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The Upside-Down World of the Climate March

At the Climate March and Samantha Bee’s fake White House Correspondents' Dinner, we saw a topsy-turvy portrait of D.C. in disarray.
People march near the White House during the People’s Climate Movement in Washington, D.C., on April 29th, 2017.

People march near the White House during the People’s Climate Movement in Washington, D.C., on April 29th, 2017.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the sun is just rising over the dome of the United States Capitol as a woman draws smoke circles around a handful of people standing at the edge of the reflecting pool on the National Mall. In one hand she holds a slow-burning bundle of desert sage bound up in string; in the other is a giant clam shell where she ashes it, a nod to Native American smudging rituals used for spiritual healing and to dispel negative energy. As the sun climbs, the scent carries, and so does its peaceful feeling.

This collaboration between indigenous groups, a kind of soft opener to the People’s Climate March on Saturday, is the Sunrise Water Ceremony, a ritual based in the sacredness of water, and the primacy of women as water carriers. It’s also the last moment of serenity before the chaos of the march sets in.

“Water is life, and women bring life,” Elizabeth Lone Eagle of the Cheyenne River Reservation tells me as we circle up for the morning ritual. “What are children carried in when they’re in their mother’s womb? We’re born from water.” This moment at dawn offers a time of relative quiet and cool, a place to gather forces internally before the heat of the day arrives and everything gets directed outward at the White House, and the world, and each other.

Some people have brought samples of water with them — from White Bear Lake in Minnesota, or a spring in Kentucky’s Appalachian mountains, or the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in California — a few drops of which will be added to a single copper pail and carried in the march in recognition that the fate of water is linked with that of climate. Mostly, though, people have brought stories, and they’re not the happy kind. Lone Eagle, who’s there with her husband Bud and son MerleJohn, explains in an aside to me that their family is among those directly affected by President Donald Trump’s reversal on Keystone—that now the pipeline will run through the river by their hometown of Bridger, an unwelcome update to the five-year battle they thought they’d won.

Demonstrators protest as they march on Pennsylvania Avenue during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C..

Demonstrators protest as they march on Pennsylvania Avenue during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C..

For others protesting the Dakota Access pipeline — like Krissy, a dreadlocked blonde from North Dakota, or Turtle Feather of the Apache tribe — there was never an illusion of imminent victory. They arrived in D.C. recently on a bus with 30-plus other protesters and several tiny adorable dogs, including a black-furred puppy under Turtle Feather’s arm. The morning healing ritual is working well for them it seems, until I ask if they came for the climate or for Trump.

“The climate,” Krissy says. “But fuck Trump.”

That seems to be the tenor if not the wording of the near-weekly protests in Washington — a city that, with each passing week, feels less like a seat of government than the country’s capital of protest. Miss the Women’s March? Protest the travel ban! Rained out at the Science March? Come next week! Got something more specific? We’ll probably have a protest for that too. In the past two days alone there were eight different resistance options for supporting immigrant and refugee rights.

Saturday’s climate march is higher-profile than most, with some 80 different events happening in the District before and after (notably, candidate trainings on Sunday aimed at helping Democrats channel the energy into lasting political power), as well as hundreds of smaller marches like it around the country. It has been scheduled to coincide with Trump’s first 100 days — and, whether or not organizers acknowledge it (some do, some don’t), it has been crafted with an eye toward highlighting widespread opposition to Trump.

Certainly, Trump has motivated Carol Vollen, who came to the march from Burlingame, California, with the Elders Climate Action group. “You can’t be pro-climate without being anti-Trump,” she says. Vollen is sitting in one of the choice spots of shade on a window ledge under an overhang of a bar on the the protest route. She’s long since lost the group she came with, it’s 90 degrees out, and she’s no longer too concerned about keeping up with them.

The heat will keep some people home with good reason (don’t get me started on that guy in a full-body dinosaur suit). But the heat is also very on-brand: With a high of 91 degrees, today will tie for the hottest April 29th ever on record in Washington, D.C., underscoring the need for climate action now. “I would rather stay home and play Scrabble,” Vollen admits, “but I’ve got my grandchildren to think about.”

The crowd is huge, but still for the most part easily navigable. Unlike my frozen foray into Barackk Obama’s first inauguration, and one ill-advised meander I took through a religious pilgrimage in India, at no point does it look like I’ll be trampled. Even as the political outlook is dire, these protesters — with their cute kids and sassy signs and decked-out dogs and slogan-bearing wheelchairs — seem resoundingly all right. Some of them have upended their lives to be here: I spot some pink pussy ears in the crowd and am duly impressed to meet Paul Chakroff from the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, who scheduled his out-of-state hip replace surgery and subsequent recovery around the timing of the march (not well enough yet to go the full distance, he’s riding the Metro from the Capitol to the White House).

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio marches with a group of indigenous people from North and South America during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., on April 29th, 2017.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio marches with a group of indigenous people from North and South America during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., on April 29th, 2017.

A hundred days in, Trump’s petty obsessions and political ineptitude have kept him from getting much of his agenda accomplished, but the little he has gotten done has come largely on the executive front, where climate has been left vulnerable. Many climate activists, like Chakroff, fear a four-year halt in environmental progress more than anything.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the free press is going strong. That particular campaign of his feels especially salient Saturday, as climate protesters surround an empty White House: Nobody is home because Trump is headed to a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, having a little rally-cum-protest of his own against the media. (Tonight is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and Trump prefers to be out of town.)

Whatever your feelings about the tradition of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, its underlying premise is that presidents can be counted on to sit down once a year and eat a damn meal with the reporters whose job it is to cover them. Trump doesn’t seem to think that convention should apply to him, just as he doesn’t much care what today’s 200,000 activists (according to organizers’ best estimates) marching on the White House have to say.

What he might actually care about, sadly, given his thin skin, is that late-night comedian Samantha Bee is hosting a fake correspondents’ dinner of her own in D.C. tonight, meant to delegitimize him; she calls it “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” Its spirit is perhaps best encapsulated by Allison Janney in a taped exchange that aired at the outset, wherein she reprises her West Wing role as presidential press secretary, answering satirical questions from fictional reporters about the event: “Is [Bee] trying to undermine the legitimacy of both the press and the president?” one reporter asks. “No, Ms. Bee is trying to undermine the legitimacy of just one of these two things.”

The White House Correspondents’ Association went ahead with its real dinner without the president, and despite Bee’s satirical spoofing. Media publications seemed confused about what to do. The regular purveyors of after-hour parties —TheNew Yorker, Bloomberg, and Vanity Fair — skipped out, though a few others did stay in the game. Reporters themselves seemed somewhere between confused and apathetic, but nobody was sure about what or with whom, precisely, they should be disgusted. An old colleague at the Bee protest dinner seemed energized by ripping the real event, calling the coziness of it “disgusting,” while other reporters engaged in their own personal protests of sorts: They scheduled last-minute trips out of town or hosted competing barbecues with playfully passive-aggressive invitations like, “If you’re going to the WHCD, I mean, no judgment.” Mostly people checked out.

I’ve never been protective of the dinner and can recognize that parts of it are skeezy. Still, I can’t help but feel something when the president uses his absence from the evening as a chance to delegitimize the press that’s meant to hold him accountable. While I’m at the spoof dinner, and the nice, clearly intelligent woman sitting next to me in the audience explains that she only watches comedy news shows now, I feel my stomach turn 10 different ways. It’s entertaining, sure, but what this represents is not a substitute for something real. (I don’t say any of that, but she seems to sense it, assuring me she sometimes listens to NPR.)

For a few hours on Saturday night, it seems like satire and reality actually traded places; that this year, Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is the actual correspondents’ dinner; that the Daily Show comedian is sitting where the president should be; that the White House correspondents are everywhere doing everything but what they ought — they’re running around Harrisburg in service to a Trumpian fantasy, or else sitting in the Washington Hilton assuring one another: “We are not fake news.”

The upside-down sense doesn’t leave me until I leave the building downtown where Bee’s dinner is taking place. Maybe I need another water ceremony — but, walking back past the White House, I see something else worthwhile: There’s a lone climate protester still in front of the White House gate, wearing an oversized white shirt with the words: “MAKE AMERICA KIND,” while on his arms, in big black block lettering, someone has written “BRIDGES NOT WALLS.” (Judging from the penmanship, it was probably him.)

The man’s name is Andrew Douglas Rosson. He’s 20 years old and he drove here by himself from Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was born and raised and where he now works in the deli of a grocery store — “a nice one,” he says. “Nobody would come with me,” he explains of why he’s there alone; his friends were all too tired or they needed to make that extra money from their job at Domino’s. I can’t believe he’s met no one this entire day, no one among the thousands.

A woman has been listening to me interview Rosson outside the White House, and suddenly she has a lot of questions. What is he doing here? Why didn’t he go to college if he is privileged enough to have a car to drive here—and what, by the way, was all this noisy marching accomplishing anyway? Eventually I tell her sorry, we have to go, and, later, after we eat things and drink all the water, and someone from the Sierra Club stops by to say hi and reflect on the day and ask Rosson about himself, I tell him that the woman is wrong, that what he did today in front of the White House in that terrible heat was super worthwhile. “You really think so?” he said. I really did.