You may have seen the interview with Svitlana on Democracy Now! last November, “‘Fossil Fuels Fund Dictatorships’: Ukrainian Climate Activist Suspended from COP27 over Russia Protest.” Svitlana was thrown out of the COP27 Climate Summit in Egypt in November 2022 after confronting the Russian delegation. In the video Democracy Now! that shows Svitlana confronting the Russians, the man in the purple jacket also being removed at the end of the video of the confrontation is Jason Kirkpatrick, who in the 1990s was a member of the first majority Green city council in the US as the vice mayor of Arcata, California. Jason, who as been working in the Green and climate movements in Europe for many years, is the communications manager for Razom We Stand.
We gathered at the south end of Central Park at 6th Avenue with climate activists from 350.org and other climate groups and Ukraine solidarity activists from the Ukraine Solidarity Network and the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign.
Climate and Ukraine solidarity activists supporting Svitlana Romanko
The 1000 leaflets we printed were far too few for what the organizers and media like AP are saying was 75,000 marchers. Organizers had publicly been low-balling their expectations, saying 10,000 were expected, even though they knew they already had about 10,000 booked on busses coming for the march. They were hoping for 20,000. 75,000, or whatever it really was, far exceeded expectations and made it by far the largest climate action since the Covid pandemic set in. So the leaflets were quickly disbursed.
While the climate and Ukraine solidarity activists handed out the leaflets in different parts of the march, Svitlana had been asked by the organizers to march in the Indigenous contingent at the very front of the march and asked me to accompany her to help carry the signs and banner. So Svitlana and I lined up at 51st St. and Broadway. She was well-received. One Native American came up to inquire about her traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt and when she realized Svitlana was from Ukraine, she said “Yes! Land Back!” invoking the slogan Indigenous peoples around the world have been using since it was introduced in North America in 2018. One sad parallel is the genocidal abduction of Native American children to boarding schools where mass graves have been uncovered in recent years and the abduction of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia from the occupied territories during the current war.
Many of the Indigenous climate activists already knew Svitlana, such as Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, the only person who spoke at both the opening and closing rallies.
Svitlana with Mary Robinson, former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist.
A lot of other people recognized Svitlana, such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein who were covering the march as journalists. McKibben and Klein knew and supported Svitlana as board members of 350.org. I got to thank Klein for her new book, Doppelganger, with which I was half done. The book explores how, why, and what to do about progressive-minded people who have gone down conspiracy rabbit holes about everything from Covid vaccines to the Kremlin’s narratives about Ukraine to end up allied with the far right on those questions. I highly recommend the book.
Bill McKibben published this picture of us in his Crucial Year’s newsletter Monday morning after the march, noting Svitlana’s presence: “I saw an endless number of colleagues and friends. Rev Lennox Yearwood and Antonique Smith of the Hip Hop Caucus were on hand, and so—all the way from Ukraine—was Svitlana Romanko, who readers of this newsletter helped so powerfully with their advocacy for Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom.”
We also took some other pictures of Svitlana with Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein:
Of course, I was not so recognizable. One who did recognize me was a fellow Teamster, Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808, with whom I’ve worked on some labor, civil rights, and electoral actions over the years and who spoke at the closing rally. I had organized a speaking event in 2013 for him and Colia Clark in Syracuse to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He had got me before his union’s leadership for an endorsement meeting in 2014, but the leadership decided to go with the Working Families Party endorsement of Andrew Cuomo, which was formally to happen the next day but about which the leaders had already been informed by WFP leadership before its “democratic” convention. I’ll have more to day about this kind of politics below when I discuss the larger politics of the march.
One of the people in the Indigenous contingent was from the Pacific Islands nation of Tonga, who I recognized from the traditional mens wrap called a lava-lava that he was wearing. I happen to have grown up with Tongans in my community in California, lived in Tonga for three months in 1973, and learned to speak the language. So I was able to converse for a few minutes with him in Tongan. Fortunately, his English was better than my rusty Tongan and he could fill in the gaps.
A big highlight of my day was running into another person who recognized me, Maria Paz Ordonez, an Ecuadoran activist who had canvassed for our Green Party gubernatorial campaign in 2014 while she was a student at the SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry school in Syracuse. She was marching next to us with several of her Ecuadoran Indigenous sisters who were leaders in the successful referendum last month to ban oil drilling in the Yasuní National Forest in the Amazon basin where Indigenous people live. It was gratifying to see one of our past campaign volunteers doing such important and effective work.
With Ecuadoran climate activist Maria Paz Ordonez
I can’t say we reached most marchers with a climate-linked Ukraine solidarity message. Among the Indigenous activists where Svitlana was marching there was already a lot understanding and solidarity. But our signage and leaflets were largely swallowed up in the 75,000 strong march. We did get some media. Besides his Crucial Years mention, Bill McKIbben told Svitlana he would call her for a quote for an article in the New Yorker he was writing about Climate Week. Svitlana got an op-ed in Common Dreams on Tuesday, September 19: “US Sanctions on Russian LNG: A Vital Step for Climate Action.”
Being at the very front, I was able to hear the speeches at both the opening rally/news conference on 52nd St. & Broadway at the beginning and at the concluding rally at the end, which was on the street and hard for marchers blocks away to hear.
I couldn’t see the opening rally speeches. I stayed with the Razom We Stand signs on 51st St. while Svitlana went back to see the opening rally held on a small stage at 52nd St. and Broadway. But I could hear much of what they said. The speakers included Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-NY), Sharon Lavigne (Cancer Alley activist), Mary Robinson (former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), Cornel West, Susan Sarandon, Peter Kalmus (NASA climate scienist) and Vanessa Nakate (Ugandan climate activist). Democracy Now! ran excerpts of some of these speeches on its September 18 program, but not from Cornel West. But here is a recording of his speech that invoked his Christian radical tradition to fight fossil fuels and corporate greed.
I never saw Cornel. He marched with the faith leaders contingent that started a couple blocks back at 53rd and Broadway. He tweeted about his participation in that contingent. His campaign also issued a press release about his participation in Climate Week.
The closing rally was in the street. I understand from people in the Green contingent who were blocks back from the front that there was a megatron carrying the rally, but they could not hear well what was said. Here’s a little report from the front. The MC announced that she was “a proud member of the Working Families Party.” That was irritating to me, of course. The Greens are always told we cannot speak because we are a political party and the sponsors are non-profits. Then when we complain that they have Democrats speaking, they say that’s different because they are elected officials. When we offer elected Green officials, they say that’s different, too, because they are local elected officials, not state or federal. But I was not surprised by the WFP shout-out after seeing all the people marshaling the march and final rally wearing the t-shirts of Make the Road, NY Communities for Change, and Citizen Action, which are non-profits affiliated with WFP. Yes, Cornel West did get to speak at the opening rally, but he was not presented as a Green presidential candidate, but as a faith leader and put in that contingent.
While much of the signage provided by the organizers focused on the nominal demands on the federal government of this “March to End Fossil Fuels” — Stop approvals of new fossil fuel projects, Stop fossil fuel drilling on public lands, Declare a climate emergency, Provide a just transition — few speakers discussed the demands. Or raised demands on the UN Climate Ambitions Summit coming up on Wednesday, which is why the march ended near the UN. The speeches were mostly general exhortations for action and self-congratulatory cheerleading for the good turnout.
Alexandrea Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke at the closing rally and epitomized the politics of the march leaders. She called on us to be an “electoral and popular force that cannot be ignored.” She boasted that her first bill introduced in 2019 was the “Green New Deal, which demanded a 10-year timeline.” She didn’t say what the 10-year timeline was for exactly. Actually, her GND legislation called for a 31-year deadline for “net zero” (not real zero) emissions by 2050, which was one of many retreats from what the Green Party’s Green New Deal had advocated as our signature issue over the previous decade. That legislation was a non-binding resolution that has never been voted on in Congress.
“Since then,” AOC continued, “we have organized and hit some milestones. Here in New York, organizers won commitments for 100% renewables by 2040. We’ve made sure new buildings will be fully electric, ensured that not only will new energy be renewable, but it will be available as public, democratically controlled goods for our most vulnerable communities.” Of course, 2040 is not a 10-year deadline and that deadline is for power generation, not the whole economy. And new renewable energy will not necessarily be public. The Build Public Renewables Act as passed deleted the clause that gave the New York Power Authority the right of first offer and refusal for any Request for Proposals (RFPs) for new renewable energy projects. NYPA would have had to turn down a project before private companies could do it. Now, NYPA can only do it if the private sector decides it is not profitable. That’s what’s known as Lemon Socialism. That clause was deleted at the insistence of the Democratic Party leadership, which is indentured to private industry. AOC seemed to imply that the NY Utility Democracy Act also passed, which it didn’t. That bill would have converted all power distribution utilities into public power utilities controlled by democratically-elected utility boards.
Instead of exhorting us to demand more, AOC was boasting about what “we” had done. Without directly saying so, the implicit “we” was progressive Democrats. All of this reminds me of advice Howard Zinn once gave to the anti Iraq war movement when much of it was backing Democrats as the lesser-evil pro-war party instead of voicing its demand for immediate withdrawal on Democrats and Republicans alike: “When a social movement adopts the compromises of legislators, it has forgotten its role, which is to push and challenge the politicians, not to fall in meekly behind them….Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable.” (“Are We Politicians or Citizens?” The Progressive, May 1, 2007)
No speaker in this march called for socialization of the fossil fuel industry (although Cornel West did in his press release). No speaker talked about the need to replace capitalism’s drives for blind growth and the externalization of environmental costs with the democratic planning for sustainability in the eco-socialist alternative. It would be great if marches like this were calling for a public takeover of the fossil fuel industry and an eco-socialist alternative. But the broad climate movement at this point, like the broad progressive side of the political spectrum, is more focused on making demands on the power structure than restructuring the power.
That is why we need the Green Party.
— Howie Hawkins