You never know in advance what difference a demonstration will make. Sometimes its effect is evident only years after the fact, as with the Gdansk shipyard protests in Poland that eventually helped overturn Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Sometimes the effect is clear right away, as with the 1963 March on Washington and its “I Have A Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired blacks and whites alike and led Washington politicians to pass the Civil Rights Act the following year. And sometimes a demonstration has no apparent impact at all, as with the large, loud march through the streets of Copenhagen at the United Nations climate summit in 2009, where world leaders went on to utterly ignore the demonstrators’ demands for urgent action.
Truth be told, most climate change demonstrations to date have had little to show for themselves, at least in terms of transforming existing policies. With a few honorable exceptions, the world’s governments and corporations remain committed to a status quo that is driving humanity towards catastrophic, perhaps irreversible, climate chaos.
Will the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21 be any different? Organizers of the march have set themselves a high bar—two high bars, actually. First, they’ve proclaimed that this will be the biggest climate change demonstration yet. That means organizers have to turn out no fewer than 100,000 people—the estimated size of the Copenhagen march—or be judged a failure; a lower turnout would send the signal that the movement is waning rather than growing. Further, organizers have declared that the People’s Climate March will be “historic,” meaning it will be looked back on as a key moment in the climate struggle. This definition in turn requires that the March lead to more and better things down the road—that it be not merely one day of protest.
Interviewed days before the march, organizers expressed confidence they would deliver on both counts—the turnout as well as the lasting impact. In fact, the second objective is already in sight, said Paul Getsos, a central coordinator of the People’s Climate March. “This is not your father’s climate march,” Getsos told The Nation. Getsos observed that the climate change movement has historically not included labor union, but he noted that “our march has been endorsed by the largest union in New York City, the IBEW [International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] and by the two largest unions in the country, SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and NEA [the National Teachers Association].”
Getsos also pointed out that “environmental justice and mainstream environmental groups that have had trouble collaborating in the past will be marching together on September 21,” and that “immigrant and housing groups that have never been part of the climate movement are getting involved.” “I see people who in the past have been on opposite sides of the room trying to figure out how to work together on this march because all of them agree the climate crisis is real and we have to do something about it,” Getsos told The Nation.