Democracy and the People’s Climate March

Huffington Post Blog by Harry C. Boyte on September 10, 2014

If organizers of the 1963 March on Washington were transported fifty years later to plan the forthcoming “People’s Climate March,” to held at the United Nations in New York, September 21, they would not call the march’s promo film released on Monday night, Disruption. The 1963 organizers, I believe, would propose a message of democracy — we can take the future in our hands.

Revitalizing American traditions of empowering grassroots action and democratic aspiration could give the climate movement appeal far beyond the ranks of the highly committed

Keya Catterjee, Director of Sustainable Energy for the World Wildlife Fund and one of the organizers of the People’s Climate March, points to the 1963 March on Washington. She argues that success happened when people left their homes and took to the streets. “All the big social movements in history have had people in the streets.” The energy of the organizers involved in the Climate March resembles the March 51 years ago.

But Disruption does not convey the democratic spirit which gave the March on Washington such appeal, nor does it illuminate the process of everyday empowerment which animates grassroots democratic movements like civil rights.

Scientists in Disruption detail a long tradition of science, from Joseph Fourier in the 19th century to Charles Keeling in 1959, who described the rise of C02 emissions in the atmosphere. They make a potent case about the dangers. Scenes of cataclysmic weather add urgency. Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator from Rhode Island, argues cogently that “behind the economic problem” of taking action on climate is a “political problem.”

But Disruption does little to address the political problem.

The 1963 March on Washington was based on the strategy of Bayard Rustin, March organizer, posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. As Rachelle Horowitz, his young aide who handled March transportation, describes in the CNN oral history documentary, We Were There, Rustin believed that the task was to “win over the middle.” A third of the nation was behind the goals of the civil rights movement. A third was opposed. Most Americans, with everyday concerns focused elsewhere, had to be convinced.

Martin Luther King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech embodied this strategy. Stretched out on the floor in a sleeping bag in my father’s hotel room, I heard King practice the speech in the early hours of August 28th. My father had just gone on staff of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dad called me while I was hitch-hiking in California before I went to college and told me to come back. “We’ve planned a march to get the nation’s attention,” he said.

In “I Have a Dream,” King strikes a bold note to gain the nation’s attention. “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights,” King said. “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

King also coupled his challenge with an inclusive dream, integration in every corner of the nation, as well as a call to discipline. These were carefully crafted to appeal to mainstream America. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

The narrative of the People’s Climate March needs to have a similarly broad appeal. It needs to invite business owners, Pentagon officials, Evangelical Christians, civic leaders in Middle America organizing sand bags lines to protect their towns from flooding. All have voiced concerns about climate change. They are not present in the documentary, “Disruption,” which has a decidedly liberal-left tilt of voices.

But the march creates other opportunities to reach out.

The People’s Climate March also needs to convey grassroots empowerment. Bayard Rustin, like other organizers, saw the March not as an end in itself, but as a way to surface long developing people power and give it further momentum.

Civic power germinated in what Sara Evans and I described as “free spaces” in our book Free Spaces, described in my last blog, on what makes some movements democratic, in contrast to reactive or divisive protests.

Free spaces are places in communities like churches and synagogues, schools, beauty parlors, neighborhood groups, local businesses, unions and other settings which acquire empowering, public, self-organizing qualities. In free spaces, people develop skills of collective action across differences. They cultivate imagination about possibilities of change

In the civil rights movement, community settings deepened free space qualities through SCLC’s Citizenship Education Program (CEP). The vision of CEP, drafted by Septima Clark, was to “broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” From 1961 to 1968, CEP, directed by Dorothy Cotton, trained more than 8,000 people at the Dorchester Center in McIntosh, Georgia, who returned to their communities and trained tens of thousands more in community organizing and nonviolent change-making.

The process transformed identities from victims to agent of change, a story Cotton tells in If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement. “People who had lived for generations with a sense of impotence, with a consciousness of anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them.” Cotton calls citizenship education “people empowering.”

King, often at the Dorchester Center, wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the movement “was bringing the whole nation back to the great wells of democracy dug deep by the founding fathers.” The civil rights movement’s vision of a participatory democracy inspired a generation.

The People’s Climate March could similarly help to reanimate democracy. Several other developments addressing climate questions also have this potential. For instance, a National Science Foundation workshop in October on “civic science,” descends from the initiative which John Spencer and I described in an earlier Huffington Post blog.

Civic science explores, with rich case studies, how scientists can reconnect with their identities as citizens, and how the public work of addressing wicked problems like climate change create opportunities for deepening democratic capacities and democracy itself.

If the march articulates a vision of participatory democracy as well as addressing carbon emissions, it can help to revitalize a sense of “We the People” as the foundational agents of change.

Otherwise it could contribute to the political problem of polarization — the last thing the climate change movement needs.