From the People's Climate March to Ferguson — Reflections on the front lines

By Nene Igietseme, CSS Fellow

Reflections on the Frontlines, Part 3 of 3 (Part 1: Detroit, MIPart 2: Richmond, CA)
“Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

New York, NY - September 21, 2014 – I’m standing in a sea of people, from the smallest children to excited young people to smiling and energetic elders. We are on 5th Avenue in New York City for the People’s Climate March. The sky is grey and heavy, but our voices are clear and strong. Someone calls out: “Show me what democracy looks like!” And we all respond: “This is what democracy looks like!” I spy someone’s child wearing a green shirt that has simple writing on the back, “Ask me/I’m the Expert/I’m the Solution/We are the Just Transition League.” The shirts were made by the youth in Ironbound Community Corporation in New Jersey, and inspired by transit justice organizers from Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) in Boston. These are two of the groups who formed the 40,000 person frontline communities block of the People’s Climate March - calling for climate justice on a chilly Sunday morning.

Frontline communities fighting for climate justice are guided by principles of ecology and home, and the deeply rooted wisdom that people reasoning with each other about the management of community resources produces the best results for people and planet. Democratic solutions to climate change looks like urban farms on community-owned land trusts, worker-owned solar companies, financing tools that circulate wealth, and other institutions that shift control and ownership over land, food, energy, etc. away from centralized corporate control to democratic decision-making. This is what democracy looks like - ownership and decision making over the things we need to survive.

ACE, Ironbound, and other organizations from the Climate Justice Alliance  came to New York to push a very simple and clear message - transition away from the fossil fuels that have devastated the planet and so many communities of color. Control over resources cannot be in the hands of corporations, it must be in the hands of the people. People are fighting against high asthma rates and bloody noses, against contaminated water and cancer. They are fighting against prohibitively high food, gas, and housing prices. And still, there is more to fight. Many of the young people of color fighting for democratic, community-owned solutions to climate change, also came with an analysis of how our current system not only devastates their physical environment and their health, but also devastates their entire communities through the repressive techniques of violence and policing.

Incidentally, while we marched through the streets of New York City, young people in Ferguson had been protesting and marching since August 9th, when Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, a 17-year-old unarmed Black teenager, in St. Louis, Missouri.


Ferguson, MO - October 10, 2014 - It’s Friday night and protesters from around the country have arrived at the site where another young Black man, Vonderrick Myers, was shot in St. Louis a few nights before. The young people from Ferguson who have fueled this movement with nightly protests are telling people to get in a circle – “move back, move back, circle up, circle up.” They start a go-around of names and where people are from. They are giving testimony to their experiences - sharing details of their lives as young Black people in a poor city, hunted and policed with little control over their job, educational, or health prospects.

They create a space to grieve, heal, and connect. They are clearly ready for collective action. They decide where to go, communicate with the 100-plus people gathered and start marching. They’re chanting, “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” They march some more. They march right up to where police are standing with riot gear thumping their batons in unison. My heart is in my throat as I try to keep up and support them.

In Ferguson, I caught my first real glimpse at what a Black centered movement for democracy would look like – the fearless leadership and the extraordinary space created for healing, the demand for self-determination and the refusal to back down to threats of violence, the willingness to push the bounds of what is deemed appropriate or fair by any judge other than themselves.

I saw what it would take from this movement and from allies for a Black centered movement for democracy to even happen. Because the faces of democracy are the faces of the same young people who are criminalized by public policies and by the media. The young people who are currently incarcerated, hanging out on street corners, who don’t have homes and aren’t in school, who are traumatized by death, joblessness, poverty, and racism. Who aren’t deemed desirable or acceptable. Who are seen as acceptable sacrifices to the demands of capitalism. The young people who are dying because that’s how they best serve the interests of our current economy.

In Ferguson the young people are showing us that only way to have democracy when a state power does not see you as a rightful member of society and uses violence to enforce this, is to embody democracy in your actions. When your community is daily occupied by police and you live with the threat of violence, then democracy is confronting the force that keeps the wheels of this machine turning - our fear, and our disbelief that we can do more than live the lives we’ve been handed.

“Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
The fact that this particular chant has showed up in these particular spaces in this particular moment in time is no surprise or accident. People on the frontlines of the current harmful and violent economic system are fighting for and embodying democracy both in practice and in ideology. The emergence of strategies that center and merge the experiences of people on different front lines will only make our movement for democracy and liberation stronger.