QUEENS, N.Y. ― Jerome Nathaniel, 27, looks small standing in front of Ravenswood Generating Station, its four smokestacks looming like colossal candy canes over the power plant’s gated bramble of pipes and machinery. But his protest chant, soundtracked by a big speaker blasting Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight The Power,” rings loud.
“This is what democracy looks like,” he shouted as protesters, marching in New York City’s only official climate march on Saturday afternoon, streamed past the power plant.
The People’s Climate March began in 2014 as a massive protest in Manhattan. But this year, with environmental regulations under assault from a new president who dismissed climate change as a hoax, organizers encouraged as many people as possible to join thousands for a mass march in Washington, D.C.
Knowing not everyone could make the trip, Nathaniel, a community organizer in Queens for nonprofit food pantry City Harvest, assembled a sister march through New York City’s biggest and most diverse borough. The march began outside a public housing development in Queens’ Woodside neighborhood and snaked through the borough’s otherwise quiet residential streets, stopping off at four different public housing projects.
“This is bigger than one block, two blocks, one NYCHA development or four NYCHA developments,” Nathaniel told HuffPost, using the acronym for the New York City Housing Authority.
The last stop, the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, served as a microcosmic example of the larger environmental problem about which Nathaniel hoped to raise awareness: that low-income people and communities of color often suffer the worst effects of the greenhouse gas pollution warming the planet and rapidly changing the climate. The housing project sits sandwiched between the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, where a steady stream of vehicles spew exhaust all day, and the one of the dirtiest power plants in New York State.
Ravenswood produces about 2.3 million metric tons of emissions each year, according to figures the Queens Tribune cited. That’s equivalent to about 500,000 cars. Unlike many plants that run on cleaner-burning natural gas alone, the power station burns 3,264,000 gallons of fuel oil per year. Under a law passed in 2015, the plant has until 2020 to switch over to a cleaner fuel. But lawmakers have recently stepped up efforts to probe emissions from the plant, citing health problems for people who live nearby.
“For decades, power plants in our communities here in western Queens have strongly contributed to increased asthma rates and increases in hospitalizations and ER visits that exceed the average in Queens,” said Costa Constantinides, a Democrat who represents the area on the city council, in December. “Our city has made great progress on ending the use of dirty fuel oil in buildings. Now more than ever, these plants must become better neighbors and stop the practice.”
The march wasn’t locals only. Protesters came from around the city and surrounding suburbs. Tina Nannaroni, who lives in the Forest Hills area of Queens, said she got up at 5 a.m. to take a bus to Washington, D.C., only to learn her ride had been mysteriously canceled.
“In 1965, they sabotaged the anti-Vietnam marches by canceling the buses,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s what happened, or if it’s just incompetence.”
Evelyn Fenick and Stephen Judd took the train in from Connecticut to march with matching signs that read “Just Cuz The Climate Killed The T. Rex Doesn’t Mean Rex T. Gets To Kill The Climate,” a reference to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who previously served as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp.
“It blew up,” Nathaniel said. “This is urgent, it’s important for a lot of people, you can no longer work in silos. It’s all community, it’s all climate justice.”