Four hundred thousand took the streets of New York City on September 21, and, regardless of our critiques of the event and the groups organizing it, that is a memorable feat. But: What will it mean?
With no disrespect to the logistical work, the hardship of travel and all the rest of the organizing work carried on over several months, a demonstration is the easy part of a movement. The hard part is sustaining the many layers of strategic work necessary to prevail against vastly more powerful entities and having the courage to directly challenge the system.
A march of protestors literally miles long can’t help but earn attention, but without much follow-up work, it will mean little, exhilarating as it was to be among so many. The next day’s “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience, in which hundreds of people blocked a major Financial District street for several hours, is a hopeful step. If the energy unleashed in Monday’s flood is replicated in all the places from which people traveled to the September 21 demonstrations that took place around the world, then perhaps that could be the day we some day look back to as the start of a successful struggle to save the planet.
South Africans struggling to dismantle apartheid through long decades and the civil rights activists of the 1960s in the Southern U.S. literally put their bodies and lives on the line. And yet, as inhumane as the local elites were in protecting their privileges, the global order was not targeted. Tackling global warming seriously directly challenges business as usual around the world.
Reversing global warming and living in harmony with our environment and all the living beings who share the planet with us humans means nothing less than putting an end to capitalism. The industrialists and financiers who dominate the world, and the governments that serve them, show no indication they will do anything other than throw all the violence they can summon to keep their system in place and themselves at the top of the pyramid.
Demonstrations, in themselves, change nothing: They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. Demonstrations do signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly (no, you are not crazy because you don’t believe the lies the corporate media feeds you), and serve as an invaluable organizing tool. An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force.
Will we use the tool — will we go back to our communities and construct the organizations that will find a path to a better world? That possibility is why we all had to march, despite the critiques put forth by thoughtful activists beforehand.
They say cringe, we say fight back
These critiques bring to mind the debates over the anti-war marches on the eve of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq, when activists in the U.S. were frustrated by United For Peace and Justice’s watered-down demands and transparent attempts to steer the anti-war movement into the Democratic Party and ultimately into the presidential campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry. The counter-argument then was for Left activists to show up anyway and raise more radical demands and bring forth more fundamental analyses.
Similar critiques were heard about September 21’s People’s Climate March, which was so watered down that it had no demands. For example, a detailed critique by Global Justice for Animals and the Environment reported that grassroots organizers were “shot down” in planning meetings when they tried to link global warming with economic issues:
“The point of the meeting, they were told, was to focus on how to bring people to the march, not to set an agenda for it. Grassroots organizers were thus being called upon to do work for an event controlled by others. This raised alarm bells for me from the outset. It’s an all too common problem for NGO staff to treat grassroots organizers as their unpaid employees. Coming in and telling us ‘we set the [nonexistent] agenda; you should do the legwork’ is insulting and disrespectful of our time, priorities, and insights.”
At some point, an undifferentiated “big tent” devolves into a marketing opportunity for those most responsible for global warming. The Global Justice critique concludes:
“Another world IS possible, but we will not find it on a literal and metaphorical march to nowhere with fossil fuel burning energy companies, cynical greenwash fronts for big food multinationals, and green Apartheid apologists.”
I had no reason to disagree with that assessment. Nonetheless, why stay home? Better to show up, ignore the organizers and make far more serious critiques and raise far more serious demands at the march. (Which the authors of that critique indeed did do.) It’s not every day that one can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of signs denouncing capitalism. And although even the route of the march came under criticism, it snaked through heavily trafficked areas of Midtown Manhattan. Going past Times Square alone, untold thousands of tourists — including people from across the United States, who most need that message put in front of them — saw it.
The corporate media won’t do our work for us
A sign that the march was too big for the corporate media to ignore was that the local newspapers actually ran articles about it. But New York City’s tabloids in particular were true to form, with the Daily News headlining its story “Thousands of protesters, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, join People’s Climate March.” Alas, the article mostly consisted of breathless celebrity sitings, with only one actual activist quoted.
That was one more activist than could be found in The New York Post’s content-free article. The Post’s headline also referred to “thousands” and its article consisted entirely of celebrity mentions. But lest we think Rupert Murdoch’s minions are losing their extremist edge by uncharacteristically deigning to cover (however superficially) a demonstration not organized by the tea party, it ran an accompanying story headlined “Climate change skeptics call out marchers’ ‘hypocrisies.’ ” We’ll pause here while you enjoy a laugh.
Given the dearth of television coverage, the organizers’ goal of attracting media attention didn’t materialize in any meaningful way. And if there had been a flurry of television coverage, the corporate media would have moved on after one day with no follow-up. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead end strategy.
So despite the march-organizing NGOs’ faith in the Democratic Party and wish to avoid offending their corporate donors, there is not going to be a faction of the establishment suddenly open to confronting the issue of global warming. “Green capitalism” is an illusion — a system based on infinite growth on a finite planet, that grants a few vast rewards while shifting the costs to everyone else, is the problem and not the solution.
Organizing and struggle is the route to reversing global warming, not asking those who profit from destruction to please stop doing so.