Our Lunch Counter Moment
“Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.”
-Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners
Rev. Lennox Yearwood, leader of the Hip Hop Caucus and the MC at yesterday’s massive Forward on Climate rally in Washington, D.C., talks all the time about this being the climate movement’s “lunch counter moment.” And, thank God, it looks like he has been prophetic.
“Lunch counter moment” refers to the point in 1960 when the African-American freedom movement took off. It did so when young black people all over the South began sitting in at segregated public lunch counters, refusing to leave until served. For these actions, they were beaten, spat upon, arrested and more by white racists and racist power structures, but their courage and nonviolent direct action galvanized a south-wide and then national movement which, five years later, forced the federal government to pass a Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act outlawing legal segregation.
Without this movement, Barack Obama would never have been President. Much more importantly, without it we would not have seen the end of 1950’s McCarthyism, the rise of a powerful anti-war movement, women’s movement, environmental movement, lgbt movement and more.
The climate movement’s lunch counter moment: what was it about Feb. 17 in DC which makes it realistically possible that history will record this action as the launching pad for the “yes, we did,” massive popular movement which literally pulled human society back from the cliff of looming, catastrophic climate disruption?
Numbers: Size is sometimes important, and it definitely was yesterday. All the main organizers expected tens of thousands, but I don’t think too many expected 40,000 to 50,000. Especially given the incredibly cold weather, this was a huge accomplishment for our movement.
Determination: It was really cold yesterday, with a wind chill that had to be around 10 degrees at times when that wind whipped across the mall, and it did so often. Yet the crowd kept growing all morning and into the early afternoon, and virtually no one left. People could have said, after an hour or two, well, this is important, and I’m glad I came, but I’ve got to get to somewhere warm. IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. For four hours, from 12-4, for some longer, we persevered and, indeed, we stood (and jumped) strong.
Unity: The Sierra Club is to be commended for their courage in calling for this action right after the November election and for the resources which they threw into it, as is 350.org, the Hip Hop Caucus and many of the 168 organizations that both formally supported it and worked hard to mobilize. Despite tensions and differences, the coalition held together and, as a result, yielded the powerful harvest of the day.
Geographic breadth: People were there from all over the country. Over 150 buses came from 30 states, some of them on the road for over 24 hours one-way. And with the 20 or so solidarity rallies mainly in faraway locales, this breadth was magnified.
Diverse Leadership: It was truly refreshing to have Rev. Yearwood MC this rally, clearly in his element, to hear the powerful statements from the Canadian First Nation leaders Chief Jacqueline Thomas and Crystal Lameman, and Van Jones urging young people not to be “chumped,” to demand that Obama follow through and get real both in word and action on climate. Although the crowd did not have the full diversity needed, it is important that the surging climate movement is supporting and bringing forward leadership coming out of communities of color on this issue.
Not just the pipeline: The tar sands Keystone XL pipeline was the prime issue that brought this effort together, but it was much more. It was a vision of a future where our energy sources are clean, renewable and democratically controlled by the people, not dirty fossil fuel, corporate honchos. It is a vision which opposes all of the extreme energy extraction industrial processes: mountaintop removal, oil drilling in the Arctic ocean and in deep water offshore, fracking, as well as tar sands. Everyone understands that victory on the pipeline is just the first step, the turning point, towards what we urgently need.
Multi-tactical: Finally, it was striking to experience the activities which took place in the week leading up to February 17. It began with a civil disobedience action on Wednesday, close to 50 people locking themselves to the White House fence, highlighted by Sierra Club leader Mike Brune taking part, the first time in their 120-year history that they have done so. The next day, with Bill McKibben and Mike Brune there to offer words of support, US Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer publicly announced their introduction of a “gold standard’ fee-and-dividend bill that Boxer hopes will go to the floor of the Senate this summer. And then came yesterday’s massive demonstration.
The students who sat in at the lunch counters in February of 1960 and who then formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, were clear that to defeat segregation they would need to engage in essentially non-stop organizing and action. Today’s climate movement must do the same, and more need to figure out how they can do more on a personal level. We need to step up nationally coordinated actions at the scale of the problem, this year, this spring. “Affairs are now soul size.”