Speaking climate truth to Trump power

Leonard Klein and Evelyn Kilgallen report from Washington, D.C., on a march that put the issue of the planet front and center--but also embraced social justice issues.

Among the huge turnout at the People's Climate March in Washington, D.C. (Evelyn Kilgallen)

CARRYING BANNERS, holding signs, beating drums, chanting and singing, an estimated 200,000 people descended on Washington, D.C., for the Peoples Climate March on April 29.

The D.C. march and rally was the centerpiece of a day of protest for environmental justice, with tens of thousands attending sister events in more than 350 cities around the country, and as far away as Europe and Asia. Turnout was even more impressive considering that the massive Marches for Science took place nationwide the weekend before.

The D.C. protest was bigger than many organizers expected. Marchers traveled hundreds and thousands of miles, motivated by the urgency of protesting the accelerated destruction of the environment caused by fossil fuel extraction and consumption.

From its inception, the Peoples Climate March set out to combine environmental and climate concerns with the resulting social impacts, such as environmental racism. This was a central priority at the first Peoples Climate March, which packed the streets of New York City in September 2014.

This time, Claire traveled down with several classmates from Vassar College, where they are active in the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, which is seeking to get the college to withdraw endowment funds from fossil fuel companies.

"I want to live on a planet where everyone can live equally and justly in the future, and I don't think that is going to happen without taking action all together right now," Claire said.

Indigenous rights featured prominently in the official march programming and in various ceremonies held in the week leading up to the march--showing that the courageous struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is still fresh in the minds of people organizing for environmental justice.

Jennifer Martel, of the Cheyenne River Sioux, came to Washington from Standing Rock. Earlier in the week, Martel had been in New York to take part in the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. In D.C., Martel signed onto the Indigenous Women of the Americas Defending Mother Earth Treaty.

"We have to save what little we have left," Martel said, echoing the sense of urgency shared by many of the marchers, adding. "And show that we are not alone."

Laurie and Terry came up from Beaufort, North Carolina, with their local Sierra Club, carrying signs demanding a ban on offshore drilling. As they were posing for a group photo, rather than saying "cheese" to force a smile, they shouted out "Fuck Trump!"

Asked why they were marching, Laurie responded, "Trump just signed the executive order to open up drilling along the Atlantic coast. There has been a record number of humpback whales already washing ashore because I think [the big oil companies] may have already started seismic testing without our knowledge."

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IN A nice change of pace from many national marches, which feature long speeches from celebrities and politicians, Peoples Climate March organizers showcased on-the-ground and grassroots organizers from a wide variety of campaigns.

Judith Howell of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ got boisterous cheers and applause when she said: "It's time to put people over profits."

Cherri Foytlin, of the group Bold Louisiana, brought her two daughters to testify about rising oceans levels, which are already being seen in more frequent flooding of their home. "Climate change is happening right now." Foytlin said.

Bold Louisiana is fighting the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, a project of Energy Transfer Partners, the same company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The Bayou Bridge Pipeline would transport DAPL oil from Texas to Louisiana, threatening drinking water and coastal ecosystems.

Jazzlyn Lindsey, an organizer with Black Lives Matter D.C., linked the forces that created the lead-contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to similar environmental and race issues in D.C.

"Here in D.C.," Lindsey said, "we want to raise healthy and happy children, but lead in our water, smog in the air and kidnappers keep getting in the way, especially if you are Black...It is past time we put an end to the war on Black America, and this includes the use of chemical warfare, in the form of land, water and air pollution."

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AFTER THE opening rally, marchers gathered in their many tens of thousands into eight large contingents, linking various activist communities, and headed northwest along Pennsylvania Avenue towards the 1600 block. Chants echoed off the walls, including: "You can't drink oil, keep it in the soil"; "Scott Pruitt go away, the EPA is here to stay" and "They say climate change, we say system change."

Shouting and chanting became louder and more pointed at Pennsylvania and 12th, as many marchers paused to "Boo!" in front of the Trump International Hotel.

At 2 p.m., marchers staged a sit-down protest in front of the White House. As the crowd quieted, a slow clapping began, mimicking a heartbeat, and gradually spread down the entire line of those sitting in.

The clapping grew louder, ending in a rousing cheer. After two waves of this collective heartbeat, many marchers felt they had made their point and left the demonstration rather continue on in the 93-degree heat. But some tens of thousands continued marching to a second rally at the Washington Monument a few blocks south.

In a statement released before the march, Paul Getsos, national coordinator of the Peoples Climate Movement, said:

The Peoples Climate Movement...[is] a broad-based formation of over 50 organizations working with movements across the country to stop the Trump administration's and Congress' attacks on our planet, people and communities. We demand an economy and government that works for all, clean air and water and a healthy environment. This administration must immediately stop attacks on communities of color and immigrant, Muslim, indigenous and LGBTQIA communities.

Naturally, the Trump administration was the immediate target of most of the protesters. However, only a few carried signs also calling out the Obama administration's policies of expanding drilling or its silence on climate change during its eight years in office.

While most press conference and rally speakers talked about the need for further and greater activism, a few, such as the SEIU's Howard and Rev. Leo Woodberry, made specific calls for combining activism with voting for environmentally friendly candidates.

And while the Democratic Party wasn't named as the recipient of those votes, that was the assumption of many marchers. One marcher, David, said: "2018 is going to be huge. 2020 is going to be huge." His friend Mohammad, gesturing to the marchers at the final rally, added, "Imagine this kind of turnout on election day."

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BUT OTHER speakers made the connection between the need to fight climate change by fighting the system that profits from environmental degradation: capitalism.

Pam Tau Lee, of the Chinese Progressive Association, has been a social justice activist and organizer for 48 years. She was in Washington 26 years ago to help draft the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice.

Referring to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech 50 years ago, Tau Lee encouraged marchers to fight against the "giant triplets" of racism, capitalism and militarism. "We are living under the giant triplets' agenda on steroids!"

She went on to say: "We are living in a moment of one struggle, many fronts--from the struggle against police brutality, to building the wall, to the struggle to protect water." Tau Lee issued marching orders to the demonstrators to go home and organize resistant hubs across the country.

Tau Lee also emphasized the need for solidarity and tied the Peoples Climate March with the upcoming May Day protests and strikes, saying, "This is when we from the climate justice environment community--this is when we stand up together and resist with a vision and fight for solutions that are good for all the people, and not for profit."

Nate James, a Marine veteran and president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 3331, works at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one the federal agencies targeted for destruction by Trump.

"Dollars do not trump people; people trump dollars!" James shouted. Making the case for the potential power of activism and movement-building to achieve environmental demands, James said, "There's not a politician that's going to do a thing unless we say so."

As marchers left the Washington Monument grounds, they were encouraged to leave their signs behind to document the day. Some of the signs read: "This is a sign--so are melting glaciers"; "Separate Oil and State"; "Climate change doesn't give a fuck about your opinion!"; "There are no jobs on a dead planet!"; "There is no Planet B!" and "Oceans are rising and so are we!"

The 2017 Peoples Climate March sent another message of resistance as the Trump administration reached its first 100 days of trying to implement its planet-wrecking, people-destroying agenda. We need to build on such demonstrations and organize on the local level to step up the resistance against a system that is destroying our planet.

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THERE WERE marches and rallies in solidarity with the main Peoples Climate March in Washington in cities around the country.

-- In Oakland, California, some 2,500 people gathered near the Lake Merritt Amphitheater for a rally for climate justice. The pedal-powered stage featured a mix of artists and speakers including Indigenous leaders, grassroots activists and religious figures, along with liberal U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and representatives from the mayor's office,

Greg Castro of the Ohlone nation--the original inhabitants of the Bay Area--was one of the first speakers. He reminded the audience that they were standing in Hochiun, the Ohlone name for the area now known as Oakland, and led prayers and blessings for the space and the gathering.

A representative from the Alameda Labor Council said it stood firmly for climate justice. The council is advocating for union jobs at all levels of the green economy, opposes the Oakland coal terminal and Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and supports the nearly 6,000 Tesla workers who are trying to organize a union at a plant in Fremont to not only ensure good pay and benefits, but to improve workplace safety and the environmental impact of the factory.

When a woman who was introduced as "Citizen Louise" read a statement from the mayor's office in support of the rally, she was well-received, even though the city has been on the wrong side of numerous struggles talked about at the rally.

-- In Rochester, New York, around 1,200 demonstrators met at City Hall and marched to Washington Square Park, where organizers from the Rochester People's Climate Coalition arranged a rally with speakers, including the mayor and representatives from local non-profits and activist organizations.

While the speakers tended toward looking to local government and small business for solutions to the climate crisis, those in the crowd were more willing to engage in political discussion, expressing fears for the future of the planet and a desire to take more active roles in whatever way possible.

Signs promoting divestment from fossil fuel companies and pipelines were popular within the crowd. The slogan of the march, "To Change Everything, We Need Everyone," set the tone of the day. Organizers stated their goals were to emphasize solutions and the importance of mass, cooperative action to stop climate change.

-- In San Diego, as many as 5,000 people for a march along the city's waterfront to send a message of opposition to Donald Trump and his anti-environmental policies.

"This struggle must be fought on all fronts," said marcher Jim Miller. "You can't talk about climate change without talking about women's rights, You can't talk about climate change without talking about workers' rights and immigrants' rights."

Sean Maloney, Tonatiuh Ornelas, Gennady P. and Derek Wright contributed to this article.