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Oakland High School sophomore delivers a speech on biker-powered stage Credit: Jieqian Zhang

Protesters gather at Lake Merritt in support of global climate change rallies

on September 23, 2014

A wide range of speakers, youth activists and local musicians took to a stage at the edge of Lake Merritt’s murky waters this Sunday in Oakland to speak out against climate change at the Northern California People’s Climate Rally.

For three hours, the sounds from the bicycle-powered stage mingled with the excited chatter of more than 4,000 people representing 150 groups from all over the Bay Area that had endorsed the rally. The crowd, which filled the grassy lawn at the outdoor amphitheater, stood in solidarity for a global day of action alongside similar rallies worldwide. The gatherings—the largest of which took place in New York City, with an estimated 300,000 people marching through Manhattan—were held to put pressure on world leaders who will meet for a UN Climate Summit this Tuesday in New York.

The Northern California event was the first climate change rally to take place in Oakland, and the first event of its kind to be held at Lake Merritt. Andrés Soto, who is the Richmond organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, helped organize and emcee the rally. Soto said the turnout far exceeded his expectations. “It provided an opportunity for people who couldn’t be in New York to come out here,” Soto said.

Jeff Mackler, an organizer of the Northern California People’s Climate Rally, said in the run-up to the gathering that he and other members of its steering committee chose Oakland not only because of its rich history of grassroots organizing, but because of its diversity. “We would really like for this rally to show that climate change is an issue that affects everyone,” Mackler said. In keeping with the committee’s goals, the roster of speakers represented a wide range of groups, including nurses, indigenous activists, local young people, and faith-based organizations. While some attendees complained that the speakers failed to offer a clear path forward to address climate change, many saw it as a chance to bring together separate movements around a common cause.

The groups represented in the crowd were even more diverse than those on stage. Laura Zweig, who was there working the booth for Code Pink, the women’s anti-war group, said that addressing climate change was a natural extension of Code Pink’s efforts. “Our slogan is, ‘War is not green,’” she said. The 20-person contingent that showed up to represent from Veterans for Peace shared the sentiment.

Michelle Kern, a teachers’ union member who came to the rally representing the Communist Party of the USA, said part of the goal of her group was to help unions understand that labor and conservation needn’t be at odds. “Green jobs will actually bring sustainability to the labor movement,” Kern said. A large group of nurses from all over the Bay Area also attended.

Katy Roemer, a registered nurse who works in both Oakland and Richmond, said local nurses have long been involved in the environmental movement. “We see it as a public health issue,” she said. She cited the increased rates of respiratory disorders that disproportionately affect children of poor families near the Chevron refinery in Richmond. Roemer was excited about the range of people present.

“You used to see more activist types,” Roemer said. “Now you see just people, who are out of their houses to be here.” Rachel Morello-Frosch, a UC Berkeley environmental scientist whose research focuses on the relationship between race, class, and environmental health, described the day of action as “unprecedented” in the leadership and participation of underrepresented groups. “In order to push for national action on climate change,” Morello-Frosch said in an email, “decision-makers need to hear from all of their constituents, particularly low income communities of color who are being disproportionately impacted by climate change.”

The UN summit this Tuesday will mark the first time in five years that world leaders have gathered to discuss climate change. According to the UN, 125 countries will be represented. Both President Barack Obama and Governor Jerry Brown are scheduled to address the group. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called the summit, hopes to use the gathering to propel world leaders to pledge emissions cuts, climate resilience measures and increased efforts to rally political support for steps that could become part of a legal agreement at UN climate talks in Paris late next year.

“Politics aside, this is a human issue,” said Anthony Sul, an organizer with the indigenous environmental group Idle No More. Sul led the rally in a song and prayer Sunday afternoon. A descendent of the Ohlone tribe that lived in this region before European settlement, Sul focused on the urgency of the need to work together.“What are we going to do about this?” he asked. “Not as native people, not as black people, as humans.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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