Activist Linda Sarsour shares the story of the Women’s March from the inside and explains the difference between “calling people out” vs “calling people in”
NINA TURNER: I’m excited today to be joined by the amazing Linda Sarsour, the national co-chair of the Women’s March, and former director of the Arab-American Association in New York City. She is activist extraordinaire, and a hot mama to boot. How you doing, Linda? Thanks for joining me. LINDA SARSOUR: I’m doing fabulous, I’m so honored to be here with you. NINA TURNER: Thank you, I’m so glad to have you too. So, let’s get right to it. The Women’s March. The largest one day … In one day the largest march in US history in terms of activism, and it also compelled women and men from all over the world to be engaged. What was that moment like for you, and did you ever envision that it would be, what, three million? Five million people from all over the world engaged in that march. LINDA SARSOUR: I’ll be honest with you, Senator Turner. I didn’t think it was gonna be like that. I was, like, so devastated by this election that I just wanted to be a part of something. I saw a Facebook page, I went in there, I read the description, I didn’t see Muslims included in the description, and I just commented, and I said, “Hey, great effort, please include your Muslim sisters and brothers.” Next thing you know I was the co chair of the Women’s March on Washington. So, I caution people from commenting and suggesting things. But to show up that day on January 21st in Washington D.C. at 5:00 in the morning and watching people already showing up at 5:00 in the morning, it didn’t start until 10:00 a.m., and seeing millions of people that came out saying we’re gonna stand together, we’re gonna stand for Muslim women, and undocumented women, and black women and people with disabilities, and we’re gonna stand for reproductive rights, and climate justice, and racial justice. It was almost like my dream come true, of all the progressive movements, and all the progressive issues just coming under one tent. And watching people across the country, there were over 450 sister marches across this country, including places like Fairbanks, Alaska. But also around the world. And feeling like there’s unity and solidarity just coming from every corner of this world. NINA TURNER: And you inspired a poster that’s hot all over the world, I see that poster. It’s very good to see that kind of activism. But the fact that you had to say, “Hey, wait a minute, don’t forget about your Muslim sisters,” It reminds me of what happened during the women’s suffrage movement when primarily African-American women at that time were really left out. And then when they were engaged, they were treated like the other. There has been some criticism, or critique, I should say, about the women’s movement, and whether or not it fully embraced Muslim women, African-America women, Latinas, or Asian-American, Native American sisters. Can you speak to that a bit? Because a lot of particularly African-American bloggers and writers, women, commented on not really feeling a part of the women’s march. LINDA SARSOUR: Absolutely. I mean, many of the women of color in particular, black women, I was on the same side as them originally, and I really believe that their critiques are valid and they’re rooted in history. I mean, this is not just because of the Women’s March. Historically women of color and particularly black women have been left out of the conversation. And one of the things I always say to my women of color sisters, and the other two co-chairs who are with me, Tamika Mallory, who is African-American, and Carmen Perez, who’s Chicana-Mexican, is we really took one for the team. And the reason was we were not about to allow a huge march that was gonna go international, set an agenda and say, “This is the women’s agenda,” and it was gonna be led by white women. That was what was going to happen. I would have rather, and I chose, and I decided, and so did Tamika and Carmen that we not only come to the table, but that we send to the communities that we come from on the middle of that table. When you would look at that stage, black women, we had transgender women, women of color, we had people from Flint, Michigan, we had undocumented women, South Asian undocumented women from Staten Island. We had undocumented Latinas. We made sure that the very people that always felt not included in the women’s movement were centered on that stage. We had an African-American Muslim hip-hop artist that, like, that stage was on fire with Alia Sharrief from Oakland. And we are working hard. And we are working maybe at a slower pace, because we feel that in this moment, under this type of administration, you need all hands on deck. So, we need those white sisters to listen, and to absorb, and to be part of the conversation to really protect the communities that we come from. NINA TURNER: Is it fair to say that women of color did that? That if you guys were not at the table the consciousness level would not quite be the same? LINDA SARSOUR: Not only is that fair to say, it’s fact that we were able to push these conversation- … I remember a New York Times reporter came to me and said, “Look, I’m watching your Facebook,” meaning the Facebook of the Women’s March. “There’s a lot of tension, it seems.” Because we were talking about race and class. I said, “No, no, no, that’s not tension. It’s not by accident. That is by design. We are pushing a conversation that has to happen in this country, and we are forcing people to listen to the stories and experiences of women of color.” So, we’re not saying that white women’s experiences are not valid, they are absolutely valid. They too sometimes are treated as second class citizens as women in this country. They too are fighting for their reproductive rights. But they don’t have to deal with issues, oftentimes, of race. NINA TURNER: Right. LINDA SARSOUR: Some of them may have to deal with issues of class. NINA TURNER: Yes. LINDA SARSOUR: So, there are poor white women in this country. But we were able to bring elements into our conversation that doesn’t ordinarily happen, and I’m very proud of what we were able to present to the rest of the world. NINA TURNER: How do you … And African-American women sometimes feel some type of way being called “women of color” because they feel as though they’re being overshadowed, not in away that dismisses other women, Asian, Native-American, Latina, Arab-American, which we can break that down further into ethnicity, but sometimes they feel as though their voices are being drowned out, when in fact it was the African-American struggle in this country that really gave voice to every other community of color. Can you talk a little bit more about that dynamic? LINDA SARSOUR: I mean, I’m humbled and honored to be someone who has studied the civil rights movement, in particular focusing on the women of the civil rights movement, which have always been overshadowed by the men, like, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the critiques are valid. It’s true. And as a person who, when people see me, based on the U.S. census, I’m white. I’m a woman with light skin. But I’m also from the Middle East, and I’m also part of a marginalized and targeted group in the United States of America. And for me, race is a social construct. But absolutely, there is no other communities other than African-American communities and Native communities who have really suffered the most in this country, and I recognize that. And I hope that our black sisters don’t feel that we are playing oppression Olympics, or saying that some are more targeted than others, because that would be something that I would never be able to claim as a Palestinian-American Muslim woman in this country. And I think it’s important for our sisters to critique, but come to the table and critique us. Let’s have those honest conversations. And for our sisters to come and reach out to the women of color who were part of the march, some of whom were black, and African-American, and African, and Trinidadian, different types of black women who were involved in the Women’s March, and say to us, “Here’s where our concerns are. Here’s where we can move forward together.” And that’s the kind of conversation I want to have. All the critiques were valid. They still are valid. They will continue to be valid. But I just want to be able … For someone to say, “You know what, I want to call Linda up. I want to write her an email, and I want to meet up with her. I want to meet up with Tamika, I want to meet up with Tabitha. I want to meet up with Tiara, I want to meet up Natasha, and I want to have this conversation with them.” So, let’s critique each other, but from a place of love, and a place of learning. Teach me. If you see me doing something wrong, I want to be taught. I want to be brought in. I want to be called in, not called out. And I think that’s the spirit that I want to work from. NINA TURNER: Yeah. And I’m proud that you were there to be a bridge, and other women of color, even though I have a strong critique of the Women’s March, but I do feel much better having you there. But, speaking of critique, you have been very vocal about the democratic party and it’s leadership, or lack thereof in the direction that you would like to … Speaking for your people, not just Arab-Americans, not just … You know, I know that your folks are from Palestine, but you speak for the voices that are not really there within the democratic party. And you interviewed on Democracy Now, and I want to quote what you said to Amy, and you said, “What I want to say, Amy, is that this is a time for soul-searching for the democratic party.” LINDA SARSOUR.: They left young people out in the cold. They called us naïve. They called us idealistic. They left Muslims out in the cold. Any time Hilary Clinton mentioned us, she said we were eyes and ears, we were on the front lines of countering terrorism. She never talked about us in any other way but as a law enforcement tool. NINA TURNER: That shook me to my core. Can you explain to our audience, just go a little deeper into what … Because that’s a serious critique that you made about the democratic party, and the democratic nominee in 2016. LINDA SARSOUR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m a democrat, but I’m what we would consider a lowercase democrat. I’m not very loyal to any political party. And the democratic party left us out in the streets, and they ignored us, and they called us idealistic, and they said that, universal healthcare, or single-payer healthcare, or, we shouldn’t be in debt as college students, these things that we were talking about on the Bernie Sanders campaign, they just kind of brushed us off. And Hilary Clinton in particular, during the election season, again, did not engage us to these conversations. She didn’t go to a mosque. She didn’t really come to us as residents of this nation, as citizens of this nation, as human beings with dreams and aspirations, people who care about ending gender violence, people who care about education reform. We care about health care. We are just like every other American. But every time we were spoken about it was about this idea that we were some terror-hating Muslims. Terror-hating Muslims. They are our partners in countering terror. What about our partners in fighting for justice and equality for all people? How about that? So, that was really, for me, I felt really dehumanized during the campaign, and I was really, obviously pretty devastated after our candidate Bernie Sanders didn’t win, because I felt whole in that campaign. I felt loved. I felt listened to. I felt that what I said was important, that my community was valued on that campaign trail, and Bernie, and the people around him, including you, Senator Turner, I felt important. I think my community wants to feel part of something much larger, and unfortunately during the general election we did not feel part of that conversation. NINA TURNER: Agreed. And you and I did a lot together here in New York and across the country, and it was certainly one of the highlights of being on the campaign, were to meet strong, badass women, if I can say so, like you on the campaign and really give them voice. Stephen Covey once said, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” And I think what your presence does for a lot of Americans, even Americans of color who may not quite get it because they’re being fed a whole bunch of garbage about “the other.” But you give voice, you are the personification of what it means to think about what our sisters and brothers from other parts of the world, and even people who are Americans, but their parents or grandparents are more directly from another country, you give voice to that. You know, my father, and I don’t know if I ever shared this with you, my father is Muslim, and his name is Taalib Elahee. And, you know, I worry about him. Even though he’s African-American, a lot of people don’t really understand what it means to be Muslim, what’s the difference between Muslim, Islam, Arab. Would you enlighten us about what it means to be Muslim, and what is the difference between Muslim, the practicing of the religion, and Arab-Americans, who are now facing lots of discrimination at the hands of a president who is exacerbating tensions that were already there with this Muslim ban. LINDA SARSOUR: Absolutely. I mean, Muslims are people who practice the Islamic faith. Islam is obviously the religion. Interestingly enough people conflate Arabs with Muslims, when in fact about 75% of Arabs in the United States are Christian, believe it or not. And what’s interesting also is that what people talk about Islam as some foreign entity, we are a religion that belongs on the other side of the world, we’re some backwards religion, when people have no idea that in this country, one third of Muslim-Americans are African-American. They are indigenous. Their ancestors were enslaved people that came here forced in shackles. Also, Islam actually came to the United States before this land was even called the United States of America. There were galley slaves who were Muslim who built the first English colony, Roanoke colony, which is now the cost of North Carolina. So, for me, what emboldens me in telling my story as a Muslim-American in this country, when people say, “Go back to your country,” I say, “No, you go back to your country, because my people were here way before you ever got here, or even new there was a land that was gonna be called the United States of America.” So, Muslim-Americans are people who believe in the same God that Jews and Christians believe. But I think, just so, from my perspective, one thing that I push back on is that I don’t want to be in a space telling people that, “I believe in the same God that you believe in. I have children too, and I love my family.” So, this idea that I have to humanize myself and prove my humanity to people, I just want to be treated like everybody else, and Muslims deserve to be treated like everyone else. We’re not asking for any special rights in this country. We want to practice our religion freely, understanding that this is the land of religious freedom. NINA TURNER: Yes. LINDA SARSOUR: We’re not asking for additional freedom. NINA TURNER: Or so they say. LINDA SARSOUR: Or so they say. Or so the Muslim community can tell you that that’s not- NINA TURNER: Right. LINDA SARSOUR: As we watch anti-sharia bills across this country. But people have to understand the stresses of someone who’s African-American Muslim, or African Muslim, this idea that you gotta be Muslim and you’re black- NINA TURNER: That’s right. LINDA SARSOUR: In these United States of America. Those are the people in my community who are the ones that are not getting the opportunity to really tell their stories, and are living under double stress than any other part of the Muslim community. NINA TURNER: I agree. I worry about my father all the time. Especially after 9/11. And I know it was 9/11 that really got your activism … in other words your spidey senses started to tingle, and it really pushed you into the activist world. But when 9/11 hit I really worried about my father, he walks in to a room and you see this regal, chocolate, you know, African American man, but before you see him, his name, Taalib Elahee, so I certainly get where you’re coming from with that, and I am so glad that you are in that arena, in that space. We need you there. So, three things. I really believe that we’re being fed a steady diet of, “The world is coming to an end,” because of this one man. What would you say to … Can you give us three action items, any three of your choosing, directed at any audience, just three action items that you would like to see people carry out, or that they can do, or three recommendations, but just something to remind people that ultimately the power is in their hands. LINDA SARSOUR: If I wasn’t a hopeful person, if I believed that there … If I didn’t believe that there was a bright future ahead of us I wouldn’t even be doing this work. I’d be sitting at home crying, probably doing some dead end job somewhere. I’m hopeful because I believe in the power of the people, and I believe that we will be powerful and we will win. And what I tell people all the time is that Donald Trump for me is a blessing in disguise. And I know people think I’m crazy. He woke up masses of people that we’ve been trying to wake up for a long time to issues of racism, of discrimination, issues of poverty in this country. These are all issues that are not new. Reproductive rights is not new. Climate is not … Racial justice. This is stuff that you, and others and myself have been doing … Some people for decades in this country. So, the three things that I would tell people to do is, you know, we always talk about we gotta love and protect one another, and under this type of administration, we have no idea what’s to come down the pipeline. And I say to people, “How will we love and protect one another if we don’t know one another?” I tell people, “Do you know who your next door neighbors are? Do you know who works six cubicles down from you? Do you know who lives down the hall in your apartment building?” I do that. I knock on doors. I say, “Hey, my name is Linda, how are you doing? I want you to know I’m your neighbor, if you ever need anything,” and there is gonna come a moment where we’re gonna need each other. NINA TURNER: That’s right. LINDA SARSOUR: And we gotta know each other in order to be able to intervene and protect one another from what’s to come. So that’s the first thing. Just know your neighbors, know the people who work with you. And if you see a woman of color in particular, just say, “Hey, you all right? You good? Can I get you a cup of coffee?” People need to be seen in this moment. The second thing I’ll say is show up. People say, “Oh, what does this marching do? What does this rallying do? Why are we out here in these streets?” And I tell people, “Under this type of administration we need public protests. Your dissent needs to be public.” And dissent is the highest form of patriotism. NINA TURNER: It is. Say that. LINDA SARSOUR: People can’t say, “Oh, my individual body doesn’t matter.” No, your body is counted amongst those masses of people that are out there. And this administration needs to hear us loud and clear every day if we have to. NINA TURNER: Yeah. LINDA SARSOUR: So, show up in spaces around issues that you care about. Health care, immigration, racial justice. And also don’t forget about the fights that were already happening, and stay in them, and join them if you weren’t already a part of them. NINA TURNER: Mm-hmm (affirmative). LINDA SARSOUR: And the third thing I’ll say is, donate to organizations in your communities that are on the front lines. We can’t all be full time activists, and I understand that. We have families, but the least we can do is support those in the movement who are doing the work, and oftentimes we are running on limited resources, we are taking time away from our families, we’re sacrificing oftentimes our safety, and security and our lives for some people. Twenty dollars a month, if you can give to a local community based organization. If you can pick up the phone and call a local organizer and say, “Hey, you know, you good? You all right? I see you’re out here. Are you tired? Can I do something for you? Linda, can I pick up your kid from school? Can I bring you lunch? Did you eat today?” These moments, we got to build that beloved community that Dr. Martin Luther King talked about. And you know what, this might be the moment that we’re able to do that, because we are all agreeing, for the first time, who the enemy is. The enemy is very clear, maybe clearer than ever. So that’s the three things that I would tell people to do. NINA TURNER: And that is beautiful, Linda, and I agree. And I hope that all of our viewers heard what sister Linda had to say. Love and protect one another. Show up, and donate. Now, in terms of the Women’s March, there have been lots of women of color, in particular African-American women who have critiqued this march. I too have a critique for the march. I was really glad to see you and other sisters of color, but often times our white … My concern about our white sisters is that they believe that they’re gonna dictate to us and bring us along, instead of coming to us and asking us what is it that we need, and invite us to be part of the leadership. Because we shouldn’t be on the sidelines, to … Sometimes symbolically they want us to stand on the stage so that it seems like they’re being inclusive. And I’m very concerned about that. So, what motivated you to join this movement, although lots of women of color, particularly African-Americans, have a critique about it. Have concerns I should say. LINDA SARSOUR: I still have my own critiques, as someone who is part of the movement, right? There are gonna be critiques always, and those critiques are extremely valid. When we went to the Women’s March team, and I said personally, like, “I’m not gonna have my hijabbed face on a poster for anyone to tokenize me. If I’m not a leader in this movement, if I’m not gonna be part of the decision-making process, if I’m not gonna get a leadership role, I don’t want to be a part of this.” And I would have been right back out there with my sisters of color critiquing it as well. I was actually the lead fundraiser of the Women’s March on Washington. I had a very powerful role. And one of the things that I dictated was that we will not take corporate money. NINA TURNER: Good for you. LINDA SARSOUR: They were like, “What? How are we gonna do this in such a little bit of time, and we’re not gonna take corporate dollars.” I was like, “Not on my watch, we’re not taking corporate dollars. I will not stand on a stage with Coca-Cola, Walmart, that’s just not gonna happen.” And we were able to raise all the money that we needed from the people. Those 27 dollars that we got from Bernie Sanders’ campaign, I learned that on the campaign. That’s where the power of the people lands. I got to teach, during that march, about what it means to do something with principles, and values, and with integrity. And you know what, the single largest protest in US history happened from a place of integrity and dignity. And you know what, hard, hard conversations, Nina, that still happen with our white sisters in the movement across this country. NINA TURNER: And where does the Women’s March, where are you going from here. Because some people need to protest, but some people need to plan. Because the bottom line is that we need to win elections, “we” being progressive and conscious-minded folks, not folks that just want a title. Titles are good, but purpose is better. We need conscious-minded folks winning from local level all the way up to the Presidency. Where does the Women’s March go from here in that particular space? LINDA SARSOUR: So, we didn’t know what was going to happen on January 21st. But after we collected email addresses from across this country, after we connected to 450 organizers who organized sister marches across this country, we were not gonna allow that infrastructure to break down. We found power in people who are not oftentimes engaged in activism. These are people that never marched a day in their lives, many of them. So, the question is what do we do with them? So, we the Women’s March, are now an entity. We have moved into a building infrastructure. NINA TURNER: Okay. LINDA SARSOUR: And the focus is going to be on 2018. We want to run progressive women, we want to make sure that the people who believe in our platform that we built during the Women’s March, those are the people we want to support. That doesn’t mean a particular party. NINA TURNER: Yes. LINDA SARSOUR: It means people that are going to stand up for the best interest of our community. Those women are fired up. They want to do stuff. They want to engage, and they specifically are interested in electoral politics, knowing that that is where the power lies in the local level, on the local level, on the state level. Those are the areas that we’re gonna be focusing on in 2018, or before 2018, let me say. We’re gonna start really early. NINA TURNER: Amen. So, people over parties. So, kind of omni-partisan atmosphere, where if you just have the consciousness, you believe in a progressive platform, it doesn’t matter what that initial is behind your- LINDA SARSOUR: No, our thing is that, you know, if you’re already a democrat, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna support you, because I might support other democrats against you, or other people that are going to really, once and for all … I think this is our moment to be bold. It doesn’t get worse than this, Nina. NINA TURNER: No. LINDA SARSOUR: I can’t imagine us being in a worse place than the situation we’re in now. So, if this is the worst that it’s gonna get, we’re just gonna go all out bold. And I think that there are plenty of people ready. NINA TURNER: So, get in there and do something. Thank you so much Linda for being here with us on The Nina Turner Show, on The Real News Network.