A certain energy radiated through the streets of Upper West Side on Sunday, Sept. 21. Impassioned activists were descending upon The People’s Climate March from across the nation. Columbus Circle was the starting point and marchers stretched more than thirty blocks up Central Park West. AP reports total attendance around 310,000, far exceeding organizer’s expectations of 100,000. Among the attendees were celebrity activists Leonardo Dicaprio and Mark Ruffalo, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Al Gore (known for his 2006 documentary on the climate crisis), and Mayor Bill De Blasio (who came directly from his announcement of new environmental standards for The City).
The feeling in the air certainly carried the weight of a historic event. One woman parading around the students section before the march commenced bragged about having attended the 1963 March on Washington, and compared the two events. At first this may seem like a premature comparison, however, viewing such an event in the context of historic movements that preceded it can aid in understanding its possible long-term effects.
In the 1960’s, a generation known for civil unrest and mass protest, public demonstrations led to the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, eventually, the U.S. withdrawal from the quagmire in Vietnam. By contrast, in the modern world, where our personal gadgets are central to our lives and where people have exceedingly more control over the media content they choose to view, public demonstration seems to have a diminished influence over the course of events.
The morning of August 29, 1963, the day after The March on Washington, Americans across the country were confronted with the news on the front page of every daily paper. Regardless of their position on civil rights, Americans were forced to process the information and have some sort of reaction to it. However, on the morning of September 22, 2014, the day after The People’s Climate March, home pages of most news websites did not even feature the event. In fact, USA Today’s homepage had a bright red breaking news banner pertaining to Apple’s iPhone sales and nothing regarding The March. Bear in mind that the attendance for The People’s Climate March exceeded that of The March on Washington by over 100,000 people, yet few people out of the New York area seemed to know it happened.
In the age of technology, every individual can be a journalist, broadcasting events on their various social media accounts. Paradoxically, the very websites and institutions that we believe are connecting us seem to be barriers to societal engagement. The vast range of options provided to us—from the many Twitter accounts we may follow to the seemingly endless spectrum of cable programming—provide people the choice to avoid consuming news they are disinterested in. As a result, our journalistic institutions have incentive to headline stories that are less controversial. By headlining iPhone sales, USA Today was able to draw people to their homepage without evoking an emotional response based on viewer’s political preference. Instead of being confronted with the important news, readers must be predisposed to click on the politics section to find it. Therefore, individuals with established political preferences are more likely to come upon the story than the impressionable undecided population whose votes may shape the course of history.
With time waning and the extant global warming crisis looming, the time for urgency is now. Polls show an alarming contingent of the American public is either unconcerned or skeptical about global warming. Despite this massive obstacle, The March on Washington taught us that activists do have the power to change public opinion. That is why public demonstrations like these matter. Because without a central medium for demonstrators to be seen far and wide, democracy is all but lost.
This article originally appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of The Pace Press.