[Marxism] The Optimistic Activists for a Green New Deal: Inside the Youth-Led Singing Sunrise Movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 24 07:03:11 MST 2018


The New Yorker, December 23, 2018
The Optimistic Activists for a Green New Deal: Inside the Youth-Led 
Singing Sunrise Movement
By Emily Witt

Sunrise, founded a year and a half ago by a dozen or so 
twentysomethings, has established itself as the dominant influence on 
the environmental policy of the Democrat’s young, progressive 
wing.Photograph by Michael Brochstein / SOPA / Getty
On a Sunday in mid-December, some eight hundred young people filled the 
pews and the aisles of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. 
They had trickled in from all over the country, in vans and buses, 
carrying backpacks and sleeping bags, some of them college students and 
others still in high school. They belonged to an environmental movement 
called Sunrise, and they had come to the capital to pressure their 
congressional representatives on the issue of climate change. The next 
day would be one of visits and protests, where the young people planned 
to lobby the incoming Democratic majority to begin work on a Green New 
Deal. The plan they hope to see adopted—to make the United States 
economy carbon neutral—would be nothing less than a total overhaul of 
our national infrastructure.

Sunrise, founded a year and a half ago by a dozen or so 
twentysomethings, began its campaign for the Green New Deal last month, 
when two hundred activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office a week after 
the midterm elections. The movement has allied with the incoming 
congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who joined them outside Pelosi’s 
office (and whose run for Congress was inspired, in part, by her 
participation in the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock), and 
Justice Democrats, the progressive campaign incubator started by former 
staffers of Bernie Sanders. As the Republican-led government has forced 
more established environmental organizations into defensive positions, 
Sunrise has established itself as the dominant influence on the 
environmental policy of the Democratic Party’s young, progressive wing.

Just as the March for Our Lives has changed gun-control activism from a 
movement of grieving parents to one led by students, Sunrise is part of 
a generational shift in the environmental movement. For years, rhetoric 
about climate change has invoked the future generations who will have to 
live with the flooding, storms, droughts, diseases, and food shortages 
of a warmer world. The young people of Sunrise are telling lawmakers 
that the future is here: they are the children in question, and the 
consequences of climate change are affecting them now. And, like other 
activist movements of their generation, they see their cause as 
inseparable from the broader issues of economic and social inequality. 
In a proposal that Ocasio-Cortez has circulated in Congress, she 
describes the Green New Deal as “a historic opportunity to virtually 
eliminate poverty in the United States.”

Inside Luther Place Memorial Church, cheers erupted as activists 
unfurled a yellow and black “green new deal now” banner from the 
balcony. The crowd hushed as the first speaker, Varshini Prakash, came 
to the microphone. Prakash, who is five feet tall and has long curly 
hair, is one of Sunrise’s co-founders. She later told me that a 
highlight of her activism career was when she participated in a musical 
disruption of a Trump Administration panel at the United Nations climate 
conference in Bonn, in 2017, and a story about it trended on Reddit.

“We’re going to kick things off the way we always do,” Prakash said, 
“raising our voices in unison in song.” Part of what makes the Sunrise 
Movement’s activists seem so optimistic is that they conduct most of 
their protests while singing. Their ranks did not conform to the dour 
stereotype of an environmental movement composed of 
white-upper-middle-class Appalachian Mountain Club members. I spoke to 
Sunrise members whose families had roots in India, Iran, Croatia, 
Mexico, and working-class neighborhoods in American cities. There were 
some students in Carhartts and beanies, who looked like they might go 
camping, but one young person standing near me wore a Sisters 
sweatshirt, the brand started by the YouTube makeup artist James 
Charles, who is the first male spokesperson for CoverGirl. Sunrise’s 
principles include: “We are Americans from all walks of life,” “We are 
nonviolent in word and deed,” and “We shine bright.” The dominant 
culture is cheerfulness.

After leading the group in a song called “We’re Going to Rise Up,” 
Prakash introduced herself. She is from a town outside of Boston, but 
her grandparents are from southern India, and she told the story of a 
flood that hit their city, Chennai, in late 2015, when the region 
experienced its highest rainfall in a hundred years. This was typical of 
Sunrise members, who tend not to talk about starving polar bears, 
melting ice caps, or ocean acidification. Instead, they talk of family 
members who have lost their homes to floods or fires, young relatives 
who have asthma, or beloved landscapes that have been degraded or 
destroyed in the spans of their short lifetimes. (Another movement 
principle: “We tell our stories and we honor each other’s stories.”)

“I think no one should have to live in fear of losing the people that 
they love or the places that they call home due to crises that are 
preventable,” Prakash told the crowd. “My nightmares are full of 
starving children and land that is too sick to bear food, of water that 
poisons that which it should heal, and of seas that are ever more 
creeping on our shores,” she continued. “But my dreams are also full of 
a rising tide of people who see the world for what it is, people who see 
the greed and selfishness of wealthy men, of fossil-fuel billionaires 
who plunder our earth for profit.” The young people cheered.

Many of Sunrise’s founders met through the fossil-fuel divestment 
movement, but they tend to cite inspirations from outside 
environmentalism. Prakash named Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for 
Black Lives, and youth-led immigration-justice organizations such as 
United We Dream and Cosecha. Like the March for Our Lives, Sunrise has 
told a story of a corrupt political process, where oil and gas 
billionaires like the Koch brothers have helped direct governmental 
policies. Also like March for Our Lives, Sunrise has focussed on the 
development of clear, nonpartisan policy goals. Its members are working 
within existing political structures, pressuring politicians to take 
more active stances on the issue of climate change and to reject 
donations from fossil-fuel entities, and getting out the youth vote.

“Our strategy for 2019 is going to be continuing this momentum to build 
the people power and the political power to make a Green New Deal a 
political inevitability in America,” Prakash told me. “In 2020, we, 
along with our partners, are going to be attempting to build the largest 
youth political force this country has ever seen.” The movement has 
received support from established environmental organizations, including 
the Sierra Club and 350.org, but a spokesperson for Sunrise, Stephen 
O’Hanlon, said the assistance has been primarily non-financial. He added 
that the organization has raised less than a million dollars since it 
was started, from a mix of grants from foundations and grassroots donors.

Staffers from the Ocasio-Cortez campaign first met with Sunrise at a 
dinner last summer. Immediately after the November demonstration, 
Ocasio-Cortez put forward her resolution, drafted in partnership with 
Sunrise and Justice Democrats, to form a select committee on a Green New 
Deal in the House of Representatives.

The resolution calls for a transition to a hundred per cent renewable 
energy by 2030, the upgrade of residential and industrial buildings to 
greater energy efficiency, the decarbonization of manufacturing and 
agriculture, and investment in technology that would reduce greenhouse 
gases in the atmosphere. If put forward, it would be the most ambitious 
climate policy the Democratic Party has ever endorsed. For Sunrise, it 
is the only policy initiative that matches the scope of the crisis.

“We know, from looking at history, that transformation of the scale 
demanded by science has only happened under two conditions in our 
history,” one activist told me, at the gathering in the church. “First, 
when the public has united to address a clear and present threat, and, 
second, when political leaders have put forward solutions that clearly 
address that threat and that are clear answers to the crisis.” In its 
statements, Sunrise makes patriotic appeals to ambitious mobilizations 
in America’s past, from the Public Works Administration to the moon 
landing—contrasting a vision of technological innovation and ambition 
with one of a kleptocratic petro state.

Since Sunrise’s first sit-in, more than forty Democratic representatives 
have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution, including the heads of the 
progressive caucus, rising stars in the Party like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan 
Omar, and Joe Kennedy, and veteran activists like John Lewis. But, as 
Waleed Shahid, the communications director with Justice Democrats, told 
me, it really only needs the endorsement of one person: the incoming 
Speaker of the House. So they had come to visit Pelosi once again.

The next morning, at eight, the activists assembled in the Spirit of 
Justice Park, outside of Congress. Before occupying the offices of the 
Democratic leadership, they were going to lobby some fifty Democratic 
representatives. They took off toward the congressional office buildings 
singing a song condemning the fossil-fuel economy, whose refrain went, 
“Which side are you on now? Which side are you on?”

I joined a delegation of about sixty young people who had bussed up from 
Kentucky as they visited John Yarmuth, the state’s sole Democratic 
congressperson. Most of them were high schoolers from Louisville and 
Lexington. They were met at the door by one of Yarmuth’s staffers, who 
stood and listened while the visitors began their prepared presentation.

“We’re here because we’ve witnessed the failure of political leadership 
on climate change for as long as we’ve been alive,” a college freshman 
named Quincy Robinson said, referring to notes on his phone. “The latest 
United Nations report on climate change gives us just twelve years to 
rapidly transform society and economies to stop the climate crisis.”

Another student, Trevor Harry, told a story about canoeing in Beargrass 
Creek in downtown Louisville, which has been polluted with waste from 
pig farms. He described some of the legislative goals that the select 
committee would research, including massive investment in renewable 
energy, upgrading public transit, and a jobs guarantee with living 
wages. “It would be the first committee to approach the crisis as the 
integrated social, scientific, and economic challenge that it is,” Harry 
said.

The main action of the day took place midmorning, when the protesters 
split into three groups, to visit the offices of Pelosi, Representative 
Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Whip from Maryland, and Jim McGovern, the 
Massachusetts representative who is poised to become the top Democrat on 
the House Rules Committee. A student from Grand Rapids said she was 
“fighting for our sacred places.” A student from Wilmington, Delaware, 
said she was there for “my community, which is already suffering from 
flooding from sea-level rise. ” A twelve-year-old activist from Denver 
named Haven Coleman spoke of the poor air quality on the northeast side 
of her city, where much of the population is Hispanic. “I fear the fires 
in the summers and the sun that stirs up the local fracking pollution 
and big car exhaust,” she said. “It leaks into my home, my lungs, 
sneaking in with the heat, there is no escaping its choke.” More than a 
hundred of the thousand protesters were arrested for obstructing the 
hallways while singing songs.

Of the three House leaders, only McGovern appeared in person, stepping 
out of his office into the hallway. (Pelosi doesn’t use her offices in 
the Cannon House Office Building, but she works from the Capitol.)

“I’ve met some of you before,” he said, scanning the group. “I’m here to 
talk about whatever you want.”

“We’re hoping that you will support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s select 
committee for a Green New Deal!” someone in the crowd said.

“So the answer is I want to get to yes on that,” McGovern said. “But 
this is what we’re doing right now—we’re trying to figure out what the 
committee looks like, and this is a work in progress.”

He went on to talk about the House Committee on Rules, and 
jurisdictional issues—that some representatives on the Energy and 
Commerce Committee are worried their powers are being taken away. 
(Members of the Natural Resources Committee have also voiced such concerns.)

“I’m working with Leader Pelosi right now to get something in place 
that’s real, that has money behind it, that’s funded, so there can be a 
staff, and that’s where we want to get to.” McGovern said. “We’re 
working on it and I hope that we can get it.”

It was not the most straightforward endorsement, but the activists took 
it as a victory nonetheless. In the weeks since the campaign began, 
Democratic leaders have agreed to revive a select committee on climate 
change, but have said that it will not be focussed on a Green New Deal, 
and may not have subpoena power. Speaking this week to the Hill, Hoyer 
described it as a “recommendatory committee to the Energy and Commerce 
Committee and the environmental committees.”

In response to Hoyer’s comment, Prakash said, in a statement, “If true, 
this decision is an insult to the thousands of young people across the 
country who have been calling on the Democratic Party leadership to have 
the courage to stand up to fossil-fuel billionaires and make sure our 
generation has a livable future.”

Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, told me, “What I can say 
is that I think that if we didn’t already have an interstate highway 
system in this country I think it would be hard for the Democratic 
leadership in this country to see a way forward to create one,” he said. 
“At this moment in time, it seems like shooting for the moon is hard for 
our leaders to do.”

On Tuesday morning, the day after the protest in Washington, I met with 
four of the Sunrise Movement’s co-founders at a bakery near Washington’s 
Union Station. They had ended the previous day with a small party at the 
office of 350.org. The office of Ayanna Pressley, the newly elected 
Justice Democrats–endorsed representative from Massachusetts, had sent 
pizzas.

Over oatmeal and coffee, they told me about their personal awakenings 
about climate change. Sara Blazevic, who is twenty-five and from New 
York City, went on a volunteer trip to New Orleans in the aftermath of 
Hurricane Katrina, when she was sixteen. Victoria Fernandez, who is also 
twenty-five and from California, talked about how unseasonable rains had 
affected business at the tennis shop her father owns, in the Bay Area. 
Evan Weber, who is twenty-seven and grew up in Hawaii, told me that the 
beaches he had played on as a child in Oahu have since been washed away. 
Stephen O’Hanlon, twenty-three, who is from outside of Philadelphia, had 
witnessed the effects of mountaintop removal on a trip to Appalachia 
organized by a college group.

In late 2015 and early 2016, Prakash and Blazevic, who knew each other 
from the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns they had led in college, began 
connecting with other youth climate activists to discuss how they might 
form a more effective movement. They saw how Bernie Sanders had helped 
spark a new political energy among their peers, who were suddenly 
inspired to see their student debt and poor job prospects in more 
political terms. For Blazevic, the moment of clarity came in December, 
2015, when she read remarks from Sanders in which he used the phrase 
“fossil-fuel billionaires.”

“I remember being, like, ‘That is it, why are we not talking about the 
fossil-fuel billionaires in the climate movement?” she recalled. “I just 
remember feeling like this is the story that we should be telling in the 
climate movement. We should be talking about the people who are most 
responsible for this crisis, and naming names of the Rex Tillersons of 
the world instead of doing what the climate movement had been doing for 
a while, which was, at least, in my corner of it, getting lost in 
conflicts with college administrators over small pools of money.”

Their first meeting, in July, 2016, was in the Neighborhood Preservation 
Center in New York City. They agreed that they wanted to propose 
solutions to the climate crisis that match its magnitude. Since climate 
change disproportionately affects poor communities of color, they agreed 
that racial and economic justice had to be considered in any solution to 
climate change they proposed.

They arranged to meet once a month for the next nine months, renting 
houses or staying with volunteers in a different location each time. 
They went to an Amish farm in Pennsylvania, to Delaware, to Virginia. 
Their numbers grew to a dozen people.

They studied the wins and the losses of the climate movement in its 
forty-year history. They read books about how other mass movements had 
grown viral and gone to scale—Fernandez fished out a waterlogged copy of 
the book “Rules for Revolutionaries” to give me one example. Others: 
“Reinventing Organizations,” by Frederic Laloux; “Where Do We Go from 
Here,” by Martin Luther King, Jr.; “This Is an Uprising,” by Mark and 
Paul Engler. Several of their members had attended a workshop at a 
social-movement training institute called Momentum, where they had 
studied how to effectively combine structured organizing with mass protest.

The idea was to build a movement that people would join to feel a part 
of some larger history. “In the Bernie moment, I was seeing so many 
young people who were, like, ‘I would drop everything to be a part of 
the political revolution,’ ” Blazevic said. “After the primary ended in 
their states, there wasn’t anything to be a part of, and we weren’t 
seeing many movements or organizations rising to that challenge of 
creating a way for those people to stay meaningfully engaged 
longer-term. We certainly weren’t seeing it in our own organizing in the 
climate movement.”

After Trump’s election, they responded to the populism of the moment. 
“We think that the climate movement has missed a big opportunity to tap 
into the really genuine and valid frustration at the political class in 
this country that have for our whole lives chosen to prioritize their 
campaign donors over the interests of young people, of the American 
people at large,” O’Hanlan said. “So we are here naming who is 
responsible for this crisis, the fossil-fuel billionaires who have been 
buying out Washington, D.C.”

“But a big part of our story is not just about naming who’s responsible 
but actually saying that we can do this, and that this is a problem that 
we can solve, which I think all of us believe in the deepest core of our 
hearts,” Weber interjected. “There are solutions that are ready to go 
and will make people’s lives better and create millions of good jobs, if 
we can just get these handful of wealthy billionaires and executives and 
lobbyists and the politicians they collude with out of the way.”


Emily Witt is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “Future 
Sex” and “Nollywood: The Making of a Film Empire.”Read more »


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