In Iowa, Rashida Tlaib and the Sunrise Movement Push the Green New Deal—and Bernie Sanders

Ahead of the critical Iowa caucus, climate organizers are stumping for bold action and a presidential candidate they believe will get it done.

David Goodner January 13, 2020

Sanders and Tlaib turned out 900 people to a Sunday rally in Iowa City centered on combating climate change. (Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement Cedar Rapids)

IOWA CITY — Nation­al pro­gres­sive leader and Squad” mem­ber Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) barn­stormed through Iowa over the week­end with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), just three weeks before the state’s first-in-the-nation cau­cus on Feb­ru­ary 3.

“If Sanders wins the nomination, it’s going to be on the back of the largest grassroots movement in my lifetime and that in itself is going to be paradigm-shifting.”

Togeth­er, Sanders and Tlaib turned out hun­dreds of peo­ple to a town hall meet­ing in Dav­en­port on Sat­ur­day and 900 to a Sun­day ral­ly in Iowa City cen­tered on com­bat­ing cli­mate change.

The two stops were the first pub­lic appear­ances in Iowa for Rep. Tlaib, a Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can lawyer, moth­er, Mus­lim and first-term con­gress­woman from Detroit.

Social jus­tice is love and we are going to cre­ate an incred­i­ble new Amer­i­ca that is about all of us,” Tlaib said at St. Ambrose Catholic Uni­ver­si­ty in Dav­en­port. I’m so hap­py to be here on behalf of our future pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, Bernie Sanders.” 

Sanders returned the praise, telling the Dav­en­port crowd that, unlike the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, his cam­paign stands for a gov­ern­ment of love and kind­ness, not hate and divi­sive­ness” — and that he shared these val­ues with Tlaib and the oth­er mem­bers of the so-called Squad.” 

I know these guys and they are out there every day stand­ing up for the work­ing fam­i­lies of this coun­try,” Sanders said.

Accord­ing to the Sier­ra Club, A Green New Deal is a big, bold trans­for­ma­tion of the econ­o­my to tack­le the twin crises of inequal­i­ty and cli­mate change.” It’s notable that Sanders and his back­ers are mobi­liz­ing around the plan in Iowa, as such an approach for a nov­el idea could help increase pub­lic support. 

A Data for Progress sur­vey released Jan­u­ary 10 found that Iowa vot­ers sup­port a pro­gres­sive agen­da, with 78% of like­ly cau­cus-goers say­ing they strong­ly or some­what sup­port Medicare For All, and 83% of like­ly cau­cus-goers say­ing the same of the Green New Deal.

Tlaib made the urgency of the Green New Deal per­son­al dur­ing both of her Iowa stops, relat­ing the need for change to the plight of thou­sands of chil­dren and fam­i­lies in her west Detroit dis­trict, where work­ing peo­ple of col­or face dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high rates of air and water pol­lu­tion, asth­ma and cancer.

If you real­ly want to see what doing noth­ing tru­ly looks like, come to my dis­trict,” she said in Iowa City. Rows and rows and rows of homes have these lit­tle white cross­es in front of them, rep­re­sent­ing can­cer, sur­vivors of cancer.”

Rep. Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.), a Sanders cam­paign co-chair, also spoke at the Iowa City cli­mate ral­ly. He point­ed­ly crit­i­cized the ongo­ing wars in the Mid­dle East while pro­mot­ing Sanders’ life­time of oppo­si­tion to impe­ri­al­ism, as well as his sup­port for cli­mate initiatives.

I was just in Clin­ton, Iowa and you know what they told me there?” Rep. Khan­na asked in Iowa City. 

They have the high­est can­cer rate in the state because of the sul­fur diox­ide emis­sions. Do you know what Bernie’s Green New Deal means? It means peo­ple in Clin­ton, Iowa shouldn’t have to wor­ry about whether their kids will grow up with can­cer. That’s what the Green New Deal is about.”

Varshi­ni Prakash, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sun­rise Move­ment, said that Sanders’ first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2016 embold­ened a new gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple to stand up and take action for cli­mate justice. 

Ms. Prakash’s speech in Iowa City was also her first pub­lic state­ment since the Sun­rise Move­ment endorsed Sanders for pres­i­dent a few days ear­li­er. She said in Iowa: Eighty per­cent of our mem­bers endorsed Bernie Sanders because he stands for a Green New Deal… the kind of Green New Deal that ensures black, brown, and indige­nous peo­ple ben­e­fit from a new, sus­tain­able econ­o­my, and that the his­toric injus­tices that have been per­pe­trat­ed onto these com­mu­ni­ties are repaired.”

Oth­er issues addressed at the Sun­day ral­ly includ­ed Medicare for All, stu­dent debt can­cel­la­tion, free col­lege tuition, a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions, end­ing wars in the Mid­dle East, com­bat­ing police bru­tal­i­ty, legal­iz­ing mar­i­jua­na, restor­ing felon vot­ing rights, cre­at­ing mil­lions of afford­able new homes, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage and repeal­ing the Taft-Hart­ley Act.

Many of these ambi­tious pol­i­cy pre­scrip­tions could also be part of a strong Green New Deal frame­work that advances envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic and racial jus­tice all at once. For exam­ple, afford­able hous­ing could be tack­led under a Green New Deal by build­ing 12 mil­lion new, envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able and afford­able homes, as put for­ward by Peo­ple’s Action’s Homes Guar­an­tee. Sim­i­lar­ly, a Medicare for All bill could include green retro­fitting of hos­pi­tals and clin­ics. Such pro­pos­als would also help cre­ate mil­lions of jobs.

We are fight­ing to save the plan­et,” Sanders said in Iowa City. We have already seen the real dam­age of cli­mate change here in Iowa, where record-break­ing rain­falls have led to floods, mil­lions of dol­lars in dam­ages, and the delayed plant­i­ng of hun­dreds of acres of farmland.”

A uni­fy­ing theme of the ral­ly that Sanders, Tlaib, Prakash and Khan­na all touched upon was the idea that the only true vehi­cle for social change is a mass move­ment of mil­lions of work­ing peo­ple, com­ing togeth­er to take col­lec­tive action. This Orga­niz­er-In-Chief” mantra of co-gov­er­nance with social move­ments is one of the dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of Sanders’ 2020 campaign.

The the­o­ry that issue orga­niz­ing and elec­toral pol­i­tics can be mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial isn’t just lofty cam­paign rhetoric — it’s actu­al­ly being test­ed on the ground in Iowa. 

While Sanders has helped pop­u­lar­ize poli­cies like free col­lege tuition, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions he counts on as allies in Iowa and around the coun­try have been on the fore­front of these issue campaigns.

It was the Sun­rise Movement’s dra­mat­ic sit-ins at Speak­er of the House Nan­cy Pelosi’s office in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 2018 that helped launch the Green New Deal frame­work into the pub­lic debate. 

The group began work­ing in Iowa and New Hamp­shire soon after, accord­ing to local orga­niz­ers. They cur­rent­ly have six paid staff work­ing out of the statewide head­quar­ters of Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment (Iowa CCI) in Des Moines. 

We’re run­ning a field pro­gram of base build­ing, get­ting out the vote, and direct action,” Sayles Kas­ten, the Iowa state direc­tor of Sun­rise Move­ment, told In These Times.

The cli­mate can­vassers spend most of their time orga­niz­ing at local hubs” on col­lege cam­pus­es with Iowa Stu­dent Action, anoth­er CCI-affil­i­at­ed group that also works on free col­lege tuition and debt can­cel­la­tion, Kas­ten said. 

Accord­ing to orga­niz­ers, Iowa CCI has more than 15 paid staff and 5,000 dues-pay­ing mem­bers. The com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion was an ear­ly endors­er of Sanders in 2016 and has held dozens of com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings, pan­el dis­cus­sions, work­shops and direct actions around Medicare for All. They began doing the same type of work around a Green New Deal last year.

Ms. Prakash, the Sun­rise Move­ment exec­u­tive direc­tor, was a fea­tured speak­er at Iowa CCI’s 2019 con­ven­tion last sum­mer, a role Sanders played in 2017. At least three of Sanders’ top Iowa cam­paign staff are CCI alumni. 

The group’s pres­i­den­tial forum in Sep­tem­ber was attend­ed by more than 2,000 peo­ple, includ­ing four of the top-polling can­di­dates. The event focused on grass­roots sto­ry­telling about issues fac­ing work­ing peo­ple such as immi­gra­tion, racial pro­fil­ing, afford­able hous­ing, health­care, fac­to­ry farm­ing and the environment.
The Sun­rise Move­ment says they hope to move 10,000 Iowans to cau­cus for cli­mate jus­tice this year, enough to poten­tial­ly swing the elec­tion, based on Sunrise’s Iowa cau­cus turnout mod­el which pre­dicts 200,000 peo­ple will participate.

Sanders is cur­rent­ly lead­ing a num­ber of polls in Iowa and New Hamp­shire — the first two ear­ly vot­ing states — but whether he and his com­mu­ni­ty allies can suc­ceed in actu­al­ly expand­ing the elec­torate remains to be seen. Because can­di­dates spend so much time and mon­ey in these states, what hap­pens there is seen as a bell­wether test nationally.

No can­di­date in the mod­ern era of pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics has won their party’s nom­i­na­tion with­out win­ning either Iowa or New Hamp­shire (except in 1992 when Iowan Tom Harkin ran for pres­i­dent, which caused oth­er can­di­dates like even­tu­al nom­i­nee Bill Clin­ton to skip Iowa entire­ly). Win­ning both states back-to-back can give a can­di­date con­sid­er­able momen­tum going into Super Tues­day.

Regard­less of the results in 2020, how­ev­er, cli­mate orga­niz­ers plan to con­tin­ue their efforts in the streets.

Cli­mate protests orga­nized by a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the Sun­rise Move­ment and the Youth Cli­mate Strike, are sched­uled for Jan­u­ary 31 and Feb­ru­ary 1 in Des Moines and in cities across the country. 

The Youth Cli­mate Strike and its allies have orga­nized high school walk­outs all across the state, brought Swedish envi­ron­men­tal activist and Time magazine’s Per­son of the Year Gre­ta Thun­berg to Iowa last Octo­ber, and co-spon­sored a cli­mate sum­mit in Coralville last Novem­ber that was head­lined by Sanders and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑NY).

If Sanders wins the nom­i­na­tion, it’s going to be on the back of the largest grass­roots move­ment in my life­time and that in itself is going to be par­a­digm-shift­ing,” Mr. Kas­ten, the Iowa state direc­tor for Sun­rise Move­ment, told In These Times.

But we know that no mat­ter who is in Wash­ing­ton, we still need a Green New Deal. That’s why in 2021 young peo­ple will cli­mate strike — we hope on the lev­el of the Women’s March — no mat­ter who is sit­ting in the White House. To us, it doesn’t mat­ter who is in pow­er, we’re still going to need to have sta­tus quo-shift­ing cli­mate policy.”

David Good­ner is a writer, orga­niz­er and Catholic Work­er from Iowa City.
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