Climate activists take to the streets prior to the July 30 Democratic presidential debate in Detroit. (Christy B./The Aadizookaan/Climate Justice Alliance)

Debate Protesters Push Candidates To “Make Detroit the Engine of a Green New Deal”

Activists outside the Detroit debate say that climate policy should put polluted and disinvested communities first.

BY Christine MacDonald

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"We have truly been the engine of the world since the industrial age. We have the infrastructure. We have the people. … Give us an opportunity."

Tuesday afternoon, as the Democratic presidential candidates were getting ready to take the stage at the Fox Theater in Detroit, hundreds of people converged on a public park less than a mile away to rally for a Green New Deal. They put the candidates on notice that there’s no time to waste in starting a just transition from fossil fuels, and emphasized the potential role of polluted and disinvested communities in Detroit in powering a new green economy.

Speaking at the rally, Varshini Prakash—executive director and co-founder of the youth climate organization the Sunrise Movement—made a direct appeal to the candidates. “If you want to claim the mantle of leadership in this country then you have to embrace a Green New Deal. But not just any Green New Deal—one that stops the water shutoffs, that ends the violence of prisons and poverty and pollution.”

Looking out over the crowd of youth, union members, and black, brown and indigenous activists living in communities on the front lines of environmental injustice, Prakash declared, “Right here we have the coalition that will bring America back from the greed and the hate and the division of people like Donald Trump.”

Since its founding two years ago, the Sunrise Movement’s youth activists have challenged politics as usual in Washington with such urgency, anger and moral indignation that it has rocketed the looming climate crisis into the public’s consciousness like never before, making it the number two priority among Democratic primary voters (behind healthcare). These activists have upended assumptions not only about what’s politically possible, but about the very complexion and ownership of the environmental movement.

“Learn and listen from the communities who have been fighting for generations and make Detroit the engine of the Green New Deal!” Prakash exclaimed to cheers.

Traditionally, the environmental movement has struggled to attract people of color. But yesterday’s rally and march showcased a more diverse and progressive movement. It brought together young Sunrise activists from around the country with a coalition of several Detroit union, environmental and social justice organizations called Frontline Detroit, which took the lead in hosting the event.

To organizers, Detroit is a logical place to start the brave new experiments into a Green New Deal. For one, the city is in need of relief from recent economic and environmental travails, a trait it shares with frontline communities around the country. In addition, organizers also point to Detroit’s fabled history of industrial prowess and radical labor movements.

“When we talk about the Green New Deal, we talk about union jobs because that is part of what made Detroit what it is,” Kim Hunter, social justice coordinator with Engage Michigan, said in an interview. “Radical union movements fought for racial equity on the shop floor and inside the union.”

It’s a point Theodor Spencer also pursued on stage, revving up the crowd with a round of call and response: “Detroit is?  Union Town! Detroit is? Union Town!”

Spencer also believes Detroit can lead the way. He is a member of Sunrise and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58, who will become a journeyman next summer.

“We have truly been the engine of the world since the industrial age. We have the infrastructure. We have the people. We have the passion. We have the courage. We have the pride. Everything we build we build it with pride,” he told the crowd. “Give us an opportunity. These are our demands for a Green New Deal.”

The same emphasis was lacking on the debate stage—Sunrise lamented in a press release that climate change made up only 12 minutes of the three-hour debate, calling it “outrageous and disappointing.” Sunrise and other climate activists have demanded a presidential debate exclusively addressing climate change, but so far the Democratic National Committee has refused (although it will vote on August 22). Last week, however, CNN announced plans to host a climate crisis town hall with eight Presidential candidates and MSNBC and Georgetown University announced plans for a multi-day climate forum. Sunrise welcomes these developments, but continues to push for a climate debate.

Part of this urgency stems from the fact that climate, environmental and social justice concerns are real and immediate for many of those present at the rally. Many in the crowd live on the front lines of pollution from Detroit’s Marathon Petroleum Corps. oil refinery and 32 other polluting industries.

Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, reminded the crowd that yesterday marked 1,923 days since the water crisis began in Flint, a city 68 miles north of Detroit. There is no end in sight, Shariff said, not only to the practical matters of replacing underground pipes and household plumbing but the chronic health problems caused by drinking contaminated water.

Others who came out were motivated by environmental awakenings of their own. For Aisha Soofi, it was the 2014 flood that deluged her grandmother’s Detroit neighborhood with raw sewage.

“It destroyed everything,” says Soofi, who remembers the piles of trash outside of every house in the neighborhood, where several other family members were also flooded out. Eventually her grandmother was able to come up with the $35,000 to make the repairs, she says, but most of her neighbors couldn’t afford a cleanup and ended up living with toxic mold and feces in their basements. The experience, she says, made her more aware of the environmental face of social injustice. Due to inadequate government response, she adds, “Community members had to drain the streets themselves. Neighbors had to push cars out of the water.”

Now 19 years old, the Ann Arbor resident is a political science major at Eastern Michigan University and runs one of Sunrise’s 200+ local hubs around the country.

“If we don’t do anything,” she says, such so-called “once in a lifetime” floods like the one that ruined her grandmother’s kitchen “are going to just keep on happening. It’s going to be a lifetime of destruction.”

When people tell her the Green New Deal is a pipedream that will never happen, she asks: “Why is aspirational such a bad thing?” Besides, she adds, “We don’t have time. … If we don’t do anything within these next 11 years, there will be irreversible damage to our world.”

That was the general sentiment as the crowd picked up their handmade signs and union placards, hoisting banners and a series of giant cardboard upraised fists bearing climate justice demands, and set off down the road to the Fox Theatre to the pulsing of drums and the resounding sound of a thousand voices chanting, “I believe that we will win!”

Organizers estimated the crowd at around 1,200 people. A group of black and brown activists, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), took the lead.  

Once the march reached the general vicinity of the theater, they were stopped by police within about a block of the theater, where other activists clustered in small groups—including Trump supporters, many hoisting blatantly racist and sexist signs, who were being serenaded by a rock-and-roll cover band comprised of a group of gangly young white guys.

Despite taunts from these and other Trump supporters—including a small band of black T-shirted men who arrived later, marching up the street in a military-style procession and waving American flags and Trump banners—the Frontline Detroit group maintained the joyful vibe, eventually making it past a set of police barriers and walking on past the Fox Theatre. Tensions flared with police when they tried to turn around to walk back down the other side of the street, directly in front of the theater. Eventually, organizers directed marchers to return to Cass Park, where the march had begun.


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Christine MacDonald is a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.

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