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Open Letter: Thank you Sarah Jama

John Bell

November 5, 2023

I write this for you, Sarah, to say I will be here to support you, and because I want to express how much I, and I believe all people on the left looking for a way forward, owe to you.

Your principled, public stand on Palestinian human rights and Israeli apartheid is longstanding and consistent, predating your entry into electoral politics. I have never met you, but I became aware of Sarah Jama through your activism in Hamilton, fighting for housing rights, exposing racism, championing and inspiring the disability community.

In 2019, when far-right zealots and neo-Nazis felt bold enough to physically attack the Pride celebration in Hamilton’s Gage Park, local police stood back and let it happen. But in the front line you were there., demanding accountability from the Hamilton police. You have been a thorn in their side for a long time, calling for defunding of police instead of defunding health, housing and education. You’ve been active in No Pride In Policing Coalition (NPIPC), which in the past has extended support to such important causes as Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Landback, and Palestinian freedom.

I should be writing this fan letter just for how much I envy your ability to annoy the cops. Even after you became a sitting MPP, you continued to lend your voice to these crucial causes. It was just a couple of months ago that the boss of the Hamilton Police Association went on talk radio to denounce you for refusing to blunt your words: “Who wants to live in a world where the police have been abolished? ….  We have come to expect no better from MPP Sara Jama and her dangerous rhetoric.”

Nice going. Who wants to live in a world without police? That’s my life’s ambition

Sarah, we need more “dangerous rhetoric” in support of the exploited and oppressed in this world, but it was never just your words that scares and riles up the cops, it is your actions.

In my rear-view mirror I see a terrain littered with good activists, some with records much like yours, who have joined or been recruited by the NDP. But once in they get bullied, bribed or convinced to keep their “dangerous rhetoric” to themselves. Think of the party line. What fits with our electoral strategy.  We’ll tell you what to say and when. 

I have friends, good activists once, who sit in the same ONDP caucus you were just kicked out of. I am disappointed and angry, to say the least, that they sat silent as you were singled out for brutal attack, from the right-wing, from the lap-dog media, and finally from your own party apparatus – all because you refused to sacrifice your stated beliefs and rose in the legislature to speak the truth in plain, simple language. You dared to speak the words-that-must-not-be-said: apartheid and occupation.

Dangerous rhetoric indeed. The truth often is.

A prominent “progressive” Toronto city councillor sent a message to constituents defending Marit Stiles’ decision to purge you from caucus, not because of what you said about Palestine, but because you were “difficult”.

Well, we know that after you were turfed, the ONDP suddenly started to appropriate your words – in a watered down version carefully omitting the dreaded words-that-must-not-be-said. They didn’t rise to defend you, they rose as damage control, to stop the bleeding of members and support, to silence the din of constituency office phones ringing non-stop.

A local journalist spoke obliquely about how you were “tone-policed and micromanaged” long before you spoke out on Palestine.

And Jill Andrew, one of your caucus mates, having previously stated they wouldn’t be seeking re-election, and after an embarrassingly long delay, issued a sort-of message of support for you. She rightly said Stiles’ statement announcing your expulsion contained “what I feel were stereotypical tropes often used to communicate about Black people, especially Black women, who are perceived as difficult.”

She cautiously avoided the issue of Palestine. She wasn’t wrong – other observers have remarked that for the NDP and other “progressive” organizations, diversity and inclusion are matters of window dressing.

Sarah, I believe you got kicked out because you had a different idea about what your role as an MPP meant. For so many others, the goal was getting “good people” elected in order to nudge it slowly but surely back to left-of-centre where it belonged. Instead we have seen generations of activists sucked in and then beat down by a mostly unelected bureaucracy that bounces between ignoring them and taking them for granted as a stage army to keep and win seats.

I don’t think you bought into this when you slipped through a candidate vetting process designed to keep people like you out. You didn’t buy into it when you ran an activist campaign that resulted in the party machine giving you grudging material support.  And you clearly didn’t buy into it when you chose not to settle for the lesser-evilism of the others, but used your position as MPP to speak loud and clear for the people who you have always supported and represented.

Lenin used to call electoral politics a “dung heap”. He said it was useful to stand atop to make your voice go further, but it was a bad idea to bow down and kiss it. I think you have the same approach. And I think we all owe you a great debt for the leadership you have shown, for resisting the institutional weight that has ground down so many “good people” before you, and for doing it so publicly.

You have revealed the limitations not just of the NDP, but of the project it claims to represent. You have inspired a crucial debate about how we on the left can unite, organize and fight, and leave the increasingly useless hulk of reformism behind.

I have no idea how this debate will play out, but I for one am glad that Sarah Jama, a truly independent MPP, will be at the heart of it.

With thanks and admiration,

John Bell

Columnist, Socialist Worker


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