•• All photographs by Anna Conkling ••
On Saturday, climate protesters marched uptown from Washington Square Park with the message: “We will not be bystanders.”
The protest was led by the New York chapter of Extinction Rebellion, a global climate activism group that uses “nonviolent civil disobedience and rebellion” to demand climate change action, according to its website. Saturday’s protest stretched more than 17 blocks, from Fifth Avenue to Madison Square Park, where an event was held on day 3 of a 10-day demonstration, with the mission of saving the planet. Extinction Rebellion aims to draw attention to their demands, which are geared toward forcing politicians, governments, the finance industry, and the media to wake up to the climate crisis and make systematic changes to combat dangerous warming trends. The group’s first demand is “Tell the truth,” explained on the website as “And the truth is, we’re in the middle of a climate and ecological breakdown. Social and economic systems around the world have begun to collapse. Only by committing to science and truth, no matter how hard, can we address this emergency head-on.”
This protest, entitled “We Will Not Be Bystanders,” addressed the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which stated that to limit global warming, greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak before 2025, at the latest, and be reduced by 43% by 2030. “The government is gaslighting us by acting as if the climate and ecological crisis is years away instead of right now,” Extinction Rebellion NYC stated in a press release. “This is not about politics, and this is not about differences. The ship is sinking, and we have two options: watch it go down or try to stop it. No one is coming to save us—it’s on us to create a liveable future.”
The New York chapter of Extinction Rebellion has also taken on implementing change in the city. While New York was the first U.S. city of more than one million residents to declare a climate emergency, activists say it isn’t enough. Extinction Rebellion is demanding that the city reach net zero carbon emissions by 2025, which the group knows sounds like an extreme goal, but one that they believe is necessary. “What we’re looking for is change. Let the people decide what is necessary. We’re looking for action, said Laura Cole, Extinction Rebellion NYC organizer, as she sat in Washington Square Park waiting for other protesters to arrive. “We refuse to sit by and watch our future be taken away from us.”
Eventually the crowd grew larger: What began as 10 protesters became dozens, some dressed in red and black, the theme for the protest, which signified a “code red” emergency. As the crowd moved out of the park, protesters waved large flags with the Extinction Rebellion logo, and chanted, “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible” and “Listen to the IPCC, this is a climate emergency.” At times, the battle cries were led by 19-year-old climate activist Gigi Weinberg, a freshman at New York University. “I’m here to show the student support for what is happening,” said Weinberg. “We have a lot of power as people being out in the streets. Get up and let’s go!”
In another part of the crowd, a group dressed in long red cloaks and headdresses, with black masks on faces painted ghostly white, silently and slowly drifted by, holding onto each other, displaying signs of grief and horror before falling back into one another. They are part of the Red Rebels, a performance activism group created as a response to the global environmental crisis that draws attention to facts such as the UN estimation that 80% of people displaced by the climate crisis are women and girls. “Our message about the climate crisis is: We are all in this together. We need to empower each other, grieve the losses, and rise up against the powers that put profits over the possibility of the planet,” said Red Rebel member Yana Landowne.
The protesters eventually arrived at Madison Square Park, where they had set up speakers and microphones for community activists to voice their concerns about the climate crisis. Among the activists who spoke was Hoka Wicasa, an indigenous water protector from Minnesota. As a water protector, Wicasa fights for clean water on reservations around the country. “My main message is that the destruction of earth has got to stop,” said Wicasa. “What it comes down to is, it’s not about hearing me. It’s already in your own homes. The hand that’s been oppressing us has now touched everyone here on earth. Now what you let happen on the reservations is happening here.”
As activists spoke on a crosswalk near the park, protesters stood hand in hand. Then, as the light turned green, the protesters refused to move, standing firm despite what the Voice estimates to be approximately 25 NYPD officers telling the protesters to move on. When protesters sat down instead, officers began to arrest them one by one and put them into two police vans. One of the women arrested, Alice, is a part of the activist group “Raging Grannies,” a group of older women who attend human rights protests to demand global change. On Saturday, the Raging Grannies joined in, voicing their concerns about a warming planet and its meaning for their families. “Alice gets arrested as much as you blink,” said Raging Granny Judith Ackerman. The Grannies said that Alice also plans on getting arrested next weekend.
As the crowd began to disperse, some walking away without the people they came with, there was a sense of unity and a passion to continue the fight against climate change. “We are scared for our future,” said Christina See, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion NYC. “Watching the earth be destroyed for corporate profits over a viable future is what is driving so many people onto the streets to demand government action. The time is now to treat the climate crisis for what it is, if we want to have any chance of averting the worst of climate change.” ❖