If it is to be remembered for anything, 2014 was, I like to think, the beginning of an age of protest. From Hong Kong to New York to my own living room, the country, indeed the world, was a study in civil disobedience.
Colorado might have been the most interesting: protestors protesting the anti-protestors. Evidently, in the state’s second-largest school district in September, hundreds of students protested a conservative school board’s new curriculum that banned materials “that encourage or condone civil disorder.”
Lessons in protest
Closer to home, my daughter and her middle school friends joined the national protests in response to a grand jury failing to find reasonable cause to bring charges against white New York City police involved in the death of the unarmed African-American Eric Garner.
This was hardly a week after the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury refused to indict the white policeman involved in the shooting death of the unarmed African-American Michael Brown. My son, daughter, wife and I watched the astonishing television coverage of the arrests, looting and burning of police cars and neighborhoods.
A few weeks later, my daughter and “90 percent of the student body” of her middle school (according to an email from the principal) sat silently in the hallway during B period, their backs against their lockers. Many with posters and lettering on their hands that read “I can’t breathe.” To be young and white and privileged. It is nice to see that they care about the national crisis.
As my daughter was about to join local high school students in taking their protest to the streets of our little Massachusetts town (Amherst) she texted me that I needed to call the school and give permission for her join the event — which meant skipping classes.
As a parent, I know what a serious student my daughter has become and that leaving school on a school day might spell a bad grade. But protests come only so often, and the fact that this one was organized and peaceful seemed to me a good enough reason for her to go. Plus, she was upset about the violence used by police in taking Eric Garner’s life and the fact that he was, by most accounts, a father and a family man.
I called an administrator and gave my permission. How could I not?
‘It’s like your house is on fire.’
It was in early September that I invited my son and daughter to join me and a friend at the People’s Climate March in New York City.
My son couldn’t; he had plans. My daughter also declined. She had too much homework. It would be a four-hour bus ride to New York, a long march and a four-hour ride home. While I understood, I thought she was a perfect participant: Her latest social studies paper is an argument to overthrow the new dress code at her middle school.
I like to think a peaceful protest is full of important values for 8th graders — togetherness, peace, democracy, change.
The night before I was to leave for New York, I asked her if we had any noisemakers in the house.
She returned with a small unused air horn my wife bought for New Year’s.
I smiled. Perfect.
“What are you marching for, again?” she asked.
For one thing, I told her, this summer was the hottest on record for the entire planet, ever.
Plus, she added, there are a lot of island countries whose people have nowhere to go as the oceans slowly rise.
Don’t forget the soil microbes, I told her, the smallest of living organisms — even they are heading for colder climes. And don’t get me onto the polar bears.
“I wish I could come,” she said.
“You can come next time,” I said. “There’ll be plenty.”
The environment. It’s not going anywhere.
At the march in New York City the next day, neither did we.
After three hours, my friend and I were standing where we began: on the western edge of Central Park. Organizers expected 100 thousand people and got more than 300 thousand.
An elderly man nearby said, “The environment — why, it’s like your house is on fire.” He’d come from California with his wife.
“Say a small part catches fire, like the garage, and burns down because of faulty electrical wires. Are you going to wait, or are you going to fix the wiring before what’s left burns down?”
I said I’d get an electrician.
Sounding the horn
I turned to call my daughter in Massachusetts. Sign up for instant messaging so you can participate, I said.
A text from the organizers came through at 12:58: “We’re holding a moment of silence while linking hands overhead in honor of those already suffering in the face of climate change,” it said. “Spread the word.”
“Wow, that’s awesome,” she wrote back. “I’ll do it.”
The silence across New York City was astonishing.
You could hear a pin drop. A few distant police sirens. And only the shutterclicks from onlookers’ cameras, capturing the sea of raised hands — the brown ones and freckled ones, the dark ones, the light ones, and the hands of every shade in between.
I sent my mother a photo of my friend and me with our handmade “Marching for the polar bears” signs. A bearded guy wearing a white polar bear suit smiled with us.
My mother sent an expected message: “What side of climate change are you on? Truth or false propaganda?”
“False propaganda,” I typed, but I didn’t send it.
Another message came from the organizers: “At 1:00 we’ll break the silence and sound the climate alarm that’s been ignored for too long.” In other words, yell, scream, howl — make the most noise you possibly can.
I let off the air horn that my daughter found the night before. Because of the noise echoing between buildings, I couldn’t, for the life of me, hear its wail.
The following day at the university where I teach, I broke from the routine and showed images of my day in New York.
The students were appreciative. Not one of them went. I was curious as to why. Several said they would have gone but couldn’t get a ride. One of my students had recently protested police brutality in town.
“I’ve seen its effects on people of color, the marginalized and victimized,” she said. “But the environment is something you really can’t see. It’s in the future.”
It was a good point — the future we can’t see. So I returned to the past, to the horn I blew on the western edge of Central Park. I couldn’t hear it over the noise around me — the shouts, the stamps, the hollers and the whoops.
Yet absent that day were the traditional high-protest activities: speeches from leaders, the folksingers, the young and the disenfranchised hauled off by police. There was nothing like we would see across the nation just a few months later, the protests over the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in November.
Even though there were celebrities in attendance that day in New York — the U.N. secretary general, the Clintons, a few movie stars — no one made rousing speeches nor did they send text messages to the march’s participants.
We heard that the mayor pledged a “green” New York City. And the Rockefellers — the family of 19th century fossil fuel magnates — announced that they were divesting their fortune from oil and coal. Since that day in New York City, we’ve seen climate come front and center again — with more progress than ever when diplomats from 196 countries in early December agreed to a historic deal that for the first time commits the world to cut its planet-warming fossil fuel emissions.
But in New York City that day — hours before renewed U.S.-led airstrikes in the Middle East and two days before an international climate change gathering fizzled — people marched with moments of hurrah and silence and no arrests. It was a message for those suffering from our bewildering environmentally destructive behavior.
More importantly, it was a model for civil disobedience for the protesters surely coming soon — and maybe to your neighborhood.
Michael Carolan was born in Kansas City. He lives in western Massachusetts and teaches literature and writing at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.