‘Lead or Lose!’ Young People Arrested at Biden’s Campaign Headquarters Call for Climate Action and a Ceasefire

Young climate activists from the Sunrise Movement entered President Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware on Monday, demanding that he declare a climate emergency, call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and end U.S. funding of Israel.

Holding signs that said “fund climate, not genocide,” and a banner that read “Biden: lead or lose,” the activists argued that young people will not turn out to vote for Biden in November unless these demands are met. It’s a pivot for a group that helped lead what became record youth turnout to get Biden and other Democrats elected in 2020.

Around 80 protesters gathered at Biden’s campaign headquarters at 9:00 Monday morning. About two dozen then entered the building and blockaded the campaign office’s doors in an attempt to speak with the campaign team about their demands, according to the Sunrise Movement’s communications director, Stevie O’Hanlon. 

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After about an hour, the protesters were removed from the building and 21 were arrested. Other members of the group continued to demonstrate outside the building well into the afternoon and the arrested protesters were released from custody later that evening. The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

At the action, members of Sunrise called out the Biden administration for what they characterize as a lack of consistency in upholding 2020 campaign promises to champion climate action.

“Young people are pretty pissed at Joe Biden right now,” O’Hanlon said. “Joe Biden can’t fund renewable energy on Monday, on Tuesday fund a genocide and approve oil projects and then claim to be a climate president and expect the youth vote.”

Police confront the activists before removing them from the building. Credit: Rachael Warriner

The Sunrise Movement has previously supported some of the Biden administration’s policies on climate: after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Sunrise founder and executive director Varshini Prakash—who joined Biden’s climate task force—called the act “the largest national climate bill in world history,” although she also criticized its concessions to the fossil fuel industry. Last month, Sunrise was among those celebrating Biden’s decision to halt the approval of liquified natural gas exports. 

But the Biden administration has received strong criticism from young voters—including Sunrise—about the record rate at which it has approved fossil fuel projects, like the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska.

A report released in November by the Center for Biological Diversity claims that by 2030, carbon emissions from the Biden administration’s new fossil fuel projects may exceed any emissions reductions from its climate action policies, including the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Fund Climate, Not Genocide” 

At Monday’s action, Sunrise activists drew connections between the need for more investment in climate action and the administration’s continued support of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. 

“President Biden has proposed billions of dollars in unconditional military aid to destroy young people and destroy families on the other side of the world in Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza,” Sunrise member Shiva Rajbhandari, 19, said. “And meanwhile, we have real needs here in the U.S., where that money could be spent protecting young people and putting families first, frontline communities first, as we face increasing storms, wildfires, droughts and climate disaster after climate disaster.”

Outside the headquarters, the activists continued to demonstrate, holding signs and banners that called for declaration of climate emergency and an end to U.S. support of Israel. Credit: Adah Crandall
Outside the headquarters, the activists continued to demonstrate, holding signs and banners that called for declaration of climate emergency and an end to U.S. support of Israel. Credit: Adah Crandall
Outside the headquarters, the activists continued to demonstrate, holding signs and banners that called for declaration of climate emergency and an end to U.S. support of Israel. Credit: Adah Crandall

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have evaded questions about Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza and repeatedly refused to place conditions on aid to Israel, although Biden has called Israel’s military conduct “over the top.” The Biden administration says it is working to broker a “six-week pause” in Gaza. The day after Monday’s action, the Senate approved $14 billion in military aid for Israel.

“The link between what’s going on in Palestine and the climate crisis is really inextricable, in that they’re both rooted in imperialism and colonization and oppression of people and families and young people,” Rajbhandari said.  

The group posted a video on Instagram of arrested protesters in Wilmington sitting in a police van wearing Sunrise’s signature black and yellow t-shirts, hands zip-tied behind their backs as they awaited transport to the station.

“As our communities struggle under escalating climate disasters, Biden is forcing billions of dollars through Congress to help bomb children in Rafah,” the video’s caption read, referencing Israel’s bombing the previous night of refugees at the Rafah border crossing.

Will Young People Vote in 2024?

Members of Sunrise expressed a range of personal opinions about whether or not they’ll turn up to the polls in November in a likely rematch against former President Donald Trump, a climate denier who pulled the nation out of the U.N.’s Paris climate process and favors unbridled drilling for fossil fuels.

Rajbhandari, 19, said he’s personally committed to casting his first vote in a presidential election this year, but noted that through his efforts to register voters in North Carolina, where he’s a student, and his home state of Idaho, he’s met many people who will not be voting unless they see significant changes from the current administration.

Shiva Rajbhandari was among those arrested at Monday's demonstration. Credit: Adah Crandall
Shiva Rajbhandari was among those arrested at Monday’s demonstration. Credit: Adah Crandall

“It’s scary, but I can’t blame them,” Rajbhandari said. “When I was registering folks to vote in 2020, it was like, ‘this is how we’re gonna save our country and the world,’ and it feels like we really haven’t done that. So it really feels like an empty promise has been made.”

Sunrise supported Biden in 2020 not out of enthusiasm about him as a candidate—he wasn’t the group’s first choice—but because he was the least bad option available, Rajbhandari explained. 

Though he was too young to vote then, Rajbhandari registered voters and knocked on doors for Biden in 2020. He said he now feels hurt that Biden has turned his back on the young people who helped get him elected.

“President Biden needs to pick a side, is he with us or is he with the oil and gas millionaires who have controlled the Democratic Party and our politics in general for a long time?” Rajbhandari said. “It seems like he hasn’t made up his mind, and as a young voter, for me, that’s not exciting. In fact, it’s infuriating and insulting and disgusting.”

O’Hanlon, 28, said she’s “waiting and seeing” how the campaign unfolds before making a decision about voting. 

Citing polls that show Biden’s dwindling popularity amongst young people, however, O’Hanlon noted that it’s not about whether or not members of Sunrise turn up to vote, but whether voters as a whole mobilize behind Biden.

A 2023 national poll from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School found that the number of 18-29 year-olds who “definitely” plan to vote for Biden has decreased from 57 percent in the fall of 2019 to 49 percent last fall. 

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Elise Joshi of Gen Z for Change—which retweeted Sunrise’s posts about the Monday action—said Biden’s decision to pause LNG exports was the kind of thing young people want to see from the administration. Still, Joshi said that the administration’s handling of Israel’s war in Gaza is a hard-line for many young voters. 

“We know that Gen Z is extremely passionate about climate justice,” Joshi said. “It does not take away from the fact that we desperately need a ceasefire.”

Monday’s action at the campaign headquarters was a precursor to what will be a nationwide, coordinated day of action on President’s Day. Sunrise Movement members across the country will stage at least 40 distinct local demonstrations and visit local democratic campaign offices to deliver the same demands and call on President Biden to declare a climate emergency. 

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