Sunrise Movement, Chicago: a Vision of a Just Future

The youth-led Sunrise Movement gathered in Chicago as part of the “Road To a Green New Deal Tour.”

by Patrick Baranovskis

CHICAGO, IL – This summer, the Sunrise Movement, an organization started and led by young people fighting to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, has been on a “Road To a Green New Deal Tour” – more than 200 town halls across the country, bringing the national, and indeed global, conversation of the pain and destruction climate inaction has created, and what a comprehensive plan to reverse this damage would look like, to each city. At the end of May, Chicago had its turn. In addition to two of Chicago’s congressional representatives, Jan Schakowsky and Chuy Garcia, vowing their commitment as cosigners to the Green New Deal Resolution, the town hall consisted mostly of local activists, labor organizers, and community leaders of all ages and from across the city presenting on how their work and the experiences that inform it connects to the promise of a GND. Beyond the conventional, corporate political party landscape, the Sunrise Movement is breaking ground in the historical challenge to mount a formidable attack against the forces undergirding climate breakdown. Here are some of the highlights.

Chyann of GoodKids MadCity, an organization of Black and Brown young people united in fighting to end gun violence: “I see violence in my community every day. I see it through a lack of equitable funded schools, lack of accessible healthy grocery stores, lack of mental health and trauma informed clinics, a lack of clean air. Black and Brown people are disproportionately impacted by more pollutants than they cause… That urgency starts right now in the communities on the South and West sides of Chicago, where our babies are 8 times more likely to die from asthma than white kids. We’re living in environmentally hazardous areas where scrap yards and distribution warehouses are exposing us to more toxins and pollutants than anyone. That urgency starts right now in marginalized communities all over the world, all suffering from environmental racism while others are benefitting from it…There’s an urgency to combat and limit climate change, and that urgency is not in 12 years, that urgency is now.”

Allysa with the social justice centered group for young girls of color, the Rebel Bells Collective from the Calumet region on the South East side of Chicago – a heavily industrialized area with a legendary history fighting for a livable environment against corporate interests and racist policies: “Environmental and climate justice is having clean, safe, and walkable neighborhoods…free mental health services in every neighborhood…a job with a living wage that isn’t going to make you sick… access to quality education in a clean space. [It] is about having a life worth living, and we’re not going to stop fighting till we get it!”

Anthony Tamez-Pochel, a Cree-Lakota activist and co-president of Chi Nations Youth Council – an organization whose mission is to create a supportive open environment for Native Youth, to raise awareness of cultural identity and promote a healthy lifestyle through arts, activism, and education. Anthony reported on their work with the recent Indigenous land acknowledgement protocol passed in the Chicago City Council. The acknowledgement was unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, mutilated by former mayor Emmanual’s lawyers and long standing corrupt Alderman Ed Burke to have a section which stated, “The City of Chicago acknowledges that we are sitting on top of Indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands, that which through acts of genocide, deceit, forced removal, dispossession, appropriation of their knowledge systems, and the implementation of a settler colonial structure, formed the foundation of our current metropolis,” stripped from the final draft. Anthony read the uncensored land acknowledgement protocol.   

Yet crucially, this acknowledgment corresponds with an important development in the Indigenous led decolonization movement for Chicago – a new ~1acre sized garden plot and gathering space called the First Nations’ Garden maintained by Chi Nations Youth Council, secured through a partnership between them and socialist 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramierez-Rosa, in which the publicly owned, indeed, stolen land, was leased over at no cost to the descendents of its original inhabitants and stewards. Anthony concluded with a traditional prayer song brought back from their time at the Standing Rock Reservation, South Dakota in 2016, where they joined with over 10,000 others united to protect the water which is life for millions against a horde of fossil-fuel corporations and corrupt governments they control.

Byron Sigcho-Lopez, one of 6 newly elected Chicago Democratic Socialists of America members on Chicago’s City Council, former UIC professor and leader of the grassroots Immigrants and working class rights organization Pilsen Alliance, and Ecuadorian immigrant: “Our community had to live with coal plants in our own backyard for decades. And the only reason this was acceptable was because we have a corrupt political class who are supposed to represent the best interests of the community, but were being paid by the same polluters that were literally killing our own people… Extractism has not resulted in self determination – it’s resulted in more misery, poverty, and dependency. The same thing goes in my home country: Chevron, Texaco and many other corporations left massive pollution; neoliberal policies that continue to affect many millions of people living in poverty and environmental injustice. That’s why this fight is so vital, because it’s a global problem. And it affected me at 17 years old coming to the U.S. …where many immigrants were suffering from the same problems: environmental injustice, high asthma and cancer rates that continue to kill. That’s why we need to make sure we organize, because when we organize, we win! …We’re going to make sure that big corporations and the Koch brothers won’t continue to govern, but we govern ourselves.”

The new sweeping growth of socialist City Council members (from 1 to 6), who are joined in their grassroots support by many other newly elected progressive aldermen and women who refused campaign donations by developers in wards now formerly in the hands of machine politicians, made national news. What are going to be the long term ramifications of the intersection between historic representation of socialist politicians and grassroots, system-change focused movements like Sunrise? The answer remains to be seen as these partnerships are yet still forming. Certainly, the some of the symbolism of Sunrise harkens to working class history explicitly such as the hammer and grain (perhaps harvested by a sickle?).

The Chicago Democratic Socialists of America have recently announced their #DemocratizeComEd campaign – ComEd being the the main electric utility company in Chicago, and whose contract with the City is up for renegotiation in 2020, the first time in 30 years. From CDSA’s website: “Now’s the time for us to push for a city-owned electric utility with an elected board, aggressive renewable energy targets, progressive rates, and green, union jobs to maintain infrastructure. If we democratize ComEd, we can serve our communities and the environment instead of investors.” The relevance of campaigns like this to the Green New Deal is obvious – these connections must be highlighted and deepened regardless of any ideological fear of “socialism,” especially when the leaders in these organizations have been entrenched in the struggle against corporations and corrupt officials for so long.

It’s a process that continues. The coal power plants in Pilsen and Little Village which Byron referred to were indeed closed in 2012 and 2014 thanks to a more than a decade long fight by community organizations. However, those sites have since been purchased by the multinational corporation Hilco, to be developed as a 1,000,000 sq. ft. warehouse/distribution center – one which will provide only temporary non-union jobs, more air pollution from diesel trucks, and more traffic. In Rahm Emmanual’s last 3 weeks as mayor, he and Alderman Muñoz pushed through a $19 million tax break for the corporation despite massive community protests – they received together $118,900 in campaign donations from Hilco over the last 10 years. Emmanual and Munez are no longer in office, and yet our struggle continues. Since the closure of the coal plants, community organizations like LVEJO (Little Village Environmental Justice Organization) have put forward numerous proposals for redevelopment of the site that would actually benefit the community, including urban farms, worker co-op incubators, and green space.

Next up was Demond Drummer, co-architect of the GND Resolution with New Consensus, coiner of the phrase “zero-waste, zero-carbon, zero-poverty economy,” and Chicagoan: “The GND is an idea whose time has come. Building on the long struggle of the racial, environmental, and economic justice movements, [it’s] a WWII-scale mobilization of all of the resources of our country to not only address the present and existential threat of climate breakdown, but to do so in a way that rebuilds our economy, and repairs decades and centuries of…violence this country has visited upon Indigenous peoples and nations, Black and Brown people and communities, women, and all others who have been systematically shut out of everything that is good in this country. The GND is an industrial policy…powered by massive public investments to research, develop, and deploy the technologies we need to a zero carbon economy…The GND will leave no worker, no community behind. Some say…that talking about economic justice is just a distraction from the real threat of climate breakdown, we should do that first then come back to inequality. And to them we say, what neighborhood do you live in?”

Naomi Davis, founder of Blacks in Green, a leading-edge teacher and practitioner in emerging movements for systems change, equitable development, sustainable communities, and green infrastructure: “What are we going to do when it comes to transforming into a new green economy? We’re going to make a path toward 100% employment of Chicago’s South Side…Jobs are being writ big nationally –  122,000 solar jobs coming to Illinois. But what can you create right in the neighborhood where you live? Our outcomes aim to increase the rate at which neighbor-owned businesses are created and sustained, build the capacity of neighbors to own, develop, and manage the property of their community …and self-sustaining black communities everywhere…We can walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, walk to play inside of our sustainable square-mile. Because guess what? Maybe one day, the truck don’t come. What are you creating in the place you live?…In Woodlawn – 400 vacant lots. We have to build for people who are here now and not displace them. That’s called stabilization, that’s called roots… Only a whole-system solution can transform the whole-system problem common to black communities everywhere. Remember, you can’t have climate justice without economic justice!”

Ms. Davis reference to vacant lots touches on an important reality for many Rust Belt cities and communities. The poverty which is common to these places, a web of feedback loops such as food-deserts and diet related health problems, unemployment and school-prison pipelines, stands in contrast with demonstrably effective under-used-land transformation community food sovereignty in the form of urban agriculture. The Rust Belt, so called for the deindustrialization of the last 50 years which left many Midwest/Northeastern cities with large amounts of vacant land, is on the brink of resolving the antagonism between town and country, private vs public interests, and political reform and revolution.

The Green New Deal resolution rightfully includes many agricultural reforms, such as encouraging small scale family farms and investing in regenerative agriculture which can help reverse climate breakdown. Yet without a vibrant, cooperatively assembled, and federally subsidized urban agriculture movement that will relocalize food production, create jobs in communities that need them most, provide access to fresh, healthy food to communities whose lack of which results in pandemic diet related illnesses, and reverse the alienation of urban centers with the natural world, a Green New Deal won’t go far enough.

Erica Sanchez, mother, public school janitor, and member of Service Employees International Union (Local 1), a labor union uniting 50,000 working people and an endorser of the GND: “For the past 21 years…I’ve joined together with my fellow union members to fight for economic, racial, immigrant and environmental justice. We fight for justice on all these fronts because they’re directly connected. From harmful petcoke and manganese on the far southeast side to the now shuttered coal burning power plants in Little Village and Pilsen, Chicago’s frontline communities have a strong history of fighting against environmental racism. The Green New Deal will help create a more sustainable environment for all, while promoting family sustaining union jobs and a just transition for the workers, families and communities impacted by the decline of fossil fuels. This is our moment! We have the chance to help change the course of our planet and country. SEIU members like me stand ready to help make this vision a reality as we continue to fight for social justice on all fronts, along with the good union jobs our communities need to thrive. Sí se puede!”

In order to transfer actual political power in Chicago, a Green New Deal needs to encompass more than just a list of reforms. It has to be an actual reflection of the revolutionary content of our times, leaving no aspect of life untouched. The fight against poverty and climate breakdown are not uniting just simply because of their shared trajectories of risk affecting larger and larger amounts of people in a failing system, but also because of a common historical source. Enough people are putting the dots together. The alchemy of two separate social struggles, social and environmental, have the potential to raise up together the collective analysis, to produce a more class conscious, formative attack against the underlying problem: capitalism. Capitalism inherently creates inequality in society and rifts in Earth’s ecological metabolism.

It is a system where a global, elite class non-workers and property owners extract wealth generated by working people and the environment. The reality that those who want to make change must face is that capitalism continue on as before now that robotics and computing technology, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, are advancing to a point where it is replacing mass numbers of human jobs. This contradiction – technology which creates an abundance of goods without human labor, and an economic system which distributes the necessities of life based on human labor – is forcing humanity to a fork in the road. This is the same road that has resulted in global climate breakdown, and the options before us speaks to both contradictions: life or death, private property or common property.

That the two main things the Sunrise Movement is fighting for is (1) good jobs and (2) a livable future, is noteworthy in this regard. The incoming, and, in some places, ongoing, mass shortage of available jobs is a direct result of a system that for too long has been run in the interests of those at the top. Although the movement for good jobs and a livable future isn’t yet fully conscious of the impossibility of this task within capitalism to the degree that it is able to assemble the forces necessary to overthrow it, this is only because of the corresponding relationship between the degeneration of conditions in society and our theories to explain how to change them. As capitalism and the institutions which support it continue to fail the people, and as socialist politicians and organizing continues to build its base within the needs of the people, actually pursuing the sustainability of society, we’ll have situations of real change on our hands.

While a Green New Deal is the only thing that can secure a just, livable future for humans and non-humans alike on Earth, it is only one in a series of steps necessary to transform our society from a system that is rotten from the ground up to one rooted in justice and equity. A GND can be the enormous push of reforms we need to start to take back the planet out of the grip of a dying system.

Without the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal is a much different struggle. The urgency and creativity that those whose future is on the line brings to a social movement determines to an important degree the outcome of that process. With the 2020 presidential primary and congressional elections 17 months away, and the leading climate scientists ultimatum to avert climate catastrophe 11 years away, the realization of a “Decade of the Green New Deal” (coined by AOC in her short film titled “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sends us a climate message from the future”) is becoming more and more perilous.

Thankfully, there is growing support for measures which can transfer political and economic power to its rightful place, into the hands of the people. It’s not only about Republican or Democrat, but about hundreds of millions of working class people waking up to the wealth of antagonistic relationships that are born out extractivist labor relations, energy generation, agriculture, transportation, and waste management. The common goal is to transform these parts of our society in order to stop and reverse climate breakdown, improve the quality of life for those most affected by environmental and social injustice, and ensure a humane life for future generations. This can only be accomplished through a communal society.

The Sunrise Movement’s call for a new system is heard loud and clear, all over this city. Can we step up to the challenge of uniting all those who can be united? Only if we continually push to respond to the actual needs of the people.


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