News Story

In Their Own Words: Democratic Socialists, Green New Dealers Meet In Detroit

They don’t like capitalism

Speaking before a group of political activists in Detroit, Natasha Fernández-Silber described her vision for this country.

“I’d mostly be throwing capitalism under the bus,” said Fernández-Silber, co-chair of the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America. “But don’t worry, it’s an electric bus.”

Fernández-Silber told how she and others are pushing to upend America’s current energy and economic structures to bring about justice in Detroit and across the country.

Between 600 and 700 people packed out the Bonstelle Theatre on April 19 to hear from a slate of politicians and activists about the role they could play in bringing about what they called climate action rooted in racial and economic justice.

The Friday evening event was the second of eight sponsored in different states by a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called the Sunrise Movement. At the event, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed and several local activists touted victories already won, while encouraging the crowd to stay focused on its cause.

The Green New Deal was a focus of the event. It is a stimulus program that includes social and economic reforms as well as government projects that would cost an estimated $51 trillion to $93 trillion over 20 years. By comparison, the entire gross domestic product of the United States was $20.87 trillion in 2018.

Tlaib opened the event by describing her experience of being elected to Congress from Detroit as a Muslim, before turning to the theme of the event. “This isn’t radical,” she said of the New Green Deal. “We’re not asking for that much. We’re talking about our lives,” she said. “[Past] movements ... didn’t start in the halls of Congress. They started in the streets.”

After Tlaib finished, Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, rushed onto the theater stage, jumping around.

“We’re already winning this and it’s only day two [of the tour]” Prakash said, after saying that the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico, had signed onto the Green New Deal.

“I believe that no person in this country or around the world should have to live in fear because of crises that are preventable,” Prakash said.

She called for politicians with moral conviction and courage to stand up.

“Preach!” shouted someone in the crowd.

“You are here in this room as a part of a revolution,” Prakash said.

Detroit City Councilmember Scott Benson, who left the event early to attend another event, said there are many issues on which the Green New Deal and the Detroit City Council are aligned. Benson said the city council is looking to promote community solar projects and has proposed city ordinances to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Prakash, 25, talked about the importance of the younger generation fixing deeply rooted problems caused by past generations, but she added that the Sunrise Movement recognized those “who have stood for years.”

While the attendees appeared to include a good number of people in the 20s and 30s, many older activists were present. After the event, Prakash said she thought the average age of most people working with and for the organization is 21 or 22.

The event also included two videos.

In the first, Lilly, a 15-year-old from Kentucky, told those watching that transformational and fundamental change is needed to save the environment.

The next video featured Ray, an 18-year-old from Detroit. He spoke of illegal dumps in the city he knew of during his youth and his distaste for the Marathon oil refinery in Southwest Detroit.

Ray was also one of the more than 100 people arrested for sit-in protests at U.S. Capitol offices of various politicians, including then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He said the experience left him inspired and empowered.

While introducing Fernández-Silber to the crowd, Prakash talked about the importance of building a movement.

“This is a fight about our lives, it’s not about CO2, carbon emissions,” Prakash said. “It’s about the water we drink and the food we eat.”

When Fernández-Silber came on stage, she talked about the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America. She said the party has 1,000 members in Detroit.

She also said that it was important not to shy away from “-isms,” like the word “socialism.” The reason, she said, was that the country’s problems had been caused by another “-ism ... capitalism.”

Dorthea Thomas, the deputy director of Good Jobs Now, was next to speak.

She talked about pollution in Detroit and other majority-black Michigan communities and the importance of fighting for black liberation within the movement.

“Too often, black communities get left out of movements like this,” Thomas said.

El-Sayed, an unsuccessful candidate in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, was the last speaker of the night. He said that he was initially uncertain about joining the movement against climate change.

“It’s not because the science isn’t 100% clear,” El-Sayed said. “It’s because whenever [my friends and I would] talk about the climate, people would talk about polar bears. I’m a doctor.”

El-Sayed, who was the executive director of the Detroit Health Department from August 2015 to February 2017, talked about providing quality health care for children through the department. He also spoke about the successful effort to prevent the Marathon oil refinery from increasing its level of sulfur dioxide emissions.

“Shut them down,” someone in the crowd shouted.

“Shut them down? I’m for that,” El-Sayed said.

At the end of his presentation, El-Sayed said that the goals of the Green New Deal are rooted in the ideals of the U.S. Constitution.

“Our Constitution starts with three words,” he said, “We the people.”

When Prakash returned to the stage, she said that those in the movement need to be laser-focused on the urgency of the crisis and relentlessly advocate for solutions as the 2020 elections grow near.

“The next [few] years might be the last time we can elect someone who can save human civilization,” Prakash said. “Do you feel the weight of that?”

The group said significant changes to the country’s energy and economic systems must be made by 2030 to avert a climate catastrophe. They get this date from an October 2018 report produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Prakash said the group will put pressure on the presidential candidates at the Democratic debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31.

“We have the power to make the Green New Deal the defining issue of the election,” she said.

The Sunrise Movement is also encouraging college students to take off a year off from their studies in 2020, as it seeks to organize 300 to 500 students to work on the elections then.

In a post-event interview, when Prakash was asked whether the organization is more focused on climate change policies or building a movement of activists, said she said it’s primarily about movement building.

“The only thing that will allow us to pass these sweeping changes is to create a coalition,” she said.

Prakash drew parallels between the Green New Deal and the original New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

“The New Deal wasn’t one bill; it was many bills over time,” she said.

Prakash called the resolutions currently in Congress authored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, a “vision statement.”

While the Green New Deal has stated goals and general positions, Prakash said that her group gives people the freedom to “work on whatever makes sense for their local context.”

“What is interesting about the climate crisis is that it actually affords us a deadline for all of these things,” she said.