Over the summer, a thick haze from wildfires across the state hung over Bakersfield for weeks. For some, the toxic air quality was nothing more than a consistently annoying reminder to stay inside. For others, the air had turned into a health risk. But to a select group of young people, the wildfires, which seem to be getting worse every year, represent something starkly different: a call to action.
Driven by an urgent desire to curb global warming, a new political crusade has started in Kern County. The local hub of a national movement, Sunrise Kern has quickly gained momentum since its launch in July.
Over its short lifespan, the group has already clashed with many local politicians. Whether it’s hosting a break-of-dawn protest at Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s house or calling out Gov. Gavin Newsom for his oil policies, Sunrise Kern has one message for local elected officials: Either enact policies that protect the environment, or we’ll find someone who will.
The message has been catching on. Reporting “explosive growth,” the organization has gone from three people to around 70 active members, with hundreds signed up to hear from it over email and text.
“We’ve been growing really really fast,” said Riddhi Patel, who helped found the group and serves as hub coordinator. “I think people are starting to get scared about that, which is fun to see for us.”
Nationally, the Sunrise Movement has thrown its support behind the Green New Deal, the congressional proposal aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the country’s use of fossil fuels. Over the course of this year’s election, Sunrise organizers worked to put representatives in office who would push the proposal through Congress. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already a big supporter.
A key part of the plan is its promise to provide high-paying jobs in green industries. In Kern County, where oil reigns supreme, that promise is viewed as especially important.
“If you are someone who is worried about what a green transition of the economy will look like as an oil worker, we are here for you,” said Adrian Esquivias, a coordinator with Sunrise Kern, who at 28, is the oldest member of the local hub. “We are here merely to make sure that Kern County grows into the beautiful community that we envision.”
Although its focus may be climate change, Sunrise Kern has ventured into other realms not traditionally connected to the subject. The group has weighed in on efforts to reform the Bakersfield Police Department and has pushed for homeless issues to be resolved. It has even started distributing food to those in need over the weekends.
Still, its aggressive approach has rubbed certain local politicians the wrong way.
District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer found herself the subject of a vulgar social media post while campaigning for Delano City Councilman Joe Alindajao, who was running for reelection in October. When asked about Sunrise Kern this week, it appeared as if the message had stuck with her.
“Being engaged in politics is an important part of living in a democracy, as is expressing one’s views on political issues,” she said in a statement to The Californian, calling the group’s actions publicity stunts. “Engagement in the political process, however, should be honest, transparent and civil. Some groups choose to engage in tactics designed specifically to harass, threaten, or demean public servants rather than engage in truthful advocacy. Such tactics often are just thinly veiled attempts at intimidation, and have little place in any democracy, much less a civilized society.”
McCarthy, whose home was subject to a 4:30 a.m. protest by Sunrise Kern and other groups in September, did not respond to a request for comment from The Californian. At the time, he tweeted a message portraying the protesters as trying to intimidate his neighbors and family and thanked the Bakersfield Police Department on Twitter for showing up.
Even with the criticism, Sunrise Kern has no plans of slowing down. After a short holiday breather, the group plans to pick up where it left off at the beginning of the new year. Organizers have already set their sights on the 2022 elections.
“We’ve just got dedicated members. We have people who just feel it in their marrow,” Esquivias said.
He and other organizers believe more and more recruits will continue to join, which could be potentially troubling for those elected officials who stand in the group's way.
“If you don’t represent people who elect you into power," he continued, "watch out.”