What we learned when they stood up to Feinstein

February 28, 2019

Ashley Theissen comments on some lessons to draw from the viral video of a group of middle and high school students confronting a veteran Democratic senator.

YOU’VE PROBABLY seen the video in which young climate activists confronted Sen. Dianne Feinstein last Friday.

Middle and high school student activists carrying a large handwritten letter to Feinstein urged her to sign on to the Green New Deal and take the dramatic action necessary to save the planet. Feinstein dismissed the young activists and told them that they could learn a thing or two by listening — and to run for office when they’re old enough.

When the students urged Feinstein to adopt the only kinds of radical transformations that will allow them to have a future on this planet, she said condescendingly: “You come in here, and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that. I’ve gotten elected, I just ran. I was elected by a million vote plurality. And I know what I’m doing.”

While Feinstein’s attempts to silence and shame these young activists is disgusting, their responses are what is so important: they aren’t quelled, but instead point out all the reasons that they can’t “wait and see.” They challenge Feinstein, stating: “We have 12 years to turn this around.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein lectures middle and high school students
Sen. Dianne Feinstein lectures middle and high school students (Sunrise Movement)

The socialist left should be paying attention to these answers. These young activists are radicalizing quickly, and they will gain a clearer understanding of the limitations of appealing to the Democrats for change. Where will they turn after that?

We often warn against “orienting on the Democrats” as a strategy for change precisely because of politicians like Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy “Green dream or whatever they call it” Pelosi.

The Democrats’ most important initiatives — the ones they point to like the original New Deal — came about not because of visionary party leaders, but instead as a response to levels of social unrest, including mass strike waves, so high that the politicians in Washington believed significant change was necessary.

There is a new generation of Democratic politicians that appear to operate completely differently from the likes of Feinstein and Pelosi.

On climate justice and other issues, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist from New York City, is a breath of fresh air for progressives and leftists. AOC has done significant work in making the Green New Deal a household term while promoting the bill she co-sponsored with Sen. Ed Markey.

But it’s important to remember that it was Sunrise Movement activists who recruited AOC on her first day in Washington last November to join their sit-in for a Green New Deal at Nancy Pelosi’s office. AOC herself said she hadn’t intended for her first day to include this kind of action, but she couldn’t turn the activists down.

AOC also recently responded to a discussion with constituents regarding her vote for Department of Homeland Security funding, which included money for ICE, as part of one of the bills to end the first government shut-down. As a result of the dialogue, Ocasio-Cortez voted against a proposal weeks later because it included funding for ICE.

The pressure of social movements acts not only on our opponents, but also on the movement’s allies and proponents.

EVEN IF the House of Representatives was stacked with a majority of progressive Democrats, or the White House was occupied by an ally of the Green New Deal, such policies only stand a chance of becoming law if there are sustained and massive movements in workplaces and in the streets.

The fossil-fuel industry’s power is far-reaching and fundamental to the current operations of capitalism. A polite legislative campaign for the Green New Deal isn’t going to cut it — these people are literally making money from killing the planet and dooming humankind.

They, and all of the politicians within both parties who they bankroll, won’t allow anything close to the Green New Deal to pass unless they actually believe the alternative is even more damaging to their interests — which is exactly what got the original New Deal passed.

AOC is a staunch and important advocate of the Green New Deal, who took to Instagram to harshly critique Feinstein’s remarks. But she can’t deliver this legislation without a movement driving the Green New Deal forward.

It is also important to remember that within the Democratic Party, entrenched Democrats such as Pelosi and Feinstein have a lot more power than democratic socialist newcomers like Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib — including the power to block progressive legislation.

How should climate activists and eco-socialists proceed in order to win the radical social and economic changes that science demands of us in this moment?

The recent teachers’ strikes are an instructive example for thinking through what is “possible” and “impossible” — and how change actually gets made.

In Los Angeles, the billionaire superintendent Austin Beutner claimed that the teachers union’s expansive demands, which included pay increases, nurses and counselors at each school, decreased class sizes, the creation of an immigrant defense fund and decreased standardized testing, were wildly unrealistic.

But the union won these demands after two weeks of striking — including political demands that were originally deemed “outside the scope” of the negotiations.

It is struggle from below — and, in particular, work stoppages — that give regular people the power to turn “impossible” change into actual policy. This is the understanding we must bring to the question of how to win the Green New Deal.

Although many environmental justice activists and groups like the rapidly growing Sunrise Movement are currently orienting on the Democrats, they can be won to the need for independent struggle from below.

They are already demonstrating their determination through the school strikes planned to hit the U.S. in a big way on March 15. The international FridaysForFuture student strikes are the kind of powerful tool we need to build upon to win.

If students striking for climate change can recruit their parents and teachers to building for climate change within their workplaces and unions, we will have a real shot.

We need a network of students and workers — as well as Indigenous activists, who have always led on environmental justice, most recently in battles against new pipelines — to build mass assemblies, protests and strikes for a Green New Deal.

Knitting these forces together to demand the radical transformations we need is the urgent mission of eco-socialists and others on the left.

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