On Monday, September 20th, 13 GW students were arrested at the Hart and Dirksen Senate buildings, participating in civil disobedience with the Sunrise Movement. The Sunrise Movement is an organization of college students and other youth demanding action to fight climate change. The arrests concluded a nearly three-hour march from Washington Circle (north of Foggy Bottom Metro Station). The protest centered around the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package proposed by President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, which Sunrise sees as their best chance to fight climate change and to kick off “the Decade of the Green New Deal.”
The march proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Exxon-Mobil corporate offices, making speeches at the White House along the way, then down Constitution Avenue to Congress and the Senate office buildings. Protesters carried flags, banners and picket signs advocating climate action. They chanted and sang common protest songs. The message was directed at conservative Democrats in the Senate and House who have threatened to block the reconciliation bill.
The bill would invest hundreds of billions in fighting climate change by increasing clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits, imposing fees on methane, funding carbon capture programs and technology, and creating a Clean Electricity Payment Program (CEPP). The CEPP would pay electricity providers to increase their use of clean energy and fine those that do not, setting a goal of 80% clean electricity by 2030. The bill would also create a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC), like the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which would create millions of unionized, government jobs to limit and respond to the effects of climate change.
Conservative Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have expressed skepticism about both the components of the plan and the $3.5 trillion price tag. Many speeches by leaders of Sunrise referenced these senators, attacking them (particularly Manchin) for their ties to the fossil fuel industry, which has engaged in a frenzied lobbying effort to kill the reconciliation package. One of the banners held by marchers read: “Democrats: Which Side Are You On?” The crowd also repeatedly chanted the protest song of the same title. The protest also called on Biden, who supports the proposal and who was the one to initially put forward aspects like the CEPP. Another banner read: “Biden: No Compromises, No Excuses.”
Before the arrests, protesters gave several speeches and multiple speakers from California spoke of the wildfires, intensified by climate change, that have threatened their homes. Then, the 13 who were to be arrested blockaded the doors to the Hart and Dirksen Senate buildings, while the remaining protesters cheered them on, amid a heavy police presence. Eventually, the 13 were arrested and taken away by the Capitol Police. Most of the students waited at the Capitol Police Headquarters for the students to be released. DC law allows individuals who commit minor crimes to post and forfeit, meaning they can be released without going to court after paying a fine. Protesters engaging in civil disobedience frequently make use of this process.
Jonathan Lippolis,one of the 13 protesters arrested, said that the arrest and processing went fairly smoothly: “I do believe that… through press and through our message that we were able to reach those who needed to hear it.” He addressed conservative Democrats directly, saying, “If you are going to be a Democrat, if you are going to run on… bold climate action and bold climate justice you need to live up to that name… The message to those people is ‘get your act together.’”
Lippolis was motivated to risk arrest when he realized how limited the window was to act on climate change. “We now have a massive opportunity, having a 50-50 split in the Senate, a majority in the House, and a Democratic president, but we don’t know how long that’s going to last,” he said. “It was that urgency that really made me say ‘okay, this is worth it, this is a worthwhile cause.’”
Sophie Gengler was a lead organizer of the march and the police liaison for the protesters. She said that the bill would be “the first pillars of the Green New Deal.” She too spoke to Manchin and Sinema, saying “the passage of this bill could be contingent on their vote… so that’s what this is targeted at, moderate Democrats.”
Gengler spoke enthusiastically of the CCC, which was highlighted during the march, and is expected to largely employ youth, if passed. “I’m very, very, very excited to see the opportunity for 1.5 million Americans to have clean, green union jobs, because we’re not just in a climate crisis, we’re in an economic crisis.”
She warned of the consequences of not passing the package or shrinking it below $3.5 trillion, saying “If [the bill] is watered down we won’t accomplish all that we need to accomplish. And time is short, the IPCC report shows that we don’t have that much time, so we need to take action now.” Gengler referenced the report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that unequivocally warned of the dangers of climate change and the damage that inaction or limited action will cause. Gengler said that the reconciliation bill does not do everything, noting “this fight is not over even if the bill is passed.”
Attendance was estimated at around 80 students. March leaders Joe Markus and Tara Stumpfl said the march and civil disobedience was the most successful and powerful action by the GW chapter of the Sunrise Movement.