Correction appended October 6, 2014.
On September 21, a group of about fifty people from McGill and Concordia joined more than 400,000 people who congregated in New York City for the People’s Climate March.
The march in New York was the main event in a global day of action, which saw nearly 2,700 solidarity marches all over the world, including in Montreal. This occurred in the days before the United Nations Climate Summit to send a message to world leaders about the importance of fighting climate change.
While many participants had positive experiences at the event, the march and the organization behind it has faced criticism from various social organizers.
Student participation in the New York City march
“I think the march as a whole was really a way to show that something is wrong, and we need to do something about it,” Ella Belfer, a Divest McGill member who was involved in organizing McGill’s presence in the march, told The Daily.
She added that the organizers of the march had attempted to prioritize “voices that aren’t very often heard in the environmental movement.”
“I think that [finding ways to organize in solidarity] has been an ongoing struggle for us, and that’s something that’s obviously quite difficult when you’re organizing within a university context,” she said.
Anna Egerton, a second-year Arts and Science student who went to the march in New York, said that while it was at times hectic due to the sheer number of people, one thing she really appreciated was the wide variety of those who attended.
“Walking around the crowds, I was struck by the diversity of agendas that people had brought to the march and the huge number of organized groups that had come to the march,” she told The Daily.
She noted, however, that the distance the march covered, 3.2 kilometres, seemed a bit too long, as by the time it ended much of the crowd had dispersed and many seemed to have lost the energy they had at the beginning.
General criticisms of the march
Several community organizers have criticized the climate march.
Amanda Lickers, an Indigenous organizer and member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, said that the focus of the march organizers was too broad and too centred on ‘getting numbers.’ She cited the fact that 15 partners of the march are companies with strong ties to Israel, such as the Green Zionist Alliance, as an example of how blind inclusion can end up being inhibitory for marginalized groups.
“For me, that’s prohibitive for Palestinian participation,” she said. These sentiments have also been voiced by a number of local organizers, including Harsha Walia, a journalist and activist who founded the Vancouver chapter of No One is Illegal.
Similarly, Belfer said that the march didn’t have a set political focus.
“Because they were trying to be so inclusive, to make it very ‘a march for the people’ as I mentioned, it wasn’t necessarily a march with a mandate or a march with a concrete purpose; it wasn’t necessarily an ask for the UN to do something specific, it wasn’t a common set of goals around which everyone’s marching, which would have been nice to see,” she said.
“Traditionally, the environmental movement has been pretty divided,” added Belfer. “I think one of the biggest challenges of the movement is everyone has a different vision to a different problem.”
Lickers pointed out that the march had been organized for the exact same time as the African American Heritage Parade, the largest black parade in the U.S. according to their website, which takes place in Harlem every year to celebrate achievements in the black community and call for an end to racism.
“This just goes to show that they’re not looking at where they are – like if there’s this annual march in Harlem that has been done and their event is on the same exact day, it just shows right there what relationships are being made with the local community members, which is like, not very strong,” she told The Daily.
Montreal activist Jaggi Singh published a Storify piece in the days following the march that rounded up tweets from Bill McKibben, organizer at 350.org and one of the more visible faces of the climate justice movement, that claimed the march was “the biggest protest about anything in America in a very very long time.”
Singh called the tweets an act of “social erasure,” claiming that in saying this, McKibben was ignoring the activism and struggle of other social justice groups, such as the 500,000 who mobilized in 2006 in Los Angeles as part of migrant justice protests in the U.S..
Lickers also pointed to the fact that organizers of the march were promoting ‘green capitalism,’ or the idea that it is possible to solve environmental problems using market-based incentives within a capitalist framework. This could include the replacement of environmentally harmful practices, like fracking and the use of fossil fuels, with green technology such as solar panels and wind turbines.
“Oh look, the Rockefellers have divested from fossil fuels, all we need is green capitalism and we’re good to go, we can sustain colonial occupation, we can sustain capitalism, we can sustain colonialism,” said Lickers. “That’s not the kind of sustainability I’m interested in.”
Further steps for environmentalism
“We have to try to look for contradictions within our own movements and within our own struggles, by ensuring that we’re building relationships with people who are directly impacted,” said Lickers.
One way to do this, Lickers suggested, might be for organizers to advocate for decreased consumption, and the destruction of systems that exploit natural resources.
“The issue should be about consumption, the issue should be about land occupation, the issue should be about how diasporic migrant communities are disproportionately impacted by environment violence, as well as Indigenous communities – about how Indigenous women’s bodies are seen as dispensable in a settler-colonial society that requires the extraction of lands for resources,” she said.
Lickers said that more should be done to meet the needs of Indigenous people, instead of merely making sure they are present in the march. She also suggested that organizers at the march could have acknowledged the fact that the demonstration occurred on colonized Indigenous land.
Finally, Lickers noted that movements like the People’s Climate March might do better to put their resources into supporting the many direct action resistance projects currently taking place in local communities.
“Our people are resisting. Our people are shutting down mining companies, this is happening and people can be part of this movement,” she said, in reference to Indigenous resistance projects, such as the Algonquin blockades of logging activities.
“My question to the divestment movement is, where [is] your support of those efforts […] that are taking that sense of urgency of the climate crisis and doing something about it?”
These issues were also noted by Belfer, who said that participating in the march had given her time to reflect on the possibility of collaborating more with the community. “I’m interested in different ways of doing solidarity organizing within the context of divestment, which is something I had the opportunity to think a lot about this weekend,” she said.