The hands of an estimated 400,000 people reached toward a hazy New York sky. Silence settled over the crowd of marchers standing hip-to-hip, crammed along Central Park West from West 59th Street all way down to West 86th Street.
An estimated 2,000 Vermonters traveled to the city for Sunday’s People’s Climate March, whose organizers billed the demonstration as a historic gathering aimed at sending a clear message to world leaders: Climate change is here, it is happening now, and it is happening to us.
A moment of silence was offered to stand in solidarity with communities feeling the injustice of climate change (often referred to as global warming) and the fossil fuels industry.
And then, that silence was broken when from somewhere farther away in the crowd that stretched out of sight, a wave of sound arose: cheers, calls, tambourines, claps, shakers, cowbells.
The deafening swell crested above a contingent of Vermonters near the end of the march before crashing into the bystanders watching from the grassy hills of Central Park.
Some marchers cried; others hugged or high-fived their traveling companions.
A pause, and then the river of people moved forward half a block.
Message for world leaders
The march coincided with the arrival of world leaders gathering for the United Nations’ Climate Summit, which started Sept. 23.
According to Maeve McBride, coordinator with 350 Vermont, 22 buses carrying 1,200 people traveled from Vermont to the march. 350 Vermont organized 17 of the 22 buses. The remaining 800 people in the Vermont contingent arrived by car or train, she said.
According to the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on preserving land and bodies of water, although approximately 5 percent of the world’s population live in the United States, the country contributes approximately 22 percent of global carbon emissions. Of that 22 percent, 20 percent of the emissions come from personal cars and trucks.
On its website, NASA states that historically, atmospheric changes have been linked to volcanic eruptions, disruptions in the oceans, or the Earth’s orientation to the sun.
But the space agency says that the past 150 years tell a different story of a rapid rise in global temperatures, related to increased carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Earth’s warming climate, according to NASA, is contributing to extreme weather events, melting ice caps, ocean acidification, and warming global temperatures.
Tim Stevenson of Post Oil Solutions, a nonprofit organization that champions the issues in southeastern Windham County, said that the real test of the march would come the following day. Would all these people go home and take action, he asked, or will it be business as usual?
From Vermont to NYC with conviction
Post Oil Solutions, Ben & Jerry’s, and 350 Vermont sponsored the buses that left from the parking lot of Brattleboro Union High School at around 5 a.m.
The 40 passengers of bus VT12 — originally a full load until a New Hampshire contingent canceled at the last minute — climbed aboard. Most promptly fell asleep.
VT12 carried passengers that included parents and their children, students, a selectboard member, teachers, activists, and community organizers.
A car accident on the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx brought traffic to a crawl. Passengers on VT12 prepared for the march by receiving instructions from Stevenson on where they would join the march and begin singing songs such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The march route wove for approximately 2.5 miles. New York City police officers stood in pairs along the route. Bystanders observed the parade from the sidewalk and building steps.
Doormen and security guards under the awnings of doorways of apartment buildings along Central Park West gathered in twos and threes.
They watched. They asked one another what they thought of the march, of climate change, of tourists flooding into their city to make a statement.
One security guard simply asked, “When will this all be over?”
Taking clear action
When asked what they hoped the march would achieve, marchers repeatedly stressed the global need for creating policies such as a carbon tax aimed at slowing the environmental disturbances associated with climate change.
Stevenson ventured that changing the systems that promote climate change, such as transportation and fossil fuel extraction, won’t happen until new tariffs or taxes make the status quo prohibitively expensive for companies.
Stevenson also said he believes that people in the developed world will need to “accept a more modest way of life in terms of what we’re used to” — a way of life that requires less electricity.
During the day, Stevenson stopped to speak with police officers minding the marchers.
“How is it going?” he asked.
The officers smiled and seemed happy to chat. One said the demonstration didn’t bother him.
“I’m too old to be aggravated,” he said, adding as a joke that he had four children at home to keep him busier than any protest could.
A man standing on a nearby set of stairs tapped his foot in time to the crowd’s chant: “We are unstoppable; another world is possible!”
Three students from the School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro said they attended the march to call for new policies. They also said that countries emitting the most carbon, such as the United States, should bear the biggest responsibility in solving climate change.
Graduate student Cameron Berube, 27, said that climate change represented the most important issue his generation faced.
“And by ‘my generation’ I mean anyone alive now,” he clarified.
He stressed that the United States “owes it to the world to contribute” to slowing climate change. Berube added that he wanted to see the nation sign onto policy and legislation to aggressively reduce carbon emissions.
Fellow student Stephanie Rapp said that she used to believe her actions would make no difference. Participating in the march was helping her reconsider.
The environmental problems related to climate change have reached an urgent level, Rapp said.
She said she believed people should properly view climate change as integrated with justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, and class and race relations.
SIT student Leroy Abraham paused in answering questions as another cheer erupted in the crowd. Then he pressed on:
Attending SIT brought home for Abraham the inequality of climate change, with the United States being one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions that affect countries in what he called the “global south.”
“It’s important to put our money where our mouth is,” he said, adding that he’s working with others at SIT to get the school to divest from companies that don’t support sustainability.
Science + faith = actions
Marchers and non-marchers alike rested on the broad steps of the American Museum of Natural History.
The museum participated in the march with a billboard-sized sign that supported the science of climate change over the beliefs of climate deniers.
Organizers of the People’s Climate March divided the procession into six themes. Members of the “Vermont Hub” brought up the rear of the procession as part of the section with the theme “To change everything, we need everyone.”
Out in front of the march stood members of global “frontline communities,” often indigenous communities, highlighting the justice issues of climate change and the charge that such groups are often the ones first damaged not only by climate change itself, but also by the environmental and corporate effects of the production of the fuel that contributes to its effects, in the form of mining, fossil-fuel extraction, energy plants.
Union activists, families, and elders comprised the next section, “We can build the future.” Following them were “We have solutions,” people involved in renewable energy, food and water justice, and environmental organizations.
Anti-corporation campaigns and peace organizations comprised the section “We know who is responsible,” while scientists and interfaith groups talked facts and moral responsibility in “The debate is over” section.
Many people stopped and complimented Melody Reed from Chester for carrying a sign that read, “Science Over Stupidity.”
Reed said that thinking of her three grandchildren and leaving them a healthy planet inspired her to attend the march. She added that she hoped it would send a message to the federal government that enough was enough.
Reed is engaged in the climate-change issue. She has joined the Climate Action Team at the First Universalist Parish of Chester, where she attends services.
She explained her engagement has persuaded her to stand at more demonstrations.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to be arrested in New York City,” she said, referring to the civil disobedience action “Flood Wall Street” planned for the following day, “but I may be ready to be arrested in Vermont.”
At one point, the march turned into a standstill. According to some observers, one of the many groups in the procession decided to stage a sit-in.
Laurel Green of Rockingham, who also attends the First Universalist in Chester, and started the church’s Climate Action Team, said she watched floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene fill her backyard.
Not taking action is no longer an option, she said.
“When I stretch my mind globally I end up whipping around to my own backyard.”
She added that this past summer, rainstorms twice rearranged the banks of the Williams River and the five tributaries that flow through Chester, upstream from her home.
“We are experiencing it now,” she said. “It’s in our own backyard that we have to take action.”
Near Columbus Circle, members of the Communist Party USA, dressed in vivid red shirts, marched past the glossy Trump Tower.
The Rev. Lise Sparrow of the Guilford Community Church stood by the fountain at Columbus Circle looking for musician Paul Winter, who would walk with her contingent later.
“There is just a huge amount of diversity,” said Sparrow of the people in the procession. “It is also very jubilant.”
Sparrow said she was attending the march to chaperone young people from her church and the wider Windham County community. She said she wanted them to experience activism firsthand and to know how it feels “to be part of something greater than themselves.”
Attending the march represented “a big step for our congregation,” said Sparrow.
Sparrow explained that although she and her fellow congregants often participate in service activities as stewards of the Earth, they rarely engage in direct action.
But, she said people of faith are called to care for the Earth. She sees no conflict between faith and science. In thefirst book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, God asks people to steward the Earth so that all prosper, she said.
She continued, saying an intelligence exists called science, and this gives people the information and skills to prosper wisely.
Climate change carries with it an interconnectedness among politics, justice, food, the environment, and human life, said Sparrow.
“People in desperation do desperate things,” she added, noting the havoc climate change is wreaking in some countries.
Referring to a group of meditators who participated in the People’s March by siting on the side in meditation, Sparrow said people can work to end climate change in a variety of ways, “but you have to really care about the Earth and its beauty.”
State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, attended the march with her husband, performer Peter Gould.
“It was quite spectacular,” she said.
Burke said despite the large crowd, she bumped into people she knew, including seven from her Brattleboro neighborhood of Swedesville.
“Somehow we have to keep the pressure up” on world leaders, said Burke of combating climate change post-march.
Burke belongs to the Vermont Legislature’s Climate Caucus. Over the fall, the members will discuss policies it wants to put forward in the new biennium, which begins in January.
Referring to the peace and camaraderie of the day, Burke said that regardless of the march’s immediate outcome, she will bring hope to her continued actions on climate change.
“You must go into these things with a sense of hope that your actions do matter,” she said.
As a woman with bright blonde curly hair and wearing four-inch heels stopped short, zigged right, then zagged left as she wheeled her orange suitcase through the crowd of demonstrators who had left the street to walk on the sidewalk, a Massachusetts couple, Lance Smith and Betsy Wilson, said they traveled to the march because of what they saw as a disturbing intertwining of corporate influence and government policy.
“The time is ripe for more mass actions to let the powers know that climate-change issues are important to a wide variety of people,” Smith said.
He said he worries that his grandchildren “will not be able to grow up in a world able to support life.”
Both said they participated in the first Earth Day, in 1970. They remarked that the environmental movement quickly gained momentum after the massive demonstrations that marked the first Earth Day. By the end of 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We’re in a different era of politics and corporate ownership,” Wilson said.
Wilson pointed, by means of example, to a proposed gas pipeline — Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Energy Direct Project — which could cross through Massachusetts. The New England governors have agreed to support the taxes that will finance the pipeline, she said.
Modern capitalism profits from environmental destruction, added Smith.
Anti-nuclear activist Leslie Sullivan Sachs marched with a coalition of organizations calling for no nukes. She said that during the march, people approached her to thank her for her decades of work on Vermont Yankee.
“Vermonters and the state really are an inspiration for people who are struggling against nuclear reactors,” Sullivan Sachs said.
According to Sullivan Sachs, the nuclear industry holds up nuclear power as a solution to climate change. While some view nuclear power as carbon-emission-free energy, she disputes it as a solution to climate change.
She noted that mining and plutonium enrichment create carbon emissions, and nuclear reactors use copious amounts of water in their cooling process.
Noel Schroeder traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the march. She said that she wanted to show solidarity for all the groups organized to stem climate change.
A manager of education policy, policy and government affairs with Women Thrive World Wide, Schroeder said that in her professional life she sees how climate change touches every aspect of people’s lives, especially women.
Traditionally, women hold up their communities as caretakers, food providers, and operators of small businesses, she said. An adverse climate hurts the support structures that support the women supporting their communities.
A man from West Virginia said he attended the march to protest the heavy use of fracking in his home state.
As members of the Vermont contingent returned to their buses — hot, weary, and foot-sore — they noted, again, the need for systemic changes if people hope to keep their planet’s atmosphere in balance.
The many buses departing for Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island idled along 9th Avenue, which was lined by neon-signed storefronts filled with patrons buying refrigerated goods and talking on cell phones, highlighted both the interconnectedness — and the breadth of the system — marchers felt needed changing.