember too well that size does not necessarily history make.


I did not attend the People's Climate March because I prefer protests to parades. Riding the New York subway on the days leading up to the mobilization, I more than once scowled at adverts aimed at drawing numbers to march. The ads hailed a fangless gathering, paid for by the organizing coalition of liberal NGOs, including powerful e-campaigners Avaaz. "What puts hipsters and bankers in the same boat?" the subway banners asked in a tawdry nod to the universal threat of climate change.

In photos: The People's Climate March. Read more here.

(Although a climate specifically inhospitable to bankers and hipsters would be a welcome place, the wealthy and the trendy stand to be among the last to have their lives ruined by environmental devastation.)

Distrust of the methods of organization and promotional messaging is not necessarily reason enough to avoid a demonstration that promises so many attendees. Protest events can certainly exceed their original framing; when people take the streets, they can take them in surprising directions. The dizzying days of occupation, street marching, and rhizomatic organizing that defined Occupy Wall Street's exhilarating first flush, for instance, had very little connection to the call originally put out by the culture-jamming activist group Adbusters. Yet the set-up for the People's Climate March — a permitted and heavily policed procession down Manhattan's mid-section — meant anything other than a standard-issue peaceful parade was highly unlikely. Which, of course, was the goal.


Although a climate specifically inhospitable to bankers and hipsters would be a welcome place, the wealthy and the trendy stand to be among the last to have their lives ruined by environmental devastation.

The climate march aimed to be big, bright, and very visible; confrontation in the streets was not on the table. There's nothing wrong with joyous mass gatherings, but it's problematic to assume that an event is significant just by virtue of being big. After all, Manhattan's gridded streets are daily packed with bodies jostling in controlled and directed flows. The city's St. Patrick's Day parade attracts numbers nearing those of the climate march every year — and those crowds are often more disruptive.

To be sure, a mass mobilization drawing attention to the pressing problem of climate change in advance of a major summit is not the same thing as a booze-infused street party. But insofar as the medium is the message, a procession of hundreds of thousands of people moving through barricaded streets carrying props and banners can be easily forgotten and ignored. When the status quo is not threatened, its upholders tend not to listen.

'Hands up, don't shoot': Ferguson protests in photos. Read more here.

Taken in isolation, mass marches — even when truly massive — do not history make. The March on Washington emerged from a context of struggle. These mobilizations thus can reflect or herald an uptick in street-focused political action. And I hope that is what we will see following Sunday's climate rally. The majority of the 300,000+ people who attended will have returned home, folded away their homemade tree costumes, and will not return to the streets until the next major call is made to liberal sensibilities. But we should not foreclose the possibility of an exciting political moment emerging, rooted to climate activism and undergirded by anti-capitalism.

On Monday, a specifically anti-capitalist act of civil disobedience took place in Lower Manhattan, as a reported 4,000 demonstrators in blue proceeded to "flood" Wall Street, blocking the street with their bodies. Let's hope New York's streets remain a site of more and more protest, not limited to parades between police lines. Let's hope that mobilizations look beyond the UN climate summit next week, during which more empty promises on climate action can be expected from world leaders. And let's hope that the flood of protest grows torrential — and deserving of the term "historic."

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard