The Sunrise Movement Is Really Struggling to Live With Joe Biden

“I am not willing to vote for Joe Biden,” one Sunrise member wrote in the Zoom chat among the group last week.
April 18, 2020, 3:18pm
Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during the Jill and Joe Biden 2020 Super Tuesday Los Angeles Rally held at the Baldwin Hills Recreation Center on March 3, 2020 in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles, California, Unit

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

The Sunrise Movement bet big on Bernie Sanders. But now that he’s out of the race, they’ve got some issues with Joe Biden — to put it lightly.

Sunrise, one of the most powerful youth-led climate advocacy organizations in the U.S., endorsed Sanders in January, based on his commitment to a Green New Deal. Now the leadership and chapters around the country are trying to come to terms with Biden as the inevitable Democratic nominee.

“I am not willing to vote for Joe Biden,” one Sunrise member wrote in the Zoom chat among the group last week titled, “Bernie's Out: Where We Go from Here.”

“FUCK JOE BIDEN,” wrote another.

But on that call, leadership made it clear that they’d try to work with Biden and push him to support their platform. Defeating President Donald Trump in November, they said, was the crucial objective for their movement; it’ll be much harder for them to get anything like a Green New Deal passed with Trump in office.

Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s 26-year-old co-founder and executive director, told VICE News that engagement with the Biden campaign has already begun.

“We’ve tried to be super clear about the way that we need them to improve on not only their climate policy but their immigration, criminal justice, and financial regulation policies,” she said. “We’ll see if that conversation translates into policy changes.”

But local chapters of Sunrise aren’t exactly on board yet. While national leadership hasn’t made a decision on whether to back Biden, some powerful local groups have. Broward County Sunrise in Florida, is a definitive nope. “We will not endorse Joe Biden,” the group tweeted shortly after the Zoom call. A number of other chapters did the same.

Biden’s record is disqualifying, said William Spencer, a 19-year-old who leads a local Sunrise hub in Virginia, told VICE News.

“A lot of people viewed Sanders as the last hope for avoiding some of the worst aspects of climate change,” he said. Spencer said there’s no change in policy that Biden could make now that would motivate him to campaign for the former vice president. And it’s not just Biden’s record on climate change.

“There's the sexual misconduct allegations against Biden,” he said. “And that makes a lot of our members feel uncomfortable.” (One of Biden’s former staffers, Tara Reade, has claimed that Biden sexually assaulted her when she was a Senate staffer. The Biden campaign has denied the allegation.)

But beating Trump is still a high priority for Sunrise, and Saya Ameli Hajedi, an 18-year-old Sunrise organizer in Boston, said she’s willing to overlook misgivings about Biden to beat Trump in November.

“We are going to take Biden’s side, and we're going to put our full force behind making sure that we have a Democrat in office,” she said.

Last week, the Sunrise movement put out a letter, cosigned with a number of other youth activist organizations, that asked Biden to commit to transitioning to all clean energy by 2030 — Biden’s committed to net zero emissions by 2050 — and made a slate of other demands on policies that young people want. If the Biden camp signed onto the policies, the organizations, including March for Our Lives and Tom Steyer’s NextGen, said they would commit $100 million to getting out the youth vote.

Prakash knows that Biden wasn’t the first, second, or even third choice of most of the young members of the Sunrise Movement and can understand distaste for Biden, mixed with the feeling of disappointment that Bernie is now out of the race.

“There are some core tenants of Biden’s campaign that just don't resonate with young voters,” she said. “Biden’s calling for a return of return to normalcy, that in large part wasn't working for her generation to begin with.”

The organization's members have also clashed with Biden directly in the past. In recorded exchanges, Sunrise Movement members have approached Biden and asked him to get on board with the movement’s priorities. Biden has tended to ignore them, and brushed off generational divides in the race.

And while Sanders was still in the race, Sunrise went on the offensive against Biden. “Do you want to turn a whole generation off from the Democratic Party?” Sunrise tweeted in early March, while Sanders was still in the race. “Because @JoeBiden is how you turn a whole generation off from the Party.”

In a video, the group called Biden out for taking cash from fossil fuel interests. “I’m just wondering how we can trust you when you’ve continually broken your pledge not to take fossil fuel money?” a Sunrise Movement member asks Biden directly in the video.

But Sunrise can’t clash with Biden in person now, during a pandemic. Instead of organizing in-person actions, the group launched an online organizing school over Zoom for their members.

And even the members who don’t necessarily like Biden aren’t necessarily opposed to Sunrise’s working to elect him.

“If they were to endorse Biden now I think it would be a disservice to Sunrise members,” Tisya Mavuram, a 24-year-old Sunrise member who worked on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.“If they were to do that after holding him accountable, after getting concessions from him, after putting public pressure on him to release his donors or adopt planks of the Green New Deal, or stop taking money from fossil fuel executives, or release his cabinet appointments, I think it’d make more sense to me.”

While the movement’s leaders try to push Biden to the left, they’re rallying their base behind down ballot candidates they can support without reservation. But Sunrise’s leaders know that it could be an uphill battle to keep their members engaged with electoral politics after a series of painful losses.

“Some people are extremely frustrated with the entire electoral political system that pretty consistently disenfranchises young people,” Prakash said. “The role we have to play in this moment is supporting as many young people as possible to get engaged, get their eyes on the prize, and make sure we do whatever it takes to take back the White House and Congress so we can actually achieve our goals of the Green New Deal.”

Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during the Jill and Joe Biden 2020 Super Tuesday Los Angeles Rally held at the Baldwin Hills Recreation Center on March 3, 2020 in Baldwin Hills, Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by Xavier Collin/Image Press Agency/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)