A sign- and banner-carrying crowd paraded in downtown Birmingham today as part of the nationally organized March for Science, and many of their messages stressed not only the importance of research but the need to resist environmental funding cuts and proposed rule rollbacks from the Trump administration.
The march was part of a daylong event of speeches, information sharing and presentations that took place in and around Linn Park. A motorcycle police officer who escorted the marchers estimated their numbers at between 1,500 and 2,000.
More than a few of the marchers had participated in the Birmingham Sister March of the Women’s March on Washington back in January, and some of them had raised environmental concerns and other issues with U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover) at his recent town meetings in Chelsea and Gardendale. March organizers said they had contacted area Young Republicans about attending the march, but had received no response.
The march started at the north end of the park, headed west on Rev. Abraham Woods Jr. Boulevard before turning south on 19th Street and circling back up 20th Street to re-enter the park from the south end. It was the chief event that drew the most participants, many of whom carried signs making digs at the Trump administration. President Donald Trump has been a climate change skeptic, has endorsed the view that federal environmental overreach is damaging the nation’s economy, and is proposing big budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. He also wants to rewrite some Obama administration-issued rules such as one designed to determine which waterways deserve protection under the Clean Water Act.
Those issues, as well as the need to maintain environmental protections at the workplace, were cited by some of the pre-march speakers. Randy Haddock, field director for the Cahaba River Society, said that in 2002, his organization and the Alabama Environmental Council had used the Clean Water Act to stop the poultry processor Gold Kist from continually dumping “untreated and poorly treated effluent from their slaughtering facility into the Cahaba headwaters.”
“Their effluent was so nasty that the Girl Scouts [from[ nearby Camp Coleman were not allowed to touch the Cahaba River,” Haddock said. “The changes being considered in the new clean water rule would make it nearly impossible to apply clean water protections to a situation like that … The EPA needs to hear from you, loudly and clearly … that clean water protections need to be based on science and not just on economic considerations.”
Politics, national and local, were part of the gathering. The groups with an information table and sign-up sheets included the Shelby County Democrats for Science. Mark Johnston, the Episcopal priest and longtime executive director of Camp McDowell who is planning to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018, urged the crowd to march for science and to change Alabama.
“I support you and all that you’re doing, and I believe that science and faith are compatible,” Johnston said.
Others in attendance were wearing white lab coats, and one of them was Dr. Randy Cron, a pediatric rheumatologist at UAB who defined himself as a physician-scientist.
“That means I see patients but I also have a lab where I do science. Like everyone else, we’re dependent on funding, particularly from the National Institutes of Health,” Cron said, adding that the NIH budget has been declining over the past decade.
Cron said he asks people all the time if they are completely happy with the treatments that they, their relatives and friends are receiving for various illnesses. If they are, he added, then it’s time to stop funding science.
“But I don’t think, really, people are content with that and when it affects their daily lives, you know, we need to fund it,” Cron said.
At the information table for the Cahaba Riverkeeper, Lynda Wilson, an emeritus professor of nursing from UAB who is an organization board member, said today’s event, even if its participants generally were people who agreed with each other, gave her a sense of hope.
“Many people have gotten pretty depressed with the current political climate,” Wilson said, “and the inclination is, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it, we’re just going to sit back,’ but what these events do for me personally is let me say ‘Okay, there are people who care about science or care about the environment, and it’s worth continuing to advocate for the things you feel are important.’”