Great March for Climate Action Activists Demand the World Address the Climate Crisis

Posted Sept. 17, 2014

MP3 Interview with Lee Stewart, climate activist and Great March participant, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Since March 1, about two dozen people have been walking across the country from Santa Monica, California to Washington, D.C., in what they’re calling the Great March for Climate Action, or the Climate March. The action was the brainchild of former Iowa legislator Ed Fallon, and took a full year of planning before marchers began their journey. The stated goal of the Great March is to change the hearts and minds of the American people, elected leaders and people across the world to act now to address the climate crisis. The March seeks to build the broadest possible public consensus and is focused strictly on the climate crisis.

The activists have been joined along the way by another dozen or so marchers at any given time, and as they walk they've been speaking to local media, elected officials, and just regular people. They are due to arrive in the nation’s capital on Nov. 1 and will carry out a week of actions there in an attempt to pressure Congress to take action on climate change.

One of the marchers who is walking coast-to-coast is Lee Stewart, he's in his late 20s and first got involved in climate work in his home state of Virginia. He decided to dedicate eight months of his life to the march, which covers up to 24 miles each day, before activists engage with local communities each night. Here in a conversation with Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus, Stewart describes how the in-person interactions he’s experienced are very different than how the corporate media portrays public sentiment on climate issues. He also explains how the group decided to engage in direct action along the march route.

LEE STEWART: Walking across the country, it doesn't reflect what we see in the corporate media, because everyone is receptive of our message; everyone knows that we need to act on the climate crisis. We have encountered very few climate deniers, and the real question that has been difficult and that has generated a lot of debate is what actions are necessary, and even on this march among the marchers, there are different ideas about what the best path forward is. We try to be very open on the march and to promote a multi-faceted, diverse approach, saying we need everything: we need people working within the political system, pressuring government officials, elected officials, petitions and all of that. And some people say we need more systemic change that's built from the ground up where we really don't rely on the corrupt political system. I think as we go, we are understanding more and more that in order to face the climate crisis and face down the fossil fuel industry and the kind of consumerism that leads to the climate crisis, we're going to have to take extraordinary actions and stop business as usual. That was a view held by a few people at the beginning of the march, and now it's a view that I would say the majority of the march holds.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Lee Stewart, the marchers did a couple of actions around Chicago last week. Tell us about them.

LEE STEWART: We've long been talking about direct action, never really making any decisions. For the Chicago rally, we didn't want it to be a boring rally where people just speak and the crowd just listens. So along the route we planned to do two die-ins, just theatric sort of things at the Board of Trade in Chicago and at the Heartland Institute. What we did is, we went up to the building and declared it a "climate crime scene." And a number of the people who were marching with us laid down on the sidewalk in front and somebody gave a speech and we were holding signs explaining how the Heartland Institute's propagation of climate denial leads to a lot of suffering and will lead to even further suffering. And the same thing at the Board of Trade. So everyone loved that. We felt good that we were doing a little bit more than marching and talking.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I understand you passed a facility that stores pet coke, which is a byproduct of tar sands production, and really dirty.

LEE STEWART: So the next day we were in southeast Chicago, and community groups there – two in particular, the Southeast Environmental Task Force and another group that was focused on banning pet coke. We were working with them and they had a rally. In this community, there is a pet coke storage facility where these piles of sooty pet coke are sitting there, blowing into their communities. So what we were going to do was a small march through the streets of these communities, stop at one of the aldermen's offices and do a few speeches and chants, then go to the storage facility, the KCBX pet coke storage facility and have another die-in. The energy was really amazing; we were happy to be there and meet everyone and learn about the front lines of the climate crisis. We arrived at the storage facility and there were gates and in front of the gates was a train track. And so we decided to do the die-in on the train track and we all laid down and someone started talking and a train started to come. And this thing sort of emerged organically. Several people stood up and noticed the train was coming; it was a single locomotive with nothing attached to it, and it started to slow down, so none of us felt any real danger that it wasn't going to stop. It was clearly slowing down; it was going to stop. The security people told us to get off the tracks, but not very urgently. Some people got off the tracks and just stood right next to them and the train stopped. It didn't want to pass us because it was in danger of hitting some of the people. So we were just chanting No More Pet Coke! again and again, and got back on the tracks and had a small demonstration there right in front of the train which was blaring its horn at us. Apparently, the community had never done an action like that before and they were really energized by it. It was kind of an ice breaker, because they're tired of pet coke making them sick and to see they can actually do something like stop a train gives them a direction forward and gives them the sense that they can plan something to resist what's going on there.

The marchers will be participating in the Sept. 21 People's Climate March in New York City before returning to pick up the march where they left off. Learn more about the Great March for Climate Change at climatemarch.org.

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