Democratic Socialist Buttar is challenging Pelosi as a progressive-sounding centrist who pushes a conservative agenda that enables Trump.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Mark Steiner: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Mark Steiner. Good to have you all with us. Shahid Buttar is running for Congress as a Democrat in California’s 12th congressional district. Guess who has that seat now? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. California has open primaries and the top two contenders face off in the general election. And this is the first time in that process that Pelosi has to face another Democrat in the general election. Shahid Buttar is no ordinary Democrat. He’s a Democratic Socialist and activist, an attorney who helped build the American Constitutional Society, which is a progressive network challenging the conservative takeover of our courts, and works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where he has fought for digital rights and against mass surveillance. So, Shahid, welcome to The Real News. It is a pleasure to have you with us.
Shahid Buttar: Thanks so much for having me, Mark. It’s great to be with you.
Mark Steiner: So, let’s just start with where we are for this moment, in a couple of ways. First with you’re fighting for a seat in Congress against one of the most powerful politicians in our country and in the midst of COVID, so talk a bit about how you do that. Both things, both Nancy Pelosi and COVID, all in this election.
Shahid Buttar: Well, frankly, running against the speaker is easier than it sounds, if only because she does such an effective job of advancing Republican interests. So, she does a great deal of campaigning on my behalf by doing as much as she does to support and enable the Trump administration while mouthing supposedly resistance to it. The pandemic creates challenges as well as opportunities, so just to explore all that.
On the one hand, it forces us off the doors. The backbone of our voter outreach program before the pandemic hit was reaching out to voters at their residences, and we can’t do that now without putting people at risk. We can’t do campaign events. We can’t do rallies, happy hours, any of the things that we’d been doing to pull our supporters together, for the moment at least are off the table. So, our response is to that have been, they’ve gone in a couple of different directions.
One, we’ve pivoted to the phones. We have a very active phone banking operation. It includes hundreds of people around the country. We’ve trained almost a thousand volunteers and we host online trainings every other day. Anybody can join us from anywhere in the country at shahid.fyi/volunteer. We also recently, with the aid of some supporters, we have a sound truck now, which enables us to do outdoor rallies in spaces that don’t put people at risk, and we just started that last weekend. We’ll be doing that again this weekend and indefinitely through the election. Very excited about that. It’s a particular fusion of sort of my artist and organizing background in the service of the campaign, so I’m excited about that sort of methodological cultural fusion, if you will.
Another thing that the pandemic has done that’s, frankly, opportune is expose the failure of our predatory for profit healthcare system. It’s basically a pharmaceutical pricing racket with government support, and it was untenable before the pandemic. It is senseless in the wake of the pandemic. And at the same time the pandemic’s complicated the method of the campaign, it’s, frankly, made the case and the rationale for our campaign even sharper by exposing all the more the failures of the incumbent.
Mark Steiner: Let me explore one thing you said here, when you said that Nancy Pelosi supports and backs up a lot of moves that around Trump. Be specific. What are you talking about?
Shahid Buttar: The very same day that the House announced an overdue and limited impeachment process, Nancy Pelosi inked the deal, Trump’s corporate trade agreement, that undermined labor and environmental standards around the world. When Trump built concentration camps at our borders, that took Nancy Pelosi signing the $4.6 billion budget request. When Trump requested $740 billion for the Defense Department just last week, it took Nancy Pelosi’s House to rubber stamp that request. The very first thing she did as a speaker of the House, without Trump even prompting her, was to basically give away the accounting rules of the House for which Democrats had fought for 20 years, conceding to a Republican demand, this is the PAYGO rules, that basically structurally disadvantaged and discriminate against social spending and discriminate in favor of military industrial fraud, waste and abuse.
I could go on. Nancy Pelosi extended Trump’s unconstitutional surveillance powers. Nancy Pelosi, after showing up a year late for impeachment, affirmatively limited it to ensure that the president would never answer for his worst crimes. She is the reason he’s still in office because she showed up for impeachment, like a boxer throwing a fight, and I’m not the only one to say it. Jerry Nadler’s the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and he has said in public that the reason Trump didn’t face an emoluments charge was because Pelosi took it off the table [crosstalk 00:04:38].
Mark Steiner: And why do you think that is?
Shahid Buttar: Well, probably because violations of the emoluments clause, that’s a constitutional prohibition on self enrichment at public expense, and the sad reality, frankly, is that the public enrichment, pardon me, the self enrichment at public expense is hardly a partisan problem. That is something, unfortunately, in which both corporate parties are up to their necks. So, I think basically, Pelosi lives in a glass house and couldn’t cast that stone.
But the unfortunate implication of that is that we, the people, of the United States are paying a profound price, a constitutional cost, for the corporate corruption of the Democratic party. The corruption might not be illegal, but it’s a problem in any case and whether it’s Trump’s corruption, whether it’s Biden’s corruption, whether it’s Pelosi’s corruption, whether it’s the GOP’s corruption or the Democrats’ corruption, we, the people of the United States need an actual democracy. That’s the ultimate principle that’s animating and driving our campaign to liberate San Francisco’s voice after having been co-opted for the last 20 years by Wall Street.
Mark Steiner: Let me come into another point here about what we face right now in this country. We’re facing, at a number of levels, some of the most serious crises in the history of the country. The murder of George Floyd and all the others, massive demonstrations, and the depth of racism is kind of really being exposed for all Americans to see. It’s changing minds and hearts. We saw Nancy Pelosi taking a knee in kente cloth. But tell me what you think we’re missing about her leadership at this moment and what would be different about how you think Congress should respond where we are at this moment.
Shahid Buttar: Thank you so much for asking that question, because she gets by based on these acts of theater, attempting to co-op social movements that she refuses to stand in solidarity with. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which just passed the House, includes a number of provisions that would advance civil rights, which I have proposed for years and which the movement for Black lives has supported for even longer. I’m glad to see Nancy Pelosi finally show up for, for instance, and for ending qualified immunity or creating a national registry of violent police, tracking the data that we need to establish how bad is profiling as an empirical matter, in any given jurisdiction. All of that is included in the Justice in Policing Act, all of that has been proposed for years and fallen on the deaf ears of corporate Democrats who have stood in the way until finally getting with the program.
But it’s actually much worse than that, because the Justice in Policing Act falls vastly short of our community’s demands to defund police. When we say defund police, what we are saying is we have seen too many people gunned down arbitrarily by paid agents of the state who murdered with impunity, and we don’t need commissions, we don’t need body cameras. What we need are social workers. That’s what defund the police means. It means that we are over it, and we are done with the era of paramilitary, predatory policing, militarily occupying our cities.
I could chase a rabbit here and unpack the roots of paramilitary policing, NCIA corruption and Gary Webb’s revelations of the CIA’s international human rights abusing cartels. Instead of holding anyone at the agency accountable for its documented role in equipping and training narcotraffickers, who’ve gunned down us police officers in the 1990s, instead of holding the agency accountable, we sent two and a half million Black and Brown people into prison where they are legally enslaved today.
That’s another piece that I should put on the table. We are reckoning at the moment, you’re right, with our nation’s unfortunate, frankly, terrible history of institutional racism and ongoing history of institutional racism that, frankly, is worse than even many people think. A lot of people are observing the contemporary movement as one responding to arbitrary police violence that kills unarmed innocent people at the rate of roughly two every three days. It’s worse than that. We embrace in the United States, currently, a system of industrial scale slavery, worse, at least imprisoning and enslaving more people today, than at the height of the antebellum South. And when we envision ourselves as supposedly in some post-racial society, we have to grapple with the fact that the vestiges of manufacturing capacity in the United States are slave labor. That’s why we have mass incarceration. It’s very lucrative for corporate interests. It’s a bipartisan problem. Nancy Pelosi can put on all the kente cloth she wants, but as long as she is an architect of mass incarceration and an architect of paramilitary police, I don’t buy the theater for a second and her constituents don’t either.
Mark Steiner: We’ve had this history where you have people like progressive leaders, like Grijalba who have introduced the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act in 2015, but clearly that it has gone nowhere. This could be a time where that could be reinvigorated by Congress, given the moment that we’re facing. We can touch on that.
And also, I mean, COVID also raises issues around housing and we’re facing these huge evictions across the country. I’ve heard you and watch you speak before about the Faircloth Amendment and housing, and how to develop a model of social housing that really may be another discussion to have now because we’re in the midst of COVID. Let’s talk a bit about that and your ideas around this whole sort of social housing and getting rid of the Faircloth Amendment.
Shahid Buttar: Maybe I’ll start with Grijalba if I can, and then just-
Mark Steiner: Go right on. Go ahead.
Shahid Buttar: I appreciate the question in both dimensions. Raul Grijalba is one of the leading voices on immigrant rights in Congress. And, in addition to his proposal to demilitarize police, I’m particularly reminded of a moment, frankly, that sealed my resolve to run for Congress and replace Nancy Pelosi. This is February, 2018. Might’ve been the early March, and she did this stunt. She read for eight hours from the House floor, and it’s a feat of remarkable endurance for a woman for her age. She read letters from DREAM Act students while selling us out in a budget negotiation, and Raul Grijalba was one of the few voices in Congress that was willing to call her out for it. It’s a consistent pattern with Pelosi of mouthing support for social movements that she undermines in policy and practice. That’s true from racial justice to immigrant rights, peace and justice, human rights … I could go on in any number of directions.
Let’s talk about housing. This is as illustrative in an area as any other. Before the pandemic hit, the untenable cost of housing here in San Francisco was, frankly, the principal local issue, and it has become an increasingly pressing local issue in cities across the United States. I wonder how much different it might be if the leader of the Democratic party for the last generation were not a wealthy commercial landlord, inclined to protect her own class and business interests, in a way not unlike our president. They are both wealthy commercial landlords and that in itself, I think, is revealing of an oligarchy that most Americans are uncomfortable grappling with. The fact that our president and the leader of the supposed opposition party are cut very much from the same cloth, children of powerful east coast real estate families born with silver spoons in their mouths, who are building political dynasties. That’s the head of both the Democratic and the Republican party. Neither of those things are actually democratic. That’s, that’s a quintessential reflection of oligarchy.
And just to think about setting that aside to really embrace housing questions, there’s two dimensions of it. One is the short term crisis that the COVID pandemic has revealed. And then, the second I heard you alluding to, with respect to the Faircloth Amendment, is the longer term project to usher in a new era of social housing to deal with the preceding crisis. Let’s start with the short term first.
There is, at the first of every month, a mounting eviction crisis unfolding across the country. It gets worse every month, precisely because Congress has done nothing to keep people in their homes. We need rent and mortgage relief. There was a bill proposed by representative Ilhan Omar from Minnesota that would do exactly that. It would cancel rents and mortgages, and it would provide support from the government for small landlords to ensure that banks and corporate landlords bear the cost of housing during the economic shutdown forced by the pandemic. It is a no brainer. If we force millions of Americans into the street in the middle of an economic collapse, that just ensures that the recession will turn into a depression and it will be the worst in our country’s history.
Instead of doing that, what Congress, with Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, prioritized were tax breaks of $1.6 million each for 43,000 millionaires who got that giveaway in the early coronavirus stimulus packages. It does seem to me entirely too revealing, and completely disqualifying, that, in the middle of an economic collapse and a pandemic, before getting to rent and mortgage relief, corporate Democrats were handing out tax breaks for millionaires. I don’t see why anybody should be okay with that, not anyone who calls themselves a Democrat. That’s a Republican policy, that’s a shock doctrine policy. That’s the kind of thing I expect from Wall Street, from the GOP, from the Chicago school of economics, and we have the Democrats led by a voice that is leveraging social crisis to actively redistribute wealth up to the 0.1%.
We have a grave problem in this country and it looks like the cooptation of the supposedly opposition party by capital. Ultimately, my run to replace Nancy Pelosi in the House is an effort to liberate the Democratic party from it’s seizure by Wall Street and capital. We need a real democracy in this country, and it has to start with the party that calls itself democratic.
Mark Steiner: So, in the time we have left, there’s a couple things I really try to cover here as briefly as possible. There’s two questions here I think are important to wrestle with. A is your work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the question of police surveillance. This can be really complex, I’m going to try to figure out how we can do this in a short time, but the connections between why you have maintained that police cameras cannot solve the issue we’re facing, in terms of keeping police in check. But also, the larger question of, as you’ve talked about, capitalist digital surveillance and what’s happening in our country, both in terms of Facebook, the battles in that industry which clearly needs to have some antitrust investigations because it’s the new antitrust. It’s the 21st century, but started in the 19th century. So, connect those things for us and talk about your work there before we get to our final question.
Shahid Buttar: My work at the Electronic Frontier Foundation was about trying to ensure digital civil liberties, both in the face of corporate surveillance and co-optation and content moderation and suppressing speech and all the things that corporations do online, and particularly for me, government surveillance. I remember the COINTELPRO era. I was born in ’74, so at the tail end of the official narrative and the conventional wisdom is that it ended in ’76, though it never, frankly, ended.
I understand what surveillance means, and it’s not just an offense of privacy. This is a really important point. Surveillance kills democracy. That’s why I fought it for 10 years because I, whether at the Electronic Frontier Foundation or in replacing Pelosi, the central thread that animates my work, what I am here to do, is defend democracy in America.
I’m an immigrant here. I don’t take it lightly. I take it very, very seriously and the need to protect it and guard it. I understand how fragile it is. I think many Americans don’t understand how fragile it is. I have feared fascism in the United States for 20 years. The Bush versus Gore decision, in my mind, uncorked the bottle and it’s just been unfolding ever since, in ways that I think most people don’t understand.
Like the cooptation of the Supreme court, and I have a plan to fix that. Like the emergence of the mass surveillance regime, let’s get into that.
In addition to defending democracy, the strategy that I pioneered both at EFF and, frankly, before it, the reason the organization hired me, was that in 2010, I developed a strategy of fighting the surveillance state hydra by plucking off at scales one at a time at the local level, through city councils passing enforceable restrictions to limit their police departments’ activities, acquisition of surveillance equipment, deployment of surveillance equipment, and then the length of time for which, for instance, that they could hold the data, any number of other parameters. The high watermark of that effort is the Providence Community Police Relations Act that was passed in 2017. It’s an intersectional civil rights law. It is the leading local civil rights law in the country, and I’m proud to have authored many components of it.
When we look beyond government surveillance, particularly at corporate actors, the thing I’d want to focus on here is that the Silicon Valley tech giants, people think of them particularly through the lens of the corporate advertising machine and the corporate surveillance that that implies. There are whole other problems here. One of them is that all of the Silicon Valley big tech giants are also defense contractors, and there is, frankly, nothing I have a greater antipathy for than weapons dealers. Google might pretend not to be a weapons dealer, but the line between Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Google, and Facebook gets thinner and thinner every day, and I aim to be very sharply critical of every defense contract that I can get my hands on. I want to shut down the sordid enterprise of the military industrial complex starving our social needs.
I’m not the first person to fear it. The architect of that system told us it would happen, he said it on national television. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander of the victorious forces of the second world war told us that his signature creation would threaten democracy in America and two generations of policymakers buried their heads in the sand and ducked directly into the punch that he warned us was coming. And I, as an immigrant, am coming to this apparatus, to Congress, recognizing that my predecessors had let slip through their fingers, $21 trillion that they can no longer account for while they tell us that we don’t have money and resources for doctors and medicine. I don’t buy that for a second either.
The tech giants in Silicon Valley need to be pulled off the government trough of the defense department to the same extent that the companies that are manufacturing bombs and missiles and aircraft carriers and fighter jets that we don’t need. We have real national security threats in our country. They include a pandemic, they include climate catastrophe. They include the need to ensure that an election happens by mail in November. You can’t fight any of those things with a fighter plane or an aircraft carrier or a nuclear missile. Every penny that we hurl at the defense department is money that we are taking out of the mouths of American people who need support.
Mark Steiner: So, let me conclude with this. There’s a quote that I found in The Daily Northwestern, and you were quoted in that magazine saying that Biden put millions of Americans in prison and Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court and sent tens of thousands of us soldiers into war zones that left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people dead and went on to say, “No, I’m not going to vote for that. I’m sorry.” So, let’s talk about that for a minute.
There are a lot of people who are watching us at this moment that go, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, Shahid. I mean, we’re facing a white nationalist mob, an overtly racist mob of people, to take over this country and right-wing elite ruling class ideologues that are transforming the course and transforming the country. So, isn’t better, don’t we have to stop that before we can begin to stop the other? Because if they take over, we’re all screwed.”
Shahid Buttar: Absolutely. That’s exactly why I can’t get behind Biden. People might remember, I don’t see eye to eye with Kamala Harris about much, but people might remember her very accurate statement early in the presidential debates that Joe Biden was an active segregationist. He is part of every one of these problems. He’s the closest thing that the Democratic party has to Donald Trump. He is the most conservative, with the exception of Michael Bloomberg who was an unapologetic Republican, he was the most conservative of the entire field of Democratic nominees.
And I’ll just put it this way, there was a nominee who very clearly has the support to be the president of the United States. The Democratic party didn’t want him. The Democratic party would rather lose to Trump than win with Bernie, and carrying Biden’s water is not my problem and it’s not my job. I’m not here to defend the interests of a corporate corrupt Democratic party. I’m here to defend the interests of we, the people of the United States and Joe Biden has been an architect of every one of the racist, militarist, capitalist, abusive systems that we are trying to shrug off the yoke of.
I live in a safe blue state, so I intend to vote for a presidential nominee who I could actually support. With respect to people in battleground states, I don’t recommend that they follow my lead. I recognize the point that Trump is an existential threat to the Republic. Frankly, so is Biden. Whoever wins this presidential election, I’m going to spend my first term in Congress fighting them from the left. As, frankly, I have fought every one of the presidential administration since 2000 from the left. I spent most of the Obama administration in DC fighting his deportation machine, trying to stop drone strikes, and the crackdown on the press as spies. I fought for the Constitution under Democratic presidents, too. Democrats are barely better than Republicans here.
In fact, that’s why I’m running to replace Pelosi. Because if electing Democrats were enough, I could go back to my life. I liked my life before, working at EFF, deejaying on the weekends. That was great fun, I enjoyed it. I would love to go back to that life, but seeing Democrats pave the roads of fascism, I can’t just live my life at a time like this. None of us can. It’s why so many of us are being forced into the street [inaudible 00:22:13] the principles that I think many of us took for granted are withering, to the extent they remained vestigial at all. This is a time when it’s absolutely critical, crucial that we all lean in to reclaim our democracy, to defend not only our rights and not only our democracy for ourselves, but particularly to guard the future from the predation of a failed predatory past.
Mark Steiner: Is Nancy Pelosi going to debate you?
Shahid Buttar: I certainly hope so. She hasn’t debated anyone in 33 years. Just to be clear that I do think it’s disqualifying when a public official refuses to defend their record for an entire generation. I think it’s disturbing about what it implies about our democracy. I don’t think it’s her failure, I think it’s our failure, and it’s particularly a failure of the fourth branch. The news media have a constitutional role. The reason the freedom of the press is embedded in the first amendment is that journalism has a constitutional significance, and I hope that any number of news outlets might play that function.
If performing their constitutional function were not enough, I would hope that the business interest of private media sources, there’s a vast audience waiting for this debate around the country, very eager to have it, and I’m eager to see CNN or MSNBC or the San Francisco Chronicle invite this debate. Radio stations have invited the debate. She has refused to show up for it. I don’t think that she can get away with ducking debates for much longer. I am the first Democrat to ever reach a November election against her, and if that’s not enough to get her to show up for work, I’ll just take the seat and I’ll look forward to celebrating her legacy as her replacement [crosstalk 00:23:46].
Mark Steiner: Shahid Buttar, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, and if there is a debate, I’m going to be in the front row, if there is a row, to watch that happen. Thank you so much for your principled stances and thank so much for joining us today on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
Shahid Buttar: Thanks for having me on, Mark.
Mark Steiner: Thank you. And I’m Mark Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please let us know what you think, and please stay safe. Take care.
Marc Steiner, interim co-Editor at TRNN, is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on issues of social justice. He walked his first picket line at age 13 and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested for Civil Rights protests, in the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught Theatre for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993 through 1997 his signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR – which Marc co-founded – and Morgan State University’s WEAA.