A massive environmental demonstration in New York is accompanied by parody.
On a warm September afternoon, just two days before a United Nations climate summit, satire brought surprise and play to a massive public demonstration of concern over climate change. In New York City an estimated 311,000 demonstrators, including former Vice President Al Gore and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, gathered in protest, in solidarity, and occasionally in costume, for the largest climate march in history.
“I spent the day in the key of clown, in the mode of satire,” said activist and performance studies scholar Larry Bogad. Bogad is a performer and strategist with the Billionaires, a satirical activist network I’ve studied ethnographically who use parody and street theatre to protest surging wealth inequality, the role of big money in politics, and what they view as the de facto disenfranchisement of the American electorate. Not since August 29, 2004, the eve of the quadrennial Republican National Convention, had the city’s streets been filled with so many protesters. During that historic 2004 march, organized by United for Peace and Justice and many other groups, I joined the Million Billionaire March down Fifth Avenue after watching media hordes interview and photograph elegantly attired Billionaire satirists playing croquet and badminton on Central Park’s Great Lawn in whimsical riposte to the city’s denial of a permit for thousands to protest in the park. Ten years later, official permissions for the climate march had proceeded more smoothly and the Billionaires mingled with other groups in a family-friendly celebratory demonstration.
While the tone of most protesters was one of earnestness, some struck a decidedly ironic note; Bogad posed as an oil company CEO wearing a necktie with a corporate logo, and co-rode a tandem bike tricked out as a British Petroleum SUV. Joining him at the helm of the two-seater was Ben Shepard, another satirical activist, who “chauffeured” the makeshift gas-guzzler wearing a uniform-like jacket and tie. Shepard and Bogad rode alongside the Bike Bloc, another contingent of demonstrators whose own performative protest featured choreographed oil-pipeline-piercing swordfish bikes bearing the slogan “Disrupt fossil fuels!” and a dinosaur float called BP Rex. Made out of car parts, BP Rex represented the coming extinction of the fossil fuel era and the dawn of a new renewable energy era.
Bogad and Shepard, in their BP SUV, rode “upstream in this river of fish bicycles” extolling the virtues of a changing climate with what Bogad describes as “the oil-slick sound bites of the corporate climate chaoticists.” Bogad invited listeners—including media, bystanders, and fellow protesters—to “embrace the mystery of climate change since the science is still up in the air: who knows what’s causing it! We’re offering swimming lessons to all our customers!” Sometimes spectators smiled, played, along, and joked in return. Many were amused, Bogad noticed, when they caught sight of “two little heads, with jackets and ties sticking out of an ‘SUV’.” He reflected, “The truth is [our ironic humor] isn’t that far from the actual sound bites of the profiteers and their hirelings.”
Bogad’s purpose was to surprise and entertain by offering a ridiculous and uncomfortable juxtaposition to the messages of the protest. While he was busy echoing climate change deniers and offering slick assurances that “everything is fine,” the other thousands of demonstrators underscored how the state of the environment is in fact, far from fine. As protesters marched from Columbus Circle through to Times Square, they chanted in unison: “Whose streets? Our streets! Whose climate? Our climate! Whose future? Our future! More bikes! Less cars! We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”
The march route culminated with the Climate Ribbon installation, organized in part by Andrew Boyd (co-founder of the satirical Billionaires) along with colleagues from Beautiful Trouble and many other organizations. In contrast to the tongue-in-cheek style of the Billionaires—the Climate Ribbon project invited participants to write on multi-colored ribbons what they loved and hoped never to lose to Climate Chaos. Former vice president Al Gore wrote on his Climate Ribbon: “The earth is the Lord’s creation.” Jon in Milwaukee wrote: “I don’t want to lose the hope that my children can live healthy lives.”
Solemn rather than irreverent, sincere instead of facetious, the inscriptions of the Climate Ribbon installation represented an altogether different face of protest than that adopted by Bogad and Shepard during the rest of the march. As they reached the Climate Ribbon, they took off their sports coats and ties, shed their alter-egos, and listened to the ribbon testimonials, looking into people’s eyes not to see if their jokes were landing but, as Bogad put it, to “share the very sincere emotions, the concern, the indignation, fear, and dare I say, hope?” Play invigorates political life; social movements need satire as well as solemnity. As Bogad remarked at the end of the climate march, “The body needs to both laugh and cry in order to thrive . . . this is also true of the body politic of our movement.”