I hadn’t heard of the Sunrise Movement before I entered college. To be fair, students founded the organization just a few short months before I graduated high school. But ever since Sunrise appeared on my radar, I’ve had nothing but the utmost respect for them.
For those of you who don’t know, the Sunrise Movement is a national, youth-led movement of activists advocating for political action to combat climate change. They are, understandably, quite progressive in their politics and endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. The movement has “hubs” all over the country, including one in my college town, Ann Arbor.
I became aware of Sunrise Ann Arbor through my work with my campus’ Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter. Though I am not a member of Sunrise myself, I have participated in direct actions with the Ann Arbor chapter in the past. Some members of the YDSA are also a part of Sunrise, and I like to hear about what they’re doing.
Last year, Sunrise Ann Arbor focused their efforts on Democratic U.S. House Representative Debbie Dingell. Dingell represents Michigan’s 12th congressional district, which includes Ann Arbor. Despite calling herself a “progressive” and representing one of the bluest districts in the entire state, Dingell refuses to back what has become a core progressive policy: the Green New Deal.
In August of 2019, one of Sunrise Ann Arbor’s members confronted Dingell on the issue. In trying to defend herself, Dingell repeated a nonsense Republican talking point that the Green New Deal would ban airplanes. Obviously frustrated, the Sunrise member responded with a forceful, “That’s not in the Green New Deal.” He was right, and Dingell knew it. She was visibly flustered.
The brief exchange was recorded and posted to Sunrise Ann Arbor’s Twitter account. The video has been retweeted well over 400 times and has tallied more than 1,000 likes. It was a local viral sensation; the replies flooded with calls for Dingell to leave office.
— Sunrise Ann Arbor🌅 (@sunriseannarbor) August 23, 2019
After the video blew up, Sunrise Ann Arbor’s tactics only escalated. On Nov. 23, 2019, three of their members were arrested while staging a sit-in of Dingell’s Ann Arbor office. The purpose of the sit-in, as with all of their actions targeting the representative, was to pressure Dingell to support the Green New Deal.
Despite the arrests and detainments, just two days later, the group organized to stage another sit-in — this time, in Dingell’s Ypsilanti office. Unfortunately for them, they showed up only to find the office closed and empty. They felt this was almost certainly a response to their sit-in just a couple of days prior.
Whether or not you agree with their cause, you have to admire Sunrise Ann Arbor’s tenacity. They believe in something, and they’ve demonstrated time and time again that they’re willing to fight tooth and nail for it.
Given their tenacity, there was absolutely no way they were going to let any setbacks stop them. Nothing was going to get in the way of Sunrise Ann Arbor delivering their message of climate justice. Undeterred, the young activists made their way to Dingell’s Dearborn office in hopes of doing yet another sit-in the very next day. However, when they arrived, they were greeted by about a dozen armed police officers who informed them that they would not be allowed to enter.
While the cops may have stymied their efforts, one thing is for certain: Dingell knows about Sunrise Ann Arbor. By directly holding the representative’s feet to the fire, Sunrise’s relatively small group has managed to live rent-free in the head of a big-name politician and member of America’s longest-reigning political dynasty (the Dingell family has held Debbie’s current seat since 1933). The group created shock waves throughout the broader community as well.
Thanks to their in-your-face tactics, Sunrise has played a tremendous role in giving climate change the attention it deserves. For example, Ann Arbor now has a candidate running against Dingell in the Democratic primary whose number one issue is climate. The candidate’s name is Solomon Rajput. On Feb. 20, 2020, in a room joined by Sunrise Ann Arbor’s leaders, Rajput signed Sunrise’s “Green New Deal Pledge,” wherein he vowed to “champion a Green New Deal in any and all ways” and “not take contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, or PACs.”
Sunrise Ann Arbor has taught me a lesson I will never forget: The way you incite change is by making those in power uncomfortable. The effect is two-fold.
The first effect is rather straightforward. If you bother those in power enough, they might just make concessions — even if only to get you out of their hair. This has not happened yet with Representative Dingell, as she still has not co-sponsored the Green New Deal, but maybe it will.
The second effect is inspiring others by breaking down the fear many have of people in power. By being aggressive, rather than deferential, toward individuals in high positions, you break down the idea of putting powerful people on a pedestal. In this respect, Sunrise Ann Arbor has been quite successful. With Solomon Rajput’s campaign gaining steam every day, he’s looking like he could pose a serious threat to Dingell come the primary election in August.
I should add that Dingell is not the only politician who has found themselves in Sunrise Ann Arbor’s crosshairs. In December 2019, the group stormed the office of Democratic Senator Gary Peters, urging him to support the Green New Deal. As a result, two more of their members were arrested.
More recently, in partnership with the Black Youth Project 100, Sunrise Ann Arbor protested at a Joe Biden rally to hold him “accountable for his failure to embrace a bold climate agenda and for his history of supporting legislation that has hurt workers and vulnerable communities in the [state] of Michigan.” Biden’s climate plan scored a paltry 75/200 on the Sunrise Movement’s “2020 Presidential Candidate Scorecard.” Their preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders, came in at 183/200.
In the future, I plan to continue to keep my eye on Sunrise Ann Arbor and the Sunrise Movement more broadly. Their willingness to hold powerful leaders accountable is an example for us all to follow. So long as the Sunrise Movement continues to make those in charge uncomfortable, they will continue to shift the discourse.