Uses of Anger: Reflections from the Indigenous Frontlines of the People’s Climate March – Idle No More

By Erica Violet Lee (Photo Credit Jenna Pope)

This past weekend, I was invited to speak at the People’s Climate March and beforehand, at the New York City Climate Convergence, to discuss Indigenous peoples resistance.

The beginning of the march itself was huge and exciting. It is powerful to feel united with hundreds of thousands, and even more powerful to feel that we are here for the same reasons.


Halfway through the march, a man of color wearing glittery red underwear danced through the crowd past the Indigenous bloc. Disappointingly, some marchers began to boo him. Behind me, I heard a teenaged boy say “Oh, that’s a man! That’s disgusting!”, and some women shouted “For shame!” (Apparently, you cannot be a srs climate activist if you’re wearing glittery undies. Or you know, queer; because queerphobia/misogyny are the roots of ‘disgust’ and ‘shame’ comments.)

“Whereas the colonist or police officer can beat the colonized subject day in and day out, insult him and shove him to his knees, it is not uncommon to see the colonized subject draw his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive look from another colonized subject. For the colonized subject’s last resort is to defend his personality against his fellow countryman.”
– Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth (p. 17)

We stopped and had a minute of silence in Times Square. Each person imbued that moment with their own meaning (isn’t that why these sort of mass movements are so popular?).

For me, it was a moment to stand wrapped in the arms of my partner while we held our fists in the sky. A moment to feel the ground beneath my aching feet, breathe the exhaust-heavy air of the city sitting deep in my lungs, to be bombarded by the blindingly-bright, hundred-foot-tall billboards, and still feel thankful for the centuries of resistance (and the privileges I have) that allowed me to stand there at that moment.

“The colonist’s sector is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed-of leftovers. The colonist’s feet can never be glimpsed, except perhaps in the sea, but then you can never get close enough. They are protected by solid shoes in a sector where the streets are clean and smooth, without a pothole, without a stone.”
– Fanon (p. 4)

Reaching the end of the march route is when the whole thing crumbled. As others have pointed out, the march ended in the middle of relative nowhere – in a street with no space for a large crowd to remain gathered, no benches to sit, no water fountains, no subways to transport us home, no closing speakers. 300,000 released back into the world to go about our business as usual, separately. A flash mob round dance broke out, but it was impossible to include more than 100 dancers because of the space restrictions.

How frustrating to realize that this march had turned into – or forgive my naïveté, perhaps it was this way since the beginning – an event organized by liberal elites and corporate funders as a way to provide a non-threatening, controlled outlet for the anger of millions. A small steam vent for a pot on the verge of boiling over.

The endpoint of the People’s Climate March was chosen specifically to render further congregation and discussion impossible; to facilitate quick dispersal of the “largest climate march in history”. A security guard even told us “You’ve reached the end of the march, put your signs down now”.

Over the weekend, I gave 4 different talks to sizeable crowds. One of the problems of speaking over and over again is being careful not to repeat myself to the point where I sound like a bad standup comedian with one joke. There were hundreds, if not thousands of speakers, panels, presentations during this weekend in NYC alone. These events are important, but after hours upon hours of speaking and listening to speakers, all of the words blur into obscurity; a series of catchphrases like “climate justice” and “we have to change the system”. Presenting/lecturing is also emotionally and physically draining – I had no time to go to organizational meetings because I was simply too exhausted at the end of the day.

I become tired of empty words, more quickly and more frequently, now. Tired of pre-written speeches and tired of essays, tired of feeling forced to live within manmade and colonially imposed languages. This tiredness comes partially from my immersion in academic worlds that value the written word above all else as epistemologically legitimate (think Derrida’s phallogocentrism) and the push for academics to prove themselves useful by churning out endless articles and books.

An Indigenous scholar I admire (and hopefully will soon work with… ahem) told me that above all else, he is accountable to the people of his community, and if his work isn’t saving lives, what is the point? This ethic does not prevent us from delving into theoretical or semantic concerns, but rather acts as an overarching guide for moving forward with consciously directed efforts. A reminder that our first purpose as academics, as human beings capable of intelligent interactions, is not to treat our ideas and words like a capitalist system of endless production and consumption.

There are still very real uses for words, especially for those who have been consistently denied the use of our voices. It’s important to create (and seize) opportunities for marginalized voices in these spaces – especially within environmental movements, who have historically excluded (essentialized, tokenized) the voices of those on the frontlines of climate battles – Indigenous communities, migrants, people of color, women, the poor). The problem occurs when words become our only way of operating within the world, and the only way we are taught to believe we can bring about change.

After chanting things like “We Are Idle No More”, “Keep the Oil in the Soil” and “Respect Our Lands, Honor Our Treaties” (someone holding a banner with me suggested “Indigenize, Decolonize” but that was dismissed by the group as too aggressive) for hours, we all began to lose our voices, and ultimately dispersed.

Paparazzi pushed us out of the way to get to Leonardo DiCaprio, who along with other celebrities, showed up to support the efforts of Indigenous communities. Which is not to say we were ignored – the mainstream media did snap many shots of those wearing full regalia and headdresses, which I have not yet seen accompanied with quotes or even names. A friend joked, you know the headlines tomorrow will say “Leo is in NYC! (Subtitle: marches with some unknown people for some unknown reason)”. I left feeling too tired to care, and got on the bus all the way back to Harlem. We walked past a small candlelight vigil for a young Black man named Johnny Elliott who was repeatedly shot in the back that morning, a few blocks from where we were staying. No media were present here.

“And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night and not to wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets, that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in academic rhetoric.” -Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger”

Perhaps, events like this are organized by elites and corporations out of fear that all of the energy we spent chanting and marching over the weekend would’ve been directed right at them.

In marginalized communities, we know firsthand that built-up anger is often expressed laterally or internally – something like a flash mob round dance or a march can be useful for taking the edge off so the anger doesn’t kill us. But if we really intend to “change the system” and not just write and speak about it in tiny boardrooms while they are drilling holes into our lands and filling our lungs with smog, we need to keep our anger, and we need to direct it meaningfully.