When the C train slowed to a halt at Fulton Street station on last Sunday morning, I saw an assortment of anti-Tar Sands and anti-Keystone XL signs. As I boarded the train, I quickly realized that almost each passenger on the quick ride uptown with me were also heading to Central Park West, to protest against the climate inaction of the past twenty-five years. Seeing floods of protesters walking onto the train as we ventured uptown confirmed what I suspected, that the People’s Climate March would be larger than any protest I’ve been to in my whole life. When getting off at 72nd Street around thirty minutes later, the conductor said ‘have a good day at the march, make it count’ over the intercom. This wasn’t anything resembling a normal New York City demonstration. Concerned citizens from all over the United States were in Manhattan and it wasn’t for an over-hyped award show or fashion week. The people were here to save the climate.
At over 310,000 people, the People’s Climate March was the largest protest in the Big Apple since the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It was also touted as the largest climate protest in history, achieving the goal set by 350.org, Avaaz, and hundreds of other participating organizations. Even with established groups bankrolling the outreach for the event, including advertisements on ten percent of the subways in New York City in the weeks leading up to the march, the historic day came together from the ground up, via decentralized hubs which featured listservs, weekly conference calls, and frequent planning meetings. While thousands of people were lining up next to Central Park, thousands more were following the event on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
I think that when organizing successful movements, especially for an issue as urgent as climate change, there is one golden question which is the key to mobilizing large segments of the population:
How do you spread your message to people who aren’t currently engaged in your movement?
How do you reach the segments of the population who didn’t sign the Keystone XL petition, the passive public who are waiting for Obama and other world leaders to make the decisions that will prevent this crisis of our human species? How do you shift the paradigm so that instead of people asking ‘What are the environmental groups and government organizations doing?’ they will be asking ‘What can I do to contribute?’
We are in a time period where the hope for social change burns more intensely than ever before. Even as we see economic conditions worsening in many parts of the world, with austerity measures and corporate welfare dominating the policy decisions of many nations, there remains a hope that the virtual spaces which foster instantaneous connectivity will raise the possibility of social action to enact meaningful change. As communities are formed through the togetherness of sharing ideas and goals in urban spaces, they are supported and intensely linked with virtual communities formed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites.
The internet is a space of autonomy, which lowers barriers of expression and social movement participation. In “Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age”, Castells defines autonomy as “the capacity of a social actor to become a subject by defining its action around projects constructed independently of the institutions of society, according to the values and interests of the social actor”. (229) He then proceeds to link this concept with networked social movements as the transition from individuation to autonomy is “operated through networking, which allows individual actors to build their autonomy with like-minded people in the networks of their choice…the Internet provides the organizational communication platform to translate the culture of freedom into the practice of autonomy.” (230)