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Green New Deal-ers protest outside Democratic debates in Detroit

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A coalition of environmental justice groups hopes to bring awareness to sustainability issues here and nationally

A group of protesters in the halls of Congress demand support for the Green New Deal
Sunrise Movement protesters in Washington, D.C.

A coalition of Detroit- and Michigan-based environmental justice groups with support from the Sunrise Movement, a national political advocacy group, demonstrated ahead of the first of two Democratic debates at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit on July 30.

The coalition, called Detroit Frontline Coalition, hopes to bring awareness to sustainability issues both nationally and in Detroit. Its members include East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, We the People Michigan, Detroit People’s Platform, Breathe Free Detroit, Greater Detroit DSA, Service Employees International Union, Sierra Club, Next Gen Michigan, Sunrise, and the Climate Justice Alliance.

At 4 p.m., demonstrators gathered in Cass Park for some programming and speeches. Closer to 6 p.m., the group marched towards the Fox Theatre, gave a brief address about why they were there, then marched back to the park.

“We want to be the engine of the Green New Deal,” Michelle Martinez, coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told the Detroit News. “This is all of us. This is all of us in the streets: workers, black, brown, indigenous communities, here to demand a Green New Deal for Detroit.”

It’s one of the first actions taken by the budding coalition in Detroit. “This is the beginning of this coalition, not the culmination,” says Kim Hunter, a social justice coordinator with Engage Michigan, which is lending communication support to the local movement.

Naturally, the coalition is backing and pushing for implementation of the Green New Deal (GND), an often misunderstood document that’s been championed in Washington, D.C. by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The GND seeks fundamental and immediate solutions to address climate change and broader sustainability issues. David Roberts at Vox wrote that,

[T]he GND is not just a climate change policy. It is a vision for a new kind of economy, built around a new set of social and economic relationships. It is not merely a way to reduce emissions, but also to ameliorate the other symptoms and dysfunctions of a late capitalist economy: growing inequality and concentration of power at the top.

Make Detroit the Engine of the GND has three main “demands,” and only one is directly about the environment. “We in the environmental justice movement takes a holistic look at issues,” Hunter says.

One demand says that everyone should have a right to clean air, water, land, and food, and that the government must end the practice of “sacrifice zones,” or what Hunter describes as “areas where poor people and people of color bear the brunt of industrial pollution and mismanagement.”

The coalition wants there to be more focus and investment on clean jobs like retrofitting buildings or installing renewable energy systems. A study from the Brookings Institution found lots of potential to create more, better paying, and healthier jobs through the clean energy industry.

Lastly, it wants a return to community control of public money and land. The coalition is frustrated with projects like the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles plant on the east side where the city of Detroit both accumulated land and helped it get hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies to create factories that will likely increase pollution locally.

Because of the city’s industrial past, the group thinks Detroit could be a real focal point for the Green New Deal.

“Detroit was instrumental in building automobiles,” Hunter says, “and we can be instrumental in helping to save the world.”

At the debates, candidates spoke extensively about their plans to address climate change and stance on the Green New Deal. Some presidential hopefuls, like John Delaney, have called the GND “unrealistic,” whereas Bernie Sanders believes sustainability and job creation are intricately linked. At the debate, he said...

We can create millions of good-paying jobs. We can rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated. So we are not anti-worker. We are going to provide and make sure that those workers have a transition, new jobs, healthcare and education.

This post has been updated since the first debate took place.