Max Elbaum interviewed Alicia Garza on May 21st about the upcoming election, movement building, and more.
ME: What do you feel like is at stake in the November elections?
AG: Everything! I feel like everything is at stake and I’m really not being facetious about that. To be real, what’s at stake is whether or not a new world order is able to take root and grow. Frankly, when we look at the conditions in our communities, when we look at the conditions inside of our governments, when we look at the conditions in our workplaces, or even when we look at the role that this country plays around the world: all of that is really hinging on not just what happens in this election cycle, but it’s contingent upon the amount of power that we are able to build in this moment. And frankly what we know is that everything is not going to change in a day. What happens on November 4th is not going to change everything in this country. But what it will do is create the conditions for us to build bigger, and to build more, and to win more. So for anybody out there who’s like, “Oh, it’s just all the same thing all the time” I can honestly say it’s not. We have not seen in my lifetime this level of vitriol, this level of dangerous policy, this level of complete disregard for life, for people, for health, for safety, for dignity.
I would say that what’s at stake this November is–we can either choose to go all in on what happens on November 3rd or November 4th, whatever day it is–but if we’re not successful, and I say this without hesitation, we are living under an administration that is changing all of the rules as we speak. And not just the rules about how resources are being distributed, but the rules about who can and can’t participate. If we are not successful in November I really do believe that what we could see is not just another four years of this administration but possibly another decade. The kinds of rules that are being shifted right now are being reshaped and reformed to keep people in power who don’t plan to give it up. Without a massive investment in changing the balance of power in the White House, and our Congress, and in our communities, we are in for a much longer time than four years of what we’ve been dealing with for the last four.
ME: Amen. I’m older than you and I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime either. Even in ‘64 with George Wallace. This is worse. Do you have any thoughts about how the pandemic has affected all of that?
AG: Yeah, absolutely. In times of crisis, there are all kinds of agendas that are being moved. Frankly we’re feeling it in the sense of, you know, having to be physically distanced and not being able to organize, perhaps, in the same ways that we’ve been used to. But I can also say that what is true about what’s happening in this pandemic is that the people in power are using the chaos of this moment to further reorganize how power operates. We face a different kind of uphill battle in that sense. While the rest of us are trying to figure out how to take care of ourselves, how to take care of each other, how to access relief–in a context where relief is pretty relative–the people who are making decisions over these things are actually using this moment of crisis, of chaos, of the unknown, to really move their agenda forward and cement it. And so while the rest of us are trying to figure out how to care for ourselves and each other and our communities, they are trying to figure out how to further re-entrench power. So that once we lift our heads up and say, “Okay, well what is happening with the election?,” the rules will be rigged in such a way where if they have their way, we won’t be able to impact it. So that’s why it’s really important right now for us to really pull on what several mentors of mine have said to me over my lifetime, which is that we have to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to be able to provide for our people and take care of our people, but we also have to make sure that we deepen our investment in changing the balance of power.
ME: Your own work over the last while with the Black Futures Lab and the Census and so on has focused on some of the special issues facing the Black community. Do you want to talk a bit about that, in terms of the election and the particular obstacles the African-American community is facing and what some of the potentials to build power there is?
AG: Absolutely. Well you know, I’ll say that we started the Black Futures Lab in 2018 as a project that is focused on making Black communities powerful in politics so that we can be powerful in the rest of our lives. At the Lab, we are not ambivalent about the role that electoral organizing and the rule that electoral power-building plays in making sure that Black communities have what we need and get what we deserve in the same ways that all communities deserve health and safety and wellness and dignity. A lot of our work has been focused on changing the story of who Black people are in this country, broadening out our understanding of who is Black as in this nation and why is that important. We spent a lot of time listening to Black communities across the country about what it is that we experience everyday in the economy and our democracy and in our society. And bigger than that, we spent a lot of time asking our communities about what it is that we want to see for our futures. And so from that project, which is the Black Census–that is the largest survey of Black people in America conducted in 155 years–we actually took that data and we translated it into what we’re calling a Black Agenda for 2020 and Beyond. It really takes the hopes, experiences, needs, and dreams of the people who responded to our Black Census project and it translates it into an actionable policy agenda that we think needs to be adopted at every level of government–whether it be in your town or city or all the way up to the federal government.
We didn’t know in February when we released this Black Agenda that there was a global pandemic on the horizon. We did, however, know about the public health crisis that we were already inside of. We were very clear about the pending economic crisis that was coming. But at that time that was a speculation, and now here we are, and we find that the Black Agenda is actually more relevant now than it was in February. We have literally laid out a path for what legislators can do right now in this moment to improve the lives of Black communities in every aspect that you can think of, whether it be access to housing, incarceration, whether it be access to child care and other healthcare services, whether it be at how to make Black people powerful in democracy. Of course what we found is that in this moment, where there’s tons of bills that are being passed, related to so-called relief and eventual recovery, we’re finding that Black communities and other disenfranchised communities are being left far behind.
For example, if there was a several trillion dollar, several billion dollar bill that was passed to try and bouey and bolster the economy and society in a moment of incredible change. And yet, what we didn’t know was that behind the scenes there were all kinds of machinations that were happening to some of our communities away from access for relief or recovery. So, we learned about you know lobbyists who were trying to attach anti-abortion provisions to receiving $1,200 of stimulus money–which we all know, $1,200 does not a rich person make. We’re hearing about the ways in which some of the provisions of the CARE act make stimulus money not available to people who are already in debt, which is like all of us at this point. So we have actually taken our black agenda for 2020 and Beyond and we’ve developed what we’re calling coronavirus released in response platform that we are advocating for actively in states and cities Across the Nation and also advocating for actively with our federal government.
I will say that we’re also finding during this triple crisis that we face: a Public Health crisis, a looming and deepening economic crisis, and also a crisis in our democracy; what we’re finding is that as it relates to Public Health, as well as all of those other axes, black communities are disproportionately impacted by the ways in which corporations have overtaken our government, by the ways in which legislators and legislators who are actually trying to dismantle our government right now are are not stepping in to mediate this crisis, and we’re finding that black communities are also being disproportionately impacted by the enduring legacy of racism and white supremacy that invades every structure in our society and in our economy. And so, when we talk about the fact that black communities are are 12% or 13% of the US population but yet we make up more than 80% of, you know, coronavirus cases in cities and states across the country, and certainly we make up more than 80% of deaths from this virus in cities and states across the country; I think it’s important for us to acknowledge and remember that this isn’t just because of coronavirus. If anything, coronavirus has pulled back the curtains on the disparities that have been existing for decades in this country and getting worse as a result of corporate greed, as a result of pushing off the responsibilities of government to the private sector, and also it’s certainly in response to the ways in which so many of our structures have been designed to disenfranchise and marginalize black communities amongst others. And so what we’re really focused on at this moment is making sure that black communities are not giving up. We are are essential workers, we are people who are trying to keep and hold our families together, we are people who are also dealing with multiple crises at the same time – whether it be the crises of hyper-incarceration and where that means the crises of Public Health. We are really intent on making sure that black voices are heard. We’re intent on making sure that in this election cycle, and in every election cycle from this point, that we are cognizant of not repeating the same mistakes that were made in 2016 and some of those mistakes were really based in not investing in and not deeply, deeply engaging black communities as one of the strongest wings of this party and really making sure that black communities feel like this process is ours, and it’s fighting for us just as much as it’s fighting for others. So for us in this moment what’s feels most important about civic engagement is that we do not allow for our opposition to dismantle the very structure that we have left for black communities to be able to participate in the decisions that shape our lives every single day. And more than that, we’re bent on making sure that you know we continue to work to shift the transactional nature of politics in such a way where everybody in this country who has a stake in what’s happening whether it be here domestically, or internationally, is not only able to every so often wave our flag and say what we want but also that we are the protagonist in the story of what it took to get this country right back on the right track.
ME: So you’ve talked about both the Electoral engagement and power building for the communities. Do you have any advice for people out here about practical ways people can walk and chew gum at the same time – either organizations you are directly involved in or others on the landscape that you think are promising or different campaigns and so on?
AG: Absolutely. I’m not going to call it advice, I’m going to call it a plea. This election cycle is probably one of the most important in a generation. And you know, it is not hyperbole when we say that this election cycle is probably one of the most important in a generation. And you know, it’s no longer about parties – at this point, this is about survival. And we cannot afford to be ambivalent about this process, we cannot afford to let somebody else figure it out, we cannot afford to just simply rest on its not good enough and it doesn’t do enough. The fact of the matter is our lives are at stake, our communities are at stake, and everything we leave on the table will be eaten by someone else. And so, as we are talking right now, our opposition is not ambivalent about electoral organizing and they are not ambivalent about winning elections because they understand that elections equal power. So, my plea to all of us is to be focused. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. And so if that means fighting for eviction moratoriums in our community that’s what it means at the same time it means getting creative about registering people to vote by mail and fighting like hell to save the Postal Service to fight back against the attacks that are happening on our democracy each and every day. The other thing that we can very practically do is join an effort that is reaching out to voters who have not heard from their politicians in decades. We already know what the problems of the system are but the only way we’re going to fix it is by a very simple math equation, right? So, zero plus zero equals zero. And we have to make sure that we are front loading the first side of that equation to make the the sum of our activities more powerful on the other end of the equation. So, you can, while you’re at home, pick up the phone and do phone banking to reach voters who are not being talked to. You can get on your phone and participate in a text bank and make sure that every voter who was already registered, and a voter who was registered but you know, hasn’t really voted in the last couple of cycles because they just couldn’t see the point. And those voters who are not yet voters, but are pissed off about what’s happening in this country, know that there is a community that is waiting to help join and link arms to make each other powerful again. So, I really want to communicate that the plea to us in this moment is to not be ambivalent about what is happening right now. To understand that elections do deeply, deeply matter. And finally, to know that the small efforts that we do every day actually do add up to something big. I can tell you right now our opposition is on the phones, they are texting people, they are rallying their people – those are the rallies that you see in front of State houses and people are holding signs about haircuts but they’re actually talking about is taking power. And so we can and we must make sure that we do not write people off as being loony or crazy they actually have a strategy and they’re moving it and I believe that with projects like Seed the Vote with organizations like Florida New Majority or Lucha, or the tons of organizations across the country who are not giving up on us: they deserve our participation, they deserve our support, and they deserve our engagement. So let’s go y’all. We might be in crisis but we are not yet defeated. We still have a role to play and I want to know that on the other side of this, when I look back on this moment and I say ‘who was I at that time but it felt like the country was completely falling apart’ I want to say ‘I was a warrior who was not going to go down without a fight. And even if I go down, I’m goin down swingin.’ So let’s go. We still have a lot of swinging to do, and we still have a lot of punches to land.
ME: Well the last question I was going to ask you is, are you hopeful? But you just sort of just answered that. But if you have any final remarks about the hope side, we can toss them in too.
AG: sure I mean I am hopeful I mean let’s not I don’t want to be like, fake happy because honestly I’m scared I am terrified of what this moment means for us. And every single day I’m just grappling with what will it mean for us to be you know under quarantine orders for the next year, for the next 18 months. That is a scary, scary proposition and the direction that we’re heading in right now is not good. So I don’t want to in any way lessen the gravity of this moment. But I also want to be clear that for me what gets me out of bed every single day is really wanting to land that much. I am so mad I can’t even see straight but I can’t let that anger eat me I have to let that anger drive me. And so, part of where my inspiration comes from – besides really wanting to kick somebody in the ass – is frankly knowing that in moments of crisis is where we tend to be the most Innovative and the most creative. And frankly, what I know is going to come out of this moment is new strategies for organizing and building power. What I know is going to come out of this moment is a new opportunity to remake and reshape who we are, what we care about, and what we do as individuals but also what we do together that change is already happening all around us and we still very much have an opportunity to impact it. So, I am finding joy in the folks who are not giving up. And I’m finding inspiration there. And I’m hoping that we Inspire each other like a game of whack-a-mole you know. I’m not feeling great every single day but you know, today, I’m feeling like we are on the right side of history. It’s time for us to build our team, it’s time for us to reach to people who didn’t even know we existed but they’re praying they’re praying that there is a resistance out there and what happens when we connect write the people for whom you know they maybe don’t know about the fact that a social movement is happening right now, but they sure do know that they want things to be different. The possibility of the opportunity in every one of those interactions is so vast and so great. So I say let’s jump into the deep end of the pool. Let’s build it. We literally have nothing to lose but our chains.
ME: I’m gonna hold onto that. I’m not gonna let this stuff feed me, I’m gonna make it drive me. That’s a great takeaway, that’s a great takeaway. I needed that this morning.