Editor’s Note: The original version of this column said that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not mention Biden in her speech at Sunday’s climate rally. There was a reference to demanding change of “our leaders, from President Biden to the UN General Assembly, to all of our elected officials.
I was one of the tens of thousands of participants at Sunday’s “March to End Fossil Fuels” in New York City, an inspiring protest that was very much powered by the young and people of color, with indigenous activists at the head of the march.
Besides targeting the fossil fuel industry, the multiracial and multi-generational protest focused on a single individual: Joe Biden.
The president’s name was on most of the placards, including the most prevalent one—“Biden: Declare a Climate Emergency.” Many other pre-printed signs zeroed in on the president, for example: “SCIENTISTS TO BIDEN: END FOSSIL FUELS” and “BIDEN: OUR FUTURE IS ON FIRE” and “I WANT A FOSSIL FREE PRESIDENT.” There were homemade signs as well, from “PRESIDENT BIDEN: STOP MAKING IT WORSE!” to “F**k Joe Biden.” Young activists handed out thousands of stickers alluding to Biden’s broken promises: “I DIDN’T VOTE FOR FOSSIL FUELS.”
The march culminated at a rally not far from United Nations headquarters, where speaker after speaker denounced or criticized President Biden. He was condemned for saying he wouldn’t join other world leaders at this week’s UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York. He was repeatedly criticized for not using his enormous executive power to address the crisis. He was slammed for his recent reversals on fossil fuels: more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, the massive Willow drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, the new LNG export facility in Alaska, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia.
One of the first speakers was an African American climate justice activist from Louisiana, who began her talk by denouncing Biden for his “bald face lie” that he’d already declared a climate emergency. She warned of trouble at the ballot box if he didn’t shape up.
With Biden on virtually every marcher’s mind—whether mildly disappointed in him or fully outraged—there was one speaker who didn’t single out the president: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m sure I wasn’t the only activist present who noticed.
Don’t get me wrong. AOC delivered a wonderful, rousing, militant speech. People roared their approval when she was introduced, and the crowd loved it when she demanded “urgency” on the climate issue, when she reminded folks that she’d introduced the Green New Deal in 2019, and when she said that the transition to a renewable-energy economy must be “public, democratically controlled” so we don’t “go from oil barons to solar barons.” After she finished her six-minute talk, the crowd chanted “AOC, AOC, AOC.”
But she did not focus on Biden in her speech. Nor criticize any of his recent climate reversals. There was only a general reference to “the United States continuing to approve a record number of fossil fuel leases.”
What’s worse, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has actually endorsed Joe Biden for reelection. She did that early, back in July, seven months before the first Democratic primary. AOC’s endorsement was lukewarm—she said she was supporting Biden for re-election “given that field” of Biden, RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson. “I think he’s done quite well,” said AOC, “given the limitations that we have.” Her comments led to headlines like this from AP: “Ocasio-Cortez endorses Biden’s re-election campaign, sending a strong signal of Democratic unity.”
But today there is no Democratic unity, certainly not among Democratic voters—most of whom keep telling pollsters that they want a different candidate to lead the party in 2024.
In November 2018, when Rep.-elect Ocasio-Cortez joined Sunrise protesters as they occupied the office of Nancy Pelosi on behalf of a Green New Deal, she was positioning herself as a legislator more at home with movement activists than with Democratic leaders. She was signaling her belief that making demands brings more change than making friends. That even elected officials should stand against the powerful—not with them—when the powerful are obstructing reforms badly needed by working people and the planet.
I know AOC’s role as a legislator is different than our roles as activists. But given that President Biden has gone in reverse on an issue Ocasio-Cortez is so deservedly identified with—the climate crisis—maybe it’s time for her to shift into reverse and withdraw or suspend her endorsement of Joe Biden.