Reflections on the Oakland March for Real Climate Leadership

Marcelo Mendez

A Latino youth’s account of the February 7 Oakland climate march, in light of the dimensions of race, class, and capitalism – Editors

mg_news2_3720Gray, star-studded twilight on February 7. I rushed out of Ellwood grove amidst a chilling drizzle to ride towards University of California, Santa Barbara, joining fellow activists in their welcome circle at 5:00 A.M. The wait for the bus characterized the rest of the day; a free, fun, peaceful, non-hierarchical and democratic gathering of people looking to make a difference in their selves, communities, governments, and world. From snacks (home-made bread and granola, along with fresh local produce) to sing-alongs, plenty was shared on the bus ride to and from Oakland. To me, the most important thing shared that day was one another’s experiences and feelings on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the personal to the academic to the political. At the heart of these exchanges, as well as the march itself, were yearnings for a society based upon a sustainable, humane ground, something antithetical to one standing upon the backs of workers via the alienation of labor (or, when work becomes so menial that the worker cannot see the goodness in his/her self, the simultaneous application of mind and body through work being what makes us human), driven by the ever-increasing exploitation of workers for surplus-value. I seek to share my experience in the march under a student, Mexican-American, and Marxist prism.

A large mass greeted us upon arrival at City Hall through drums, 10-foot wide banners promoting various arguments and causes: one reading “It’s the environment, stupid,” with a picture of Governor Jerry Brown, another promoting Californians Against Fracking, and one from 350.org, as well as 20-foot flags, and costumes (someone dressed as an oil rig). By now, around 10 A.M., the sun broke free of the cloudy gray gloom, giving way to blue. A mix of war veterans, students, union members, mothers, nurses, teachers, children, Blacks, Asians, queers, and citizens massed before the white City Hall, standing upon a green lawn in a city of with a predominantly Black population. Soon after, we marched. Carrying a 20-foot flag, I moved amongst this mass, with crowds of people screaming (“Say No to Fracking! Say No to Fracking!”), chanting (“El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido!”), yelling in ever-hoarsening voices for a frack-free California, petitioning, drumming, walking, marching, living.

Since I was curious about the reasons why these folks came to this “March for Real Climate Leadership,” I asked around. A group of nurses related the issue of fracking to their profession, saying that fracking leads to unhealthy neighborhoods due to water pollution (local aquifers becoming polluted from the rather nasty chemicals injected into the ground to extract oil and natural gas in what is known as fracking). A group of self-declared revolutionaries said that demonstrations like these were prime ground for spreading the message of “overthrowing the system” and opening discussion about alternatives. A middle-aged man told me he was offered promises of a bright, clean future by mainstream media when he was a boy, but his dreams of flying solar-powered vehicles shattered in the face of still-present fossil-fueled automobiles; disillusion turned into a vision for him, he said, one where he would take action in creating a future rather than be a passenger in someone else’s vision of reality.

As we marched, thousands of feet padding asphalt, I saw members of some of the organizations I participate in, such as the Green Party of California and System Change Not Climate Change. While I was happy to see fellow activists, it was also revealed that these activist circles are somewhat small, and in the case of the aging Green Party, dwindling. Nevertheless, there was tremendous energy in the 1.5-mile march. It was contagious. People filmed and cheered us on from their hotels and homes. Even the police gave signs of approval, raising a fist here and there. This march, composed of 8,000 people, was the largest demonstration against fracking in the nation.

This energy condensed upon a lawn overlooking a lake darkened by gathering rainclouds overhead. At about 1:30 P.M., the crowd quieted down, and with raindrops showering this warm, lively mass, focus concentrated on the speakers standing at the middle podium. A group of Pacific Islanders went front and center, leading a Hawaiian song that sounded much like a lullaby, soon sung by everyone, swaying, cradling a sense of unity and peace. Leaders from the community went to speak as well, bringing up topics like environmental racism and the need to link sustainability to jobs.

At this point I wandered off, curious about the propped-up tents dotting the lawn. A radio talk show, broadcasting in Spanish, encouraged participants to share their thoughts on the march, though the voices were muffled amongst the commotion. A red tent sold radical material on topics including the Zapatistas, Communism, the policing of America, Socialism, Marxism, alternatives to banking, and other left-leaning issues, available in books, pamphlets, buttons, stickers, pins, t-shirts, and other commodities. A young girl begged her mother to buy her a socialist t-shirt of some sort. A big, burly man offered free coffee and bread, a small lunch box designed with the faces of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin in Red Soviet fashion lying next to him, open for donations. Bread and coffee in hand, I set out to find a Green Party encampment, hoping to help in any way I could.

Tip-toeing over strewn-out activists, weary from the day’s events, I found a Green Party member. I asked him the whereabouts of a Green Party encampment, only to find that he was the camp. After a bit of a laugh, I grabbed some fliers, stickers, and voter registration forms and set off to recruit. I didn’t know what to say to get people to join. What could I say? With no prior experience in these sorts of escapades, I was unsure of myself. But it was better to say something than nothing, I thought. I let out a rather weak “Vote Green.” No attention; try again. “Vote Green!” Some heads turned (Now you’re talkin’).”VOTE GREEN!” A Latino from Los Angeles called me over, telling me about his involvement with the Green Party in Los Angeles and a possible campaign to elect Luis Rodriguez for governor of California under a Green Party ballot. He introduced me to his friends, one of whom registered to vote; you may laugh at this, but I felt like a million bucks. It was great to take that first step in making political change; you could say it was the invigorating feeling of hope.

Alongside the Green material, I passed out an International Marxist-Humanist Organization flier with an excerpt from Peter Hudis’s “Marx’s Humanism and the Fight for a New Ecology,” which was well received by the young activists from Los Angeles; their lay in the flier’s link between labor and sustainability. They appreciated that the piece presented both issues as interconnected and that it was simple enough to understand and distribute. I returned to the man with the Soviet lunch box and handed him the article, and he admitting that he had not dived fully into Marxist theory before; he thanked me for providing a piece that served, according to him, as a good starting point that joined both issues. Some took the flier and focused on reading it while speakers’ voices boomed from the amplifiers while others took it and folded it in half. It didn’t seem the case that people were turned off by the word “Marx” (though I did find some fliers trampled later on). The fact that “Humanism” and “ecology” were in the same phrase might have even piqued interest, according to a fellow Green. It seemed like an effective flier in gathering interest about the IMHO, with some people asking questions about the organization. At the end of this recruitment circuit, I registered three new Green voters and distributed about 70 Marxist-Humanist fliers.

It being around 4:00 P.M. by now, a group of friends and I went to Chinatown for dinner. Going outside the march (now disbanded but soon to congregate in another meeting), brought race into full view by witnessing those who weren’t in the march. On our way to a restaurant, I saw groups of Black men hanging around a park, some smoking, others listening to the radio, while still others played card games and dice. Chinese people also hung out at the park, playing board games, though most of the Chinese folk we saw were gathered in the bazaar set up to celebrate the new year. This begged the question: Why was the march predominantly white, though Oakland itself is a racially diverse city? What stopped some of these people from joining a march that addressed environmental issues? Indeed, a peer said that the march was “too white.” It could be that certain economic factors (along with others) limited the ability of certain groups to participate. A tired history of environmental racism may also have diminished hope in demonstrations that have no “hard” outcome. I am not sure how diversity comes about in these things. Attempting to include and add people of color verges on tokenism because the race of the person becomes the focal point rather than the experiences and problems affecting such persons.

I do not think age is as tricky to navigate as race is in these environmental actions. It is especially difficult for people with little to no experience in activism to muster the courage to participate in these events. So when someone with experience in these things offers a helping hand, I think it is very special. Mixing golden experience with new energies makes for a powerful combination, a very human one, I think. I am fortunate enough to have outstanding mentors in activism, however, this isn’t reflective of my peers’ situation; there might be a group of people out there with immense energy that need that extra push in channeling this energy. With computers now available in smart-phone form, people feel less inclined to communicate and exchange information on a face-to-face basis, and information is now passed through a rather cold screen. To me, a humanist future looks like one where people are smiling, holding one another, enjoying each other’s presence, and listening to one another. Walking around, one doesn’t see this too often, more likely seeing people staring down at their smartphones rather than into each other’s eyes. It seems that the participation of both young and aged is needed to close the age gap that is prevalent in these demonstrations for a sustainable, humane future.

The fight for our planet continues. Whether this is capitalism’s final boundary shouldn’t be open to speculation; it should be asserted and it should be stopped. The Oakland march showed that this process is under way, that real climate justice leadership will always live in the masses.

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