It was still dark when I arrived at Queen’s Park to set up for the Global Climate Strike, the sun rising from behind the tall shapes of the Financial District in the distance. At 6:00 am, the stage crew was just beginning to unload, but already a steady line of media vans had filled up the Queen’s Park side lot.
Hours before people from all corners of the GTA would stream onto the park lawns with their signs demanding climate justice for all, journalists and organizers like myself stood in the cold morning air, waiting to see the story of September 27 unfold before us.
To pull a term from the organizing theory of Mark and Paul Engler, the Global Climate Strike on September 27 represented “a moment of the whirlwind.” The whirlwind can be described as any instance of mass non-cooperation which draws participation from all corners and all walks of life, building an irresistible wave of momentum that everyday citizens are compelled to join.
Such whirlwinds are the driving force behind mass disruptions of institutional power. To name some well-known examples: the moment of the whirlwind was a key trigger for the collective breaking-down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the explosion of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, and, more recently, the flood of protests during the women’s marches in 2017.
Put into context alongside past whirlwind moments, it is easy to understand the considerable weight of a 50,000-strong Climate Strike in Toronto, even though the city does not have a notable history of mass protests.
Looking back at the strike nearly a month later, I remember my early-morning anticipation at Queen’s Park, and my initial uncertainty regarding whether we’d have even 10,000 people show up — it is crucial that we remember the strike as an extraordinary social moment for climate justice.
Criticism and interrogation have their own place looking back, but using critique as a tool to promote cynicism and disillusionment about the power of social movements is not helpful or useful.
Cynicism does not win social goods.
That kind of criticism does not win a liveable planet, Indigenous sovereignty, or status for all. The criticism that social movements need should focus on the movement’s ability to put Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities at the front, to interrogate and unsettle white power within movements, to confront and improve the movement’s inclusion, and improve access to ensure no community is left behind. This criticism is not just useful, it is necessary.
Let us look back at the strike and imagine how we can continue to improve our social movements, and not look back and suggest that the 50,000 bodies on the streets of Toronto were just an Instagram opportunity.
50,000 is a movement. 50,000 is a whirlwind.
The power of a social movement is measured through its ability to retain members of the public and install them into the fabric of the movement in the weeks, months, and years to come, following the moment of the whirlwind.
Although the moment of the whirlwind is critical in launching mass protest, it is the work of building relationships which allows any mass movement to achieve its goal.
The youth groups which backed the strike, like Climate Justice Toronto or Fridays For Future, are plugging young people across the country into the fight for a liveable planet and you can join us.
In other words: if you left the Climate Strike feeling dissatisfied or disillusioned, you can find power and bravery by diving into the work that is being done on the ground in solidarity with frontline communities targeted by the climate crisis.
Disclosure: Grace King was a Climate Justice Toronto organizer during the climate march.