Going viral — how a student protest changed the mind of California’s Senator Feinstein

On Friday, I’d hoped to join Sunrise Movement Bay Area for a morning Green New Deal action at Senator Feinstein’s San Francisco Office. Instead, I was on an admin call and first saw Sunrise’s video of their interactions with the Senator. I was outraged and began sharing the media widely.

Asking a centimillionaire Senator to sign on to the sweeping reorganization of the U.S. economy needed to meet the challenges laid out in the latest IPCC report is always a longshot — but Feinstein is a Democrat and has a decent record on past climate legislation.

Instead, as millions saw in a viral video that spawned hundreds of memes and mocking edits, Feinstein told the student delegation from Sunrise that she had her own version of the “Green New Deal,” handing off copies to each child, and told them their “my way or the highway” approach wouldn’t work with her — and that the Green New Deal wouldn’t get done in a decade.

Feinstein’s tough tone and the kids’ confused and hurt faces made a two-minute edit of the interaction the hottest viral news of the day, generating followups by the major media — including withering criticism of Feinstein by 350.org founder Bill McKibben — and a Now This release of the footage. Feinstein was facing strong criticism across the nation — and increasing heat in the Senator’s home state activists from Climate Hawks Vote asked Feinstein to pull back the alternative resolution and The California Progressive Alliance called on the Senator to resign for failure to grasp the climate crisis.

On Tuesday, Feinstein backed down, shelving the alternative resolution shared on Friday, pledging to vote ‘present’ (not ‘no’) on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, and committing to return recent fossil fuel donations.

The Senator told Ryan Grim of The Intercept that she was surprised by the viral video. And that is the point. Toe to toe with a Senator who’s just spent $20 million on their reelection, a child facing a future of climate crisis will always be at a disadvantage. Unless millions of people of good will can join that child.

While today is a victory, there are two cautionary elements to watch here:

  1. Feinstein’s government office flat out refused the children from Sunrise Movement Bay Area reentry on Monday. This is a misuse of government property and cannot be a tactic used to hide from the public.
  2. Many people, including activist actor Alyssa Milano, spread a rumor that the two-minute video by Sunrise of the original action was not true. This Trumpian tactic was helpful in splitting public opinion — even as the public 15-minute video showed additional mistreatment as Feinstein and her chief of staff refused to let the child activists read their handwritten letter, and dismissed entreaties by a student whose friends lost everything in California’s catastrophic Paradise Fire.

Going forward it is important to know your trusted sources and to trust your own eyes. In this case, Feinstein fans and corporate Democrats gleefully adopted conservative language in their attacks on the Sunrise students, and actively peddled disinformation about the content of the taped exchange.

If you want California to lead on the Green New Deal, consider joining the California Progressive Alliance on San Luis Obispo to hear from activists on the front-lines of policy and politics — including a special videotaped address from Bill McKibben. Tickets here.