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Interview: Linda Sarsour on building the movements against Trump

August 9, 2017

Linda Sarsour is a prominent Palestinian-American political activist. Sarsour is perhaps best known for her work as one of the co-chairs of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. She is currently working with MPower Change, a grassroots Muslim American organization that fights for racial and economic justice. The following interview was conducted at the 2017 People’s Summit in Chicago.

Kevin Taghabon: There’s a little bit of a sentiment I feel that: Trump got elected, there’s a lot of accelerated activism, there’s a renewed Left. Do you feel comfortable with that sentiment? Do you feel that some people are being thrown under the bus? Or is this all actually a positive development?

Linda Sarsour: Trump didn’t introduce racism or xenophobia or mass incarceration or poverty. None of these issues are new to the movement. There have been people for decades in this country working on these issues. I agree with the sentiment in the sense that there’s much more mass mobilization and mass organizing, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past – at least for me – thirty years. But I also don’t want to discredit or underestimate work that has already happened in the past. As long as we still remember that there have been mass mobilizations in the past and that we do stand on the shoulders of giants, then it’s okay to recognize that there has been an acceleration [in organizing] under this particular administration.

The term “intersectional” has entered our vernacular, left academia, and become a part of everyday activism. What does that mean to you, and why is it specifically important in the framework of Muslim solidarity and Palestinian solidarity?

Intersectionality was a word that was coined by a woman named Kimberlé Crenshaw, giving credit where it’s due. Intersectionality for me means that we all come to the table. That we understand that there are no single issue struggles because we don’t live single issue lives. As a Muslim woman, as a Palestinian woman, as a daughter of immigrants, as a non-profit leader, as someone who serves refugees, I want to be able to bring all that to the table. An intersectional movement allows me to not have to prioritize which issues are more important and kind of split my activism, and allows me to care about many things all at the same time. And that’s the only way we’re going to win. Environmental justice is not going to be able to win without the folks working on single-payer healthcare or the folks working on ending mass incarceration or the folks working on reproductive rights. What I’m seeing now is young people coming together and saying “yeah, we can say all these things and we can work on all these issues together.” What that does is it builds power, and it brings us all together. This conference is a manifestation of what happens when all these movements come together.

In light of that, how do you feel about the narrative of, “we are either the white working class, or the other marginalized communities, and these are diametrically opposed”? Why does that not serve us? Why is that something that perhaps the establishment parrots?

The establishment wants to pit us up against white working class [people] when in fact they are core to the movements that we’re a part of. They are also impacted by the very issues that we are impacted by whether it be poverty, drug abuse, criminalization as well, access to healthcare, reproductive rights. At this conference as you can see there are people of all backgrounds. It’s actually one of the most diverse progressive conferences I’ve been to in a really long time. This is antithetical to the opposition saying, “people of colour versus the white working class.” This is the conference that’s telling us, no, the white working class is in fact our ally, and in fact also part of the directly impacted.

I’m from Canada, so the situation is a little different, but I think here [in the US] you have seventeen different intelligence and [federal] law enforcement agencies.

Probably more that we don’t know about.

Right. And we’re at a convention centre [McCormick Place] which is the biggest convention centre in North America. There’s a lot of people here who take seriously the project of directly opposing state and corporate injustice. What would you say to these people in light of the knowledge that the most massive intelligence and surveillance complex in the world – which they are challenging – is probably surveilling them the same as during all the [high historical episodes] of activism?

Oh, I’m 100% positive that there are informants here, there are undercovers. We’re definitely under mass surveillance. This is the kind of work that, if it was easy to do, if you weren’t going to be targeted by the state, everybody would be doing it. But everybody’s not doing it, because everybody understands that there is a risk that comes with standing up against injustice. I’m proud of the moral courage that people here at this conference have shown, standing up to corporations, standing up to the powers that be, standing up to the billionaire class, because somebody has to do it. And these people have been calling it out for a long time, including Senator Bernie Sanders. Fifty years of consistent, persistent calling out of the billionaire class, pointing out the 1%. We have to continue to do that and teach ourselves that we are the power. Power lies in the hands of the people. We have to build this resistance in a way that is intersectional, that brings everybody to the table. I think that’s what we’re doing.

I think we can look at our comrades across the pond and be vindicated somewhat in what’s happened there [regarding Jeremy Corbyn in the UK election]. I just wanted your take on that, how do you feel about that? I see you’re smiling.

Yeah. I mean watching France, even though they brought in kind of an establishment candidate, at least they took out the right wing that was considered to be kind of the Trumpism. Same thing in the UK. I mean Jeremy Corbyn, they said he was unelectable. People laughed in the faces of the Labour Party. And to see them do so well, and also to elect the first Palestinian MP woman parliamentarian [Liberal Democrat Layla Moran] is a big deal. It gave me a lot of hope as an American that we could actually manifest the same here with young people, with people of colour, with solidarity across all communities including the white working class.

There seems to be a bit of lagging behind in Canadian, American, or British opinion specifically on Palestine. It’s kind of split down the middle [among citizens], in Canada it’s more sympathetic towards Palestine. But the state and the media portray it as if there’s Israel and that’s it.

Oh yeah. I mean, it’s a new day, right. We’re starting to see a lot of young Jewish white progressives who are standing up against groups like AIPAC [the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee], standing up for justice for Palestine. At the same time being able to say that when we stand up for human rights we have to stand up for the human rights of all people including the Palestinian people. A lot of people are making the comparison now between what’s happening in Palestine and South African Apartheid, and people choosing to say, “what side do I want to be on?” Fifty years from now, do you want to be the one to say, “I was on the side of human rights, I was on the side of ending military occupation”? I think that’s where most young people are. I’m seeing a new shift in that and I’m very proud of those who are choosing to stand up for Palestinians.  

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