Detroit DSA February Mega-Meeting: The Green New Deal, Bernie, and chapter elections

by Elia Hohauser-Thatcher

Photo: Joseph Xu

Over 100 members of Detroit DSA met on February 9th for the monthly general body meeting. This was the highest attended meeting in the organization’s history, and it proved to be incredibly consequential. Members filled two vacant steering committee seats, debated whether to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2020 presidential race, and hosted a lively panel on the Green New Deal.

Following up on DSA’s campaign for a Green New Deal, a panel was held to educate members on some finer points. Three panelists: Dortheá Enriqué Thomas, Matt Haugen, and Jackson Koeppel, held an informal but informative talk on the importance of implementing a Green New Deal to combat climate change, fix our crumbling infrastructure, and bring about racial & economic justice.

Panelists focused on the tenets of the GND then moved on to local issues, activism, and what climate justice actually means. Haugen, co-chair of Huron Valley DSA and a steering committee member of the national DSA Ecosocialist Working Group, began the discussion. He outlined the immediacy and scope of the climate crisis we face, stating succinctly “We are facing mass extinction.”

Haugen launched into the benefits of the Green New Deal: “[It] includes a whole broad stroke of things,” he explained, “[It] provid[es] for human needs, prioritizing environmental justice and frontline communities, a just transition, decarbonization, and even includes a section based on FDR’s second bill of rights guaranteeing providing all Americans with healthcare, housing, economic security, healthy food, clean air & nature.”

Thomas, who is Deputy Director of Good Jobs Now, was particularly helpful in illuminating local needs, issues, and outlines for implementing a justice-focused Green New Deal. She spoke specifically of the 100,000 people who had their water shut off in the city of Detroit since 2013, which led to a huge Hepatitis A outbreak.

People of color and the working-class are disproportionately impacted by climate change, Thomas explained. “The apocalypse is now,” she pointed out. “We have already survived the collapse of an industrial economy. Our water is poisoned, there are food deserts, we live in a big extract-dump-waste economy that was founded by our forefathers who believed in extracting labor, land and resources from people without thinking about the consequences.” Thomas also voiced concerns about the lack of people of color and indigenous people at the table when the Green New Deal was being drafted: “It was not led or consulted by frontline communities . . . who have been living through the devastation of an extraction economy.”

Panelists Matt Haugen (Huron Valley DSA & national Ecosocialism Working Group), Jackson Koeppel (Soulardarity) and Dortheá Enriqué Thomas (Good Jobs Now & Climate Justice Alliance).

Thomas has been an active organizer in the climate justice space for nearly a decade. She is a Midwest Just Transition Organizer with Climate Justice Alliance, a national network of urban and rural frontline environmental and racial justice groups. Clearly, the Green New Deal needs to go further in collaborating with the people who are already facing steep consequences for corporations’ irresponsible treatment of the environment.

Jackson Koeppel, an energy democracy activist and Director of Soulardarity, based in Highland Park, explained that despite DTE’s infrastructure failure leading to twice as many deaths in Detroit than anywhere else in their service area, they are planning on investing their money in “new load” areas and raising rates on low-income/low-use consumers by up to 45%.

While this is horrifying, Koeppel highlighted Soulardarity’s work to combat these huge energy interests: “We’ve installed seven solar-powered street lights in Highland Park, we’ve launched a purchasing program that’s rolled out about $30,000 dollars worth of solar [equipment] through cooperative purchasing, we’ve started intervening with the Michigan Public Service Commission around their plans for distributing clean energy and DTE’s rate increase request.” This is demonstrative of the grassroots work that needs to be done and exactly how communities can organize to fight climate injustices.

The panelists ultimately agreed that a Green New Deal would need to be localized and specific to the region. Thomas laid this bare, stating, “We need a Detroit councilperson to pass some kind of resolution or policy that brings in a very local Green New Deal, a state legislator to actually draft legislation for a Michigan Green New Deal, and a U.S. Congressperson that pushes for localized and regionalized legislation.” She proposed Raquel Castañeda-Lopez on City Council, State Representative Isaac Robinson, and Representative Rashida Tlaib.

Toward the end of the panel, Haugen raised an important point about ownership. “The people need to own everything,” he argued, “that illustrates our power, which is not in asking legislators, but in being a mass movement that is external. We can block and demand.”

For a Green New Deal to truly serve Detroit and Michigan, the people will have to fight for it. There are certainly issues with the GND, but it still provides the only mainstream avenue to radically combat climate change. As always, it will take the efforts of local communities, activists, and the working-class to advocate for themselves and take the bold steps to deal with this looming disaster.

Lively debate around the topic of Bernie Sanders. Photo: Joseph Xu

Bernie Sanders 2020: Do we endorse?

In addition to the panel discussion, the chapter voted on whether or not to endorse Bernie Sanders in his 2020 run for president. A spirited debate ensued, with most of the membership decidedly in the pro-Sanders camp. Member Don Mongrain started things off with a sentiment several others echoed: “Bernie is the only openly Democratic Socialist running, we need to build on what he did before. He’s done boneheaded things but he’s our best bet.” While this was generally supported by the membership, others expressed concerns about Sanders’ lack of rhetoric addressing the inherent evils of capitalism. But, as Sherry Wells pointed out, DSA is an umbrella organization: “we have different values, and that’s okay” she said.

The next concern was voiced by co-chair of the Medicare-For-All working group, Sean Lehman: “If we’re endorsing Bernie we need a plan behind it. What do we get? What is the gain for us as an organization?” He stressed the importance of continuing grassroots work while simultaneously helping with Sanders’ national campaign. His impassioned speech was met with equal passion by Jessica Newman, who replied, “This organization can chew gum and walk at the same time . . . we need to put him into office.”

In the end, an overwhelming majority voted to endorse Bernie Sanders in his presidential run, with only three dissenting votes. How this endorsement will be carried out remains to be seen, and will be a developing and important conversation for Detroit DSA in the coming months.

Two vacant spots were on Detroit DSA’s steering committee were also filled by secret ballot. Four candidates stood for election to the steering committee: Hank Kennedy, Jessica Newman, Lon Herman and Danielle Aubert. Each spoke for one minute to discuss their strengths and what they could bring to DSA. In the end, the membership elected Danielle Aubert, who will focus on political education and communications, and Jessica Newman, a veteran organizer who will head up the electoral committee and the new joint task force of the labor and ecosocialist working groups on the Green New Deal.

If the meeting made one thing clear, it was that The Nation was right when it wrote, last month, that Detroit DSA is a “muscular” chapter. The chapter is growing into a real force in local politics, and will be at the forefront of enacting real change.

Photo: Joseph Xu