Yesterday at 3pm about 50 Sunrise activists and allies occupied Debbie Dingell’s (D-MI12) Ypsilanti office. They sang songs and told stories of their experiences with climate change and pollution. For 10 months they’ve been making appointments and showing up in numbers to her office, asking her one question: will you support the Green New Deal?  She hasn’t given them a straight answer. “We have no intention of leaving unless we’re removed,” or until we get a “yes or no answer,” Leaha Dotson, one of the organizers, told me last night. Dotson is chair of the Young Democrats of Michigan, a statewide caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party (MDP), vice-chair of the MDP Youth Caucus, and a member of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party Executive Board.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former Democratic candidate for governor, spoke for a few minutes and bought pizza for the activists. “We’ve got an opportunity to come together and realize that the system of corporate economics that has caused so many of us to suffer, has left so many people without basic access to things like healthcare or a job that pays a living wage, is the same system of corporate economics that is destroying our climate, is the same system of corporate economics that has robbed the means of government to build basic things like infrastructure. And who suffers the most? People of color, and poor folks, people in urban and rural communities. We’ve got an opportunity to say enough is enough, we need a Green New Deal,” he said.

The Sunrise activists were ready to stay indefinitely. They had a shift system worked out to continuously occupy Dingell’s office and were signing up people to join them. They had the logistics organized to stay until they got Dingell’s answer. 

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed speaks to Sunrise activists and allies at the sit-in.

This afternoon around 2pm four police cars and two SUVs from the Sheriff’s office and the Ypsilanti police department pulled up to the building and unloaded about 10 officers. They entered the building and told the activists they could protest on the sidewalk, but not in the office. Three activists from the Sunrise “red team”, Dotson and two Sunrise hub leaders, Preston Prescot and Allie Lindstrom sat down and refused to leave. Kelly Teabay, MSU Trustee and Dingell’s district director, was crying as they were handcuffed, arrested, and taken to jail. 

Dotson was made to remove several shirts she had layered on, and strip down to just one before being put in a cell, where she and Lindstrom were handcuffed to a bench for several hours.

They were released about 4:30pm to a crowd of about 25 supporters from the Sunrise movement, parents of Sunrise activists, people from the One Campus University Campaign, and other many local activists. They had prepared a cake for Dingell’s birthday today, and held it up for her as they stood in front of the police department.

Sunrise activists hold up birthday cake for Debbie Dingell after being arrested in her office.

Dotson, audibly shaken by the experience, said, “What the hell, what the actual hell is how I feel. The cell was freezing cold and he made me remove layers of my shirts so that I only had one flimsy t-shirt on. Personally, me and the people arrested, we want to go back, right now, if it takes us getting arrested to make her realize how serious we are about the Green New Deal and how much we need the Green New Deal – this isn’t going to stop us. If that was the goal of whoever called [the police] – no. We’re regrouping, re-strategizing, I expect us to have another storm the office, I expect us to have another sit-in, I expect there to be more arrests at Debbie Dingell’s office, because we are not going to stop. It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life.” 

“We don’t know if we’re charged with anything, we don’t know if we have a ticket, we don’t know anything,” Dotson told me around 5pm today. “Sunrise was able to take care of bailing us out, Sunrise does have a lawyer who will represent us if this case goes to court. Sunrise is gonna support us. I’m immensely thankful for Sunrise, I’m immensely thankful for the friends that showed up.”

It’s not clear who called the police. The police were unable or unwilling to tell them, but Sunrise plans to FOIA police records to find out. Dotson speculates that as they were sitting in Dingell’s office making plans to stay for the long term, the “staff may have been scared, and they may have realized, oh shit, they’re really not going to leave, but I do not know if it was [Dingell’s] staff that called [the police]” Dotson said. “If anything, our resolve is stronger than it was, try to knock us down and we’ll come back tenfold. I will be there every time doing my duty as the chair of YDM to represent and protect my youth,” she said. At 25, Dotson is the oldest Sunrise activist in the group, though allies of all ages were at the sit-in yesterday and in the parking lot today.

This is a new phase and an escalation of tactics by Sunrise. To be successful in their campaign for the Green New Deal, there will be more actions like this, more arrests and confrontation.

The fossil fuel industry has hundreds of billions of dollars representing carbon still in the ground already built in to their stock valuations and other financial instruments. In effect, the fossil fuels in the ground are already putting billions of dollars in the hands of those companies, their shareholders, and executives. If we’re going to avoid global catastrophe, that carbon is going to have to stay in the ground. The wealthy elites will fight tooth and nail to keep those hundreds of billions. To prevent global catastrophe, our politicians are going to have to fight the wealthy, their lobbyists, and sycophants, harder.

The question is, who can we trust to fight for us? Does Dingell have what it takes, is she prepared for the kind of fight that’s coming? Will she stand up for the youth that Sunrise and Dotson represent? So far this cycle, Dingell has taken $12,500 from CMS Energy, parent company of Consumers Energy, and a total of $31,900 from “electric utilities”, according to OpenSecrets.

Reached earlier today for comment (before the arrests) Dingell said, “I called a year ago and told the broker … I told him there was not to be a single anything of any kind of fossil fuel, utility, gas, anything.” Regarding CMS Energy, she said “I’ve known these people forever, you can ask them, I tell them exactly what I think. My contributions are open and transparent, that’s one of the things that bugs me about a lot of people that pound their chest, and take contributions from people and they’re taking money to other accounts that aren’t transparent.”

On the same call Dingell also said, “you need to call the LCV [League of Conservation Voters], you need to call the Sierra Club, we all support the principle of the New Green Deal [sic], but they have not actually endorsed it either”. That’s not true. According to the Sierra Club website, they endorsed the the Green New Deal on February 7th, 2019. Responding to the introduction of the Green New Deal resolutions in the House and Senate they wrote, “The Sierra Club endorsed these Green New Deal resolutions and is mobilizing its more than 3.5 million members and supporters to encourage broad congressional backing for the resolutions” (emphasis added). The LCV also appears to have endorsed the Green New Deal on the same day, though they didn’t include the specific word “endorse” in their statement. The title of their press release reads, “LCV Supports Green New Deal Resolutions” and they issued this statement:

“LCV applauds Senator Markey and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez for their climate leadership, and we support the Green New Deal resolution. We are thrilled to see so many members of Congress following through on the climate action that voters clearly said they wanted from their leaders on Election Day, including 100% clean, renewable energy, major investments in climate-smart infrastructure and efficiency, good-paying jobs, and a just transition for workers and communities hardest hit by pollution. The climate crisis is a problem of epic proportions that requires a level of ambition just as big. This is an all hands-on-deck moment, and now is the time to challenge ourselves as never before.”

Can Sunrise trust Dingell when she’s this transparently disingenuous? Watch this space, more to come on this story.

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