A Different Kind of Light

We’re happy to share one more dispatch from the People’s Climate March, which was attended by so many on Sunday and seems to have lifted the movement to halt climate change to new heights. Orion friend and contributor Rick Bass, who made the trip to New York all the way from his home in Montana, sent this letter. Pictured above: Brooke Williams, Rick, a New York City police officer, and one fuzzy representative from up north.

I’m going to write a dangerous sentence here.

The police were wonderful. They gazed with awe. They had seen some things, but not this.

I have had unpleasant encounters with the law: have had my nose bloodied in Mississippi. Call me cynical, but I believe that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. An Orion staff member at the march, Madeline Cantwell, commented on how much she was enjoying watching people’s faces, and how different they looked—how expectant, how open—how unlike the way people usually look when they’re walking down a street, as they were doing this one day, roughly 400,000 of them—of us.

And she was right, it was very cool. It was as if a different kind of light was landing on our faces: the way you sometimes hold your face up to even the mildest of sun after a long winter. And it was a very sweet thing to see, to watch.

But so too was watching the police, which is what I found myself doing. They set somewhat apart from all the rest of us, wearing their clean good-fitting suits of armor, with the reptilian and impossibly harsh holstered pistolature on their hips. And they were a thing to notice: muscular young women of all ethnicities, and movie-star-handsome young men likewise, all of them watching the dizzying crowd, the mesmerizing flow of us, with something strangely like pride, pleasure, even awe—they who again have seen some things—possibly because so many of the marchers were so young. They watched with a thing I have never seen in police before: tenderness.

I know this was just one particular pipeline of people, snaking through the center of town. But the defenders of Gotham law were so becalmed.

I understand the culture and history of abuse by police in this country. I acknowledge the toxic legacy—which exists to this day, this moment, of racial profiling—a legacy from which, for no reason but random luck, I, in my whiteness, have been spared. But for whatever strange reasons, I saw, felt, experienced, relief and relaxation amongst the hundreds or maybe thousands of officers who were tasked this day not with chasing down bad folks, but instead given the parade duty, the people’s march duty. A march wherein there was such incredible diversity of skin color and all other demographics, and such joy.

Seeing a becalmed police-state reminded me of how, when we go to be arrested in coming protests, over these next years, as we escalate our efforts in this war against what Naomi Klein calls the War on Life, we will do well to remain civil in our disobedience, civil in our discourse. And to remember to not assume that we are in the minority on this: that indeed, very, very few people, police included, want the earth to flood again, want the earth to be heated to the withering incandescence that precedes total flames. A few still want that, but they are not the majority.

There will of course be a need for anger, even fury, at times. Writes James Dickey in “For The Last Wolverine”:

“How much the timid poem needs/the mindless explosion of your rage,/The glutton’s internal fire the elk’s/Heart in the belly, sprouting wings…”

More than ever, there is a place for that, and a time. And I know that in the arc of things, and this movement, there will be abuses of power. We live in a time of increasing police presence which in part may well be the status quo’s frightened testament to the self-wrought resurrection by so many of a power we once ceded.

But in this year’s time of equal dark and equal light, the equinox—twenty-five years after Bill McKibben first published The End of Nature, to no small number of jeers and ridicule—I saw only light. Make of it what you will, I saw it on the faces of police, and in their bodies—in the way they stood and watched us, and I was surprised.

I feel like there was something there I should be seeing, understanding—something complicated that I could not in the moment understand, and for which I had no reference, no experience. I had expected to see resistance and wariness and maybe even anger in their faces. I had not expected to see pleasure, hope, tenderness, as they looked at us.

I wonder what they were looking at. I wonder what they saw in us that made them look on us almost as if at a thing beloved.

Maybe they were looking at justice.

Rick Bass is the author of many acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, including All the Land to Hold Us, his latest novel, which was a finalist for the 2014 Orion Book Award. His most recent piece for the magazine, “The Larch,” appeared in the September/October 2012 issue.


  1. Rick Bass speaks eloquently of what I and many of my compatriots noticed at last Sunday’s People’s Climate March in New York. As we shuffled down Central Park West, we kept stage-whispering to one another versions of “They’re so calm, so relaxed, so NOT aggressive looking! Wow!”

    Sunday’s experience stood in great contrast to what 400 or so folks encountered last summer at the Brayton Point Power Plant protest in Somerset, Massachusetts. Despite 350.org’s planning work with police (in part because there were to be arrests for planned civil disobedience), police presence then and there was intense, with multiple kinds of forces present, including up-armored SWAT teams and vehicles, and officers’ brows looking furrowed and suspicious. I remember thinking then, do they not know who’s here? Could we be a less-threatening looking bunch of people?!

    Many of the officers I saw in NYC on Sunday, at the periphery of our long-and-winding river of bodies, were actually more focused on their conversations and/or cell phones than on the crowd. They seemed, more or less, to be enjoying themselves. No one looked alarmed. I saw several joking with PCM people. “Could it be,” I thought, “that they actually GET IT?!” By which my mind meant, do they appreciate the sentiment, the gravity under the open faces and music and costumes, and the reality that virtually everyone present was good-hearted and well intended? I’m choosing to think so. Wow, indeed.

Commenting on this item is closed.