The People's Climate March in New York City. Photo by Amanda Hunter

“Tell me what democracy looks like.”

The first half of the crowd’s call and response grew louder each time it repeated, echoing off the midrise buildings that lined the streets. Four hundred thousand people had descended on New York City to raise their voices for climate action. Toronto 350, assisted by GreenPeopleTO, organized five buses from Toronto to the march in NYC. This is part two of a two-part series which looks at activism through the lens of this trip. Upon reflection, the first thing one needs to learn quickly is that you will never please everyone.

Here is a short curated list of just some of the PCM’s alleged failings:

  1. The Sunday morning news shows ignored it.
  2. It had permission from the NYPD.
  3. It messed with traffic and won’t change the UN leader’s minds.
  4. It focused too heavily on our collective responsibility to act for future generations.
  5. It was directed towards the UN, which is arguably ineffective:
           Chris Turner: It did strike me as odd that the catalyst was pointed at the UN.
           Chris Turner: Is there any reason to assume UN is capable of carrying the momentum anywhere meaningful?
  6. It made the streets dirty.
  7. It highlights that climate change is only a rich white person’s problem only privileged, white people.

Any large action will have its critics. Rarely, however, will you find them represented by such a diverse cast. Those taking aim at the PCM included thoughtful environmentalists and inflammatory rightwing pundits, anarchists and the Wall Street Journal, respected journalists and part-time bloggers all saying the same thing: there was something wrong with the People’s Climate March.

The turn-out was drastically higher than organizers had imagined, which meant our contingent from Toronto, near the back of the crowd, waited over two hours to begin to march. Normally, a delay like that would destroy the mood, and it would be a lie to say that energy didn’t dissipate somewhat, but as whispers of the preliminary counts of attendance permeated the crowd, the excitement became palpable.

RELATED: The People’s Climate March in Pictures

At 12:58, all 400,000 (not tens of thousand as reported by the Wall Street Journal, or 100,000 as reported by the CBC) people stood silent, arms in the air. At 1:00, the assembled crowd declared climate change a crisis. The roar began first as a dull murmur coming from the unseen front and as it swept back and overtook us, it was the clearest signal we had to the sheer size of the demonstration. An hour later when we took our first steps forward, the chanting returned in earnest:

“Tell me what Democracy looks like.”

Does any of it matter?

Because of the delay in starting the march, we caught our buses home two hours later than originally planned. Upon tweeting our departure I received a response asking if the buses ran on unicorn farts, because gasoline causes climate change, of course. As we drove through rain in upstate New York, one question sat with me: Did any of this activism matter?

RELATED: What the Heck is Activism Anyway?

We got into Toronto a little before 5:00 the next morning and, after a short sleep, the day-after debrief began. There were the usual annoyances of media under-reporting the size of the march, and parts of the media not covering it altogether (see failure number one). As the days wore on, however, the critiques began to pile up. Some laughably partisan – Levant is out to lunch when it comes to any real understanding of the science of climate change or the push for climate justice – but others perfectly valid. Any event of this nature could always and should always strive to improve.

“This is where it all begins.”

A fellow climate activist said that to me four days after the march, when well over a hundred people from the Toronto contingent reconvened to simply relax in each other’s company and share stories from the trip. It is a rare feeling to be surrounded by optimism within environmentalism, but that is exactly what this occasion afforded us.

“Absolutely everybody believed. They believed a lot of things.” – William Briggs

Briggs wrote this in what was possibly the most critical hit piece on the PCM. A blogger for the climate-denying Heartland Institute, he attended the People’s Climate March and had returned to assure their readership that the hundreds of thousands of people who attended were nothing more than uneducated, capitalism-hating unionists who could and should be dismissed without thought. But with those two sentences he answered the question that sat with me on the long bus ride home. They exemplify both why the march, and activism in general, matters – and why the march wasn’t a failure at all.

The People’s Climate March brought 400,000 people together who all believed that climate justice was not just an important part of a policy agenda but rather a moral and environmental crisis. They probably believe a lot of other things too, but that particular belief is why we were there. In Toronto we have already been able to see the power of the new communities built through the PCM that are just beginning to take shape.

“Tell me what democracy looks like.”

This is what democracy looks like.”

Stefan is the co-founder and executive director of the Green Society Campaign and one half of Green Majority Media, whose work focuses on using media, culture and community to bring environmental issues into the forefront while promoting like minded groups to support the movement as a whole. He graduated from the University of Toronto School of the Environment in 2012 and has been working on environmental issues and media since 2010.

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