At 12:58pm on September 21st, 2014, four hundred thousand people fell silent. One minute later, the roar began.
My son and I stood in the line at the time near 72nd street, which had been designated by organizers as the Solutions section – the solution being food, in our case. We were surrounded by people carrying signs that said “Cook Organic Not the Planet,” “Support Local Food” and “Label That Shit.” Behind us was a large group from the Climate Reality Project, in whose midst vice-president Al Gore had suddenly appeared earlier in the morning. Their solution was renewable energy and their signs asked plaintively “Why?” (a coal plant) and “Why Not?” (solar panels). In front of us was a noisy crowd of justice activists, many of them young people, carrying signs that said “Restaurant Workers Need a Living Wage” and “Justice for Migrant Farm Workers.” Further on, a young man wore a superhero costume and a green wig. And a big smile.
Welcome to the People’s Climate March.
A great deal has been written in recent days about the largest climate policy protest in history, mostly from a bird’s eye perspective: how the organizers expected 100,000 marchers and got 400,000 instead; how it was carefully timed to send a clear signal to the 120 world leaders about to arrive in Manhattan for a global Climate Summit at the United Nations; how it was intended to break our political complacency and inaction on climate change by giving voice to average citizens; and how it demonstrated that dissent still mattered in a democracy.
All true – and all good reasons for traveling from New Mexico to New York City. They were especially good reasons to bring my 15-year old son along. After all, it is his generation that will be dealing with the consequences tomorrow of what we do today (or don’t do), pro and con. There was another reason to go, however – a street-level reason that I didn’t expect: the joy of simply being there. It had been a long time since I had participated in a protest march and I had forgotten what an intensely visceral experience they can be, full of heart-stirring emotions and earthy sensations. As we took our place in line, for example, three things about the crowd struck me right away: the colors, the smiles and the sounds.
The marchers were a colorful lot. Many were there representing a particular organization and wore matching T-shirts to express their affiliations – green, blue, orange, red, yellow, white and so on (one solitary dude wore all black). My favorite T-shirt said simply “Save the Humans!” A lot of the groups were college students – in fact, I’d hazard a guess that half of the march’s participants were under the age of thirty, which was greatly encouraging. Even better, there were many people of color throughout the protest, which was also cheering. Standing there, waiting to walk, I thought: we need every color in the rainbow to make ourselves heard.
Then there were the smiles – they were everywhere. Maybe it was a sense of relief people felt at being given a chance to actually do something about the condition of the world that made them smile; or maybe it was the sense of communal purpose we felt, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow humans – all four hundred thousand of us. Or maybe people smiled because it was just exciting to be there!
Maybe it was the music. Photographs of the march don’t capture the riot of sound taking place, from the nonstop African-style drumming, the protest chants (“What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!”) to the singing, talking, clapping, laughter, and exclamations of hope and recognition that took place all day. Sounds, by the way, that included the unnerving hum of a police helicopter that drifted back and forth overhead. It was like being part of noisy, restless, exultant, mammoth living creature, coiled and ready for action.
Coiled for nearly two hours. That’s how long it took for the actual ‘march’ part to reach 72nd street from its start at Columbus Circle. We were teased by ripples of excitement that worked their way back from the front of the line in uneven waves. Surely, we would be moving now. I kept my eye on the large inflatable Earth a block ahead of us. It vibrated periodically, suggesting imminent action. Meanwhile, I hugged my son, counseling patience, and urged him to soak up all the colors and smiles and sounds of this amazing moment in time.
Then everything stopped. Silence fell from the sky like a shroud. I frowned and asked my son for the time. It was 12:58pm. That’s when we heard the first rumble.
It began at far end of the line, somewhere near 89th street. It was a low guttural sound, almost feral – like something wild on the move. It came toward us, rising in pitch and volume quickly, moving like a herd or a wave. As it approached, the air held its breath. It was supposed to be a shout but it sounded more like a roar – a roar of celebration. A roar of defiance. A roar of protest and frustration and hope. Everyone roared for their own reasons and all the different reasons rose up, mingled and cascaded down the line. The sound was deafening. My son and I raised our hands above our heads and roared as loudly as we could. The sound swept away from us, tracking the march along the foot of Central park, down the Avenue of the Americas, past Radio City Music Hall, through Times Square, to 11th Avenue and beyond. I had no idea how long it took for the roar to reach the front of the line. I only knew one thing:
I wanted it to go on and on.
Four hundred thousand people fell silent and then roared because it was time – time to raise our voices, time to march, time to dissent. We live at a crucial moment in history. The days of pleading, praying and procrastinating are almost over – which is why the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban ki-Moon, called for a Climate Summit of world leaders. He knows time is short and getting shorter for meaningful action; we all do – that’s why an extra three hundred thousand people joined the march. That’s why we fell silent. That’s why we roared.
Cynics say that marches are noisy exercises in futility. The real action, they insist, takes place in closed meetings among the halls of power. Street demonstrations won’t change the minds of recalcitrant leaders, industry obstructionists or moneyed elites. Leave climate policy to the big wigs and experts, they say – and they’re probably correct. But I’m glad we roared anyway.
I didn’t fly to New York with my son expecting to change policy or wake up our lethargic leaders or steer the ship of state away from the rocks that so obviously lie in front of us. I marched because not marching isn’t an option any more. It hasn’t worked so far – and more not roaring certainly won’t change any minds in Congress or corporate boardrooms. Expecting change wasn’t why I went or why I roared. I wanted simply to make noise.
At 12:58, I stood next to my son and yelled as loud as I could. I roared for all those who couldn’t be there with us, my family, our friends and colleagues, classmates, teachers, parents, butterflies, celebrities, ranchers, farmers, New Yorkers, distant strangers, wild animals, the dead and the not yet born. I yelled in frustration and in hope as well. I yelled at the moon. And when we were done, it felt good to have roared. I gave my son another hug.
Then we marched.