Demonstrators form a Circle of Hope in front of the White House
I was in Lafayette Square—the park in front of the White House—and the rain seemed to be hitting me from every angle. A couple of event organizers from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) and I were setting up a stage and a sound system, preparing for the arrival of demonstrators who were marching from the Climate Action concert and rally up the road.
Although the weather had been clear and warm for most of the day’s events, the rains swept in just as the march to the White House was beginning. The CCAN folks worried that much of the crowd would disperse back to their warm, dry homes rather than join the march. But lo and behold, as the police escort arrived at Lafayette Square, followed by a big green Solar Bus, we could see an impressive mass of umbrellas following behind a banner that read: “Stop pollution and poverty – 350 now!!”
The demonstrators rolled into the park, chanting and waving rain-soaked banners. The inclement weather had clearly united them beyond their common cause: to bring public attention to the climate goal of a 350 parts-per-million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Rally chants ranged from “Three, Five, O!” to “We’re here, we’re wet, it’s no sweat!” The demonstration culminated in the forming of a big “0” in front of the White House.
Across the world on October 24, demonstrators formed the numbers ”3,” “5,” and “0” in settings that included the pyramids in Egypt, the steps of the Sydney Opera House, and the face of a cliff in New York. These actions have been in the works for more than a year, coordinated by the international group 350.org and implemented by millions of local activists.
In Washington, D.C., the events of the International Day of Climate Action were spearheaded by a special partnership between CCAN and the Hip Hop Caucus. The rally banner reflected the partnership’s dynamic: “Pollution and Poverty.” Thus, the D.C. action focused especially on the linkages between climate change and environmental justice. The mission of the Hip Hop Caucus is: “to organize young people in urban communities to be active in elections, policymaking, and service projects, as a means to address and end urban poverty for future generations.” Many of their rallies include performances by popular hip hop artists, bringing their messages to large, urban, and sometimes unengaged crowds.
Climate activists, too, can be disengaged in their own ways, focusing on broad global goals such as 350 ppm and forgetting that climate resiliency also means building the capacities of local communities—especially the urban poor—to adapt to changes that are already unavoidable. Michele Roberts, with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, was met with cheers when she spoke in front of the White House saying “Mr. Obama, we must remember that we have our own communities right here at home that are vulnerable to climate change.”
The Hip Hop Caucus brought a stellar lineup of D.C. musicians to the stage on Saturday. A CCAN organizer commented that it was some of the best music that has ever accompanied a climate rally in the nation’s capital. One rapper performed songs with explicitly environmental lyrics and had the crowd chanting “There’s no such thing as waste” and “reduce, reuse, recycle!”
This elaborate fusion of media and messages reminded me that getting to 350 will require a movement much more robust than one of high-level professionals working to reduce carbon emissions. It will require the engagement of all sectors of society. And for many of those sectors, especially the wealthiest, it will require a transformation of culture. The rally in D.C. showed me that we’re on our way—and that even in bad weather, we can’t be stopped.