The Sunrise Movement Comes to Nashville
Youth activists push local politicians to care about climate change
ON A STICKY MORNING in September, about a hundred young people march down 5th Avenue in Nashville, Tennessee, waving banners and singing.
Which side are you on, now,
which side are you on?
Which side are you on, now,
which side are you on?
The simple tune was written in 1931 to raise awareness about National Miners Union members in Kentucky who were being evicted, harassed, and killed. Later, the song was adopted by civil rights activists. Today's protesters—members of a youth-led national climate justice organization called the Sunrise Movement—sing their own version as they step. The activists are headed to Representative Jim Cooper's office and then on to the office of his brother, Mayor John Cooper. They want the mayor to declare a climate emergency, and they've decided to occupy his front lobby until he agrees to meet with them. Today is Mayor Cooper's first day on the job.
Harmonies hush to a hum as the protesters near the old Woolworth building, and they pause to pay their respects. Here, at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, black students and some white allies sat down at the lunch counter—risking jeers, physical assault, and expulsion from school—to challenge Jim Crow laws that prohibited African Americans from eating in the store. The building has recently been renovated, from a droopy Dollar General back to its mid-20th-century charm. It's now a Southern-chic restaurant serving pork ribs and jambalaya. A shiny white lunch counter stretches along the wall where the original counter sat, lined with beige stools.
Among those marching is 20-year-old Nashville native Sudeep Ghantasala. Two years ago, climate change was barely on his mind. He was more concerned about economic inequality. Then in 2018, he saw a video of young activists storming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to demand that she support the Green New Deal—a suite of policy proposals aimed at restructuring the economy to curb climate change and create jobs. Ghantasala did some research and was amazed by how the Green New Deal seemed to target different kinds of injustice, like unhealthy public housing conditions and a lack of access to living-wage jobs, while also tackling the climate crisis. "I had never seen such a large and ambitious proposal," he says.
Past the Woolworth building, farther down 5th Avenue, the song takes up force again, drifting up to the hazy sky.
Does it weigh on you at all, now, does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all, now, does it weigh on you at all?
Mayor Cooper did not talk about climate change when he was running for office, focusing instead on government transparency and infrastructure improvements. The term climate change didn't appear once in his campaign's colorful policy-platform booklet. Declaring a climate emergency would only be a symbolic move for the mayor, but the young activists see it as a crucial first step toward shifting to 100 percent clean and renewable energy within 10 years.
Not everyone marching through Nashville today was able to vote in the recent mayoral election—some are from out of town, others are still too young—but the activists are testing a hypothesis: that the ballot box is not the only way to make politicians pay attention to climate change. At a moment when the climate crisis threatens human civilization, it's not enough to just show up and vote. Elected officials must be held accountable.
When the marchers arrive at the Metropolitan Courthouse, where the mayor's office is housed, a staffer tells them that they can't book a meeting that day because the mayor's schedule is full for weeks, so they turn to their backup plan. They break into two groups—Ghantasala joins the larger one, made up of Sunrisers who don't want to get arrested that day. Sometimes during sit-ins, staffers call in the police. Not everyone is willing or able to risk arrest, so Sunrisers plan accordingly.
Ghantasala and dozens of other young people from across the South line the well-polished granite halls of the building, armed with posters and banners. One reads, "This Is an Emergency. Act Like It." Nervous energy buzzes in the air. For many, this is their first act of civil disobedience.
Around 15 people are willing to go to jail if it comes to that. They enter the glass doors into Mayor Cooper's office and set up camp on the floor. One of them is a Vanderbilt University graduate student, 24-year-old MarTaze "Taz" Gaines (Gaines uses the pronouns they and them).
With a full, soulful voice, Gaines leads a song adapted from a hand-clapping game they learned as a kid in Baltimore, tweaked to convey the group's anger about the world they've inherited.
Mama, Mama, can't you see?
What the state has done to me.
They took away my clean water.
And the planet's getting hotter.
Six and a half hours later, Gaines and the others are still singing, sitting cross-legged and knee-to-knee on the floor. They clap and sway, some closing their eyes. Mayor Cooper appears down an adjacent hallway, but no one comes over to negotiate a meeting date. A staffer does provide an email address for one of the mayor's new aides.
A security guard politely tells them that his workday is over and he'd like to go home, so the activists stand up and file out. Though they haven't gotten what they came for, Ghantasala isn't disappointed. It feels like the office has become what a government building should be, a sort of people's house. "We felt powerful," he'll recall later.
THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT was founded in 2017 by a group of 12 recent college graduates who were seeing signs of climate breakdown—devastating hurricanes, floods, fires, and droughts—and were frustrated by the widespread failure of elected officials to enact policies to aggressively curb climate change. Politicians across the political spectrum were failing younger generations, and mainstream environmental organizations hadn't succeeded in securing significant climate legislation. Cofounder Varshini Prakash and others dove into a year-and-a-half planning process, reading historical texts and meeting with other organizers, including those involved with LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-apartheid movement.
The young activists were especially inspired by the civil rights movement, drawing lessons from its use of songs to generate hope and resilience and its commitment to the practice of nonviolent direct action. With these and other strategies, Sunrise Movement hubs around the country have staged sit-ins and strikes targeting individual lawmakers, asking them to take a No Fossil Fuel Money pledge or to sign on to the Green New Deal. Sunrisers post videos of these encounters on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Sometimes the videos go viral, essentially shaming lawmakers who are dismissive or unresponsive in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers.
Sunrise has grown rapidly, drawing in new organizers like Ghantasala and more seasoned ones like Gaines. Around 20,000 young people are currently involved with the group. In 2019, Sunrise expanded from 20 hubs across the United States to 260. At least 18 of those were in the Gulf states—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—while Tennessee boasted three.
In February 2019, 25-year-old Eli Motycka and three other organizers decided to start a hub in Nashville. Motycka had recently moved back to the city after graduating from college and was relatively new to progressive activism. Not long after that, 27-year-old Lauren Hindman came on board and began coordinating outreach efforts. She had experience working on single-issue campaigns like getting money out of politics. When she first heard about the Sunrise Movement, she thought it was just another climate group. But then she watched a video on social media of elementary school students and older youth activists confronting California senator Dianne Feinstein, asking her why she wouldn't support the Green New Deal. Soon after, Hindman joined the Nashville hub. "What was impactful for me [about the Sunrise Movement] was that this was a group of young people, and they were looking at the climate crisis as an intersectional issue," she says. "So we're talking about climate, but we're also talking about housing, health care, corruption, and money and politics." With all these issues coming together under one bright heading, it felt like it might actually be possible to tackle them.
Given their location, the Nashville-hub organizers are particularly conscious of the legacy of the civil rights movement. Around the corner from the Woolworth building, on the second floor of the Nashville Public Library, much of this history is documented in the Civil Rights Room. In it sits a symbolic glass lunch counter with a timeline stretched above it detailing the events that led up to the sit-ins and the marches that unfolded on the streets outside.
Photos on the wall show students sitting at lunch counters reading books, doing homework, or looking straight ahead as hecklers yell at them or pull on their clothing. In one photo, taken in 1960, Fisk University student Diane Nash sits at the counter anxiously looking over her right shoulder. Other photos show young protesters being carried out of a restaurant by police officers. In a corner of the room, a screen shows aerial footage from a march on April 19, 1960. By that time, Nash and other activists had recruited 5,000 young people, who streamed down the street to City Hall. There, framed by the same stone doorway Sunrisers walked through to occupy Mayor Cooper's office, Nash caught then-mayor Ben West by surprise and on camera famously asked him, "Mayor West, do you think it's wrong to discriminate against someone solely on the basis of their skin?" As West later recalled, "I could not agree that it was morally right."
A few weeks later, Nashville became the first major city in the South to desegregate its lunch counters, as the student-led, sit-in style of protest swept the region. "In our hub, we always show [these] pictures of students sitting at lunch counters," explains Gaines. The most famous images of the civil rights movement often depict Martin Luther King Jr. "But Dr. King didn't do it all by himself," they say. High school and college students were a driving force.
Gaines first dove into activism around 2015, while living in Atlanta. Rocked by the murder of Freddie Gray, they joined the Movement for Black Lives and focused on fighting police brutality, but the scope of their activism widened when they got to know other activists and the issues they were working on, like gentrification and holding officials accountable for the effects of a flood that had devastated an African American neighborhood a few years earlier.
Around the same time, Gaines got a call from a lawyer working to build a lead-contamination case against the landlord of a property where Gaines had lived as a child; Gaines found out they had elevated lead levels in their blood. In so many places, "the infrastructure does not serve us," they say. "These systems are interconnected, and black folks, Latinx folks, Indigenous folks are the ones that are going to experience [climate] problems worse than everyone else. I fight for the liberation of black folks, and that takes me into any and every realm."
Gaines is attuned to how engaging in civil disobedience can be especially risky for people of color and gender-nonconforming people. At protests, they make sure that Sunrise has legal help lined up and that everyone has a buddy in case they go to jail. These kinds of details are essential to organizing in ways that genuinely empower vulnerable communities, Gaines says. "One thing I like about Sunrise is that they're reckoning with that. At times, they can do better. But that's why I joined, because I don't want my people to be left out."
THE DAY AFTER the sit-in at Mayor Cooper's office, Nashville-hub cofounder Motycka sent an email to the address that staffers had given him at the protest. "Meeting Request, Position on Climate Emergency," he wrote as a subject. He reminded the staffer that the group had been told that they could book a meeting on day one of the mayor's administration and that the Sunrisers would be happy to accommodate the mayor's schedule. It seemed odd, he added, that somehow, on his first day, the mayor had been completely booked. The email bounced back with an out-of-office message, so Motycka emailed the mayor's official scheduler, who replied saying that the mayor was not available on Motycka's proposed dates.
In October, Motycka and other Sunrise activists did score a meeting with the mayor's legislative lead, during which they discussed plans for the mayor's new Sustainability Advisory Committee. The Nashville activists were able to recommend an African American solar energy entrepreneur, Jason Carney, to take part in the nearly all-white committee. "That's a real direct result of their influence locally," Carney says. "In the civil rights movement, it was the children . . . the John Lewises and the Diane Nashes and Bernard LaFayettes, all of those folks that were between 18 and 24. They were what led the movement. You've got to have that young energy for a movement to be sustainable."
At the end of November, Motycka finally received an email inviting Sunrise activists to sit down with Mayor Cooper on December 2. But the message arrived late in the afternoon the day before Thanksgiving, and Motycka was out of town for the holiday. He couldn't help feeling that the invitation was purposefully timed to be inconvenient.
The Nashville activists had had better luck meeting face-to-face with the mayor's brother. They had sat down with Representative Jim Cooper in spring 2019, but he hadn't been very receptive to their ideas. At the meeting, Cooper had explained to Motycka and other Sunrisers that he wouldn't sign the Green New Deal pledge because it was just a resolution, and as he had told the Nashville Scene, he was "in the legislature business."
But by November 2019, the ground had begun to shift. Local activist and Vanderbilt student Justin Jones announced that he would challenge Representative Cooper for his seat in Tennessee's Fifth Congressional District, on a platform including Medicaid for all and a Green New Deal. Three days later, Representative Cooper reversed his position on the Green New Deal, signing on to the resolution on November 26. In an email to Sierra, the congressman said that his decision had been influenced by Swedish climate icon Greta Thunberg and his friendship with Al Gore. He also cited the activism he had seen in Nashville, which he said had strengthened his resolve.
To Motycka, it looked like Representative Cooper had changed his response in an effort to keep his seat rather than out of a genuine commitment to addressing the climate crisis. "But it was also validating in a way," he says. It was a powerful sign that young people are leading the charge on climate, and that elected officials have no choice but to follow. "That gave me some hope that we will change the country seat by seat . . . in Nashville, as we will in Texas and California and Washington and Chicago."
Motycka acknowledges that the organizing that takes place in between the high-profile moments like sit-ins is not exactly glamorous, but the civil rights movement offers an important lesson in that regard too. "In school, we learn that there were a bunch of really brave people that put their lives on the line in the 1960s, and then we got the Civil Rights Act," he says. "But it was actually a series of incredibly organized strategic meetings and conversations and phone calls and data keeping and file sorting. That's what I think about and draw on as we're trying to do some similar organizing here in Nashville."
In early December, the mayor's office suddenly announced "multiple initiatives to combat climate change," including the new Sustainability Advisory Committee, which would begin meeting in the new year. "There is consensus in the scientific community that climate change is contributing to an increase in the number of, and intensity of, extreme weather events around the world," Mayor Cooper told the committee at its inaugural meeting in January. He went on to outline city solutions, some already underway, including a plan to cultivate a fuller tree canopy and another to generate more renewable energy, adding, "We will do all we can to work toward a community-scale CO2 reduction target—30 percent by 2030 and 70 percent by 2050."
In his address, Mayor Cooper also linked flooding in Nashville to climate change and talked about the way in which similar disasters will disproportionately impact low-income residents. Gaines was glad to hear that the mayor had made this connection. After all, just four months before, the mayor-elect had been shrugging off climate. And yet scientists with the United Nations call for carbon neutrality around 2050, which must be well underway by 2030. In other words, Mayor Cooper's goals of reducing CO2 levels are not aggressive enough, Gaines says. "The world continues to suffer while we take our time in addressing these issues."
ON THE MORNING AFTER the mayor's announcement, Gaines, Hindman, Motycka, and Ghantasala gather with a group of elementary school, middle school, high school, and college students near the Tennessee State Capitol for a protest that has been planned in conjunction with climate strikes around the world. The group is smaller than the organizers expected—around 30 people in total. Maybe it's because of finals week or because it's rainy and cold. Gaines and Hindman huddle with the protesters, teaching them a new movement song. Hindman's voice is already growing hoarse.
Weave and spin, weave and spin.
This is how our work begins.
Mend and heal, mend and heal.
Take the dream and make it real.
Then the protesters climb the 200 steps to the entrance of the capitol building. Gaines invites students to take the megaphone. "I want to be an engineer when I grow up," one 13-year-old says, fighting tears. He is uncertain about the future and disturbed by the poor air quality in Nashville. Another young protester is wearing what looks like a black gas mask. It covers half her face and helps with her asthma, which she is hospitalized for regularly. The group joins together again in song.
Mama, Mama, can't you hear?
The children screaming here and there.
Mama, Mama, can't you see?
This is an emergency.
After making their way back down the slippery stairs, the group of students gather around a picnic table. Ghantasala and Motycka ask the younger students what scares them most about climate change and what gives them hope. One student answers: She is scared, but being here today has made her feel better. That's what it's about, Gaines replies. "We are trying to heal from the injustices that have happened. We are trying to heal the planet while also healing ourselves."
This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition with the headline "Sunrise in Nashville."