Protesters head toward Philly's Independence Hall during Sunday's March for a Clean Energy Revolution. / Emmett Rensin
Emmett Rensin,  July 25, 2016

All Protests Look Alike, and Other DNC Myths

Climate activists marched in Philadelphia ahead of the convention, but the punditry had eyes half shut

Protesters head toward Philly's Independence Hall during Sunday's March for a Clean Energy Revolution. / Emmett Rensin
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There is nobody else on the media sign-in sheet but two kids from a school paper. It’s Saturday, two days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, and we are at Temple University in northern Philadelphia, where the PowerShift Network, part of the Energy Action Coalition, is holding a kind of wonky recruitment and training fair. Despite the poor press attendance, a crowd of young activists had been here since nine in the morning, deep in workshops and breakout sessions in advance of tomorrow’s March for a Clean Energy Revolution. The workshops and the march have come to Philadelphia, to the Democratic National Convention, with a mild request: that the American economy urgently transition to a sustainable energy model, a demand far beyond the present ambitions of any candidate for the presidency.

PowerShift was founded in 2006, originally conceived as nationwide mass mobilization effort to force political action on climate change. In 2015, under new executive director Lydia Avila, the group altered course. “Originally, the goal [for the group] was to raise awareness about climate change,” she told me at Temple, but today mere awareness has been achieved. Now, the group is focusing on relationship building and recruitment: organizing regional conferences that connect environmental activism groups to young people who want to get involved, but are unsure how.

Today, for example, there are tables set up all along a long hall, where representatives from a range of environmental groups are connecting with the students who have turned up for the day. The focus is local by design: the most prominently featured organizations, especially on the day’s panels, are Philadelphia based, and the goal is to convert abstract desires to act into actual work.

“Groups presenting today were required, as part of their proposal process, to tell us how they could bring new people immediately into their efforts,” Avila tells me, “If a young person comes up and says, ‘I want to get involved,’ we wanted them to able to say, ‘Great, here’s what you can do to actually impact policy.’”

If you have spent any amount of time in the left-wing conference circuit, you will appreciate that this is a refreshing and unusual requirement.

Meanwhile, on the social media networks where politics pretend to happen, there was no mention Saturday of PowerShift or any of other climate groups planning to march on Philadelphia. Rather, the attention of the major punditry was confined to two stories. First, there was the selection of Virginia’s Tim Kaine as the vice presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and the possibility that his dubious record on both abortion and financial deregulation would embarrass Hillary Clinton. Second, there was the release of 20,000 internal emails from the Democratic National Committee by Wikileaks, and the possibility that these constituted not so much an embarrassment to that committee as definitive evidence of a Russian intelligence operation designed to elect Donald Trump.

If there was any talk of climate at all, it was of what kind of climate the “Bernie dead enders”—the same folks, it was suggested, who were inclined to be skeptical of both Kaine and the Putin conspiracy—might bring to the forthcoming Democratic Convention. This is the only kind of left-winger that the press has been inclined to admit exists these past few months: Sanders-worshipping internet Marxists intent on casting a childish vote for Jill Stein or possibly (and inexplicably) Trump.

It is possible that, despite assurances, they are simply unaware that there is anybody else out there, anybody plotting anything but the next rude entry into their social media mentions.

One such plotter is Liz, a student at the University of Rochester, who is doing precisely the kind of political work that college students are routinely scolded for neglecting.

She is one of ten student organizer interns hired by Food and Water Watch, the group responsible for coordinating tomorrow’s march, and a member of the regional organizing team for PowerShift Northeast. Liz has spent the past several weeks traveling through the region, recruiting other students to attend the weekend’s activities, and arranging transportation for those who agree to come. She tells me that a major target has been campus Green clubs: she has traveled to several in search of students willing to turn up in Philadelphia today.

Liz tells me that she thinks of climate change as a unity issue, one that speaks to the future of the whole planet, regardless of one’s “identity marker.” “I’m from the South Pacific,” she tells me, “so the focus I have is pretty different from a lot of the people I’m talking to.” Still, she has noticed that when she explains what climate change will do to her family and community, it gets people to open up, to share their own concerns, and vitally, to ask what they can do.

In other words, she is the first step in what is frequently called “political education” by some sectors of the left, the process by which young people are brought into a movement, moved from frustration and a desire to act to a capacity to do so, to organize themselves and others effectively and outside the ordinary channels of power.

After all this effort, Liz will come out of college with more experience in the work of political organizing than her more affluent peers, who nonetheless managed to secure lucrative internships on Capitol Hill. She will understand better than most policy makers how policy can be influenced at the local level.

What she will not get is the headlines earned by every other Ivy Leaguer engaged in some parody of activism, or a human-interest story about how hard it is to support the likely next president of the United States while enrolled at Harvard University. She will not be held up by any critic who has made a career rolling their eyes at “campus activism” as an argument for the notion that students should sometimes be taken seriously.

As it happens, this is what is typically referred to as erasure. In this case, the vanishing act is two-fold. Organizers like Liz; like the leadership of PowerShift Network, which is entirely under thirty and half people of color; and like the registrants at the Philadelphia gathering, over half of whom are women, 20 percent of whom are queer or trans, and 35 percent of whom are people of color—these are not the people who count in the tale of the most progressive platform ever. (If they did, they would have credentials.) To the extent that they and other agitators are acknowledged to exist at all—that is to say, as an abstraction—they are erased again: the prevailing fashion of the past year would make them bros, aggrieved white men with the luxury to contradict a notionally left-wing party’s stated commitment to a sustainable world. 

It is not that the sensible press is unconcerned with erasure. It is, and they say so all the time. But for them, it is a phenomenon largely confined to the billing of Hollywood films.

When Sunday comes, around one hundred students in yellow shirts leave Temple and chant down the street to the subway. They chant in the station and on the train, and when they emerge at City Hall, it is into an enormous crowd, five thousand at least, that fills the square in front of the building and goes around the curb onto the next street. There are all kinds of different chanting now, and the sound bounces back and forth against the tall buildings that enclose the corner.

The March itself is just over a mile, to Independence Hall, and it is as slow going as any march, and slower still because it is over ninety degrees outside and the police responsible for stopping traffic along the route are on bicycle. Groups stay together: the PowerShift Network is near the middle, and down the line are decades worth of climate movement trends: pipeline protests, anti-fracking signs, posters for Bernie, posters for Stein, Philadelphia groups and national groups and an indigenous people’s march, Green Peace and U.S. Climate Plan, and an assortment of allied left-wing organizers too: People for Bernie, Democracy Now!, and National Nurses United.

There is even some press here, a few reporters and photographers and video cameras. When we at long last reach Independence Hall, a plaza that’s nearly full well before the tail end of the march arrives, we see why: MSNBC, their convention coverage tent just across the street, has the march up on b-roll.

The caption: “Democrats gear up for their convention in Philadelphia.”

The commentary: “What’s going on just across the street here is pretty remarkable.” Then they cut to commercial. When they return, it is time for a phone interview with a Trump surrogate: What does Donald really think about religious freedom?

The protest, after all, is just a spectacle. It is part of the ordinary pageantry of conventions—good footage to show viewers at home that democracy is happening. Democrats prepare for their convention in Philadelphia! What are all these people out here for? Democracy, we assume. The b-roll reel pans over a man with a handmade sign: “This is an emergency. Act like it!” But they don’t. Clean energy now is not part of The Conversation for the week.

What would the conversation be, at any rate? It’s great to see people participating in the process, or, these young people are inspiring. Then, a reminder that, really, the official Democratic Party Platform has taken an unpredicted, aggressive line on the environment that ought to please them, so what, precisely, are they demanding? If the past year is any guide, it will not include a reminder that the presidential nominee of that same party has gone out of her way to emphasize that the platform is not “her plan.” Her plan calls for more sensible, market-based solutions.

PowerShift and the Energy Action Coalition say they will continue their approach to organizing, with several regional conferences planned over the following months. “We came to the DNC to acknowledge the importance of electoral timelines,” Avila told me. “But climate change, obviously, requires building for the long term.”

Meanwhile, drought conditions persist in California.

Meanwhile, lyme disease is spreading with the weather.

Meanwhile, five islands in the South Pacific have just slipped into the sea.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention is about to begin, and as the party and the press chatter with themselves on this Sunday afternoon, they ask the big question: Is it really fair to sideline Debbie Wasserman Schultz when it’s just playing into Putin’s Bernie dead-ender hands?

Emmett Rensin is a writer based in Iowa City, as well as a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. @emmettrensin

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