By now, you’ve seen the photos. With over 300,000—likely closer to 400,000—marchers streaming through the center of Manhattan, the People’s Climate March exceeded the organizers’ expectations and my own. It made the record books and then some, marking a scale of protest not seen in this country since the beginning of the Iraq war. I marched alongside democratic socialists and less democratic socialists, Alaskans resisting Arctic drilling, Vermont puppeteers, the grassroots leader of Bolivia’s 2001 “water wars,” friends and colleagues and classmates I hadn’t seen in years. Communities on the front lines of extreme extraction and correspondingly extreme weather were front and center. There were anarchists and AFSCME members and Al Gore. And despite a sluggish start, the mood was jubilant.
But when, at the end of the afternoon, the march left us in the no man’s land of 11th Avenue, we drifted off as predicted. Peter Yarrow performed a few songs on the sidewalk, and a cluster of food carts doled out $9 curries to the weary masses. There were no speeches, no mass meetings, no further calls to action. The various left critiques of the march echoed in my head as sanitation workers moved in to clear the signs, soda cans, and iced coffee cups piled up on the sidewalk.
Something more was needed—and that something, or at least one version of it, came the next day in the form of Flood Wall Street, a day of nonviolent direct action in the heart of New York’s financial district that ultimately resulted in my arrest as well as about one hundred others.
There is no denying that the People’s Climate March represented a tremendous step forward for the climate movement—a sharp rebuke to the widely held assumption that “no one cares about the climate.” Its organizers honed in on one goal—building strength in numbers—and they were wildly successful in achieving it.
The march represented a high water mark for the “big tent” model of organizing but also—with its lack of demands, let alone targets—its limits. Still, by concentrating so many activists in one place and shining a global spotlight on a growing movement, the march created an opening for more radical responses to the unfolding climate catastrophe. The day before the march, anti-capitalists of all stripes packed churches, community gardens, and classrooms across lower Manhattan to discuss alternatives to “an economic system that exploits people and the planet for profit.” Later that night, card-carrying socialist Kshama Sawant shared the stage with the climate movement’s most visible mainstream leader, Bill McKibben, and called to nationalize the energy industry. At Sunday’s march, calls for “system change, not climate change” reached far and wide.
It wasn’t until Monday morning, though, that the radical energy humming through the weekend crystallized into direct action. By the time I arrived, shortly after 9:30 a.m., hundreds had already gathered at the blustery southern tip of Battery Park in response to the call to “Flood Wall Street.” Speeches by members of front line communities—from Mali to Nepal to Chiapas to the Sliammon First Nation of western Canada—as well as by movement celebrities Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges traveled across three waves of the “people’s mic” to reach those still trickling in at the back. Many of the activists in the park had committed to risk arrest, and the sense of anticipation was palpable. This time, the message was clear, and reflected a growing consensus on the left that is beginning to dawn on liberals as well: capitalism = climate chaos.
Just before noon, the flood began in earnest, and chants began to echo from the stern walls of office towers as we marched out from the park and onto Broadway. “The people! Are rising! No more compromising!” We weaved our way through the buses and taxis, expecting resistance from police. Instead, the unexpected happened: we took over one of the busiest streets in one of the busiest cities in the world, and shut it down. Blue flags denouncing Wall Street’s role in the climate crisis flew from the decks of tourist buses. Two young Navajo women climbed onto a windowsill, carrying an upside-down American flag painted with the words “Indigenous resistance since 1492,” and led a “mic check” from ten feet up. Students cheered us on from inside.
Soon, we dismantled the barricades separating the street from the sidewalk and unfurled a three-hundred-foot banner overhead. Three thousand strong, we sat in and sang a refrain written for the action. We rolled a giant carbon bubble up and down Broadway until it bounced over to the cops guarding the infamous bull, who stabbed at it in a panic. Amid tactical deliberations, the frenetic gave way to the carnivalesque; a rag-tag brass band played, a circus performer danced on stilts, passersby did the limbo in the middle of the street.
Just before the closing bell rang at the Stock Exchange, we were on the march again, surging a few blocks ahead to the corner of Wall Street. A fleeting confrontation with the police at the entrance to Wall Street yielded a burst of pepper spray and the day’s most dramatic photos, but our little street fair soon resumed, if now with less participants and hedged in by lines of riot police. A group of young men kicked around a soccer ball in front of TD Bank; a puff of blue chalk filled the air.
When the sun started setting and an organizer began announcing plans to stay the night, the NYPD finally decided they had had enough. The voice over the loudspeaker told us that anyone who didn’t clear the streets would be arrested. Ten minutes later, with the barricades closing back in, only a few dozen of us remained on Broadway—a fraction of those who had pledged to risk arrest in the morning. Still, the police seemed reluctant to make a move. We continued to chant and sing as officers slowly, methodically began to arrest us. The cops were peaceful, even polite (presumably more a reflection of the mostly light-skinned makeup of our group than of any change in NYPD attitudes), and they played our game to a T—hesitating at length, for example, over how to handcuff a polar bear. Almost all of the one-hundred-odd arrestees were out of jail by morning.
Flood Wall Street taught us that the radical wing of the climate movement can aim higher.
Even before I spent five hours in jail mulling it over, I was convinced that this long weekend of discussions, marching, and direct action marked a watershed moment for the climate movement. It demonstrated the scale of popular support for action on emissions. It made the case, for an audience of millions of people around the world, that as long as world leaders continue to dilly-dally over market-based solutions in the General Assembly halls, we will be forced to take measures into our own hands. It demonstrated a shift in the movement’s emphasis, from seemingly abstract questions of emissions and degrees of warming to more concrete questions of climate—and therefore economic and social—justice. It demonstrated that the left wing of the climate movement is alive and growing. It demonstrated that a progressive mood in municipal politics can create a valuable opening for radical movements. (By yielding the streets and accompanying media spotlight to the protesters for hours on end, the De Blasio administration effectively handed climate radicals a bullhorn without obscuring the message with a brawl.) And it demonstrated a shared conviction and sense of urgency that will need to infect many more if we are to have any chance of living on this planet a century from now.
We still have a long way to go. The climate movement is still predominantly white, and actions like Flood Wall Street are unlikely to change that: it’s easy to see why, for people who already face routine harassment and violence at the hands of the police, the appeal of further exposing oneself to the criminal justice system might be limited. The movement teeters, sometimes uncomfortably, between directly democratic grassroots organizing and NGO coordination—with all of its exclusiveness, its big donors, and its managerial impulses. The left flank of the movement is still too small and too dependent on the sleepless nights of core organizers. And if this weekend taught us anything, it’s that the movement is still not ambitious enough.
Flood Wall Street was a necessary complement to the largely anodyne, if momentous, march the day before. It was without a doubt the most exciting protest I’ve ever been a part of. But the thrill of direct action is only meaningful as a complement to other forms of movement building—whether larger, less confrontational mobilizations like the People’s Climate March or the tedious (and often thankless) work of building institutions that can chart a course towards a more sustainable economic system.
For the climate movement, that means listening to and working with front line communities not only from countries far and wide but also from our own neighborhoods. It means working with environmental justice groups who have spent years wrestling with environmental racism—not by fighting the cops but by pressuring municipal authorities to close heavily polluting facilities, retrofit buildings, and do something sensible with the trash. It means, for example, asking people from the Rockaways what they think about the fracked gas pipeline being built below their feet only months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area, and perhaps helping them stop it.
Meanwhile, I could not help but leave jail feeling that the disobedience was, if anything, a little too civil—that our liberal mayor was willing to accept it only because its target remained relatively abstract and its participants were unsure of how, or whether, to escalate in the face of police cooperation. Now we know that we can aim higher. As one organizer put it at a debrief meeting two days after the action: when it comes to mass civil disobedience, we should consider events like Monday’s sit-in “no longer the ceiling, but the floor.”
Colin Kinniburgh is an editor at Dissent and a member of System Change Not Climate Change.