“What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? ...to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect of all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. The dedication of a lifetime — these are words that are easy to utter, but this is a mighty assignment. For it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them.” – Adlai Stevenson
Driving semi-blindly into sheets of rain shrouded by darkness, I questioned whether a 12-hour bus trip to New York City was really worth the hassle. Once I realized spending time doubting is a waste, my mind quickly moved on wholeheartedly to the action at hand – staying on a road whose lines had all but disappeared under the rain and dark evening sky. Finally, after navigating the labyrinth of previously unknown streets, at 8 p.m., I arrived at the Plymouth Park and Ride in the midst of a torrential downpour. “More extreme weather events,” I thought carefully to myself. I couldn't be sure that this particular rainstorm was an outcome of global climate change, but I still wondered how our world would be affected by an increasingly unstable climate.
After parking my car, I walked hastily through the rain to the nearest of four buses. The organizers directed me to the community bus where I found a seat next to Charlie, an aspiring music producer attending Washtenaw Community College. Cramped, entirely upright seats left our shoulders nearly touching - typical of a charter bus. I quickly set up camp on the folding tray with notes and readings to catch up on.
Shortly after getting settled, the buses departed and the energy of the riders was electric. People were introducing themselves to neighbors, having meaningful conversations and exchanging information. It's an example of how proximity - intense proximity on the bus, mind you – links people to others in an unmatched way. Wrapped in the idea of close proximity is the understanding of how communities function best and help everyone involved gain new perspectives. That same sort of closeness is how the people on our bus and other buses headed to New York will help save our climate.
After a few hours of talking and several bathroom breaks, one-by-one the climate marchers retreated to the inner workings of their minds and the relative "comfort" of their seats. Sleep became priority #1. With an inch of recline, I attempted to get comfortable and rested my head on a rolled up sweatshirt wedged between my neck and shoulder. Dozing in and out of sleep, the charter bus guided us through the Ohio Turnpike and Pennsylvania’s mountains.
A sunrise soon greeted us in Pennsylvania and illuminated the group's tired red eyes. Even with squinted eyes, one could see a similar pained look all across the bus; faces drooped with fatigue. We were sacrificing sleep for active citizenship.
While slipping in and out of sleep, my mind was on Ann Arbor and the incredible start of grad school that was filled with conversations between new people. Each shared different stories and passions.
I eventually fell back asleep when suddenly, the New Jersey Turnpike had ended and NYC gleamed under a radiant morning fog. A dull shade of tan emanated across the Hudson River from the rising morning sun; the city looked like an urban oasis. A first time visit to the Big Apple yielded more awe than anticipated. I was fully agape.
Entering the city, the energy on the bus was a balance between anticipation and anxiety. Through our windows were towering buildings, a built environment both historic and modernized that hid the natural world from our view. Amidst these skyscrapers were ornate furnishings and flashing screens filled with messages of consumption. The bus deposited us on West 82nd Street, across from the American Museum of Natural History. Navigating through a profusion of signs, dancing, drumbeats, and shouting, we worked our way towards the student section of the march.
As an aside, I should mention ulterior motives. This was my first visit to New York City and I was going to make the most of the trip, which meant…touristy destinations were in order. After all, save for the most privileged among us, most people have very few, if any chance to walk the streets of New York City. There was no choice but to fight sleepiness and make the most of the day.
Once at the student section of the march, I sought a small indulgence – a NYC bagel. After stumbling past a series of bagel-less coffee shops, raided, no doubt, by the cross-country travelers, I instead opted for a black and white cookie. Marvelous in its balance of chocolate and vanilla, the black and white cookie was somewhat symbolic of a movement united. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “look to the cookie.”
Start of the March
"Clean air, we love it, we've got to have more of it!" – Communications Workers of America organizer through a mega horn, quite loud, really.
After the coffee/cookie pit stop, Charlie and I rushed toward the mob of chants, signs and beats. The overflow of people made it nearly impossible to get anywhere. The march began with much pomp and circumstance; a massive movement of bodies in a general direction down barricaded streets. Charlie and I marched, chatted, observed and wondered. It was like a circus, full of costumes, face paint, signs, music, and dancing. Marching side-by-side through the streets of the city were groups representing environmental justice, labor, families, students, sustainable energy, nutritious food, clean water, anti-corporate campaigns, peace, scientists, interfaith, local New York City groups, cities, states, and countries. The unification of diversity was apparent.
Cutting across the crowd we took a detour towards Central Park. There we met an older activist, Patricia, with a handheld video camera from the Upper Peninsula. She inquired about our reasons for being there.
"One world, one love." responded Charlie,
"An exercise of active citizenship," I replied.
We stated our names, chatted for a bit about Michigan and parted ways. The serendipity of the moment was refreshingly genuine. She had devoted her lifetime to activism. I admired her commitment and willingness to travel to the march from further away than we had.
We continued marching and stumbled upon a Columbia student, concerned with climate change and, more importantly, finding her friends. She wanted to find the UMich group (who wouldn't?) and was drawn to the obnoxiously yellow Michigan shirt I was wearing. I silently applauded my t-shirt choice and we continued in conversation. Like many others, she held deep convictions about taking action on reducing worldwide emissions and wanted to be part of the movement. Our conversation was brief and she eventually caught up with her friends and our paths diverted to the next segment of the march.
Finally, we arrived at 59th Street, Columbus Circle - the southwestern tip of Central Park. The entrance to Central Park is reminiscent of a great Roman space, with sculptures and chariots waiting to greet visitors. Unsurprisingly, people were also there to spend their Sunday afternoon playing in the park. We entered the park and stood on top of a glacial rock formation. Standing at the entrance to this grand park provided a thoughtful juxtaposition of the colossal human mass marching down Central Park West and the United States' most famous park. The march likely disrupted the average New Yorker whose concern most likely resides in their day-to-day life rather than taking action on climate change. As the march continued, the tension between the two worlds would persist.
We left the park and the march became surrounded by skyscrapers that were the outcome of the capitalistic machine. It was here that my thoughts began to percolate, both skeptical and optimistic.
The global nature of climate action makes it unique. It lends an opportunity to connect and unite communities under one veil of concern – an existential threat. Observing the difference in our appearances while being committed to the same ideal was a unifying moment. It felt like we were united with the whole world. It was grounding, humbling, to think that so many people do actually care about our world. It gives pause and hope where it is all too easy to be pessimistic.
However, the idealism of the day was stolen away after some careful reflection about the scale of the problem. Is it possible to unite humanity under an existential threat? A few crushing realities became clear. The march was still, inevitability, an exercise of careless consumption. To think of the buses, planes, cars, and trains that were required to move 400,000 people across the country is to realize of the excessiveness of the event. Even in organizing an environmental march, the grips of overconsumption cannot be avoided. The never-ending treadmill of consumption continues.
I also questioned the effectiveness. This style of activism, though necessary and demonstrative, does not present a unified front on what, exactly, humanity should do to curb our footprint on the world. It's more of a battering ram, an expression of concern and a catalyst for action. Even in a climate march of this magnitude, the limits of global political action are concerning. Political will extends far beyond demonstration.
However, throughout history, large-scale political movements have been accompanied with similar marches (See: How the Climate March Stacks Up). The common thread these demonstrations hold is perseverance in the face of overwhelming challenges. The continued sacrifice for a just cause. As Dr. King said beautifully, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Persistence and perseverance that are inherent in political and social revolutions must continue without loss of enthusiasm. We must act continually in the face of failure. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is act for a particular cause, even when you know this particular effort has little hope of success. But it is not our failure that we should focus on, but on the next step. What else can be done to continue the effort?
Choosing to disengage in civic discourse is a political decision to allow others to make choices for you. To do nothing in a world still suffering is perhaps the greatest ill – especially of those gifted so much.
Towards the end of the march, Charlie and I drifted towards the sidewalk away from the mass of marchers. As soon as we stepped up from the road, a promoter rushed to where we were standing, eager to hand us a coupon for $1 off Axe deodorant. The great irony was that only moments after departing from the march against over use, we were immediately confronted with consumerism – which holds even deeper irony considering most of the crowd wasn’t likely wearing deodorant. The omnipresence of the economic engine that drives our Western existence hovered close by, ready to remind marchers of its persistent grip on modern society. It's not easy to step off the treadmill; the excess consumption that causes our problem will not fade away. We continued walking with a sense of resignation that not everyone was listening to the message of the day. Remember, persistence.
At the end of the march, we headed back towards the bus-loading zone. On the way we stopped off at the High Line Park and indulged in its glorious repurposing of urban space. Exhausted, we sat on a bench for 30 minutes, allowing our minds the time to wander and make sense of what we had just experienced. Sitting there, the impact and magnitude of the march was fully realized. Overall, the march was incredible - a once in a lifetime experience. We eventually gathered our remaining strength and headed back to the bus.
On the way I ran into an old campaign friend of mine, Frank Lynn, who was sitting on the sidewalk, looking equally exhausted. As a green, wide-eyed sophomore in college, I hit the doors of West Michigan with Frank, literature in hand. Frank, although technically retired as of last year, still arrived in New York to help fight this essential campaign. A person I admire for his diligence and steadfastness, Frank is one of the people from whom I've gained a sense of citizenship. Now, we met on the streets of New York, serendipitously.
I leave you with one thought: We are required to give more than we have received, more than what we are comfortable giving, more than the change that lines our pockets, and more than the free time we'd otherwise spend idly. Real sacrifice is the forgoing of something you'd like to do in favor of something you ought to do. That is what citizenship requires, for all of us taking part in this world.