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Activists pick up their phones and move online as coronavirus curbs protests

Activists pick up their phones and move online as coronavirus curbs protests


It comes at a critical time as activists mobilize around elections and the economic effects of the pandemic

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Activists prepping for a rally that was supposed to take place yesterday on Wall Street thought they were being careful. They would stand a few feet away from each other while protesting a potential bailout for fossil fuel companies amid the economic disaster unfolding along with the COVID-19 pandemic

Then came a flood of unexpected news the evening before the protest: classes were canceled to keep people from passing the virus to one another, President Trump announced a travel ban, Tom Hanks became the first A-list celebrity to test positive for the virus. The last straw for the activists was the NBA suspending its season.

Mass protests are indefinitely on hold

“That was a big shocker to some of us who are big sports fans,” says Pete Sikora, climate campaigns director for New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group leading the protest. “That drove home how big a deal this is.” So they canceled, about 12 hours before the rally was set to start. 

Mass protests are indefinitely on hold, some grassroots groups say, amid efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Groups like the Sunrise Movement — which had also planned to join the Wall Street rally — are turning to online activism and phone banking to keep momentum going. Sunrise, which has pushed for a Green New Deal by occupying the offices of ranking Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, tells The Verge that it is postponing all of its mass mobilizations and in-person trainings until further notice. 

The restrictions come at a crucial time when many community organizers would normally be in full gear. It’s election season, so they’re working to mobilize voters and sway presidential candidates’ positions. There’s also distrust in the Trump administration’s ability to respond to the crisis. During previous disasters like hurricanes, people have been able to express their frustration with a botched response through protests. But the coronavirus pandemic means that doing the same now could do more harm than good. And some activists worry that the public health crisis will make situations worse for the communities they represent. 

“The thing that really kind of captures public outrage is mass protests in the streets and so we’re going to be fighting with one hand tied behind our back,” says Sikora, whose organization also works on housing and criminal justice reform.

His group is figuring out ways to protect New Yorkers who might be disproportionately vulnerable to the pandemic and its economic fallout. As businesses slow and lay off workers, there’s more pressure on people trying to make ends meet. New York Communities for Change wants to stop evictions in the state so that people aren’t thrown out of their homes at a time when they’re supposed to stay home to keep healthy. It’s also calling for pardons or sentence reductions for elderly inmates, since prisons are susceptible to outbreaks and seniors inside could be sitting ducks.

Sikora says his organization has been puzzling its way through the rapidly changing situation just like everyone else. They might turn to online petitions and webinars, or will ask people to take pictures to post online as a form of protest. The group’s office has temporarily closed and its staff are working remotely starting today.

The Sunrise Movement is asking people stuck at home to use their time to call prospective voters. They’re trying to turn out votes for congressional candidates that they’ve endorsed in the Midwest. They’re also campaigning hard for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has championed a Green New Deal. With Joe Biden now ahead of Sanders, it’s crunch time for the next round of Democratic primaries on March 17th. 

Sunrise had put their hopes in college students boosting their candidates — but those students may not be on campus now that classes have been suspended. To get young voters to the polls, Sunrise is organizing phone banks; they’re also floating the idea of coordinating video conferences so that they can still sort of be together while making calls separately from home. It’s a shift in strategy from their previous focus on talking with people as they knocked door to door.

it’s crunch time

“Of course it is more difficult to mobilize in person for the Green New Deal because we need to take care of each other in this moment, not exposing each other to unnecessary risk,” says Sofie Karasek, a spokesperson for Sunrise. Making the call not to move forward with public rallies was an “emotionally difficult decision, especially when people put so much hard work into making these mobilizations happen and preparing.”

A major 3-day strike coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in April will no longer take place — at least not in person — a coalition of environmental groups announced this afternoon. “Instead, we will think creatively about how to disrupt business as usual,” the coalition tweeted.

Greta Thunberg, who inspired youth around the world to demand action on climate change by hitting the streets, tweeted earlier this week asking people to stay home. “Keep your numbers low but your spirits high and let’s take one week at the time,” she said. Thunberg urged people to join a digital strike by posting photos online with the hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline. The call has already been met with a flood of young people posting photos with protest signs from their homes. 

Other groups are still figuring out how to navigate the new realities of living through a pandemic. “No decisions have been made yet but the organization is taking [COVID-19] very seriously,” a spokesperson for March For Our Lives, the youth gun violence prevention movement sparked by the Parkland, Florida high school shooting, emailed The Verge. “We are developing a plan on how to move forward with our planned demonstrations, digital activism, and working with our various members and chapters across the country to ensure we continue to work towards ending gun violence in America,” the spokesperson said. 

Update 3/13/20 1:12PM ET: This post has been updated with the Earth Day announcement.