Seeking Unity in Diversity at the Forward on Climate Rally

By Emily Keppler

On Sunday morning, February 17th, Chief Jacqueline Thomas, recent Chief of the Saik’uz First Nation, looked out at a crowd of over 40,000 people congregated on the National Mall. “I’m here to ask you,” she said, “We need your help, I need someone to stand with me when the bulldozers come.” Behind her on the stage stood other First Nations women who had come from the front lines of the fight for environmental justice in British Columbia to speak at the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington D.C. She spoke of their fight against the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that would be built across their territories and threaten the health of their land and water. She asked to be introduced with the chant “C-I-A,” meaning “Cowboys and Indians Alliance.”

FIrst Nations speakers.

FIrst Nations speakers.

Other speakers included Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, fired Green Jobs Advisor to the Obama administration Van Jones, and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. A wide plurality of goals matched the diversity of the speakers. Though the explicit mission of the rally was to urge Obama to veto the Keystone XL pipeline and push for more progressive climate legislation in Congress, speakers brought up a range of issues, from fracking, to overpowering corporate lobbying, to cross-national and cross-cultural solidarity. It all shared a common rhetoric and an overarching objective: uniting in the fight to end the climate crisis. However, there were moments where the questions being posed and objectives being raised, by both speakers and protestors, clashed so directly that the hailed unity seemed like a far-away myth.

After the First Nations speakers, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse took to the microphone and asked, “There’s a man over there in the White House, he has found his voice on climate change. Are we going to have his back?” The crowd’s cheers were punctuated with the shouts of a few young people standing nearby: “President Obama is the enemy! We need to find our voice!” They shook their heads in anger. This moment is one example of a larger trend of tension in the tenuous alliance between protestors from both ends of the radical-reformist spectrum.

The crowd marched down the streets of downtown D.C. towards the White House, following a substantial police escort. Protestors were shooed off of the sidewalks by lines of organized volunteers. The leading organizers intended the rally to be a peaceful demonstration of the sheer mass of the climate movement. However, not all protestors were willing to abide by these parameters. Some young people brandishing “Occupy” banners stood on a fence, flipping off the White House. A few people in black drew in a small crowd, shouting a curbside speech about the need for collective direct action. The only chant that the marching protestors seemed willing to join in on was “Hey, Obama, we don’t want your climate drama,” while shouts of “1, 2, 3, 4, climate change is class war” were sparse and short-lived.

Former presidential candidate Jill Stein, another member of the informal curbside shouting contingent, said in an interview the night before, “Why should we have Obama’s back when he keeps stabbing us in ours?” Stein and other critics felt that energy put toward pressuring Obama on the pipeline was misdirected. They urged their fellow protestors to see that Obama is just another cog in the machinery that is killing the planet. Chris Williams, organizer of an EcoSocialist presence Sunday, said, “This is about a system that depends on the production of fossil fuels for energy, and profit and endless growth as the engine of progress within capitalism.”

Occupy contingent at Forward on Climate.

Occupy contingent at Forward on Climate.

Mainstream media sources have erased these nuances and reduced the rally to a mere presidential plea. The Nation reported, “their audience was really just one man, the only one with the power to stop the project: Barack Obama.” Neither the New York Times, the Huffington Post, US News, nor NPR even mentioned the presence of the First Nations women. However, they all extensively quoted white men who have become figureheads in the climate movement, namely Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, effectively stamping out the very unity that was being preached.

Since its inception, the environmental movement has been criticized for lack of diversity and disregarding issues of justice. The rally demonstrated an effort to push the climate movement into a different context, one that unifies people of diverse identities and ideologies. Yet the mainstream media’s selective reporting thrust it back into the very context that organizers seemed determined to escape: that of white-washed, upper middle-class environmentalism. The diversity of voices on stage, demanding justice, action, and solidarity, demonstrated the organizers’ efforts to bridge the divides in the environmental movement and unify in a single, powerful movement for climate action. However, merely putting people of diverse goals and identities on the same stage does not create unity. It is an end that needs to be actively pursued and constantly re-negotiated. Bringing the very voices that have been excluded from the environmental movement to the forefront is an important step towards establishing a new paradigm of inclusiveness. But the media’s selective reporting demonstrates old paradigms of environmentalism will have to be addressed head-on.

Sunday’s rally was a promising start to such a unified movement. It demonstrated the potential for cross-pollination of ideas, ideologies, and resistance strategies. However if the voices of the oppressed and marginalized are silenced in the name of unity, if the climate movement comes to look more like the media’s depiction of the rally, it will never act as a basis for substantive change.

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