On a humid, rainy Sunday morning, eight buses ringed the Haigis Mall on the UMass-Amherst campus, idling before the sun rose. This wasn’t the PVTA. Instead, these charter buses had arrived to carry more than 1,000 Valley residents to New York City for the People’s Climate March.
Valley residents who participated say they hope the march will come to be seen as more than an event that began and ended on Sept. 21. Activists, students and other participants hope the march will represent a turning point in a debate over climate change that had been limited to scientists, politicians and activists working in largely disconnected ways.
The 300,000-plus member throng that descended on Manhattan reached well beyond those groups, including students who’d never participated in a protest, union members and other activists who hadn’t seen a role for themselves in the issue, and parents determined to overcome a sense of feeling powerless, to reverse the degradation of the planet that will be left to their children.
Michaelann Bewsee is a founding member of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, a group that sent 35 people to New York for the march. She says her group only recently got involved with climate issues. About five years ago, Arise started fighting the development of a biomass plant in the city and grew from there to embrace broader—but related—concerns.
“It took a while for us to see that climate change is also a low-income issue, but now that we know, we’re not letting go,” she said.
She said more people are also in the know. Arise recently had two community meetings about climate change at the Gerena school in Springfield, with the conversation unfolding in Spanish and English. Bewsee said one of the most striking aspects was the response from younger generations who are dealing with the consequences of pollution.
“The younger they are, the more they get it,” she said. “When you see things like increasing air pollution, it creates asthma. I mean, they get it because they have asthma themselves. If we tackle air pollution, we are simultaneously tackling climate change.”
Varshini Prakash, a student organizer on the UMass campus, says effective activism comes not just from increasing numbers but also from better coordinating energies.
“We have a whole lot of disparate bubbles of activism on college campuses,” she said, “What we need to realize is that if we actually want to beat this thing, we need to be working together. We’re not winning working as separate identities.”
She says the national network of fossil-fuel divestment activists, spanning some 450 campuses, has started to communicate more regularly. Prakash said there’s still a long way to go, but hopes the climate march will provide a needed boost.
“I feel a huge momentum shift, I think the PCM is going to be a huge launching point,” she said. “But that big moment is just the start.”
Brett Bailey is a member of the Graduate Employee Organization at UMass, representing the local UAW 2322 union, which sent about 50 members to the march. He says the call to action for climate change is different than a workers’ rights movement because the consequences of climate change won’t occur overnight.
“The problem is still kind of far away. We’re not reacting to the threat of a nuclear bomb, which could happen right now,” he said. “It’s kind of invisible, slowly rising concentrations (of pollutants) in the atmosphere.”
Bailey continued, “Turning people out for a consequence that’s that far in the future and getting people invested in that concern is a monumental challenge.”
In New York City, the marchers appeared ready for that challenge. When the buses arrived in Manhattan at the beginning of the march, a festive atmosphere prevailed. Voices and chants echoed off the sides of buildings extending to the horizon in parallel lines. Cheers washed down the crowded streets in waves. Down the Avenue of the Americas, pedestrians on their normal commutes stopped to lean against buildings and gawk. A light police presence hung by the edges—officers with arms folded, chatty and relaxed. Some marchers wore the bright colors of their groups—the orange shirts of divestment groups or the blue of Climate Action Now. Many more carried signs demanding an end to fracking, the abandonment of the Keystone Pipeline, or an end to corporate influence in politics.
Bob Hinkelman didn’t travel far for the People’s Climate March; he lives an hour outside the city and works in Manhattan. He knows these streets, but he never walked them like this.
“You know, I got the email, and I said for once in my life I’m going to get out there and at least take a stand,” he said. “Because these are the things I talk about all the time and discuss with other people.”
Along Central Park West, two UMass students stood wearing huge grins. One was Steven Amorin, a member of the Eco-Rep program at UMass, which teaches students about sustainability and how best to spread the word. He said he felt the march provided an ideal way to stir climate activism among people who may not have been on board earlier with a new message of hope. “We get the very depressed tone at times but, right now, I can’t help but grin,” Amorin said.
Toby Armstrong, also an Eco Rep at UMass, said that even if the U.N. summit does not lead to policy changes among polluters and their political enablers, the support visible at the march will make a statement all its own.
“I doubt they’re actually going to change their ways,” he said, “but I think it will make the contrast between what the people want and what they’re getting that much more apparent.”
Jesse Lederman, a member of Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, said that disconnect, and the harm it does, binds these groups together in new ways. “I think the most important part is that we’re framing the conversation in a way that hasn’t been done on a broad scale before, and that’s discussing climate change as an economic issue, and an economic injustice.”
With collaboration, he said, these groups can continue to perform their separate work knowing they’ve got support in other communities.
“From PETA to the anti-nuclear movement to the anti-coal movement to the wind and solar individuals, I think that it’s like a flash mob—they all came together and now they’re going back to their respective work,” Lederman said.
Susan Theberge, a founding member of the Western Mass. contingent of Climate Action Now, walked the New York streets with the rest of her group. She said beyond the collection of activists, she noted a more diverse range of people than at any demonstration in recent memory.
“I was struck by the broad range of people. People from different economic levels, races, and cultures,” she said, “This was a real breakthrough historically in terms of the diversity of people who participated.” With such a turnout, she feels that old ideas about who campaigns for the climate have changed. “This is not your stereotypical white, middle class person fighting for the environment,” she said.
Following on the heels of the People’s Climate March, Arise and other groups are hoping to organize their own climate March to City Hall in support of Springfield’s new climate change plan.
This, Bewsee said, is the most important part: beginning to tackle the huge, global issue of climate any way and anywhere possible. “The march was about sending a message that people want action and recognize climate change as a real,” she said, “but the real work that we can do, where we can accomplish something, is at the local level.”•