Nobody ever wants to wake up at 7 am, particularly not on a Sunday. But on September 21 after a few hours of sleep, I trooped out to buses in Lot 32 for the People’s Climate March at the behest of a particularly insistent friend. The eerie emptiness of the campus made me think that perhaps I had gotten the date wrong and that this supposedly momentous event wasn’t actually happening. Yet, when I arrived in the parking lot I suddenly came upon over 100 fellow students, all more energetic than they had any right to be before noon. As we boarded the bus I wondered for a single moment how the hell I had ended up here.
Of course, it’s no accident that I ended up on this bus to New York. I am one of those vaguely liberal students for whom global warming is an obvious fact but not something that arouses any passion. It occupies the same brain space as terrorism or Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, vague and menacing on the horizon, distant enough to be forgotten under the more immediate demands of Princeton’s social and academic life. So when a friend texted me “Gregory Smith (only my mother calls me Gregory). I demand your presence at the People’s Climate March on September 21,” I was prepared to cite the numerous other demands of life and gracefully bow out. I drafted a perfunctory, polite refusal, but I was struck by my friend’s earnestness. For him, global warming was not simply a subject for papers but a threat he felt he had to face. Climate change was his personal apocalypse, and he didn’t feel like consenting to it lightly. In the face of such sincerity, it seemed churlish to refuse his invitation in order to sleep in or pretend to do work. I accepted, and found myself waiting with thousands of others in Manhattan.
Being stuck in a massive crowd amidst chants of “hey ho, carbon’s gotta go” while waiting to march down half of Manhattan Island felt surreal. The impatience of waiting quietly gave way to a zombie-like patience. We all knew we weren’t going anywhere and there was nothing we could do about it. The crowd would move when it did, and there wasn’t one thing anyone could do to speed it up. As a result, the only interruptions to our standing and chanting were the fly-bys of a New York Police helicopter, which never failed to arouse the crowd to a fevered round of sign waving. Their overzealous cheering rang strangely hollow. It was as if the only audience we were going to get was the police who had come to keep us inside the specific protest route and barricades. In that moment it seemed that my other friends’ eyebrow-raising about this march were vindicated: I was just wasting my time.
But eventually, our little section of the march actually began moving. Energy surged through the crowd as people looked down the parade route and prepared to march. It felt suddenly like the entire city had come alive, thousands of people suddenly awakening from their torpor. The entire crowd cheered as we began to move forward as I caught a glimpse of route ahead. My exasperation and exhaustion from before suddenly vanished. The street was packed with people, signs, and floats for a ten-block stretch. The march suddenly took on a new dimension as I realized that this was the largest crowd of people I had ever seen in person. I had watched the March on Washington and Kennedy’s speech in Berlin, but to be part of a mass movement was an entirely different thing. In that moment, I was suddenly struck by the enormous power that was present in New York that day. A listless mob had turned into a single body. A band nearby struck up a marching tune as the Princeton contingent began to march forward. I would later find out that 400,000 people had assembled to march that day. It felt like history, and I had somehow stumbled into it.
As the march moved down Manhattan, I was quickly separated by the crush of bodies from my friends. Instead, I marched with local high school students who had brought their band along. I stood alongside an elderly contingent with signs proclaiming they marched for their grandchildren before joining a group of young hippies from California. Every corner of America had apparently turned out to march. The clichés about protesters fail to capture the passion that pulsed among the people there. Perhaps more surprising was the sudden sense of friendship that skipped through the crowd. It was easy to turn to the strangers beside me and ask, “Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you marching?” For anyone who knows the typical New Yorker’s hostility to strangers, the sudden openness of so many seems like nothing less than a miracle brought about by the joy of being in that march. All the normal stresses and ambiguities of daily life were effaced for a short time to focus totally on fighting against climate change. The procession continued much the same for the next six hours, as I drifted from group to group and marveled at the sheer number of people who were willing to protest. Eventually, I found my fellow Princeton students and clambered back onto the bus home. The physical exhaustion of marching for six hours took its toll now that the crowd was gone. I caught up on sleep as we rode back home.
In conversation with a friend after returning, he asked me what I had actually been marching for. When I told him to protest global warming, he replied: “that’s it?” What was the point of protest if you didn’t have a specific thing you wanted? If you asked the many marchers what they wanted done about climate change, you would probably get thousands of different answers. But the question of whether “capitalism has got to go” or cap and trade provided a more efficient method of carbon control wasn’t the point of the events on that Sunday. 400,000 people marched through New York because they wanted to state to the world that global warming matters, and that they were going to stand up and fight it. To criticize these marchers because they didn’t offer a specific policy platform misses the entire point of why they gathered. We marched to remind the world that climate change is important outside of policy debates and newspaper articles. 400,000 people showed up to remind the rest of the world we wouldn’t stand passively on this issue. We were there to make a statement that action was necessary, and to remind those who would determine the future that we were watching.