Thousands of climate activists, public health advocates and others arrived in the streets before the first day of the Democratic National Convention, despite blazing heat that was just one degree shy of the hottest July 24 on record in Philadelphia. With temperatures in the mid-90s, a crowd that organizers estimated included over 10,000 marchers converged on Independence Mall near the home of the Liberty Bell.
“We’ve just wrapped up a Republican National Convention filled with climate denial and extreme energy talking points. Tomorrow we start the Democratic Convention, and the question to all these leaders and politicians is: Are you willing to take the action that science demands, or are you just another kind of climate denier?” said Drew Hudson, Director of Environmental Action. “Science tells us we need to keep 80% or more of fossil fuels in the ground: that means a ban on fracking, a halt to dirty trade deals like the TPP, and no more use of eminent domain for polluter gain. I’m marching today to tell all elected officials, if you’re not down to #KeepItInTheGround, you’re just another climate denier.”
Many of the protesters were local — noteworthy in a city long regarded as a Democratic stronghold.
“I grew up in Southwest Philadelphia,” said Tyreece Rogers, who explained that the asthma rates among Philadelphia’s children are among the highest in the nation, which public health experts say is due to air pollution from an oil refinery, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, located in South Philly. Prominent Democrats have supported a proposal to expand that refinery, already the largest destination for shale oil from North Dakota carried in notoriously explosion-prone oil trains. “I am one of those people that had asthma,” he added. And if they expand the refinery, “it’s going to get worse.”
The march in Philadelphia streched many blocks, with over 10,000 attendees estimated by organizers, despite blazing hot temperatures. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
For many in Pennsylvania, where three consecutive governors — both Republican and Democrat — presided over the massive expansion of shale drilling and fracking in the state’s Marcellus shale, it was a blow when the Democratic Party rejected an anti-fracking platform plank. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has pushed the campaign of Hillary Clinton to back progressive measures, had appointed 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben to the DNC Platform Committee, but that committee nonetheless rejected an anti-fracking plank by a 7 to 6 vote.
This left many in the crowd frustrated.
“I think that they have to wake up to the reality that the majority – 75 percent, the overwhelming majority – of Democrats oppose fracking,” filmmaker Josh Fox, who spoke at the Independence Mall rally, told DeSmog. “They’ve got to kick the natural gas industry to the curb and get with the people.”
Filmmaker Josh Fox addresses a crowd of DNC protesters in Philadelphia. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
Some of the protesters travelled across the state to decry the use of eminent domain to seize land for pipeline construction under Democratics like Governor Tom Wolf.
“What happened to my family should be a wake-up call to all Pennsylvanians that they could be next, that the Wolf administration will always put the industry’s interests over theirs,” said Elise Gerhart, Huntingdon County landowner whose family lost the woods on their property to the Sunoco Mariner East pipeline.
An anti-pipeline protester at the DNC. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
This year’s Democratic National Convention is being held in one of the states most affected by the shale drilling rush, with over 9,000 Marcellus shale wells drilled in the past decade and hundreds of confirmed cases of water contamination.
Among the protesters were more Pennsylvanians who said their water had also gone bad after drilling, but that they had been unable to hold the companies they suspected had polluted their drinking water accountable, like Lou Hancherick of Harmony, PA in heavily drilled Butler County, who blamed Rex Energy for his undrinkable water.
John Fenton, of Pavilion, Wyoming, whose water was contaminated traveled across the U.S. to the Democratic National Convention. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016. “I’m here because I want to let them know that we’re here,” he said, referring to families like his who’d been impacted by the oil and gas industry.
But fracking was far from the only concern raised by the demonstrators. Others warned of the dangers posed by large energy extraction projects, as opposed to the development of decentralized renewable energy networks, whether that power comes from fossil fuels or not.
“I have come here from Honduras also to demand accountability from the U.S. government for climate change and also to tell you how this is affecting our communities in Honduras,” said Laura Yolanda Zuñiga Cáceres, whose mother Berta Cáceres was assassinated after she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work advocating against a series of hydroelectric dams that were backed by international financiers. “They are not just poisoning our rivers, they are not just cutting down our forests, they are not just poisoning our lands, they are also assassinating people who stand up to defend mother Earth. And they are doing that because of the financing that goes to the police and the military in Honduras.”
Laura Cáceres. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
One of the largest visible contingents in the march came out to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.
“If the TPP is ratified this fall, it will supersede the Paris Climate Treaty and prevent us from taking the actions we need to transition rapidly to the clean energy economy by giving corporations power over our laws and our courts,” said Margaret Flowers of Flush the TPP.
Other organizers called attention to the public health risks of global warming.
“The climate crisis is already having a substantial, harmful effect on public health in the spread of vector-borne diseases, accelerating pollution, malnutrition linked to drought induced food loss, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events, as well as the existential threat to our children, our future, and our planet,” said Martha Kuhl, a registered nurse representing National Nurses United. “Air pollution from fossil fuel production and consumption kills millions of mostly working class and poor people of color around the world.”
But in a region that was long dominated by the coal industry that has seen the sudden rise of the shale drilling industry, protesters repeatedly returned to the hazards posed by fossil fuels and fracking specifically.
“All of us scientists are proud of our ability to let the data speak to us and objectively analyze it,” said biologist Sandra Steingraber, describing the hundreds of pages of health impact studies on fracking that she had reviewed. “But at the end of the day, when every data point represents a human life, I no longer feel neutral about my objective analysis. Instead, I feel that we must leave it in the ground, which is why I and many scientists are here with you today, to walk and say, when data points represent human lives, we will stand up for life and we will march with you.”
Sandra Steingraber. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
The police presence on the first day of protests in Philadelphia was dramatically smaller and less militarized than the police in the streets of Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention was held.
Earlier this month, the Philadelphia police were the focus of protests over police violence, misconduct and racial bias, and protesters at the climate march in Philadelphia also chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” Some protesters told DeSmog they saw the two issues as linked, not only because climate change like police misconduct disproportionately affects communities of color, but also because the Democratic party has failed to adequately respond to concerns over both issues.
Bicycle police at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
Bicycle police at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Photo © Laura Evangelisto, 2016.
The protests in Philadelphia were already larger than those that confronted Trump and the Republican party in Ohio, according to those who attended both events. No arrests were reported on Sunday in Philadelphia, though one person was transported by ambulance to receive medical care for heat exhaustion.
At one point, the crowd of marchers nearly stretched the full length of the route between City Hall and Independence Mall.
“Our elected leaders must listen to the people,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, one of the main organizers of the protest, “which is why over a thousand groups from all 50 states endorsed the March for a Clean Energy Revolution and called for the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and focus on renewable energy options that will create jobs, not destroy lives.”