Historians and Our Planet’s Future: Reports from the People’s Climate March

 Compiled by Dan Chard with Jessica Johnson, Mark Roblee, Sigrid Schmalzer, and Miriam Wells.

Historians spend a great deal of time writing and teaching about history, and occasionally we like to participate in it as well.

Faculty and graduate students from the UMass Amherst History Department were among the 400,000 people who descended upon Manhattan on Sunday, September 21, for the People’s Climate March, an event organizers dubbed “the largest climate march in history.” The March brought together a diverse coalition of indigenous peoples, students, religious groups, community organizations, unions, environmentalists, and others from throughout New York, North America, and the world. More than 500 buses transported participants there, including 22 from Western Massachusetts, 6 of them from UMass. Solidarity actions took place in over 150 countries.

The March was timed to roughly coincide with Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit. Though ignored or downplayed by much of the media (whose parent corporations stand to lose from climate action), the March sent a clear signal that people across the planet demand serious political action to stop the advancement of climate change.

Here are some reflections and photographs from the People’s Climate March submitted by History Department faculty and graduate students.

I traveled with my friend Michael on a bus that featured a group from Mothers Out Front (an organization dedicated to combatting climate change) and assorted other folks.  The bus drivers from Amherst did some fancy driving in the Bronx, making U-turns on a stopped I-95 and hard left turns into busy street traffic in order to get us there on time.

At 11:30, the March’s lineup was filling but not yet moving, and we slowly made our way from 83rd street to 75th in order to join the renewable energy crowd.  Along the way we saw all kinds of participants.  I remember community groups from Maine, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.  The demographics were encouragingly more diverse than they were at last year’s climate rally in Washington, D.C.  

The great variety of participants in the March shows just how many issues need to be addressed, and how different parts of the country face different challenges.  For example, we spoke with a couple of women from St. Louis, Missouri, about their concerns over a hastily passed piece of legislation misleadingly called “Right to Farm,” which benefitted agribusiness and encouraged inhumane farming practices.

I also think the composition of the March demonstrated that there is a place for nearly everyone in this movement, regardless of race, age, or political ideology.

– Miriam Wells, PhD Candidate


Photo courtesy of Miriam Wells

My partner Winston and I packed our six-year-old Ferdinand and our sixteen-month-old Anarres into the car at 6:00 a.m. and drove to the Metro North station in New Haven. It was fun to see more activists boarding at every stop; the train was standing-room-only by the time we reached Grand Central just before 10:00. But I won’t lie: getting there with the kids was hard, especially since Winston had injured his back the day before. It was a long walk for Ferdinand just to get to 70th street, where we joined the line-up, and I had to carry Anarres the whole time.

History was very much on our minds. Winston kept telling Ferdinand, “Now you’re a part of history,” and we told him stories of earlier marches we had attended: “DC in ’93” for gay rights, the anti-war protests at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, and others. But with the baby on my back and Winston periodically carrying Ferdinand even with his back injury, I also found myself thinking about the Chinese Long March and refugees in historic evacuations — the incredible courage and solidarity it requires for large numbers of people to move from a place of danger to one of relative safety.

The most exciting moment came at 1:00 when, amazingly, everyone around us paused for a minute of silence to recognize those who have already died from climate change – truly, I can’t think when I’ve ever heard the city get that quiet – and then we heard from far behind a roar of voices that grew louder and louder until it swelled around us like an enormous wave… and then moved on to lift the people farther along.

Sigrid Schmalzer, faculty


Ferdinand takes a break from marching.

The People’s Climate March? I liked it better than Cats. It turned about to be a family reunion as well. My partner and I met our son who just started college and my mother-in-law who has been part of the recent action to stop the privatization of public library properties in NYC. We also ran into some friends from the Valley who we don’t often see. Maybe we’re starting to come out of the woodwork around climate change? I was left with the impression that hitting the streets is a necessary ingredient in “re-publicizing” public property, public values, and the public good, that the planet *is* public. No plan(et) B! It was a demonstration of democracy that hopefully sent shivers through our elected leaders and their short-sighted corporate patrons. Our bus captain, David Glassberg, proved that trying to stop (or adapt) to climate change could have a fun side too. We were all left ready for more action.

– Mark Roblee, PhD Candidate


UMass History Professors Laura Lovett and David Glassberg (courtesy of Lovett and Glassberg)

I attended the People’s Climate March with my partner, Julie, and our four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Louisa. We travelled on a bus from Northampton, and made new friends along the way. The bus dropped us off at 86th Street, at the back of the March, and the crowd was so enormous that we quickly realized we would have to let go of our plans to meet friends at 67th. We stayed flexible, met other friends, sang and danced along with drummers and marching bands, and took inspiration from the art, banners, discussion, laughter, and community that surrounded us.

            One thing we know from history is that most changes for the betterment of humanity have come at the behest of grassroots social movements. Will Louisa’s generation, and those that follow, confront climate-induced famine, mass migration, war, and social meltdown on a scale unprecedented in human history? Or will new relationships forged through the Peoples Climate March culminate in a powerful, revitalized global climate justice movement, one with the power to block the apocalyptic tide of corporate-driven ecological destruction? The answer depends on all of us. In the words of the March’s organizers: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”

– Dan Chard, PhD Candidate


Julie, Dan, and Louisa


History was on my mind as I made my way to New York City for the People’s Climate March. As I sat on the slowly moving commuter rail into the city, I found myself reflecting on the way that the March was promoted as an event that would — perhaps in and of itself — “bend the course of history,” to quote the official language around the event. I am certain that the March will change history, though perhaps not in ways that we can easily predict and certainly not overnight. This discourse around the March reminded me of how US social movement history is too often narrated, with a focus on singular, triumphant events. As historians, we know that one-time events rarely change the course of history on their own. Rather, change comes through the hard, unglamorous, and often invisible work of sustained struggle.

            History also teaches us that part of this hard work of making change is the work of connecting, creating community, building alliances and celebrating. While the full historical impact of the People’s Climate March is yet to be seen – or perhaps more accurately, yet to be made – on an affective level, Sunday’s march already felt like such a joyous success. To meet, gather and connect with so many activists from such diverse perspectives and subject positions was such a pleasure and a source of energy.

– Jessica Johnson, Outreach Director


Photo courtesy of Miriam Wells


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