Observations from the People’s Climate March
On September 19 of last year, I went with my husband, Ali, to New York City for the People’s Climate March. We went by bus from Baltimore Friday night to do bank actions on Saturday with Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) before the march on Sunday. Three New York meetings had opened their doors to Friends coming from out of town.
After the bank actions, quite a few of us gathered for a potluck meal at New York City’s Fifteenth Street Meeting. After pizza, spaghetti, and salad, we gathered in the meetingroom to hear Jay O’Hara, a young adult Friend from New England Yearly Meeting, talk about the “Lobster Boat Blockade.” Back in May 2013, O’Hara and his friend Ken Ward bought a leaky, old lobster boat, fixed it up, and piloted it into the path of a barge loaded with 40,000 tons of coal for delivery to Brayton Point, a coal-burning power plant near Boston. O’Hara and Ward called the local police, and the Coast Guard also got involved. I don’t know how much the protesters felt that life and limb were at risk, but it was a very bold action in any case. The blockade only caused a few hours delay, but to O’Hara and Ward it was a leading obeyed. Their actions spoke an obvious truth to a power inured to the results of their dirty-energy business.
The case came up for trial just before the climate march. It was all over the news—at least the kind of news I read—when Bristol County district attorney Sam Sutter dropped all of the major charges against O’Hara and Ward and announced he would be joining the People’s Climate March.
After O’Hara’s talk, we stayed in the meetingroom for worship. I was feeling antsy and not really desiring to center and listen, and not quiet enough to dig into why not. There were messages, but they didn’t really speak to me. The Friend at the head of meeting started to break it, but Katherine, another of the New England young adults, said she felt like the worship wasn’t over. We settled in again. Quinn, an activist with EQAT, rose with a message. Before the premature rise of meeting, another member of EQAT, Lee, had started to rise but had returned to her seat when someone else rose. I’m always curious about what happens to the messages that get delayed at times like that.
After Katherine’s wise request and Quinn’s message, Lee rose again. I later learned she had been to just a handful of Quaker worship meetings through her work with EQAT. But on this night, she quaked like nobody I had ever seen before. She talked about courage and trying to explain to her dad what she was doing. She talked about being unsure, but experiencing something beyond herself and obeying it. She was so well and thoroughly used by the Spirit that she spoke long but didn’t remember what she said. Her message held my full attention, heart and soul, for every word. When she sat down, she let out a big breath, and so did I. Her message had helped me to listen. I felt opened up while she spoke. I sat bathing in an active receiving of the infinite love of God. I felt joyful and renewed for having heard her ministry.
As soon as the meeting broke, I went and sat by Lee to thank her. Another EQAT member, Carolyn, was on Lee’s right, so I sat down on her left. Carolyn was already taking care of Lee, who was in the tender state of someone who has been powerfully used. I recognized this, and joined in caring for her in those exquisite moments of raw tenderness. It felt good to pat and rub her back gently, and she sagged against Carolyn and then me and hugged us. We spoke in quiet words. I assured her (as if she didn’t already know!) that she had been well-used. Jay came over and knelt down and held both her hands. The unity in the room was very real and palpable. It was as if the meeting, and especially Lee’s ministry, had given form to something that was there before but made open to us during her ministry. It was a fresh witnessing of the ocean of light and love irresistibly flowing over the ocean of darkness. It was an opening.
Ali and I slept in the meetingroom that night, on cushions pulled off the benches. A couple dozen others were there, too. Friends kept arriving until late into the night. Emily, a Fifteenth Street Meeting member who spent the weekend at the meetinghouse taking care of us, woke us early Sunday morning.
We arrived at the assigned block for faith groups to feed into the march a little before 10 a.m. We had meeting for worship sitting right in Fifty-Eighth Street, which had been closed to cars. We stayed in the block for quite a long time, but it was too noisy to talk and we were not able to see the march going by, so Ali and I went out to Eighth Avenue to watch the march.
We watched thousands of people march by: a nursing infant, topless women, children, seniors, families, dogs, and a guy in a dress with a pigeon on his head. We saw Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. There was a Quaker dressed as a plant, a woman dressed as a butterfly, people in wheelchairs, women with a banner reading “Old Lesbians Making Change,” Hare Krishnas, students, science teachers, and a gaggle of chefs. We saw doctors; nurses; and people chanting, singing, and playing instruments. One young guy danced with great gusto while wearing a large frame backpack. The students chanted tirelessly, and a Lutheran behind me sang “Down By the Riverside” in a beautiful strong voice.
We marched for a while with the Quaker Earthcare Witness banner, but we got mixed around pretty quickly within the march. There were thousands of props and signs, like the one hand-lettered by a very young Friend from Hudson (N.Y.) Meeting: “Mo cars Mo carbon.” The Friend shyly let me take a picture. Other signs among the miles long river of people read ”Embody Fierce Compassion,” “Complacency Kills,” “From Gaza: Clean drinking Water is a Right,” “There is no Planet B,” and “Tar Sands No – Green Energy Yes.” A Friend from Maryland had a huge, round Earth with the words “Love Your Mother.” Many young people carried “Youth Choose Climate Justice” signs and chanted, “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” The signs flowed on and on: “Cook Organic not the Planet” and “Climate Change is a Hot Mess.” But my favorite of all was carried by a young woman with flowers in her hair: “I used to say someone should do something about that. Then I realized I am someone.”
The United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, two days after the march, wasn’t expected to produce meaningful results, but the Paris summit in December 2015 is supposed to create binding agreements. A great deal of public pressure will be needed to show our president and delegates that they must enter into binding agreements for emissions reduction.
The People’s Climate March was a 350.org project, though hundreds of other organizations, including Quaker Earthcare Witness, cosponsored it. Bill McKibben and seven of his undergraduate students at Middlebury College started 350.org in 2008. McKibben has been writing about global warming since it first came to public attention in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress. McKibben, a journalist, started writing about global warming and turned the writing and teaching into activism and advocacy. (Hansen later quit his job at NASA in disgust.)
There’s a lot of work to do. I feel a sense of urgency, and on some days, this feels like panic on one hand and hopelessness on the other. But I have woken up to the facts of the situation: global warming can’t be stopped, but it can be slowed down. And slowing it requires action right now. That action can take many forms, but it must include a massive movement that speaks truth to the power of corporations and government. Personal minding of our carbon footprints won’t change enough, although that kind of response is needed too.
Unlike in other struggles, it’s not just differing beliefs that are in play. It’s physics this time, and we find our behavior at odds with the physical requirements for a livable planet. I’m afraid that we don’t have decades to wage this struggle and that we’ll automatically lose. We really need to act right now in large numbers. As the New York march posters read, “To change everything we need everyone.”