American University Sunrise Movement activists joined demonstrators from George Washington University and D.C. Sunrise hubs outside of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) residence on Sept. 17 to protest her response to the California wildfires.
The activists called on Feinstein to support the Green New Deal. Several of the AU activists are from areas that are currently affected by the wildfires, which have swept over California, Oregon and Washington, killing at least 40 people this year, according to The New York Times. Atticus Crow, a sophomore in the School of International Service, said that he felt compelled to be at the protests because of the destruction in his home state of Oregon.
“My family at home, they woke up one morning and the skies were just blood red,” Crow said. “Ash is falling like rain, it is an apocalypse there.”
In mid-September, air quality on the West Coast became the worst in the world, as a result of the fires, Insider reported. The amount of particulate matter in the air surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency indexes, meaning it was off the calculable scale.
Protesters began a street blockade outside Feinstein’s D.C. home just after 6 a.m. They gathered with noise makers, posters and a large banner reading “California Needs a Green New Deal.” Feinstein’s home sits directly behind AU’s campus.
Suzanne Pranger, a junior in SIS and the College of Arts and Sciences, has been involved in Sunrise D.C. for two and a half years and helped start the Hub at AU in 2019.
Pranger said that she wasn't aware that Feinstein lived so close to AU until the protests.
“It’s really disgusting to look at her house and see complete inaction and complete disrespect of the climate crisis and then look here [at American University] and know that this is where so many amazing minds are trying to fight it, but don't have the power to do so,” Pranger said.
Feinstein recently introduced a bill that would require forest services to conduct logging and prescribed burns in the West. Sunrise and several other notable environmental organizations criticized the bill, saying that it pandered to the timber industry. Feinstein has also refused to support the Green New Deal.
Louisa Keyani, a junior in the School of Public Affairs and CAS, is originally from California and also helped start the Sunrise Hub at AU, as well as being the co-president.
Keyani said Feinstein has lost touch with Californians.
“Her state is on fire and she's here in D.C.,” Keyani said. “She's not in California and there's a reason for that. She has no interest in working for Californians — she’s working to benefit herself.”
The Sunrise Movement has led a series of “Wide Awake” actions, protests starting around dawn, that have targeted legislators across the country. Keyani said the tactic was adopted from abolitionists.
“It signifies to politicians that when we can’t sleep, they shouldn't be allowed to sleep,” Keyani said.
During the protests, activists spoke about their personal experiences with wildfires, led chants and sang.
Around 6:45 a.m., D.C. Police arrived on the scene to block the road after a car came dangerously close to a protester in the street.
Elliot Williams, a junior in SPA and a de facto leader in the AU Sunrise Hub, said he thought the protest went “really well” and that the attention the protest received emboldened them to move forward with future protests.
“I think it kind of caught on for a lot of people,” Williams said, referencing a viral video of Feinstein telling children that the Green New Deal isn’t feasible. “And, I think it was very clear what our future path is going to be.”
According to Williams, AU Sunrise Hub will continue to protest outside of more legislators’ homes, in coordination with GW and D.C. Sunrise hub, like they did again outside of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s residence on Sept. 24.
“We’ll be there on the first day of the Supreme Court hearings to ask Sen. Schumer to use all procedural tools that he has to oppose what we see as an illegitimate confirmation process,” Williams said, referring to Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “Her record is going to be in conflict with what we stand for as an organization.”
These protests come in a period of growth for Sunrise after the pandemic limited their ability to protest during the summer. In early September, as the group planned for upcoming protests, Pranger reported only having a handful of members, but in early October, Williams estimated that the group had 45 members, largely from the Feinstein protest.
Pranger attributed some of the group’s growth to their work with other social justice groups after their attempt to start an AU Green Coalition fell through, due to the pandemic.
“It's been a really exciting process for Sunrise,” Pranger said. “It’s a great opportunity to build relationships, like when we worked on the AU Freedom Fund.”
Williams, who helped with the group’s outreach to other left-leaning organizations, said Sunrise’s goal is not to lead unilaterally, but rather to “recognize [its] role as a part of a broader movement for change.”
“What we have the potential for is what is called the ‘people’s alignment,’” Williams said. “We're discussing how to make a political alignment for the 21st century that upholds climate justice and a lot of other issues that we care about, and we’re ready to put a lot of pressure.”