Thursday, July 9, 2015

So I Went to the March

I went to the Jobs, Justice, Climate march on Sunday.  It's taken me a few days to think about what I think about it.


Klein so close at the pre-pre-rally.
I got to Queen's Park way early and sat under a big tree to read and wait, and I happened to sit where the media were setting up, so right next to Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben.  I missed seeing David Suzuki, and I somehow didn't recognize Jane Fonda.  But the usual crowd was there.  In the pre-rally show, they faced the media with their backs to us, which felt odd at first, but then I decided it was as if they were at the front of the crowd, on the same level with us, part of us.  Except the sound system was so bad we could barely hear anything.  I was, literally, three people back, but I gave up my spot because I couldn't see or hear anything anyway, and I went back to reading my book.  I caught it on the news at home.

Then there was a larger show with the celebs facing us, trying to work us into a frenzy, but I couldn't hear much of that either.  It didn't help that people were walking around playing accordions or talking loudly- you know, doing their own thing.  But that show went on from 1:00-2:15.  That's a long time to strain to hear something in the blazing hot sun and to allow to fester a burgeoning sense that we're not one solidified group.

And then we marched.  There's always something exciting and invigorating about marching in a crowd.  It feels powerful.  It's the same feeling I got as a teenager walking as part of a group down the middle of the street because we couldn't all fit on the sidewalk.  We walked like we owned the place.   And I met some really interesting, strong, vital people.  That's why I go to these things: to remind myself that we aren't just cogs in a machine, and to recognize that I'm not alone in my little scheme to work towards environmental and economic justice against all odds.

Then after the march, there was apparently some food somewhere, and we all dispersed.

But, more interesting, there were protesters of the protesters.  Like the People's Climate March last September, some people felt that regular citizens weren't involved enough in the organization.  The marches are running on a top-down hierarchical model, which is the problem in the first place.  Klein says in her book that there are two things necessary for effective environmental change: bold national policies and the willingness to say no to fossil fuels.  But I agree in part with the protesters that a third thing is necessary - to ensure that we don't replace one power hierarchy with another.

The problem isn't just climate change and economic policy, but the wielding of absolute power by anyone over anyone.  When the celebrities that show up are bigger news than the people, we've got a problem.  And, I think, when the leaders speak to the media instead of the people being led, then we've got a problem.  It starts to feel like it's spectacle instead of something remotely revolutionary.

Here are four of the specific claims from a primary anti-march protester, The Hamilton Institute and furthered by Why Not 350.  I'm on board with half of them:

1. The Big Green organizations are "hijacking local resources to build their own fundraising opportunity, while turning us towards the most pacified forms of opposition....This funding model impedes radical, transformative change by privileging the spectacular while concealing less glamorous day-to-day organizing. The Big Green organizations in fact parasitize local organizing to support their one-off fundraising opportunities....They talk about including diverse groups and viewpoints, but they set the terms and limits of the discussion." "350.org promotes a token, one time support of indigenous peoples and lacks real solidarity with indigenous communities."

Or, as Paulo Freire insists, "Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is...to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated" (65).  This is a concern I wasn't specifically aware of, but merely had a sense of, which isn't enough to make a compelling argument.  This video has some of the specifics.

2. There is "a long history of NGOs denouncing militant forms of resistance taken up by frontline and impacted communities and of NGOs not supporting diversity of tactics."

On the bus ride up, well-organized by a local 350 group, I listened to a discussion on this line by an activist who felt strongly that we should denounce militant forms of resistance because "we lose legitimacy if we use violence." At one point in the conversation I spoke up that we need to bring pitchforks and torches and a guillotine to these rallies, dammit, and my small audience fell awkwardly silent.  Whoops!  But I'm afraid this is too serious a time to just try to talk things out reasonably Neville Chamberlain-like. I applaud the groups that take a risk by boarding oil rigs or damaging equipment in order to directly stop a pipeline going in the ground. Yes, smashing windows at the G20 is pointless, typically hurting the franchise owner and leaving the CEO untouched, but some acts of trespassing or destruction of property can be necessary to prevent a larger, more permanent destruction. This was illustrated in The Cove and, of course, Ferngully.

3. "The divestment campaign touted by 350.org is focused on publicly traded stocks and bonds, even though much of fossil fuel divestment takes place in private hands. Fossil fuel companies hardly make money off of their stocks, they make their money by selling fossil fuels; one of many issues with fossil fuel divestment."

Okay, but every little bit helps.  I don't think it's a problem for different groups to have a different focus, as long as they don't work against one another.  Some can work on divestment while others are boots on the ground.  Coming at it from all angles at once can be very effective.

4. Finally, "Their framing is positioning political and economic leaders as actors who might make a choice in favour of people as a result of a large demonstration. We know this isn’t true."

This one is triggering. If a large demonstration won't work, then we don't have a democracy (which we largely don't anymore, I know), and this is another problem to add to the list.  It should have been called "Jobs, Justice, Climate, and Democracy." They might be right, that it has no effect, but I can't believe it. I just won't accept the possibility that we won't be heard if there are enough of us and we're persistent.  We have to be heard.  And it sometimes does have an effect. Speaking up and gathering en masse has to have an effect.  Weak argument, I know, but it's a faith necessary to keep going.

In one interview, Hedges said that one of the current problem that makes activism much more difficult than it was at the turn of the century is that we're a "post-literate society." Most people just don't read books - history or philosophy or political books.  He says it's the reason he doesn't have facebook or twitter or a website or TV; he doesn't want to be distracted from spending several hours a day reading.  That's key to our ability to understand ideas in a complex way, and it's gone. Now we skim and share headlines without getting to the bottom of how it all plays out. This could mean we'll be easily led in any direction, which is dangerous. If people won't read, we have to keep them in the know otherwise. The anti-350 group was there at the pre-rally, handing out pamphlets to help people understand their position, but the marchers have no literature to pass on to the public on the sidewalks. We need ways to make the problems transparent and easily understood by everyone to the point that they'll be compelled to join.

Like feminism, left-leaning politics, Protestantism... a group's focus on freedom from an oppressor can devolve into multiple factions that begin to fight, weakening the face of the movement so it can be too easily dismantled.  This can't be allowed to happen this time.  We have to focus on joining together and living with a social and environmental perspective, and working to stop specific acts of injustice in a variety of ways that are applauded by the other factions within the group.  Being against something or someone feels empowering, but harder and more necessary is getting it together.

Guilty of one selfie in the reflection of a building.

5 comments:

  1. Dark Mountain, Marie. To some, including Naomi Klein, it sounds like capitulation but she's wrong. It's about not believing the bullshit we keep telling ourselves, that society feeds itself. It doesn't undermine commitment to striving for what is right. If anything it makes the effort more effective.

    It's amazing how many earnest, well-intentioned people approach climate change as a stand alone issue that we must tackle in isolation because that's the narrow path they've been led onto. They don't recognize that these groups distract and divert attention from equally challenging problems such as inequality, over-consumption and overpopulation. You'll recall that Jared Diamond did an excellent job in "Collapse" of explaining why you can't solve any of these problems unless you solve them all. It's only when you identify the common threads that run through them that solutions become obvious - no matter how daunting. It's all about reorganizing ourselves to live in harmony with our very finite world and all its lifeforms. I now recoil at the mention of "sustainable growth" because, as James Lovelock opined several years ago, our only hope of survival as a civilization depends on "sustainable retreat" in our overall numbers, in our consumption habits and away from our fossil fuel addiction. Anything short of that, to me, is a lie, a potentially lethal deception no matter how sincere and well-intentioned.

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    1. I agree that one urgent path we have to take is de-population. I touched on that here discussing how the hero of the story can't just let women have whatever children they conceive. That's not true leadership but mere capitulation. The hero in our tale, the longview hero, will find a way to make the masses embrace dramatic population restrictions. I think I've got my own kids convinced, but other people my age are still hoping for lots of grandkids.

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  2. Entertaining post Marie. I mostly agree with you except for the guillotine part. Pitchforks and torches, yeah, I get it. But guillotines? They're bulky, heavy and difficult to transport. Used effectively, a pitchfork can be just as efficient as a guillotine. Other than that, good job.

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    1. Somehow that sounds so much more barbaric! I jest about the centuries old traditions, of course. We have to kill the ideas that foster inequality and environmental destruction, not the mouthpieces that promote them. But I admit it can be very satisfying to contemplate vengeance from time to time.

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    2. "Somehow that sounds so much more barbaric!"

      So pitchforks are much more barbaric than your suggestion of the use of guillotines? French doctors, back in the day, conducted experiments to determine if severed heads could speak and hear. The results were inconclusive, but it does sound less barbaric than pitchforks. ;)

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