NYC Climate Protest Recap: Battling high dollars with warm bodies

NYC Climate Protest Recap: Battling high dollars with warm bodies

The second act of this week’s protests in New York demanding governmental action on climate change is closing, as roughly a thousand people clashed with police on Wall Street, demanding “system change, not climate change,” in which the vast sums invested in the fossil-fuel economy and in the political-influence industry would be diverted or rejected.

Twitter accounts of police using pepper spray and tear gas on chanting protesters in the financial district began piling up Monday at 5 p.m. New York Time. Several protesters were reportedly arrested.

“I wanted to come specifically to disrupt Wall Street because it’s Wall Street that’s fueling this,” Ohio urban farmer Ben Shapiro told the AP. “I’m going after the source of the problem.”


Matching Dollars with Souls

The Wall Street action comes a day after an estimated 400,000 gathered for a two-mile march through Midtown Manhattan in what became one of the largest protests in U.S. history, equivalent to the largest of the demonstrations of the 1960s Vietnam War and civil rights era.

Participants vented frustration with the ineffectual — anemic, defeated, reactionary — responses of political leaders to the advancing climate crisis. More than 2,500 similar protests took place in 158 countries, according to reports. The international action came in advance of a United Nations climate summit scheduled to open at the organization’s New York headquarters tomorrow.

Watching marchers move past him, Bill McKibben, the activist-journalist head of who ignited the global protests with an open invitation published in Rolling Stone in May, said the only way to spur real political action was to loosen the stranglehold the fossil-fuel industries have placed on government, and that the only to do that was to get out in the streets.

We have to match dollars with souls, because the only thing that has more value and power than money is people, he explained in a sidewalk interview with DemocracyNow! host Amy Goodman.

“The oil-and-gas industry has the money, but that’s all they have,” he said. “They lost on the science decades ago. We don’t have the money. So we have to assemble the people. That’s all we have.”

Moving the Needle

The UN summit is meant as a sort of feel-out session to prepare heads of state for negotiations scheduled for December 2015, when the the next full UN Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris. At the summit, parties will gauge how willing government leaders will be to commit to clean-energy development and to deep reductions in the fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions that are heating the planet and dangerously altering the climate.

National Geographic wrote a pre-protest story on the summit and next year’s conference, saying a “treaty on warming looks unlikely.” It did look unlikely, and still does, from a certain perspective. But the needle has moved.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the marchers, signaling support at the top for change.

The New York Times reported Sunday afternoon that the Rockefeller Brothers charitable foundation joined a growing number of cities, universities, pension funds and individuals committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry. The Times put the sum divested so far at $50 billion.

The Rockefeller news made a splash because the Brothers foundation is built on the iconic fortune John D. Rockefeller made as founder of Standard Oil in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Standard Oil was one of the world’s first multinational corporations and remains the model for today’s extraction-industry giants. The Rockefeller announcement came as a full-circle kind of American moment, coming as it does this year, the hundredth anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, where striking miners and their families were gunned down and burned to death as part of the Rockefeller reaction to the early movement for worker rights.

The Rockefeller fund is divesting $860 million. Trustee Steven Rockefeller said it was an moral and economic decision.

Among U.S. universities leading in the divestment movement is Stanford, which withdrew money from the coal industry early on in reaction to student pressure. In Colorado, Naropa University in Boulder founded by Buddhists and Beat poets has divested.

New York City pledged to overhaul energy-efficiency standards for all public buildings and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 80 percent by 2050. It is the largest city in the world to make such a commitment.

Members of the movement believe divestment makes good economic sense.

“[I]f you like risk, if you want risk, then stay in fossil fuels. That’s the risky alternative,” said Scott Wallace, co-chair of the Wallace Global Fund, which has coordinated a “Divest-Invest” movement, where funds freed up from fossil fuel stocks are shifted to clean energy stocks. He spoke to DemocracyNow! today. “If you want a solid financial future, stick to stuff where you’re not going to get sued when the Deepwater Horizon blows up in the Gulf and you’re not going to lose your market value because of the stranded assets, the oil and coal that has to be left in the ground because we can’t afford to burn it.”

A group called Corporate Accountability International is pressing the United Nations to “keep Big Energy out of the [climate change] talks and create meaningful global policies free from corporate influence.” The organization’s open letter to Secretary General Ki-Moon was co-signed by 78 organizations and asks him to “protect climate policy-making from the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry.” The group points out that the UN 20 years ago excluded Big Tobacco from similar global health policy talks. The “Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” took effect in 2005 and “locked Big Tobacco out of the room when it comes to drafting and influencing health policy,” as Yes Magazine puts it. “A single sentence in Article 5.3 insists that parties to the treaty ‘protect’ policymaking on health issues from those with ‘commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.'”

science chalkboard

Shadow Play

The protests threw up stark examples of how the media can present different versions of the same moments in history.

In the land of broadcast news, it was business as usual. The protests didn’t make it even as a side story onto the big Sunday morning political news shows.

tweet saunday shows

Watchdog Media Matters wrote that “The news shows devoted zero segments to the march. The event was mentioned just once on ABC’s This Week.”  

But the PBS News Hour lead with the march Sunday Night and NBC did a short piece on it as well. DemocracyNow! livestreamed four hours of the march, with Goodman conducting street interviews the entire time.

Online blogs, magazines and activist organization sites began covering the protest plans weeks ago (see here, here, here).

The New Yorker website ran an interview with McKibben on Sunday morning.

“Here’s the frustrating part for me: we know that we could change. Germany proves that we could change,” says McKibben. “It’s not a lack of engineering or natural resources—we just don’t have enough political will. This march and things like it are an attempt to gin up some of that political will.

“I know how much carbon we can have in the atmosphere, but I don’t know the exact number we need in the streets. It strikes me that the more we have, the better our chances.

“The people who are arranging this march are straight out of the environmental-justice movement. These are not John Denver environmentalists. This is a very different kind of thing.That stereotype—that this is a movement for hippies—was true once, to some degree. But it’s not true anymore. I think what happened was people understood just how severely impacted their communities were.”

Twitter was the main avenue on social media for news.

As University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill media scholar Zeynep Tufekci notes, Facebook’s more interaction-related algorithm results in deep lag-times in breaking news stories.

She has written that news of the recent race-enflamed Ferguson, Missouri, protests hit Twitter feeds in realtime but didn’t show up on Facebook until the morning after the first night of protests.

“What if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever fully make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook?”

[ Photos: Street Crowd by Jayson Harsin; Windmills Bathroom Break by Hannah Weinstein; Science Chalkboard by Twitter. ]

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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |

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