Brown students flood New York for People’s Climate March

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Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in New York to demand that the United Nations, whose General Assembly is meeting this week, take action to stop climate change. Among the throngs of activists, faith groups, front-line community members, and students was a large crowd of Brown students, myself included. Over 150 students traveled to New York through 350.org’s official buses alone, so it’s likely that the grand total of members of the Brown community who were present is much higher.

Though some traveled to New York on Saturday to attend a very engaging Youth Convergence conference at a Manhattan high school, the main event began Sunday at 10:30 AM, when the Rhode Island contingent, including U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, convened at 71st street and Central Park West. At first, there was very little marching to be done. With over 310,000 400,000 (!!) people clogging up about a mile and a half of a New York City avenue, it took a while for there to be any empty space available for one to move into. The waiting did, however, provide ample time for judging the very creative costumes and signs near us. The clear winner was an older man holding a poster that read, “I couldn’t buy a politician, so I bought this sign.” He got a picture with Senator Whitehouse.

Anything to protest in front of a Trump property.

Anything to protest in front of a Trump property.

The march comes at a crucial juncture in the fight against climate change. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who participated in the People’s Climate March, convened a special summit on climate negotiations this week outside of the typical international climate negotiations to emphasize the importance of coming to a binding international agreement. The last time that countries made a sincere effort to forge such an accord came in December 2009, in Copenhagen. That conference ended in disaster, with some countries promising to come through on non-binding pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The stage is set to try again in 2015 in Paris, but a lot of work has to be done before then. Sunday’s march, in conjunction with similar events across the globe, was designed to put world leaders on notice before they arrived in New York: the world is watching.

Though I have little experience with collective actions like the People’s Climate March, the energy surrounding this one felt different – chalk it up to a sense of urgency and history. Those marching knew it would probably be the largest demonstration for action on climate change in human history even before the official attendance estimates came in. Never was this sense clearer than at 1:00 p.m., when the entire march, which had been a disorganized cacophony of drum circles, chants, and whistles up until that point, fell silent. The marchers observed a moment of silence for those already affected by climate change — citizens of island nations whose homes are at risk and farmers who are facing historic droughts, for example. The a cascade of screams roiled the crowd, spreading from the northern end of the march to its front. The climate “alarm,” equal parts a cathartic release of frustrations and a celebratory scream, was deafening and frankly extraordinary. Just ask anyone who was there.

Plenty of public figures got involved in the march, too. Not only did politicians like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Vice President and Internet-inventor Al Gore but actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also marched. The Dark Knight Rises and (500) Days of Summer star was spotted outside Bryant Park in a Montreal Expos hat, interviewing marchers about why they had decided to come. A man of the people indeed! (I shook his hand. It was amazing.)

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On charter buses, in cars, and on Amtrak, the marchers from Brown returned to Providence late Sunday night. Though they were tired and hoarse, they were no doubt proud to have participated in what is now being called “the largest climate march in history.” Seriously, has a protest ever clogged up your News Feed that badly before?

Images via William Janover ’15 and Jackie Gallant ’15

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