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Georgia’s new Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker is a 26-year-old PhD student and rapper who took her oath of office on Malcolm X’s autobiography. She discusses how leftists can start transforming US politics at the local level, and how music can inform social justice

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

Today I’m joined by Mariah Parker, who is a 26-year-old activist who is just elected Athens-Clarke County commissioner in Georgia. Mariah’s a progressive. She’s also a Ph.D. student and a linguist, Ph.D. candidate in Linguistics at the University of Georgia. But what’s amazing about Mariah in so many ways is also she took her oath of office on the autobiography of Malcolm X, and she had her fist raised in the air. In fact, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz tweeted congratulations to Mariah in response to this victory.

So today we’ll be talking about the potential for transformative politics at the local level, not just in Georgia, but nationally, and this new wave of progressives who are taking office locally. Thanks for joining us Mariah.

MARIAH PARKER: Thanks for having me.

BEN NORTON: So first of all, can we just talk about this amazing opportunity you had where you took the, your oath of office on Malcolm X’s autobiography. You know, frequently people take their oath on the Bible. And you also had your fist raised in solidarity. Can you talk about why you chose to do this?

MARIAH PARKER: Well, to me they seemed the obvious choices when I thought about a text that’s really important to me, and the politics that I believe in, and the people I want to serve. The message that I wanted to send young people who may, may be growing up today like Malcolm X grew up, and don’t realize they could become a leader like he was, or like I hope to become. So I didn’t really see it as a controversial decision. I knew that in that moment it was really important to me to show myself and my community that I was serious about a certain kind of work, and was never going to back down from always representing those people who, you know, grew up like Malcolm X did, or you know, are still struggling with the racial and economic violence that goes unseen or untalked about it at the local political level, oftentimes. So I, and a lot of things I do try to keep in mind the youth and young folks who might not realize they could be out there making this kind of change in their communities, so I’m glad that that was impactful for some of those folks in making a decision.

BEN NORTON: And then can you talk about some of the response you’ve gotten so far? I see-, you know, that photo of you went viral, of you taking your oath of office. And you know, you’ve gotten some interviews with other media outlets. You’ve also gotten some backlash from the right wing. Can you just talk about what kind of support you’ve seen?

MARIAH PARKER: I’ve seen such amazing support and, like, really can’t show enough gratitude for the people who have rallied around me who have, like, offered protection, or help, or just general support. Knowing that they are all there even if they are here in Athens-Clarke County, or wherever they may be throughout the country or in the world, that’s been really galvanizing for remembering how important this work is, and how important it is to continue to stay true to those people who believe in this mission and who need that help.

I’ve certainly gotten death threats, and slurs, and other things that have made me feel a little bit unsafe. And the sheer volume of response has been in itself a little bit paranoia-inducing. I’ll leave my house and everywhere I go I get honks, I get fists, I get people calling me this or that sometimes. But the sheer amount of it has been somewhat overwhelming. But all in all, it makes me feel really excited about the opportunity to inspire people to do what I did, and to see that so many people are paying attention to this, and hopefully what’s going on in politics generally within their own communities. That this could happen in their town, too. It’s that, if they were the one to step up and show their community they’re serious about doing the work.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, so let’s talk more about that. What motivated you to run for local office? And what’s it like being the county commissioner? I know you were just sworn in. But you have a very progressive platform, and we can talk about, more about those issues in more detail in a moment. But what motivated you? And for others who might be interested, what would you say to them?

MARIAH PARKER: Well, like a lot of people following the 2016 election, and even before then, like with following the Obama administration, having, you know, when I was 17 canvassed for him before I was old enough to vote, and then seeing how that went down, sort of started to feel frustrated with how little it seems to get accomplished when we’re always hyper focused on national politics. And out of that frustration and sense of, like, having my hands tied, deciding that I’m not going to wait around for someone else to to be the one that makes the change happen that I want to see.

I started working on a friend’s campaign for commissioner in an adjacent district and began to learn more about public policy and the way we can use it for transformative ends, not just talking about, like, sidewalk widths, and like, whether or not we would have fireworks on the Fourth of July, but like, thinking about how we can decrease the prison population, and how do we get fair wage jobs that are indexed to the productivity of the institutions employees are working for? Like, how do we make that happen here? And saying that, while it’s not a conversation we’re currently having in local politics, it’s what we have to have if we really want to make change. We can’t wait around for, you know, the federal government to pass down some piece of legislation that’s going to magically fix everything.

So in working in his campaign I came to see that, yeah, we can do something about this. And I decided at the last minute, like, pretty much the week before the qualifying deadline for my race to jump in. Because you know, in my district it had previously been represented by the same guy for 25 years who always ran uncontested, who, you know, wouldn’t respond to the pleas of the community for, you know, something to happen. Crime rates are so high. High school dropout rates are astronomical. They’re facing a lot of difficulty and have seen a lot of stagnation. And again, a gentleman who some claimed to be his handpicked successor was running unopposed. And when I think about justice for a community that’s been left behind for a long time, to me it looks like them getting to have an option finally, for democracy truly playing out for them.

So whether or not at the time I felt fully qualified to hold this office I knew that people needed a choice, and it seemed to me my civic duty to give them that choice. So those are the things that motivated me to run for office.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s talk more about some of these particular issues that you’re working on locally. On your platform, you have a lot of issues here. You said that you want to fight for fair, free, sustainable public transportation. Also affordable housing criminal justice reform, including marijuana decriminalization, and also bail reform. A $15 minimum wage. The expansion of education. And then also fighting against poverty and discrimination. Can you talk about the, these important issues, and ways you think that, you know, you can fight these at a local level?

MARIAH PARKER: Yeah. Well, all these things are tied to, you know, it all comes back down to racial and economic justice, which have been really historically linked and have been dictated by public policy. All the wealth that’s created is created through public policy, if you look back in history, and the way that the federal government has supported certain folks to get access to capital, to become entrepreneurs, or become homeowners, or have barred people from doing such.

So thinking about, OK, so what do we do here locally to help right these historical wrongs, starting with getting people good jobs? I think that a lot of the things in my platform talking about development programs, job skills training programs, affordable housing, fair and free public transportation, they’re important, but they’re honestly bandaids for a larger issue of people having the economic freedom to not have to get nickeled and dimed every time they take the bus, to not have to worry if they’re going to need to move out of the community, the families that lived here for generations, because their property taxes are rising, to not have to worry about whether or not their kids can go to a good school. I think that if we level the playing field and help get historically oppressed people just better working conditions, better pay, and honestly the ability for them to collectively organize and likely bargain with their employers, who hold all the power, I think that is a really huge step in the right direction.

And so thinking about how do we get the minimum wage up, how do we attract businesses in this community that are willing to pay that amount, how do we incentivize businesses that currently exist to step up and truly provide for the people who are keeping their doors, keeping those business doors open, those are things that we can work on here at the local level. As well as looking at, you know, when we are talking about affordable transportation, right now the poorest people, the captive riders who, like, you know, don’t have any choice take the bus. They’re paying, they’re paying, like, $20 a week just to get around. And that’s going to really hinder your ability to, you know, show up at the parent teacher conference, to decide you want to take that job across town. And so I look forward to working on that issue, on affordable housing to ensure that people aren’t feeling pressure to move out because of gentrification due to rising property taxes, or other sorts of pressures from developers coming in and giving them what seems a nice little package for them to move out of town. Really they’re going to flip a house for, you know, twice or three times what they would pay for it.

I’m thinking about the way that we can help use economic development locally to keep people out of getting into the criminal justice system. So in my district we have people who, you know, they’re just selling dime bags to get by. They stole a TV because their kids are hungry. These are economic issues. These are not criminal issues. And so thinking about how we can make sure people get jobs so that we don’t have to be spending all of this money to keep them in prison. So doing job skills training programs and youth development programs so that people can be meaningfully connected with their communities, and grow up into adults who, you know, one, have access to good jobs so that they don’t have to go out and, like, peddle dope or rob people in order to provide for their families.

I think in terms of criminal justice reform, I think looking at it in terms of economic reform is a solution that is completely obvious and we need to start making moves on immediately. So it all is interconnected. It all comes back to the way that certain, certain groups are nickeled and dimed, or locked out of the system from obtaining economic security and economic freedom. And so getting good jobs for working families is like the number one priority.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then let’s talk about the national connection. You were involved with Our Revolution Georgia. Our Revolution, this is a group that was created after the Bernie campaign in 2016 that tries to run progressives in local office throughout the country. Many of the issues you talked about when it comes to unaffordable housing, redlining, gentrification, a lot of these issues are are national. So can you talk about the national movement you’re part of with Our Revolution, and what kind of strategy you think you and others are pursuing to try to gain political power?

MARIAH PARKER: Well, my education politically was completely grassroots. I have no background in political science or anything like that, but I just learned in the field through working in campaigns what it’s like to hold public office and what we need to do at the local level in order to create change, and serve as a model for other small communities. We want to implement some of the changes we’re interested in making ourselves. And so that’s what a model of empowering-, recruiting and empowering and training, and getting people mobilized to both run a field for campaigns that are currently existing at the state level, or even here locally, and use that as a training experience for them to then go out into some of the rural communities around Athens, or around the country. You know, to then go there and spread those seeds further, and take that change further.

I think that that, moreso than thinking, thinking like a, like a federal level of, like, OK, how do we elect the next president who’s going to solve our problems for us? Looking instead at cities and small towns as, you know, hubs, connected with all these arteries socially, for us to actually make the change you want to see more immediately in terms of our lived experiences. But you know, have somewhat of a domino effect of making change here. And then people see it’s possible in the city down the road, or the town down the road. So expanding that network. They’re just going and talking to people, getting people involved in the movement. Trained through working with us. And then putting them up for office is, like, the main idea.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and finally, I want to talk more about your personal life here. In addition to becoming a county commissioner, you were also a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of Georgia. And you’re a rapper, a very talented musician. You go by Linqua Franqa. So can you talk about maybe both linguistics and rap and music and what, you know, motivates you in these, in these fields, and what you think the relationship is between these and politics.

MARIAH PARKER: Totally, absolutely. I, you know, as I said, I have no background in political science. But hip hop more than anything else is what trained me to run for office. I mean, sure, I learned the technicalities of how to do field operations and fundraise and all that stuff. But in terms of standing my ground when faced with opposition, with articulating my ideas clearly and creatively in a way that engages people, bringing people together and moving people, and helping people feel their collective power through through the spoken word, those are all things I learned as a hip hop artist, and those are the things I think are the strongest qualities in me as a politician.

And so I see that overlap there as incredibly rich. I really hope that more musicians, and more hip hop artists, especially, who are really connected with the struggles of their community through, you know, the stories they tell, the stories they see around them and are, like, or you know, venting through the music we create. Taking those experiences and that lived knowledge of what’s actually happening out here, and speaking up through becoming public servants and like getting out there running the way I did anything is more attainable than most folks would realize.

So I see the connection between music and politics as one that I really hope more people take advantage of, and for me as a hip hop artist, I was always very political in my music, anyway. And so on the flip side thinking, you know, using what’s going on at the local level, what we see in our communities, and making sure that that is a salient part of the narrative that, you know, occupy our music. That it’s for and about these struggles so that we’re activating more folks who are listening to take part in fights for justice. On the flip side, it’s another way that I hope people feel encouraged by the work that I have done.

BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end it there. You can check out Mariah Parker’s music. She raps under the name Linqua Franqa, and you can find it online. She’s very talented. And then thanks for just describing, you know, your political trajectory and your thoughts on how people can transform politics, Mariah. You’re doing amazing things. Thanks a lot.

MARIAH PARKER: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

BEN NORTON: Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.