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“Our Lives Depend on Passing Climate Policy”: Meet Congressional Staffer Arrested in Senate Protest

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Image Credit: Saul Levin/Twitter

Before a deal emerged this week on a bill to address the climate emergency, six congressional staffers were arrested Monday on Capitol Hill as they held a nonviolent civil disobedience protest inside the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging him to reopen negotiations on the bill. We speak with Saul Levin, one of the staffers who was arrested, and discuss the role the action had in pushing the bill forward. “Our lives depend on passing climate policy this year,” says Levin. “We hope that this had an impact.” We’re also joined by Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental politics who advised Senate Democrats on the legislation.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to bring in another guest here. On Capitol Hill, six congressional staffers were arrested Monday as they held a nonviolent civil disobedience protest inside the office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The staffers were calling on Schumer to reopen negotiations on the bill to combat the climate crisis. We’re joined now by one of those staffers who was arrested. Saul Levin helped to organize the direct action in Schumer’s office.

Saul, welcome to Democracy Now! Now, you’re a Democratic staffer, and I wonder if this could have played a role in Manchin reversing, this kind of action inside Congress. Explain why you targeted not the Republicans but, yes, the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

SAUL LEVIN: Yeah. Well, thanks, Amy.

You know, part of this action was kind of an alarm bell that we were ringing from the inside, where we were kind of trying to direct people towards the Senate majority leader and, frankly, the president of the United States to say, “These are the folks who need to be negotiating like our lives depend on passing climate policy this year,” which they do. And so, we’ve seen, you know, Senator Manchin go back and forth with industry and everything else, and we really thought that what was needed here was a boost for Senator Schumer to keep negotiating, to not get discouraged, to keep going, because we have absolutely no option.

And keep in mind there’s a huge age divide here. You know, we hope that this had an impact, but there’s hundreds of congressional staffers who were doing different things to try and get this bill back to life, because we’re going to live through the climate crisis. We already are. And some of us are hoping to have kids, hoping — you know, I’m hoping my goddaughter is going to grow up in a livable world. And we weren’t on track for that. Hopefully now we’re a little bit more so.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Saul, we just spoke to your father, Andy Levin, who’s running for reelection on Tuesday in the primary. He was arrested twice last week. You were arrested once. There were a lot of arrests in your family. But if you can talk about why you decided to go this far, and now to identify yourself? Because in letters you had to senators, initially you just used your initials. Why now come forward?

SAUL LEVIN: Yeah, well, people — you know, many of us came forward. And, Amy, there were 17 staffers who were in the room. Only six ended up getting arrested. We came forward because we felt like we didn’t have a choice. There are, you know, as mentioned, hundreds of congressional staffers, members of Congress who have been working for 18 months, or a bit more than that, to pass climate policy during these precious two years of Democrats in power, and nothing has happened. And we felt like, you know, we couldn’t, in good faith, leave or go on vacation without passing climate policy. And so the first step was to say, you know, “We’ll take some risks. We’ll do some things that we’re not supposed to do, we’re not comfortable doing.” You know, we’re not supposed to be the people on these TV shows, but it’s so bad, the notion that we’re not going to pass climate policy, that we had to step out briefly and say, “Wait a second. If we do something weird, maybe this will draw the attention and spark the folks who do have more say, who are in the seats of power, to do something unusual, too, to get this done.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, Saul Levin is a congressional staffer and coordinator of the Congressional Progressive Staff Association Climate Working Group, who helped to organize the climate emergency direct action in Senator Chuck Schumer’s office, got arrested with five others, is also a congressional aide to Congressmember Cori Bush. And I am wondering, Professor Stokes: How important was this action, do you think, and actions like these, the level of activism of congressional staff, not to mention congressmembers, but the staff, who have been putting enormous pressure to get climate action done?

LEAH STOKES: Yeah. Of course, I know Saul Levin, and I really was heartened by the action that they took. You know, so many of us felt that despair when the negotiations fell apart. I certainly was crying, and several members of the staff in Congress were crying, as well. And we weren’t doing that for some kind of personal reason, you know, in terms of the work that people had put in. It was because we understood the stakes.

You know, failure is not an option right now. We had 100 million Americans under extreme heat last week, and we’re about to see those kinds of record temperatures across the country again today. We have 60 million Americans experiencing a once-in-a-1,200-year megadrought in the West right now. We’re seeing extreme flooding in Kentucky and Missouri. You know, this is just terrible. And we cannot just watch the climate crisis unfold, like Saul was talking about, and not actually do something about it.

So, there are so many people working in Congress, the staff that Saul just elevated, who have been working really hard. That includes a number of staffers in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office who haven’t even taken paternity leave since they had small children. And, you know, I’ve got to tell you, I came on your show exactly one year ago today, and then I was in the hospital, and then I had my own children, twins. And I have not gone on leave since then, really, because this climate bill is just too important. We have got to get it over the finish line. So I’m really grateful for all the folks working in Congress to get it over the finish line in the coming weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. I know you’re in Michigan, Saul, but if you can talk about the climate protesters who got arrested last night outside the Congressional Baseball Game and fundraiser as they tried to block the entrance to the Nationals Park? I mean, this is happening at every level now.

SAUL LEVIN: Absolutely. Well, I think, you know, we were not coordinated with them, but I think at all levels people are rising up and saying, you know, “We need more climate justice investments immediately on an absolute emergency basis.” As Leah mentioned, there’s been heat waves all over the country that are unprecedented, other than the fact that they’ve happened in recent years as the climate crisis has escalated. But, you know, the consistency between our protest and the protest at the baseball game is that people all over the world are rising up saying, “We’re going to live through this, and our leaders are not moving fast enough.”

We’re hoping — you know, we’re still looking at the details and hoping to move forward with climate policy this year, but this new package is not anywhere close to the level of funding that we need. This is not a Green New Deal or Build Back Better. And so, people need to keep pushing and pushing for more, whatever ways they can.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. The signs that were held, “Democrats, seal the deal,” and talking about a climate emergency, at Nationals Park. Saul Levin, congressional staffer for Congressmember Cori Bush and coordinator of the Congressional Progressive Staff Association Climate Working Group, one of six staffers arrested in a climate emergency direct action in Senator Schumer’s office. And Leah Stokes, associate professor of environmental politics at University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Short Circuiting Policy and co-host of the podcast A Matter of Degrees.

Next up, we look at two threats facing the nation’s imprisoned population: intensifying heat waves and monkeypox. Stay with us. Back in 30 seconds.

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