Sep 22 2:30 PM

Taking the measure of a march

O.K., now what? Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue in New York during the People's Climate March Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014.
Jason DeCrow/AP

NEW YORK — If you arrived at Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York City about an hour before it’s official 11:30 a.m. start and got in line somewhere on Central Park West with the estimated 400,000 people that eventually turned out, and you followed the crowd to the end of the route, you were probably standing or marching for about six hours.

But beyond the physical terminus of the route at 11th Ave. and 34th St. — where demonstrators were promised a “block party,” but mostly just got a vast expanse of un-trafficked west-side pavement on which to mill about — the question must be asked: Marching to what end?

“What we’re trying to show is that there’s a way to wield political influence through different avenues,” said Jamie Henn, a co-founder of, one of the organizers of Sunday’s event, to Politico.

Indeed, Henn’s organization, started with author Bill McKibben less than a decade ago, has made non-traditional exercises of power a kind of calling card — most notably partnering with indigenous peoples and plains state protestors to slow the headlong rush to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project.

But the march, as large as it was, left others with a greater sense of “Yeah, but....”

History professor and noted Middle East expert Juan Cole posted a story today titled, “NYC Climate Demo: Top 5 Massive Rallies that had no Effect,” and while Cole makes a point of congratulating the marchers and admiring the turnout, he then goes on to somewhat disparagingly list demonstrations such as the 1969 march on Washington protesting the Vietnam War, the 2003 demonstrations against the impending invasion of Iraq, and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street actions and November march.

The Vietnam War lasted another four years — as Cole recounts — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney still led the country into a decade-plus of futile, bloody occupation in Iraq, and to this day, no one of prominence has been prosecuted for bringing the economy to the brink in 2008.

Cole’s takeaway, “Having marches and promoting divestment are great activities and build esprit de corps in the movement. But if people hold a big demonstration and go home, it has no effect.’

Veterans of the “inside game” of Capitol Hill environmental politics expressed a similar beef. “I just wish the energy you see going into New York, that gets put into the march, was spent marching through precincts in battleground congressional districts and in battleground states,” griped an unnamed environmental “consultant” in Politico, who dismissed Sunday’s massive gathering as “theater.”

But are Cole and the Beltway insider establishing a false metric? Indeed, how does one measure the relative effectiveness of a march marveled at by even casual observers and called a great success by all of its organizers?

Marches are not invasions. They are not meant to conquer and hold territory, or lay siege to a village (or even “The Village,” as some critics have nicknamed Washington, D.C., and the insular thinking that goes with it). Marches, mass gatherings, sustained actions, when effective, accomplish different goals — sometimes more subjective, sometimes only objectively measureable years later.

The largest march to ever fill the streets of New York was, interestingly, one Cole left out of his listicle.

On June 12, 1982, a crowd estimated at possibly 1 million people flooded the streets of Manhattan and Central Park’s Great Lawn to call for what was known at the time as “Nuclear Freeze.” Organizers of that march aimed to stop nuclear weapons production and the general military buildup designed to “wage and win” a nuclear war at a time when the rhetoric from President Ronald Reagan and his administration painted the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.”

One of that march’s co-organizers, Dr. Randall Caroline Forsberg, won a MacArthur genius award for her work, but Reagan at the time called the organizers of the Freeze movement communist sympathizers and foreign agents, and contemporary commentators downplayed the march turnout and dismissed its results.

But, by Reagan’s second term, talk was not of freezing the number of nuclear weapons, but reducing them. Reagan and the then-new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared nuclear war unwinnable and came famously close to striking a bargain to eliminate all nuclear weapons at a meeting in Reykjavik.

There were certainly other factors at play, like the economic demands of growing and maintaining a vast nuclear arsenal, and the Able Archer incident, which brought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. chillingly close to nuclear war in 1983, but would there have been room on the political playing field for the power elite to pivot if the masses hadn’t first trammeled the grass in Central Park?

Occupy Wall Street, too, gets a shortsighted slap from Cole. Yes, New York police (and the police in multiple other municipalities, in coordination with the federal government) uprooted the encampments and interrupted many future demonstrations, and yes, the record of the government in both prosecuting bankers and reforming economic structures borders on miserable, but the national political dialogue forever changed that fall.

Economic inequality was not a hot topic before 2011. No one talked about the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. Elizabeth Warren was not a Senator (and, in fact, had been famously passed over for head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by President Obama). Social activism and organizing, in general, were portrayed by establishment outlets as quaint reminders of a by-gone era, festooned with flower power bumper stickers and tie-dye tee shirts.

True, the Occupy camps are gone, but the people who met in those heady days went on with their newly learned skills and newly formed connections to other endeavors. Occupy Sandy, a grassroots group formed to help those hit by the 2012 superstorm (where and when the official response was infamously lacking), had many OWS vets at its core. Occupy Sandy participants made the connections between storm damage and the changing global climate that exacerbated it — and Occupy Sandy members were some of the people quite literally at the front of People’s Climate March on Sunday.

Of course, traditional power structures, governments, bold-faced names and small-type bureaucrats will have a big role to play if meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are ever to occur — but this is not an either/or equation. The climate march organizers fully acknowledge that. “We can’t dismiss the importance of legislating, and we don’t mean to,”’s Henn told Politico.

But Sunday was something else.

Cole is not wrong to worry that if folks just go home to the status quo ante, then 400,000 people won’t have the desired effect. Good organizers would be expected to make every effort to capitalize on the excitement felt by demonstrators on Sunday. But people won’t be going home to the world as it was before ... at least not quite.

Gatherings of this size — and the effort and energy that come with them — have the power to change the parameters of the debate. Climate change isn’t about scientists and polar bears; it’s about people. From the Small Island Nations and indigenous peoples who are organizing to pressure major industrialized countries, to the divestment campaigns that today see major philanthropies ending their investments in fossil fuels — to the marchers who may indeed return to their home districts and expect politicians to walk the walk the demonstrators walked for — climate change, acknowledging and confronting its cause, has moved from the margins to the mainstream of public discourse.

Have Sunday’s marchers blazed a trail toward a major and meaningful climate agreement at next year’s Paris summit (which is the culmination of negotiations that are supposed to be energized by Tuesday’s United Nations climate meeting)? Obviously, time will tell. But was that ever intended to be the only brick in the road?

Converting the easiest of acts into sustained action is the recurring challenge for any movement — as is communicating that few battles, if any, are ever permanently won. Look no further than today’s lead story in the New York Times and you will read of the U.S. again ramping up nuclear arms production, a generation after millions denounced such moves. But look elsewhere on that same front page and you will see three major stories on climate change — on the march, on the Rockefeller fund divesting from oil, and on the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions. One of those is directly related to Sunday’s groundswell, of course, but would the other two stories have graced today’s paper without the shift in the discussion that is both the progenitor and the progeny of the People’s Climate March?

The march hoped to change global warming “from an environmental concern to an 'everybody issue,’” Henn said. Four hundred thousand isn’t everybody, but it isn’t nobody, either. Where they go from here will take more than six hours and likely more than the distance from New York City to Paris to realize.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter