DETROIT ― Theresa Landrum survived her battle with cancer. But her parents didn’t. Neither did at least 10 other people who lived on her block. Such is life and death in the 48217, Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code ― home to automotive plants, the state’s only oil refinery and more than 8,200 mostly working-class African Americans.
On Tuesday, Landrum, a retired General Motors factory worker, marched downtown with as many as 2,000 fellow Detroiters to the steps of the Fox Theatre, where 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls were scheduled to face off in the second round of primary debates. The protest marked one of the most confrontational demands for a Green New Deal in months, as local groups took up the mantle from national climate campaigners, which have shifted their efforts to focus on demanding a climate-only Democratic primary debate.
Amid the gleaming towers of automotive giants whose vehicles now spew the majority of America’s climate-changing gases, the demonstrators called for a future in which the health of the planet and its people guides industrial planning and in which the Motor City sheds its association with combustion engines.
“We are being robbed and pillaged by industry,” Landrum said, her voice rising to a preacher’s righteous crescendo. “Then you know what we get? A few job promises, and they get to pollute as much as they want.”
The solution, she said, is a Green New Deal.
The three-word slogan surged into America’s political lexicon last November when activists with the youth-led Sunrise Movement occupied then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding Democrats champion climate policy that actually matches the scope of the crisis. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took heed. In February, she and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution that outlined the core tenets of a Green New Deal.
Within weeks, roughly 100 members of Congress had signed on to co-sponsor the resolution, including nearly all the sitting senators running for president.
Now the Green New Deal serves as the backbone of nearly all of the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates’ climate platforms.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s growing inventory of policy proposals includes plans to decarbonize the military by 2030, halt fossil fuel leasing on public lands, and put new restrictions on businesses’ ability to influence lawmakers. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the only candidate to bring up the Green New Deal in the first round of debates, co-sponsored a climate justice bill with Ocasio-Cortez this week that lays the groundwork for federal climate spending to benefit poor, minority communities who disproportionately suffer the impacts of pollution. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has yet to release a comprehensive climate plan, has positioned himself as the standard-bearer of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s economic ideals, and a vocal proponent of the Green New Deal movement.
“We’re not in a state where the differences between Democrats and Republicans are that radical”
Climate change received a combined 15 minutes of airtime during last month’s debates in Miami ― woefully insufficient given the scope of the crisis, but significant progress for an issue that was virtually ignored in the 2016 election. But because the events were held in a city threatened by rising sea levels, debate questions focused on the magnitude of the global warming crisis and the risks posed by runaway emissions.
The Frontline Detroit Coalition, the alliance of a dozen local environmental groups and unions who organized Tuesday’s march, struck a markedly different tone. If Miami is a city in need of salvation from rising seas, Detroit, in their vision, could be the savior. Ahead of the march, musicians and activists took a makeshift stage in Cass Park, a historic green space where last month’s record heatwave left the grass crisp and brown, and led crowds chanting “build a new economy” and “invest in our community.”
“The Green New Deal is a platform, an empty box. It’s not going to be fully ready until it begins to reflect the kind of environmental and energy issues that our people are concerned about,” said Darryl Jordan, 65, the co-director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council. “We’re not in a state where the differences between Democrats and Republicans are that radical.”
If there is poetry in demanding a Green New Deal in the city that birthed the automotive age, the city’s union legacy gives the call real teeth. Powerful construction unions that depend on the fossil fuel industry for lucrative jobs have publicly opposed the Green New Deal, though the movement has garnered growing labor support, including an official endorsement from the Service Employees International Union last month.
To Pamela Owens-Moore, a janitor and member of the SEIU’s executive board, said it’s up to unions to demand that a Green New Deal is “the best deal.”
“Detroit is making a comeback, but they’re leaving us behind,” said Owens-Moore, 61. “When we make a comeback, we have to make one Detroit, not two.”