Illinois goes to DC to Fight Climate Change

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by Stuart Levy

This February 17th, a coalition of groups, including, the Sierra Club, and Hip Hop Caucus, held a rally and march in Washington, DC to raise the urgent issue of climate change.

The Sierra Club organized a bus from Chicago – two buses in fact, since the first soon filled. A hundred or so of us, including at least eight from Champaign-Urbana, squeezed onto them and joined thousands of others from around the country heading for DC.

Why did over 35,000 people attend the Climate Forward rally in DC?  Well, why did I decide to go?

I’ve long felt that addressing climate change is an essential part of our struggles against war and for social justice. It promises to shift their material basis – making food scarcer, exacerbating inequality, increasing competition for water and livable space and arable land. And the burdens will fall far more heavily, and inequitably, on future generations than addressing the problems now will on ours.

Further, seeing the Sierra Club’s recent decisions to countenance civil disobedience in the name of opposing climate change, and now to promote the February 17th rally, brought a sort of hope.  The Club leadership is politically canny. Putting their reputation on the line this way means, I think, that they see the issue as critical, and that they see the politics as changeable – that such a gesture, dramatically showing public support for climate action, might shift the situation.

Anyway, a great rally can be a blast. I had to go. So did half a dozen U of I students from the Stand Up To Coal and Stand Up To Oil campaigns. And a woman with a guitar who tried to lead our bus in song (great fun if you were close enough to hear); Gary, a blind man from Joliet whose guide dog Cuddles bore a Code Pink “Make Out Not War” sign; and my seatmate Idriss, a Sudanese man who spoke among other things about an aspect of changing climate which Sudan has seen for decades: desertification.

As we drove east into the snow, the organizers invited anyone on the bus to come up and tell about what had brought them there. One young woman had been working with the 8th Day Center for Justice in Chicago. Her mother saw it: whenever she went to do something with those nuns, she’d get herself arrested.

The rally (permitted, no civil disobedience today) assembled near the Washington Monument. We soon couldn’t see the edge of the crowd – a broad mix of ages, many students and many in late middle age, a few babies on shoulders, mostly white and Latino and a few black faces. Groups had come from Colorado, Florida, Michigan. We carried all sorts of signs – some mass-produced, many hearteningly home made. Lots opposed the Keystone XL pipeline (“#NOKXL”), or fracking, or supported solar and wind energy, or said simply, “My grandchildren deserve a bright future.” A pair of jeans went further, naming the problems: “Central Authority, Dominance, Monoculture, Exploitation, War, Debt.”

Thumping music shook us, the emcee led us in a chant. Were we part of an elaborate photo-op? I stopped thinking so once the main speakers began. Bill McKibben: “People in Texas blocking the pipeline with their bodies … 256 campuses … [involved in fossil fuel] divestment, the biggest student movement in decades. … You are the antibodies kicking in as the planet tries to fight its fever. … Above all, stop the Keystone Oil Pipeline. The President can do that with a single stroke of his pen. And if he does, he will be the first world leader to veto a big project because it’s bad for the climate. …  Though we’re never going to outspend the oil industry, we’ll find other currencies to work with. Action. Spirit.  Creativity. …  I don’t know whether we’re going to win.  But I waited a quarter century, working on this, to see whether we were going to fight. And today, at the largest climate rally by far, by far, by far, in US history, the battle – the most fateful battle in human history – is finally joined, and we will fight it together.”

I was most glad to hear from two First Nations tribal leaders from northern Canada. Both opened by thanking the Piscataway, the DC area’s original native group. Jackie Thomas, of the northern British Columbia Yinka Dene Alliance – whose lands would be crossed by a pipeline to the Pacific Coast – talked about cooperative action between groups on both sides of the border unifying opposition to the oil pipelines. “Because oil will spill. … Never in my life have I seen white and native work together until now. Thank you, Enbridge [tar sands company], for doing this work for me. … The Yinka Dene Alliance have never ceded our territories in BC and we never will. … We have not given our consent to this project.”

Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who’s managed billions for decades: “The Keystone pipeline is not a good investment. … The time for business as usual has passed.”

A sour note for me: several speakers, including Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, called on President Obama to lead us. We should know by now not to expect politicians to lead us – it is we, the people, who must lead them.

Following the rally came a lively march through the blustery afternoon past the White House, passing a mosh pit with a wolf and polar bear, and the Rosendale, NY Improvement Association Brass Band.

Much more happened that day which I couldn’t see. A group of Alberta First Nations people gave a of presentation that evening, while our bus drivers were carrying us, exhausted and chilled but elated, back to Chicago. Many thanks to our bus organizers, Tony Fuller and Ryan Baker, who took good care of us throughout the trip.

We didn’t expect President Obama to be in the White House as we marched by that Sunday. We later learned that he’d been in Florida, golfing … with executives from the oil and gas industry. Sure enough, we have to fight.

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