NYC Climate Demo: Top 5 Massive Rallies that had no Effect

By Juan Cole

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for demonstrating and admire everyone who came out in New York City on Sunday (some 400,000 according to Time magazine) to demand that world leaders deal urgently with climate change.

But I just do have to point out that holding large rallies doesn’t always result in political change. It is by organizing at the district level, walking neighborhoods, and putting pressure on those running for Congress that we would get real legislative change. Some activists are such purists that they sniff at giving political contributions. Likewise, disinvestment from oil and gas companies is a great symbolic gesture but it doesn’t stop global warming.

More actual carbon would be taken out of the atmosphere if all homeowners put solar panels on their roofs and get an electric car.

In the end, a single-issue Climate PAC, if well-funded, would make far more difference than standing in the street. Much climate action will have to be done or coordinated by politicians, and at the moment most of those in Washington are owned by Big Oil, including by the Koch brothers.

Here are some very large rallies that were ignored for all practical purposes:

1. On February 15, 2003, several hundred thousand demonstrated in New York and London against the building Iraq War. The police chief of NYC played them down as only 100,000. The Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq a little over a month later.

2. Nov. 15, 1969 half a million people gathered in Washington DC to protest the Vietnam War. Nixon and Kissinger deliberately prolonged it until 1973.

3. On January 27, 1991, some 75,000 protesters rallied in Washington, DC, against the Gulf War. The Gulf War nevertheless continued to be prosecuted, ending on 28 February after Iraqi tanks fled the capital (many were massacred from the air by the US Air Force as they tried to flee.)

4. Some 100,000 demonstrated in Madison, Wisconsin, against the plan of Gov. Scott Walker to remove bargaining rights from public sector workers. Walker’s actions were upheld this summer.

5. On Nov. 18, 2011, thousands of Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in NYC and other cities to protest the lack of accountability for big banks and investment firms who had caused the 2008-2009 economic meltdown. It is still the case that almost no one was prosecuted despite clear signs of illegality, and fines have been a slap on the wrist.

Having marches and promoting divestment are great activities and build esprit de corps in the movement. But if people hold a big demonstration and go home, it has no effect. The next stage has to be competing for our Congress representatives and senators against entrenched and very wealthy hydrocarbon industries. The gerrymandering that has produced a structural Republican majority in the House means that climate activists need to find GOP challengers who are deeply concerned about global warming and who are willing to primary the incumbent.


ANTIWAR PROTEST IN NEW YORK : Half a million protesters

34 Responses

  1. The failure of demonstrations is symptomatic of the failure of democracy without separation of private money from elections and mass media.

    The public already knows the case on the climate issue but nothing is done by either party because that means inconvenience to the wealthy. What is needed is awareness of the obstacle, which is oligarchy, not awareness of the issue. Perhaps every generation must dash itself against the rocks to realize that it has no effect, but it achieves nothing else.

    Fruitless demonstrations are a tool of opponents of progressives: they waste resources, create divisions among progressives, and divert attention from critical issues. The climate issue is trotted out by the media to distract public attention from the immediate issues: in this case the massive corruption of US government, as shown in the Mideast and Ukraine.

    Progressives who criticize diversion of attention to an apple pie issue lose support for the critical issues of the time. And competition with less immediate issues dilutes or divides progressive effort. During the Vietnam war, anti-war demonstrations were generally pursued by gay rights demonstrations, convincing the public that real men support war and oppose communism. The tag-along groups did enormous damage, but few could risk criticizing them.

    It is time to limit the climate issue to occasional awareness articles and college demonstrations. Major public demonstrations should be reserved for the root causes of all our woes: the influence of economic concentrations upon elections and mass media.

  2. Juan Cole is probably a bit too young and a bit too removed from the Vietnam antiwar movement but it was the mass demonstrations that had the effect of fomenting a rebellious attitude in the ranks of GI’s in Indochina that made continuing the war impossible. For example, troops would vote on whether to take part in an action when they weren’t “fragging” their officers. In terms of the impact of yesterday’s action, you have to understand it dialectically. Mass actions spur local organizing, just as was the case during the Vietnam antiwar movement. Finally, with respect to a PAC, that would be an exercise in futility since by definition any elected official in Washington is beyond reach at this point. Corporate power is absolute, at least in the political arena. We need a radical party to challenge the 2-party system, not PAC’s to influence those who are in the back pocket of Exxon, BP, and the coal companies.

    • The anti-war movement of the ’60s came after a period of long complacent. That and civil rights drove a huge multi-issue ‘alternative’ movement. It was fresh, now all those single movements are institutionalized through who the media believes ‘represents’ blacks, women, etc.

    • And yet Nixon got the vote of 2 out of every 3 Americans in 1972.

      I have wondered if ordinary Americans hadn’t already decided by ’67 that Vietnam itself was a bad investment. (I’m certain the Army decided that by Feb ’68 based on the death figures, before troops began voting on whether to fight) But they hung on grimly to avoid admitting defeat to a youth movement they feared far more than they did actual Communists. Crushing nonconformance was the real war they wanted Nixon to wage, and he did.

      And of course, those old bastards have been getting revenge on the left ever since.

  3. I would include the Bonus March, but obviously that had one effect, catalyzing the resolve of the Elite to keep mopes from successfully petitioning for redress of grievances… link to

    Naw, stuff like that couldn’t wouldn’t never happened here…

  4. Now people just send off a tweet and think they’ve accomplished something. And all the angry poets have been psycho-medicated into compulsive harmony. –bks

  5. A useful reminder, but the environmental crisis is different. With, say, the 2003 Iraq war, decisions by the US government could be implemented regardless of the demonstrations, and once implemented the largely volunteer base of the military and relatively low casualties insulated the conflict. The environmental crisis will threaten us all, at first capriciously, then generally. It is inescapable. Already it is shaping our sense of the future, e.g. conservative acquaintances of mine worry about their children. This isn’t to urge complacency, but rather optimism.

  6. Too many people haven’t realized that it isn’t the Sixties anymore. Demonstrations aren’t novel or newsworthy. When your main media sources are owned by the wealthy and big corporations, it’s easy to just downplay or even ignore those weird folks walking down the middle of the street in the city center, where few people live or are out on the streets. If a demonstration takes place and it isn’t in the news, did it really happen?

    And what’s with the “demonstration”? What are they “demonstrating”? Their frustration? What I would appreciate, and I’m probably not alone in this, is concrete and definite information on what I can do about the problem.

    * Is there a local or regional lobbying group that I can join?
    * Are there template letters that I can send to Congress, and how do you contact those people, anyway?
    * What are some technological or behavioral solutions, and how can I promote them to my elected representatives?
    * What ameliatory measures can I adopt that aren’t totally trivial (like unplugging your TV when it’s turned off to save microvolts!!!!), and will encourage the neighbors to adopt them, the retailers to sell them, and the manufacturers to make and promote them?

    For me, just strutting down the street with inflamatory signs doesn’t cut it. It’s what they do the next day, and the day after that, and the years after that, that matters. The “march” is just vanity.

    • Your first two suggestions would probably be more effective if local lobbying groups all over the nation engaged in civil disobedience (such as blocking main streets in downtown areas) and instead of sending letters to Congress local citizens held sit-ins at the offices of federal and state politicians.

      • Thanks, Mr. Bodden! I just read similar sentiments over on The Rude Pundit’s blog (

        Today Democracy Now! ( covered the big march, and some of the folks interviewed mentioned that they had worked hard for 8 months to organize it. Eight months! Imagine if they had spent all that time, energy, and money in getting a better Congress, instead of a big vanity parade.

  7. If our democratic system had not been bought by monied interests, if we had a genuine participatory democracy, then I suppose there would be no need for demonstrations in the streets. But as recent polling has shown, congress and the powers that be are completely unresponsive to the will of the majority of the people. If you want access in Washington, you have to have money–lots of it.

    Faced with this situation, what are we to do? Sit home and be ignored? Further, as Mr. Proyect pointed out, large demonstrations can help local organizing, can bring together a broad range of activists who would not otherwise have contact and, with appropriate media coverage, can show like minded people that they are not alone, that there are large numbers who share their views. These things are all valuable to any movement for social justice.

    Finally, it is clear that in addressing climate change, we address multiple ills in our society, including the tremendous waste of resources caused by the pursuit of war. We have long needed a political movement that ties together the various threads of what is wrong with our society and shows how they are interelated. Climate change has the potential to do that.

    • Just making an organization in your city and a PAC, and meeting with your congressional representative, would have an enormous impact.

      • As I said, “If our democratic system had not been bought by monied interests…” But it has been. It takes enormouns amounts of money to run for federal office these days–quite beyond the resources of average citizens. And meeting with congress people is generally a waste of time unless you can pay the piper. Do you really think environmental activists have not lobbied congress before? Of course they have, but they are being grossly outspent by corporate oligarchs. This is why making PACs and meeting with reps is not enough.

        • Not that I entirely disagree with your statements on the importance of money, but last I heard, elections are still won by the candidates that get the most VOTES.

          You may not be able to be a Koch-size contributor, but you can vote, and you can mobilize your friends, neighbors, and associates to vote. “When Democrats vote, Democrats win” is one of the more encouraging slogans for Get Out The Vote efforts. (Replace “Democrats” with the party of your choice, of course.)

          Oh, and this (9/23) is National Voter Registration Day. You can’t vote if you’re not registered.

  8. As an activist since the Southern Freedom Movement of the early sixties forward in many social justice causes I fault Juan Cole for an apparent lack of understanding of the way in which grassroots organizing can build mass demonstrations and in which, in their turn, mass demo can build power focused on the key demands of grassroots organizing. I fault the Climate Change March for its lack of making highly visible those several key agreed demands. It’s much to be desired to be radically inclusive and to bring a wide spectrum of social groups together–but it is essential as well to build focus on a limited agreed set of political demands as was done in the case of the 1963 March on Washington, the1968 Poor Peoples Campaign, the cited 1969 Vietnam Mobilization, the April Actions and Contra-war demos in the 1980s, and so forth, in numerous cases where there have been succinct demands associated with base-level built mass actions. These have not always born immediate results, but they can be seen as stemming from months and sometimes years of base-level organizing and as returning energy and momentum to that same organizing focused on a cohesive set of demands. It is this process that in most cases led to concrete social change.

  9. One of the more absurd assemblies of people occurred several years ago. If I recall correctly it was “Hands Across America” to raise money to combat hunger. It reportedly raised about $100K. There was another report that the rally cost about $100K.

    I suspect in many cases these assemblies are “events” that are something for some people to “do.”

  10. Don’t know how many were in NY, but there were well over a million in London on the big Iraq march – 2 million in the UK as a whole. It stopped the Iran war dead in it’s tracks, and stoppped Cameron from arming ISIS last year.

  11. Forty percent of the total carbon footprint of a petroleum powered car is manufacture, tires, required road maintenance, and disposal at the end of life. All of this applies to electric cars too. Electric cars have the added issue of the rare earth materials required to make batteries.

    One more very important transportation option you forgot to mention is bicycling. While bicycles also have a carbon foot print associated with manufacture, tires, roadways, and disposal too, they represent a fraction of the cost of a car. How many bike tires can be made from the synthetic rubber in one car tire? Probably at least 100.

    • The forty percent figure is incorrect. As the factories become themselves wind and solar powered, the carbon footprint from making the cars shrinks. Likewise if you run them off your own solar panels, their footprint shrinks to almost nothing. If you keep them a long time you amortize the production carbon costs. And there is no reason we can’t make better batteries over time, and then recycle them for household storage of solar power. Look, there are 250 million cars on the American road and the system is set up for cars. Transitioning will require electric cars. We’ve only got 20 or 30 years to do this guys, and it isn’t practical for all those suburbanites to bicycle. If every single new car buyer went electric it would cut our carbon production enormously.

  12. Bob Spencer

    Yup! How would the political pressure change if 50% of fossil fuels were displaced by solar and wind and even wood pellets? What if the effort taken for making speeches and marching were put into promoting clean energy ventures, businesses and organizations? Probably local efforts and local steering committees could make incremental achievements that will add up quicker than anticipated.

    A smart monk once told me to stop flailing away at bad people and start building something that will last after I leave the scene.

    “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch; it’s a cinch.”

  13. There are good ideas here. Perhaps I am less informed despite being an engineer, but I am surprised that in forty years of high awareness so little emphasis has been put upon realistic conservation measures like:
    1. Incentivising population movement to energy efficient moderate-climate regions;
    2. Incentivizing movement of employers to transportation hubs rather than suburbs;
    3. Converting major roads to compact limited-access 35mph connectors to avoid start-stop driving and use of inefficient highspeed roads (average commute speed is 35 despite fast roads, and consumption rises rapidly at higher speeds);
    4. Tax penalties for inefficient and under-occupied vehicles;
    5. Free insulation and tax penalties for conditioned space in excess of occupant needs;
    Until mass media and politicians create sufficient incentives, the inconvenience of conservation is prohibitive. The incentives at 10K per family would have cost far less than the Iraq war, and create far greater economic stimulus and far fewer enemies. If we can print money to bail out scamming banks, we can afford conservation any time.

  14. Yes, march. Yes, lobby your representatives every chance you get. But yes, do something, anything to advance the issue every day. That can be changing lightbulbs, weatherstripping a window or door, writing a letter to the editor (musician Warren Senders has been writing a LtE every day for about the last three years). Daily activity towards a climate goal is a necessity, especially for a strategy of non-violence. We need a solar swadeshi, an analogue to the spinning wheel that Gandhi turned an hour each day to illustrate how swadeshi, local production, can deepen political commitment and help build a non-violent economy, his ultimate goal (and one that we’ve lost sight of).

    • M. L. King had the same goal, and the same fate. We ordinary people need to start providing some better security for our saints…

  15. I agree with Juan on this one. Organized and well funded local and national (D.C.) lobbying and grass roots organizing will get the most bang the quickest.

    • It’s sure worked pretty good for the “conservatives” who have just been busily “conserving” the substance of life as it used to be… working busily away at the local level and in the Koch-houses in state capitals, packing the school boards and other places where the smaller cams attached to the levers of real power are pivoted…

  16. Probably a better use of time would be to organize people to help insulate older houses. I was able to reduce my fuel oil consumption by 30%. I really didn’t do it because of global warming. I did because it saved me 900 dollars per year.

    • But if you put in insulation as I did and then you also get solar panels, as I did, and you get an electric car, as I did, you will over time save thousands of dollars a year and also save the planet.

  17. Does the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom count? How about the Selma to Montgomery marches?

    Dr. Cole’s point is well taken. It may say more about the the nature of our government as “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” and the capitalist corporate media than it does about the people participating in the march.

    There’s a whole range of issues, e.g., expanding Social Security benefits that the majority of US citizens support and yet that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of happening regardless of which party controls congress and the executive branch.

    It’s worth noting the NYDaily News’ take on the march. They highlighted the participation of celebrities Leo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Edward Norton. They gave short shrift to the reasons for the march or its popularity. Compare this with the emphasis and repetition they give to war, war and more war.

  18. Juan, you call for a well-funded “single-issue Climate PAC.” I’ve just launched one with a brilliant psychologist, Margaret Klein. It’s called The Climate Mobilization and it’s based on a one-page pledge document that calls on the federal government to eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions at wartime speed through a WWII-scale economic mobilization. There are more specific demands within, but that’s the basic gist of it. If you sign the pledge, you commit to spreading it your friends and family and voting for candidates who have signed it over those who have not. We would be honored if you signed the pledge, as well as your readers. It can be found here:

  19. Before Occupy, wealth and wage disparity were virtually never mentioned by mainstream media or mainstream politicians. One heard it mentioned as much as overpopulation is mentioned now, that is to say, kind of never. Occupy put both the term for and the concept of a measurable general wealth inequality into the national consciousness, not just among academics, but also among common people. Occupy may not have won any wars, but this was a considerable and useful achievement.

  20. “More actual carbon would be taken out of the atmosphere if all homeowners put solar panels on their roofs and get an electric car. ” Well, err, no. The carbon emissions could be curtailed at least three-fold if you put THERMAL solar panels on your roof, as that yields at least three times the energy, which can also be stored, by the way. It does not destabilize the grid and therefore not require stand-by fossil power plants to cruise at sub-optimal levels which has so far led to solar “power” increasing the CO2 levels considerably. You are erudite enough, Juan, to understand all this, why do you advocate photovoltaic?

  21. People advocating disinvestment strategies generally fail to realize how the stock markets and equities work which is why they fail to realize divestment is not likely to have a direct financial impact on a corporation. The stock markets are secondary markets–where owners of securities corporations have already sold sell to other owners of securities. Corporations don’t sell stock every day and when they do, it is generally through an underwriter (investment banker) who guarantees a minimum price and volume. A few companies with too much cash on the books self-underwrite.

    Trying to impact a company by driving down their stock price fails to understand how stocks are valued–they tend to think in terms of supply and demand–partly because of bs stock advice published every day (no one can say what a good or bad purchase is other than the market–all prices of actively traded stocks are considered fair prices–there are no good or bad buys and to think in these terms is to speculate rather than to invest).

    Since few corporations have to sell more stock, the only impact that stocks may have on a corporation are on its balance sheets–debt/equity ratios in particular and its shareholders.

    Driving down prices is difficult because the stock market, despite all kinds of baloney to the contrary out there, is not a supply and demand market — this is the principle divide between economics and finance. No where in finance’s stock valuation formulas is there any term related to demand or supply. It is simply a matter of the cash flows a particular security is entitled to receive in the future (infinite or in perpetuity in finance although discounting effectively cuts that down to a horizon of about 40 years.)

    The market is intentionally designed to prevent companies from influencing stock prices by manipulating supply and demand for shares of their stocks. This occurs through arbitrage and derivative securities–without these the markets would not be free (in theory at least and this matters to investors who like to know what investments are really worth). Derivative securities are securities issued on a company but not by the company. Tell me which company you’d like to invest in, and I could sell you my own securities based on that companies securities –these include options and futures.

    Finance deals in long-term prices. It might be possible to drive prices down short-term by dumping shares on the market (divestment–if you can persuade a lot of people to engage in irrational behavior defined as intentionally causing themselves to lose money). This creates an arbitrage opportunity because models based on future profits, not supply and demand for the security, will unanimously agree the price is artificially low. Arbitragers compete to get there first placing very large buy orders (they are skimmers who make lots of money by skimming small profits on large volume). Price will be restored to where it should be–they can do this purchasing actual shares on the market or derivative shares. They only purchase rights to purchase with derivatives–delivery hardly ever happens so they can purchase a larger volume with derivatives and that is what they generally will do and it still impacts the base security value because a derivative agrees to purchase the security in a couple of months. Due to competition, the time window this can occur in is very short. So short that arbitrage people write programs for securities they specialize in that will automatically place orders under certain conditions to either make money or prevent losses on existing portfolios. In a panic, the market will flood with these automated orders and for that reason may suspend trading–this is not new since computer trading–it is an older problem that occurs in nanoseconds rather than minutes or hours as in the Great Depression panic. When panics occur, derivative securities most often get the blame –the real concern is poor management–public policy and management, whatever caused the drop in prices.

    Most public companies have a lot of shares worth uninmaginable sums, asking investors to dump their securities to lose their own money for your cause is not really effective.

    What is more effective is to attack the future income of a company by regulation or consumer activism–takes a lot of consumers who actually consumed and agree to stop but there is no mercy for plummeting sales and prices for a companies goods and services. Any credible threat will catch the attention of Wall Street and they will adjust their models accordingly.

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