A 160-Year-Old Tactic Can Help Us Solve the Climate Crisis

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Sunrisers in Kentucky march to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s house at dawn.

It’s time to wake some politicians up, literally.

We’ve already called our representatives, marched to their offices, and sat-in in the halls of power to demand change. We’ve proposed effective legislation, signed petitions, and shown up for public comment. Too many lawmakers have ignored all of that. No more. It’s time for us to escalate our campaign for true climate justice and collective liberation.

So now, we will show them that they can’t keep ignoring us — and they certainly can’t keep ignoring the political, economic and climate crises our communities face. We deserve a livable planet for everyone. If our elected officials are too near-sighted or selfish to take climate threats seriously, they shouldn’t be sleeping easy.

To wake up these politicians, Sunrise is taking a page out of the history books and going back 160 years to emulate the revolutionary Wide Awakes. Started in the months leading up to the 1860 election, the Wide Awakes were a political club known for their midnight marches in support of Lincoln and other Republican politicians. They first marched in Connecticut in support of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and months later, chapters had formed throughout the north, in the upper south, and even out west in San Francisco.

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A newspaper illustration of a grand torchlight procession of the Wide-Awake Clubs in New York City in October, 1860. Photo Mike Goad | Flickr

Some historians consider this political movement, composed primarily of young men, instrumental in winning Lincoln the election. But more importantly, and indisputably, their movement galvanized young people who wanted something better than what establishment politicians were offering them. These activists were an uncompromising force against slavery and a coalition of laborers. They combated rampant voter suppression and pushed their political party further left.

Sound familiar? In some ways, Sunrise Movement is the multiracial, cross-class, great-grandchild of the Wide Awakes. We’re still unsatisfied with establishment politicians who aren’t fighting for us. We’re still up against widespread voter suppression tactics. This time, we want equitable, just solutions to the climate crisis. So we’re taking to the nighttime streets again. More specifically, to the streets outside the houses of politicians unwilling to reckon with impending climate collapse.

In an academic paper about the 1860s organizers, historian Jon Grinspan wrote, “The Wide Awakes’ hoopla amplified the murmurings of a generation.” In this moment, Sunrise will amplify the voices of our generation — no longer murmuring, but shouting for a livable future.

How and Why We’re Escalating

We know that, for some people on first thought, the imagery of nighttime protests outside of politicians’ homes might feel incendiary or sinister. It might not be what you expected from climate organizers. And to that end, we’re here to offer some thoughts.

These protests are to wake lawmakers up, to make them think about their inaction. We have let them feed us promises and excuses and let us down for decades — we do not have more time to play their games or accept incrementalism. If they are not going to take our future seriously, they need to make way for people who want a livable planet.

Establishment politicians enable Big Oil to pollute the air we breathe, deny marginalized communities’ access to clean drinking water, and support corporations that refuse to pay livable wages to their workers. Until our politicians are writing laws and implementing policies that serve communities in need, those in office should not be sleeping easy.

When their job is over for the day, these lawmakers get to go home to a comfortable house outside the city, never worrying about their basic needs being met. But their constituents face injustices they don’t get to walk away from at 5 p.m. Our communities are being devastated by the impacts of climate change seven days a week, not just Monday through Friday. And that’s why we say it’s time to move the protests from lawmakers’ offices to their homes.

They must stop ignoring us.

In recent months, we’ve also seen that protesting at politicians’ houses works.

This summer, following the leadership of the Black Organizing Project and at their invitation to help support their 10-year quest to get police out of Oakland schools, Sunrise Bay Area marched in a coalition with other organizations to the houses of Oakland Unified School District board members. We made the Black Organizing Project’s demands clear: End OUSD’s partnership with the Oakland police and abolish the small police department focused on policing the Oakland schools. In past years, the school board voted against taking those steps. But after we rallied outside their houses, the school board voted unanimously in favor of the historic decision to abolish the Oakland school police.

Later this summer, Sunrise Bay Area also supported the leadership of the Anti Police-Terror Project and other Black-led organizations in Oakland to push Oakland City Council officials to defund the Oakland police and reinvest in community services. We marched to Councilmember Dan Kalb’s house — and he later joined in supporting an initiative to cut funding for Oakland police (and abstained from another vote).

Sunrise is a nonviolent movement and will remain that way. Action leaders go through extensive training on how to de-escalate situations and maintain peaceful protests. These actions won’t incite violence or property destruction, but we intend for our voices to be heard.

We are thoughtfully escalating and taking our actions seriously. Because at the end of the day, when we look back on successful movements against oppression, they include escalatory tactics. President Lyndon B. Johnson and other legislators at the time didn’t just decide to pass and sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That victory against racist voter suppression laws followed just five months after activists marched from Selma to Montgomery three times. Large corporations wouldn’t (and still often don’t) pay fair wages and ensure safe working conditions to workers without the pressure of labor strikes and unions.

In the words of Assata Shakur: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” These movements show that we must fight for every ounce of liberation.

If we want a solution to the climate crisis, a Green New Deal and a viable future, we must escalate too. We’ve tried “think about the next generations,” we’ve tried “think about your grandkids.” They’ve shown where their morals lie. We can’t wait for them to wake up to climate collapse on their own anymore.

The power is with the people. We’ll see you on the streets and in the cul-de-sacs.

By Laretta Johnson

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