The greatest threat to our planet is the business plan of fossil fuel companies. Last Sunday, the greatest threat to fossil fuel companies was a bus rolling across the Marine Parkway Bridge out of Queen, New York. It was a bus of Occupy Sandy volunteers and Rockaways residents ready to tell their stories.
An hour behind schedule already, we immediately had to pull over to rescue our sagging handmade banner that had been duct taped to the side of the bus. It read "Rockaways Taking DC by Storm." The "S" in "storm" was a picture of a little hurricane, a tiny version of the 1,100 mile wide storm that drowned this strip of land on the edge of New York City. Like many of the communities hardest hit by Sandy, the Rockaways are little known and even somewhat mysterious to those who live in most parts of our city.
I started the day of the #ForwardonClimate rally at 5:45 am. Driving a van the 40 minutes it takes to get from downtown Brooklyn to "YANA" in Rockaway park, I arrived along with a few friends from Occupy Sandy. YANA is a beautiful name for a community relief hub that has done, and keeps doing everything it can to keep up with its promise to its community: "You are Never Alone." On arrival, I began to learn just how much they mean that. Tasked with official bus captain duties by 350.org, I was determined to be on schedule throughout the day. But this community was more about caring than protocol, and being their bus captain was less about arriving on time for big named speakers than I had thought. Instead, we sent out our van to retrieve a young man named Jay who had overslept, and waited for more pictures to be taken outside the bus.
As our grouchy bus driver moved us quickly towards the largest climate rally ever, I listened to the passengers tell their stories to several film crews on the bus, including those making a documentary film with author and social activist Naomi Klein. The stories revealed the broad and complex reality of life after Sandy.
Next to film crews with the latest equipment, I used a simple flip camera to create videos for supervoters.org and the Sandy Storyline project. Josmar, whose young son was hiding behind a book, told me "We got the surprise of our lives, to see the boardwalk and the sand on top of our cars and right next to our doors." Behind him, there were colorful flags on rope decorated with the word "YANA." Restless, energized teens of Rockaway Youth Task Force practiced songs and chants while digging into bags and boxes of bagels, hummus, sandwiches, and fruit.
A few weeks ago we weren't sure if it made sense to take a bus from the Rockaways all the way to DC. My friend Phoebe and I sent emails to our friends in Occupy Sandy and the rally organizers at 350.org; and we discovered that everyone without a doubt wanted to make this happen. However, there was uncertainty: would people still dealing with their basic everyday needs be up for a long trip to address a broad global issue?
But in between learning to attack mold with special chemicals, navigating government bureaucracies, and becoming self-taught case managers, these residents and volunteers were getting ready to make an impact on activists from all over the country. They practiced their songs and chants on the bus, wanting to get them just right for the crowd at the Washington Monument.
Josmar told me why he was there: "Being on this bus is just a way of taking the next logical step. Our government has been partnering with a lot of people who have been causing climate change. Occupy takes politics as usual and changes it. When the photo ops end, and the helicopter tours end, we still have to live here." He went on to say, "So I am just here to make sure my voice is heard, added to the voices. Maybe my voice, and the voices of the people on the bus will resonate just because we're on the front lines. No politics as usual when it comes to climate change."
When we arrived and surveyed the scene, wondering where to join in, we spotted the giant Statue of Liberty "puppet", familiar from so many Occupy actions by the Puppet Guild. We made our way across the crowd, finding various Occupy groups from around the country and many familiar faces from Occupy Sandy, Occupy the Pipeline, and other New Yorkers of all stripes. Soon those holding the giant Occupy banner decided it was time to march and got us started, joined by what has been estimated to be somewhere between 35,000-50,000 people.
As we marched, our group led the crowd in chants of, "Obama, why you Chillin, you should be rebuilding," and, "Get up, get down, climate change came to our town." I stopped to talk to college students from North Carolina who barely seemed to remember that Sandy had happened. People reached out to me for the stack of bright yellow Occupy Sandy patches I was handing out.
When they got to the White House, the young people from our bus stopped. They wanted the President to hear them. The President has the power to make a huge decision by stopping the Keystone XL pipeline. If he does so, he in a significant way will live up to a recent promise to address climate change. If he does not, it is, as James Hansen from NASA said, "Game over for the Climate."
Our group held a banner that said "Climate Changed Us. Rockaways, NY", and sang. People from all over the country who never heard of the Rockaways stopped marching and sang along, repeating the lines and feeling the message:
My neighbors got no heat
My neighbors got no lights
Think about the Rockaways
While you sleep tonight
Children living in mold
Now you know that ain't right
The people from the Rockaways
Are ready to fight!
On the way home, we still had plenty of food on the bus. By providing the bus and food, 350.org and the Occupy Sandy Kitchen made us feel truly taken care of. Hope, age 11, who had joined her friends from YANA on the trip, ate cream cheese the whole way back while bantering with the grown-ups, and sharing stories from the rally. I asked her what the best part was. Without hesitation she said, "The best part was 3 blocks of people doing exactly what we were doing, singing our song."
I thought about my favorite chant from the day, "Obama, beware, Rockaways are everywhere." What happened last fall to the kids on our scrappy little bus is what is on the way for all of us. They went to D.C. on Sunday to tell their story, to transform our understanding of climate change. To shift our detached knowledge of atmospheric chemicals and temperature statistics, into an understanding--on an emotional level-- that all that we know and love is being blatantly destroyed by those in power. The Rockaways, its rising waters and torn up homes, is everywhere. Like the Rockaways, everywhere can be brave enough, and smart enough, to stand up to power and sing out loud about it.