Sunrise Movement Protests to Urge Menendez to Support Climate Bill

by Danielle Bongiovanni

On July 31 at 11 am the Hunterdon County chapter of the Sunrise Movement organized a protest outside of Senator Robert Menendez’s office in Jersey City to demand he cosponsor the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act. The legislation would hire 1.5 million Americans to make communities more resilient to the climate crisis and transition them to renewable energy.

As Sunrise is primarily a youth-driven movement against climate change, most of the attendees were in middle or high school. They brought a hand-painted banner, signs, and a few even wrote speeches, songs, and poetry to perform.

Alpha Vasson, a rising junior at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, started the protest by leading attendees in a song they wrote themself called “People Power,” which included the refrain “We got the power / And we’re gonna get louder.” Throughout the event between speeches, they led the group in more well-known protest songs, such as the version of “Which Side Are You On?” Sunrise adapted from Florence Reece.

Rey Watson, another rising HCRHS junior, was the first to speak. They acknowledged the land they stood belonged to the Lenni-Lenape tribe, and climate justice depended largely on recognizing the continuous impacts of colonization.

They gave examples of climate change becoming visible nationwide, from the recent pacific heatwave to frequent thunderstorms in New Jersey. “For the first time I can remember, my basement actually flooded,” they said. The ongoing climate and economic crises could not be ignored. “We need a CCC that will kick off the decade of the Green New Deal.”

Ben Dziobek, President of the Environmental Club at Stockton University, emphasized the legislation’s importance in his speech. “What we can do with the civilian climate corps is endless,” he said, but the consequences of not taking action would be endless as well.

Dziobek stated he would not tolerate excuses. “I don’t want to hear a damn thing about costs… our Mother Earth is being killed.” He referenced the original CCC created during the Great Depression and called for similar programs to be implemented. He ended his speech by asking, “Will you be brave with us, Senator Menendez?”

Another non-profit organization rallied for the creation of a new CCC with Sunrise that day. Matt Smith, the NJ Director of Food & Water Watch, spoke in support of Senator Menendez co-sponsoring the legislation.

Smith acknowledged the consequences of pollution, capitalism, and the pandemic that hit the most vulnerable people the hardest. “These same communities have been systematically denied… the support we need to thrive on this planet,” he said.

Nearly 3 million people living below the poverty line in New Jersey was a sign of a broken economic system, but change was achievable. “Another world isn’t just possible, it is on the way here,” Smith said. “Let’s keep fighting.”

Madelyn Hoffman, the Green Party’s 2021 candidate for governor of New Jersey, was one of the final and recognizable speakers. She spoke on the similarities between the lessons she learned from her time spent with the indigenous peoples in the Amazon and the purpose of the protest. “We need solidarity with the earth, the peoples of the earth, and the creatures of the earth,” she said.

Hoffman reaffirmed her dedication to be a politician for the planet, not for polluters with deep pockets. “As a candidate for the Green Party of New Jersey, I am proud to say I will take no money… from those who are raping the land… and I will push for the Civilian Climate Corps.” 

Once all the speakers had finished, Sunrise members marched around the block with their banner and signs. Vasson and Watson led several chants, attracting attention from vendors and customers participating in Jersey City’s Smorgasburg, an open-air food market.
The rally was small but mighty, with members ranging from preteens to seniors, students to politicians, and first-timers to diehards. Together, they publicly called for Senator Menendez to cosponsor the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, putting Americans to work protecting the environment and fostering the transition to renewable energy. Whether or not he will listen remains to be seen, but the planet cannot wait indefinitely for an answer.

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