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U.S. Politics U.S. climate activists rally outside Democratic debate in Detroit

Activist demonstrate at at Grand Circus Park on July 30, 2019, in Detroit, Michigan. Democratic presidential candidates will debate in Detroit July 30 and 31.

JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands of environmental activists, calling for the Democratic Party to embrace far-reaching plans to curb climate change and address social injustice, gathered for a hard-to-miss rally in Detroit on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the first of two presidential primary debates here.

The rally was organized by the Sunrise Movement, the climate advocacy group seeking to harness the political power of young people to push for the Green New Deal. That proposal, which sets out a broad vision for significantly reducing planet-warming pollution by 2030 while also guaranteeing millions of new jobs, has become a litmus test in the Democratic primary race.

Sunrise activists joined with several local liberal groups, chanting and singing as they marched from a central downtown park to the Fox Theater, the site of the debates.

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The rally’s organizers said their goal was to see more top-tier Democratic candidates put climate change at the forefront of their policy agendas. They also wanted to pressure the candidates to visit some of Detroit’s most marginalized communities, many of which have seen devastating effects from water contamination and air pollution.

“These candidates see the glitz and glamour of America, but they need to see us — the people on the bottom,” said Theresa Landrum, a local climate organizer. “White people champion climate change, but it’s us, the people, who are suffering the impact.”

The demonstration was part of a monthslong effort by the Sunrise Movement and its allied organizations to pressure Democrats to more forcefully address climate change. That effort began soon after Democrats recaptured the House in last year’s midterm elections. The group orchestrated a sit-in at the office of Nancy Pelosi, who was set to become speaker, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had just won a House seat in New York, joined in.

This year, Ocasio-Cortez was the primary House sponsor of a nonbinding resolution that laid out the Green New Deal, an ambitious and broad platform that sets targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and calls for the government to guarantee high-paying jobs in clean energy industries.

The Sunrise Movement then hosted events across the country this summer aimed at drumming up public support for the proposal.

Some political winds have shifted in the activists’ favor. In a Democratic primary with two dozen candidates fighting for attention, groups like Sunrise have been able to seize on the chaos and push their preferred issues into the conversation. Among other things, Sunrise has helped pressure almost all of the candidates to sign a pledge to refuse to accept large donations from fossil-fuel interests.

The group has also demanded that the party hold a debate focused on climate change, echoing a call from Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who has made global warming the central issue of his presidential campaign.

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The Democratic National Committee has refused that request, but last week both MSNBC and CNN announced they would broadcast candidate forums about climate change. The announcements reflected the urgency with which Democrats have mobilized around an issue that was hardly mentioned in the 2016 election.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, said the Green New Deal was gaining political momentum. The union backed the proposal earlier this year, becoming the first major labor group to do so.

“Moms and dads in Flint deserve clean water once and for all,” Henry said, referring to the yearslong lead contamination crisis in the city, about an hour’s drive northwest of Detroit. “So we’re going to stay in the streets.”

Several challenges remain for groups like the Sunrise Movement. Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to lead in the polls, representing the strength of moderates in the party who are less likely to support the progressive ideas of the Green New Deal, like employment guarantees.

And just as some more moderate candidates have adopted the phrase “Medicare for All” to refer to their health care plans, drawing the ire of progressives who demand a single-payer system, some Sunrise activists fear the candidates may back the Green New Deal in name but not in detail.

“If you want our vote, you can no longer neglect us,” said S. Baxter Jones, a Detroit activist. “Nothing about us, without us.”

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Few of the top-tier presidential candidates have so far agreed to tour Detroit’s most polluted communities, as Sunrise demanded. But Landrum said that Inslee; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke; Julián Castro, the former housing secretary; and self-help author Marianne Williamson had scheduled visits.

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