Photos recently popped up on Twitter of young activists supergluing themselves across passageways within the U.S. Capitol in the hopes of prompting Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats to declare a “climate emergency.” These fresh-faced, khaki-wearing rapscallions belong to a group called Extinction Rebellion, or XR, one of several organizations the Momentum Community and its parent, the Boston-based Ayni Institute, “incubated.”
Founded in the United Kingdom, Extinction Rebellion now has more than 50 chapters across the United States and hundreds more around the world. Like XR, the Sunrise Movement is dedicated to advancing climate change legislation worldwide, including declaring climate emergencies.
In fact, its use of terms such as “climate emergency,” “climate justice,” and similar inventions has been underway since at least the mid-2000s. It has shifted the discussion on climate change policy from practical environmental policy to a moral imperative by linking it to issues such as equality of the sexes, migration, and racial divisions.
The theatrics of the XR and Sunrise activists are just that: rehearsed, premeditated, and anything but spontaneous. Climate change guru Bill McKibben of the older group 350.org and his colleague Margaret Klein Salamon, author of a manifesto titled “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode,” already wrote the script for this play.
In her polemic, Salamon attempts to reframe the discussion entirely: “Climate justice” is no longer just a moral cause but an Armageddon-like struggle for survival against survival. Like wasteful civilians during World War II, the greedy carbon-emitting industries are contributing to the “enemy” threat of extinction.
Salamon promotes this analogy in the book, and now Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is echoing it. Salamon’s document opens with the following rhetorical question: “Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? What do you think about?” Fifteen-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg uses the same analogy in many of her opening remarks.
McKibben and his ilk already had the ear of powerful corporate sponsors such as Avaaz (which took donations from BP, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to the tune of $200,000 to $25o,000 per year since 2013, to his nongovernmental organization 350.org. Their global Divest-Invest campaign has attracted the support of the far-left mega-donor Wallace Global Fund (WGF), an organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s socialist Vice President Henry A. Wallace (other accounts claim his son Robert founded it).
It is easy to forget that McKibben was a senior backer of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign and was even on the senator’s five-member delegation to the Democratic National Committee’s platform-drafting meetings that year and fumed about the DNC’s refusal to adopt his proposals in Politico. Like Sanders, McKibben has settled in Vermont and is an environmental science professor (through an endowment) at Middlebury College. The position was created through the Schumann Foundation Center for Media and Democracy, which receives funding from the Open Society Foundation (George Soros) and the Tides Foundation.
The Activism Academy and Its Bankrollers
What is the connection between young activists with XR and Sunrise, and the celebrity environmentalist academic McKibben? One would be naive to think the relationship is merely one of inspiration. That is what McKibben would have the public believe. He even claimed earlier this year that it was Sunrise that was hatching the Green New Deal, although it was adopted from previous proposals by the U.N. Environmental Programme and New Economics Foundation.
In fact, several of Sunrise’s founding activists are alumni of 350.org, including its most visible spokesperson Varshini Prakash and founding president. Its initial officers Evan Weber, Matt Lichtash, and Michael Dorsey had all been affiliated with either Occupy Wall Street or the Sierra Club. Wallace Global Fund also awarded its Henry A. Wallace Award to the Sunrise Movement this year.
WGF has a mammoth endowment that it distributes to other radical groups such as Greenpeace, the Tides Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and The Nation Institute. All of these groups call for fossil fuel divestment, but this is easier said than done.
WGF, through its own investment (as of 2017) in the Brandes International Equity fund, indirectly invests in Eni S.p.A. and Engie S.A. It also invests in Generation Investment Management, a gigantic firm chaired by former Vice President Al Gore that claims to have $22.1 billion of assets under management. The Rockefeller Foundation is even more opaque with massive holdings in equity long/short and event-driven hedge funds that tend to invest in oil and gas.
The hook-up is no coincidence. Through the Ayni Institute, activists from these and other “grassroots” movements are trained in digital age adaptations of the same organizing tactics Saul Alinsky taught. The institute’s director, Carlos Saavedra, admits this. He proudly touts his training through Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.
The Momentum Community acts as the training workshop for Ayni. And the movements Momentum “incubates” include not only Sunrise but the Movimiento Cosecha (Harvest Movement), dedicated to defending illegal immigrant claims to U.S. citizenship, and IfNotNow, a Jewish American organization advocating for ending support for the Israeli government until the occupation of the West Bank is ended. XR has also sent activists to Ayni Institute trainings. Much of the focus of these sessions is on deciding how much centralized control, or lack thereof, a “grassroots” movement needs.
Ultimately, the Momentum Community does not serve a solely instructional role. Its members end up serving positions of leadership within the “incubated” movements — insofar as they acknowledge they have leaders. Within Sunrise, for example, founding activists Will Lawrence, Dyanna Jaye, and Sara Blazevic are all current trainers with Momentum Community.
Robbing the Cradle Before Soaking the Rich
A major element of Sunrise’s strategy is its focus on recruiting among younger voters and even minors, through school chapter meetings and walk-outs. It is not the first politicized youth movement by any stretch of the imagination. It should, however, give pause that it is preaching end-times warnings to children that have scarcely learned to drive. Two of the activists The Guardian featured in a glowing profile in March were high school students.
Even Rolling Stone, when covering Sunrise’s protest at Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office in February, remarked that some of the children looked to be in elementary school. “We are asking you to be brave and to do this for us and for your grandchildren,” a Sunrise protester said to the California Democrat. When Feinstein pushed back on the children’s demands, the adults took control and attempted to emotionally blackmail her by claiming the Green New Deal was “enormously popular.”
The tactic is compelling for many observers that are already climate change “converts,” but it relies entirely on an emotional appeal through impressionable youth and doesn’t cite any data. While Ocasio-Cortez has famously reneged on her statement of a 12-year window to disaster, both XR and Sunrise publicly use that figure, and they even sell a T-shirt with “12 years” emblazoned on the front.
In the wake of her claim that she was joking, neither the congresswoman nor Sunrise issued any statement clarifying what the “real” window was or whether they were sticking with 12. Perhaps, they’re revising it to a rounder 10, as presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke has estimated. The reason these questions remain unanswered is that, as her then-chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti famously confirmed to Sam Ricketts, climate policy aide to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, the Green New Deal has nothing to do with climate change.
The Masterful Spin Doctor
Perhaps the most powerful position a Momentum Community alumnus has reached is that of Waleed Shahid, who today is the communications director of the Justice Democrats and a key figure in the Pennsylvania Working Families Party. Shahid was one of the earliest core members of Momentum when Ayni was still called “Movement Mastery.”
Shahid also seems to have a knack for creating topics of discussion Ocasio-Cortez likes to repeat, such as blaming the Philadelphia refinery explosion of June 21 on the “fossil fuels economy.” Later that day, seemingly with no other inspiration besides Shahid and the Sunrise Movement’s announcement five minutes after his, the congresswoman from the Bronx tweeted out a take that connected the explosion to the “existential crisis” of climate change. This is far from the only time Shahid’s tweets seemed to coordinated with, precede, or hype the goings on of either Ocasio-Cortez or other members of “The Squad.”
According to Politico Magazine, Shahid is the one credited with focusing Justice Democrats’ efforts on her congressional race against incumbent Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley. Shahid also offered one of the earliest responses in support of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s “all about the Benjamins” comment about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that set off a media firestorm. His Twitter feed is replete with retweets of Sunrise’s posts.
Regardless of the merits of his political positions, Shahid is rapidly proving himself to be a masterful political spin doctor, and his work has yielded results. Thanks to his fusion voting strategy, Sunrise-endorsed candidates (all Democrats) have won five seats in the Pennsylvania legislature and three more in the New York state Senate. It also has five endorsed candidates that won U.S. House seats, including all members of “The Squad.”
Does Sunrise Own The Democratic Party?
Sunrise’s influence on the Democratic presidential nomination is becoming more apparent by the week. During the July debate in Detroit, Sunrise activists staged a raucous protest outside the Fox Theatre venue that included appearances by union leaders, Prakash, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. Organizers claimed a crowd of 1,200 demonstrators.
After the first debate in June, the Sunrise activists succeeded in lobbying for two climate forums on CNN and MSNBC in September. Sunrise was quick to note on July 25 that it is not satisfied that these are “forums” as opposed to “debates.” Chris Hayes, an editor-at-large with The Nation — a publication that has given copious editorial space to Sunrise, including publishing three separate appeals for reader support for Sunrise just this year — will host the MSNBC forum.
Somehow Inslee, who has staked his campaign on climate change and whose plan Sunrise has endorsed, has not RSVPed for the event. Neither has Tom Steyer, a person deeply tied to McKibben. Steyer’s nonprofit NextGen America is also tied to Sunrise, and according to the New York Times, the two groups “strategize” together.
Inslee may not be going because he is already a full convert. In an outburst during the Democratic debate on July 31, he berated former vice president Joe Biden, yelling, “We cannot work this out! The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years!”
The Momentum Community has been attempting to claw into positions of higher influence. In June, the IfNotNow group sent six paid fellows to follow candidates around New Hampshire to pressure them to commit to “ending the occupation” of Palestine. They succeeded in getting an affirmative answer from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whose staff includes Max Berger, an IfNotNow co-founder and paid associate of Justice Democrats.
No counterweight is acting against it in the Democratic Party, as many of its members are alumni of the Sanders campaign. The illusion is that groups such as these are providing the energy and enthusiasm of youth, while Shahid and other heavyweights such as McKibben are providing the support. The reality is that these calculating, power-hungry backroom dealers now have an army of followers willing to make a scene and get arrested on behalf of their doomsday prophecy.
Epstein is a freelance writer, civil libertarian blogger, and mechanical designer. He lives in Ohio. His work has also been featured with the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.