“Forward on Climate” Rally in Washington DC: Large and Uninspiring
On a frigid Sunday, February 17, some 40,000 people rallied in Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and to push President Obama to be a leader in addressing climate change.
I walked through the shockingly quiet crowd, a mumbling sea that occasionally coalesced around a pat protest cheer. Babies perched on parents’ shoulders. Grandmas hoisted signs that said so. Activists snuck literature behind SUV windshields. Marchers joshed around with police officers. Dr. Jill Stein danced a number. Eve sang about something.
It was a family friendly affair and it was altogether boring.
The typical actors showed up and played their part.
There were representatives of the “Light Brigade” (from the for-profit “think tank” Center for Industrial Progress founded by former Ayn Rand fellow Alex Epstein) who detonated some informational dynamite like “climate-related deaths went down 90 percent in the last century.”
Occupy also had a presence. The community’s signature banner stretched taut next to one scrawled in the same block font in a bizarre continuous phrase “Occupy Wall Street Stop Keystone.”
On the brighter side, indigenous leaders from Canada spoke at the rally. Also, critiquing the President directly was in vogue. As we strolled by his residence, the protesters zinged the commander-in-chief with, “Obama, we don’t won’t your pipeline drama.”
Undoubtedly, I was grumpy and impatient. Yes, Bill McKibben had pitched this as the “largest climate rally in U.S. history” (how many have their been?), but everyone recognized that this was the just the start of the climate movement (again), a goal line stand in preparation for four years of a tedious offensive coordination.
Still, I felt emphatically uninspired.
The resounding fissures of 2011 still reverberate down my legs and out my throat when I march in a mob of sign-laden folks. But I fear that the seductive taste of sincerity, perhaps even novel genuine rupture, will be a memory I savor rather than the flavor of the forthcoming wave of post-election “But Obama, you promised” progressivism.
But what was I expecting? It’s not like I wanted police clashes, but somehow this just didn’t feel like protest was serious. It felt happy in a way that bordered on silly—like people couldn’t really be that convinced that climate change could kill many of the world’s poorest humans (among other living things). Of course, folks were dedicated, and had trekked from far and wide to march around Obama’s manor. And when Sierra Club E.D. Michael Brune got taken away in cuffs last week, the environmental interwebs buzzed with the significance of the act—the first time that the Sierra Club has supported civil disobedience.
Maybe this is the tradeoff? When a movement becomes big enough to be mainstream, where even the clunky old Sierra Club gets in on the action, it’s necessarily lame. Is there a way to make a movement mass rather than mainstream?
I just hope this chapter of the environmental movement feels honest. There may be no such thing as original. Even with Occupy. But this felt performative: a copy copying a copy of a what a protest is supposed to look like, with very little expressive demonstration of what this catastrophic issue really meant to those who marched.
If “activism” has become assimilated into the political process as a type of embodied vote—a sort of, “well if you really care about this issue then you’ll stand outside in the cold with signs” that supposedly compel politicians to act, then wouldn’t it be more efficient to just stay home and collect online signatures? We can just tell the media there was a big march. I’ve got plenty of stock protest photos.
In Quebec, a common term for protest is “manifestation.” A protest is a collective physical manifestation of the passion, rage, and love that is swirling throughout the bodies of the marchers; an expressive act. It can be unpredictable and artistic and naked and messy—and it can build a movement by showing fellow citizens that people are truly passionate and inspired for a cause.
Maybe the passion was there on Sunday, just a bit chilled. And maybe I was just being grouchy. But maybe we should be be sure to be expressive as well as strategic in our demonstrations that manifest our rage.