Earth Day Gets #Occupied

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

This Earth Day weekend, #Occupy Wall Street loosed a series of colorful environmental protests; the movement aimed to push back against a ritual that it views as neutered and grossly commercialized. To some, it was a return to the sort of grassroots activism that marked the original Earth Day.

On Saturday, OWS staged a 'melt-in' at Grand Central Station. That's where New York City holds its official Earth Day festivities; there are booths for various green product vendors, organic food stands, and a series of talks sponsored by Toshiba, ConEd, and others.

But the planned action began in the middle of Grand Central itself, where a couple dozen protesters spontaneously collapsed to the floor in the middle of the main concourse. They were immediately swarmed by police, and warned that they'd be arrested if they didn't stand up—typical of Occupy actions these days, there was at least one officer present for every protester, and many were decked out in full-on riot gear. A few tourists snapped photos with their iPhones as commuters hustled by.

Back on their feet, the protesters rallied and began bellowing a few of the movement's best-known chants. Inside the cavernous halls, the small throng sounded more like a Gregorian mob. They moved just outside the concourse, where they disrupted a panel talk, denouncing its corporate ties and naming Toshiba in a cycle of chants. The group then marched through the series of booths and vendors, to cheers and applause from participants (along with 'thumbs down' and a scolding head shake or two from less sympathetic passersby).

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

The protest was small and brief, but the organizers said they considered it a success. There were no arrests.

The next day, Earth Day proper, #Occupiers prepared for action they'd named the 'Jazz Funeral for the Death of the Earth as we Know It'. It was designed to be a tongue-in-cheek affair, with a live jazz band on hand to sound the tune. A crowd of forty or so occupiers gathered around a BP gas station in downtown Manhattan, in the pouring rain, and intoned about the various ongoing injustices resulting from the Gulf Spill (it was the disaster's two-year anniversary).

Some protesters covered themselves in black makeup, and others carried posters with pictures of oil-soaked wildlife. Imani Brown, a New Orleans native and longtime Occupy organizer, issued a brief polemic against BP, and expounded on the extensive damage done by the spill. Then, the poncho-covered jazz band—boasting trumpet, tuba, and marching drums—began playing a dirge, and the crowd began heading north to Union Square. The band eventually picked up the tempo, and protesters dance/marched up Broadway, turning heads and pulling a small police contingent in tow.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

After a rally at Union Square, where the cluster of dedicated protesters braved increasingly stormy conditions to listen to speakers discuss the less-spotlighted social justice elements of environmentalism—how pollution, waste, climate change all hurt the poor the most—they took off eastward, eventually halting at the Highline. There, the occupiers dropped a banner to protest the proposed Spectra gas pipeline that would pump natural gas obtained from fracking into New York City.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 3.0

All told, it was a promising run in Occupy Wall Street's fledgling campaign to underscore the link between the planet's woes and the 1%. The crowds weren't anywhere near as large as the pre-eviction OWS marches of 2011, but there was a vigor and creativity on display that was enough to inspire hope that Occupy may yet become a powerful force for environmental justice. The spring is young, after all.

Tags: Activism | Earth Day | Occupy Wall Street

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