Before millions tuned in on Wednesday night to watch the circus that CNN created for the Democratic Presidential Debates, multiple protests erupted in downtown Detroit. Movimiento Cosecha, Black Lives Matter, and The Sunrise Movement all had a significant presence on the ground outside of the historic Fox Theater. While each organization was protesting specific issues, the energy was high, and, of course, there were many counter-protestors with Trump signs. There was even an anti-abortion protestor with a poster covered in (hopefully fake) blood.
The Sunrise Movement was there demanding that presidential hopefuls embrace the Green New Deal. The deal is an economic stimulus package which focuses on solving the climate crisis and economic inequality. Several of the candidates already support the legislation including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kristen Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar. And then there’s Jay Inslee, whose entire platform focuses aggressively on tackling climate change crisis.
The reality of climate crisis is this: if we don’t immediately activate our communities in a similar fashion to that of the WWII war effort, we will likely see catastrophic destabilization of not only our climate, but our economy.
The Sunrise Movement states its mission is to: “build an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across America, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.”
As we’ve seen in the last few weeks, protestors can force significant changes.
While the Sunrise Movement held a compelling presence on the ground outside of the theater with several sizeable green protest fist signs demanding everything from racial justice to clean water, other organizations infiltrated the debate itself. On two separate occasions, protestors interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. The first disruption during de Blasio’s opening statements was artfully executed by Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Elder Kirsten John Foy, Mysonne, and Angelo Pinto. They shouted “Fire Pantaleo!” several times while the mayor was speaking. After he stopped, they stopped.
Daniel Pantaleo is the officer who in 2014 killed Eric Garner in Staten Island by putting him in a chokehold. Attorney General William Bar chose not to press charges on the officer. Pantaleo, who has been on desk duty since the murder, has yet to be fired from the NYPD. Tamika Mallory’s twitter feed explained that the group was told to stay quiet or they would be escorted out by security officers. A few moments later police officers flashed their cuffs at the group and said if they didn’t leave immediately, they would be forcibly removed. Refusing, they were eventually removed but continued their chants, interrupting Senator Cory Booker who, despite the interruption, had a successful night.
The second disruption of the debates came as Julian Castro was pressing Biden about the Obama administration’s immigration policies. Two brave women from the organization Movimiento Cosecha yelled, “Three million deportations!” several times while holding a scarf that read “Stop All Deportations on Day One.”
According to their mission statement, Movimiento Cosecha’s focus is to “win permanent protection, dignity, and respect for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.” Earlier in the day the decentralized group, which has been active since 2015, organized a protest in front of the entrance to the international tunnel between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. Several protestors sat in the street blocking access and disrupting international travel while chanting “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” All 21 protestors blocking traffic were arrested and released within a few hours.
While all of these protestors risked arrest on Wednesday, their actions forced dialog. de Blasio, who at times seemed to act more like a CNN moderator than someone running for president, was forced to discuss his role in the contentious fact that Daniel Pantaleo still has a job with the NYPD. de Blasio has claimed to respect the Department of Justice’s process, but his administration is also apparently doing their own investigation. Pantaleo’s fate has been up for review and may be decided as early as Friday by the Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado.
In the past, de Blasio has touted his record on ending stop-and-frisk and making NYC safer, however many people claim he hasn’t done enough. We should recall his discussion about police brutality with his son Dante (who is 1/2 black) which he discussed publically after Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, and subsequently, the entire NYPD physically turned their backs on him at a public event. Perhaps it is the reason the NYPD still maintains a significant police-state presence in the nation’s largest city. Leaders must walk fine lines, and perhaps de Blasio still has some work to do in that area.
Conversely, de Blasio used Movimiento Cosecha’s disruption about deportation to press front-runner Biden about his track record on immigration. Sadly it fell short and no one on the stage committed to taking children out of cages on day one, something for which Movimiento Cosecha continues to call.
While CNN designed the debates to make as much money and be as divisive as possible, the protests outside and within the Fox Theater were far more important to the outcome of who will become the Democratic nominee. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang said it best:
“Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president. We need to be laser-focused on solving the real challenges of today, like the fact that the most common jobs in America may not exist in a decade, or that most Americans cannot pay their bills.”
Protesting in crucial spaces such as debates or rallies forces people to react to the issues central to the protestors. With the 24-hour news cycle and the feverish coverage of the election, protesters can insert themselves into the dialog and demand accountability from those attempting to lead the country — with the whole country there to see it.
Direct action is how our democracy thrives. When average people demand responsibility from our leaders in public and put people on the spot, we force the conversation to shift from one of electability and sound bites to leadership and accountability.
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.