I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing two extraordinary public events last month. The first was Elizabeth Warren’s rally in Washington Square Park on September 16th. The second was the Climate Strike rally at Battery Park on September 20th. As with any major historical event, I had no way of knowing whether they would live up to the hype. I was sure Warren’s event would be stimulating, but would it be monumental? I knew New Yorkers would show up for the Strike, but would its significance translate to people hundreds, even thousands of miles away?
The quick answer was: yes, Warren’s speech did feel monumental. And yes, the Climate Strike was an event of global significance. The two rallies inspire the assembled crowds, and me. Most importantly, their positioning as bookends to the week’s political news brought into focus how these two agendas might intersect. Warren highlighted the innovations and limitations of her platform, and the Global Climate Strike created an opening for what Warren might do to capture the youthful effervescence of this powerful movement for her campaign.
Warren was smart to hold her speech where she did, not only at the historic site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but on the grounds of the largest private university in the country. The young students who filled the crowd may have been familiar with the tragic 1911 industrial fire that killed 145 women workers, but they were more likely to know these stories from history class or walking tours than political rallies. They may have heard of Frances Perkins, a labor activist and the first female presidential cabinet member under FDR, who came to political activism following the Triangle Factory fire. But had they thought of her as a model for contemporary politics? Warren was wise to wax historical in her speech—to remind us that we are connected to this working women’s tragedy over a hundred years ago. In doing so, she reminded an activist generation without a clear future that we do, indeed, have a usable past.
Warren offered no nostalgia here, no looking back to a lost utopia of active labor movements and effective women in power. There was certainly respect for Perkins and the mass mobilization she turned into effective political legend—but Warren wasn’t asking us to go backward. Labor activism, feminism, civil rights: these are not roadmaps for Warren, they are metaphors. Even to call this speech “feminist” would be to miss the point—and to miss the significance of what it represents for this moment. We’ve done great things before, Warren counseled us, and we will do them again. Not because it was better before, but because we have a legacy to build from. We don’t have to start from zero. Some ineffable dusting of hope remains from the victories of the past.
Having just watched the democratic debates, I admit I felt a bit dizzy at the onslaught of issues I expected Warren to cover in her speech: healthcare, immigration, climate change, racial injustice. What Warren’s speech did was tidy these issues into coherent paradigm without losing their nuances. The problem? Corruption! The reason? Capitalist greed! The solution? Wealth tax! Seems simple, right? Well, maybe it is. “Take any big problem we have in America today,” she told us, “and you don’t have to dig very deep to see the same system at work. Climate change, gun safety, healthcare. On the face of it these three are totally different issues, but despite our being the strongest and wealthiest country in the history of the world, our democracy is paralyzed. And why? Because giant corporations have bought off our government. Americans are killed by floods and fires in a rapidly warming planet. Why? Because huge fossil fuel corporations have bought off our government.”
As a friend reminded me midway through the rally, “corruption” is probably not the sexiest platform to run on. Sure, I responded, but it is a useful umbrella. Climate justice could have just as easily been that umbrella. But, as climate activist Jamie Margolin reminded us in her recent op-ed, “Colonization started the climate crisis,” if climate change is the symptom, Western greed is the cause. Warren helped us feel like we could prevent the sickness, one anti-lobbying measure at a time.
That Friday, Warren’s message was deepened and amplified by the wide array of speakers who took the stage at the Battery Park Climate Strike. Unlike Warren, whose speech didn’t mention colonialism and its legacies, these activists rallied around a truly intersectional vision for change. As I listened, I remembered the first Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where several white politicians took to the stage, hoping to solidify their constituencies with what felt like a lot of empty buzzwords about intersectional feminism.
At the Climate Strike rally, those same buzzwords took on greater authenticity, as both the list of speakers and the content of their speeches reflected the intersecting nature of the climate crisis’s manifold injustices. The problems of the “Global South” were discussed by all, especially young activists of color, like 16-year-old Rebeca Sabnam and 19-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Sabman’s speech, in particular, treated the Global South as the center, not the periphery of this crisis, recounting the dangerous floods she survived as a child in Bangladesh. These speeches melded personal stories with scientific research to create a gut-wrenching portrait of why political inaction leads to tragedy.
Marine biologist and climate activist Dr. Ayana Johnson, one of the only adults to speak at the rally, put it succinctly. “Some things,” she reminded the crowd, “require the moral clarity of children: some things are simply right and some things are simply wrong.” Her message landed with a roar amongst the crowd gathered in the park. The buzz of that intergenerational connection was palpable, from the children eagerly running to hit an earth-printed beach ball, to the pre-teens flirting in crop tops and trying to avoid their adult chaperones. The children danced along to the music of Jaden and Willow Smith, and cheered on their peers from Zero Hour, Extinction Rebellion, and Fridays For Future like rock stars.
The climate crisis has become part of the fabric of their lives.
In the wake of the Climate Strike, as activists have been working to build on the fervor of the day and the millions of people who attended strikes worldwide, the question is: how do we translate this global movement—and its palpable emotional energy—into realizable local and national goals? Warren’s platform gives us part of an answer: take corporate money out of politics. She makes a convincing argument that the way to fight the ravages of capitalism is to meet capitalism where it’s at: capital. How it accumulates, how it circulates, who gets to have it and who doesn’t.
But the children striking for climate also reminded us that money is not enough. The sickness of climate change, if we follow the metaphor, may soon be less contagious, but we also need to fight for health. As Al Gore reminded us in a recent op-ed, we might be able to “win” the climate crisis, but that doesn’t mean the losses will cease once we stop polluting and desiccating the planet (assuming we can, in fact, stop). Just as the 2.9 billion birds that have disappeared from North America in the past fifty years may never return, the people who have already died or are dying from climate related disasters and illnesses—disproportionately people of color—will remain the stark reminder of all we have already lost. Knowing this, Warren’s healthcare plan should pique people’s interest, not just as a continuation of decades-long battles for healthcare reform, but as a necessary step on the road to climate justice.
Warren may have nailed the disease, but she should keep listening to children if she wants to know the cure. They’re not just asking for the right to live their lives free from apocalyptic destruction, they’re asking for maybe the simplest and most basic political gain: to live lives that are freer and more just than their parents. To do so, they’ll not just need a world with stable temperatures and enough water, they—and this earth—will need care in all its forms.
Dr. Ayana Johnson gestured to this at the end of her speech, when she turned to the words of Martin Luther King: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”
The reaction of the crowd when Dr. Johnson read this quote was visceral, its prescience reverberating through the silent protestors. The immediacy of its language, the knowledge that such an iconic spiritual leader could so bluntly express the depths of human malevolence, seemed to strike fear and awe in the audience. But we would do well to remember that it was the very starkness of MLK’s “moral clarity”—his acknowledgement of human beings’ endless capacity for “violent co-annihilation”—that helped him craft a vision for its antidote. He called not only for nonviolent coexistence, the hallmark of his activism in the Civil Rights Movement, but more broadly, for “Beloved Community”—a term less often talked about in relation to his legacy. Not only should injustice be rooted out, his dream implored, it should be replaced by the renewal of human decency, love, and trust.
Warren would do well to study this concept as it relates our current crisis. Frances Perkins may have given us “big structural change,” but Martin Luther King gave us a dream—and fought like hell to make that dream a reality. We need both as we steel ourselves for the fight ahead.
Hannah Leffingwell is a Ph.D. candidate at NYU in the departments of History and French Studies. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018.