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CNN given prior notice about protests

After the town hall Biden stayed to answer students questions. Their interactions were not always friendly. Photo by Andrew Tucker.

Climate activists at Grinnell College disrupted the former Vice President during a segment on climate change policy during Monday’s CNN Town Hall. But the interruption was not entirely a surprise; CNN received an anonymous tip about the protest minutes before President Raynard Kington addressed the audience on behalf of the College.

In a phone call with The S&B, Kington said, “I had been informed as I was waiting behind the curtain. I was told they had been called and that there would be a disruption of some sort.” Kington maintained that “nothing was done differently” as a result of the call, saying that “It wasn’t our responsibility in any case—it was CNN’s responsibility.”

Midway through the town hall, chants of “2050 is too late, climate chaos is our fate” rang out from the audience after a question on climate from Amelia Zoernig `21.

The interruption lasted only a few seconds. CNN anchor Erin Burnett told the protesters, “We appreciate your passion, but please respect the Vice President and our town hall.” Biden watched as the activists were escorted away.

The chants were spread on several Facebook groups, including Grinnell Thumbs Down and Grinnell Current Students, just hours before the event.

Climate change dominated the event even after the cameras stopped rolling, overshadowing CNN’s focus on foreign policy and veterans’ issues. While shaking hands, taking selfies, and answering informal questions from the audience after the event, Biden was challenged directly by Keir Hichens `22, who billed the former Vice President’s plan as a “compromise.”

“It’s not compromise! It’s science,” Biden said, pointing at Hichens. “It’s science. Find me the scientist who tells you [that] you can get to zero net carbon by 2030 without taking the entire structure of the economy down completely. Find me that. Tell me one single person you know who can tell you [that] you can have aircraft flying that in fact, is carbon neutral. Tell me how to do that!”

Hichens replied, “Mr. Vice President, if we go along with your plan, and we don’t address it by 2030, it doesn’t matter how much it affects the economy because there will be no economy.” He was met with cheers from onlookers.

Mr. Biden is known for a climate policy that sets a 2050 target for net-zero carbon emissions, a more flexible target than the Green New Deal supported by his rivals in the Democratic Presidential Primary, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Proponents of the plan say incremental change may be more achievable than the measures championed by candidates to Biden’s left, but many, like the Grinnell activists, view climate change as an issue that can’t afford to wait.

Grinnell students’ actions at the Town Hall reflect a greater uptick in climate activism on campus. The Sunrise Movement has a chapter at the College, and earlier this week the activist collective Extinction Rebellion began organizing on campus as well.

Other signs of criticism dotted the campus: An outdoor chalkboard near the Humanities and Social Sciences Center was decorated to read “Bye-den can’t save us” just before the broadcast went live on CNN to viewers around the country and the world.

Instead of within the “free speech zone,” the debates happened inside the Town Hall, face-to-face with the former Vice President himself.

Hichens said that unlike the disruption caused by the protesters, his dialogue with Biden was not premeditated. “Around halfway through the Town Hall I realized that CNN had picked questions for him that were incredibly easy—that played to his three strengths, which are veteran’s affairs, foreign affairs and his family.”

“I had sardonically said to my friend, ‘If they don’t let somebody ask about climate I’m going to yell,’ because I was just getting more and more upset. … When he made it clear that he would be staying around to answer some people’s questions, I made a beeline for the stage.”

What is it like to stare down Joe Biden? According to Hichens, “It was pretty intimidating. … I started [by saying] ‘With all due respect.’ When you start off a sentence that way it usually goes downhill,” he said.

“I think I was a little bit surprised with the way he addressed it. I know he’s pretty evasive on the topic, and he’s such a great speaker under pressure. Those are things that I knew, but I didn’t expect him to deny the science, which is what he did. … He knows that there is science there. And there are much smarter people than me and him telling him about that science,” Hichens said.

Declan O’Reilly `21, who is leaning towards supporting Biden, said he supports the protesters’ decision to interrupt the event. “It’s their right. I think they probably wanted to get a little bit better of an audience than in the free speech zone outside of the [Town] Hall,” O’Reilly said, laughing. “So I can’t blame them for that, right? And they were very respectful. I believe they just walked out when they were told to leave, so I don’t hold anything against them.”

Hichens, however, disagrees with the approach of the protesters. “Obviously I stand by what they were saying. … That was what I ended up having a confrontation with Joe Biden about. I don’t exactly agree with the method, because it’s a really easy thing to pass off as ‘angry people.’ … I don’t know exactly who that’s for,” he said. “What is that doing besides raising the issue? And there are lots of other ways to raise the issue.”

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