The Nina Turner Show: Beyond the Bern with Winnie Wong
Winnie Wong, co-founder of People for Bernie, calls for a fearless movement that transcends any one person’s leadership
Nina Turner: Joining me today is Winnie Wong. She is the founder of People for Bernie, and she got the hashtag #FeeltheBern going throughout the world. I am so excited to have her with me on the Nina Turner Show on the Real News Network. Winnie welcome.
Winnie Wong: Thank you so much for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Nina Turner: Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. And you did a whole bunch of Occupy.
Winnie Wong: I was not the digital guru for Occupy. I was a day one organizer for Occupy, so I was in the park on the first day and I stayed until the end, until the eviction. Oddly, at Occupy I did a lot of sustainability work. So we brought in different plants and trees and we had a vision of what it would be to build a different world. Because my background actually is in design, sustainable design. So we were the people who started the sustainability working group. So that’s actually what I did at Occupy Wall Street. I had this idea that we could sort of design our way out of this hole, without ever really thinking about electoral work at all. So it’s odd that five years later I find myself doing electoral organizing instead of work that is rooted in community.
Nina Turner: Do you see any parallels between what you did with Occupy, which really shook the foundations in terms of grassroots mobilization of people all across the country, and what you were able to bring to People for Bernie and getting that hashtag “Feel the Bern,” and are you still feeling the Bern?
Winnie Wong: I mean, I’ll never stop feeling the Bern. I’m still Sanders. So, yeah. Occupy Wall Street, we brought the day to day concerns of the 1% and made it-
Nina Turner: Of the 99%.
Winnie Wong: Yeah, sorry, of the 99%, and we normalized that, and we saw in five years how there has been this massive uprising against the 1%. So there is actually this global uprising of the 99% who are insurging against the oligarchy, the ruling class, the elite, the enormously wealthy around the world. So we have come a long way and I do believe that the Sanders campaign electoralized some of that movement work. We did, we started in Zucotti Park, and then within a very short amount of time there were 1,500 encampments that sprang up across the country. Of course the state was very brutal and efficient in the way that it crushed that movement. But that opened up the doorway to other movements. So now what we’re seeing is a movement of movements, which is very exciting.
Nina Turner: And movements never end. I mean there’s some people that say that the whole notion of the Berniecrats or Feel the Bern, that it is not going to sustain, that it is temporary. What do you say to that particular critique that this is just a very small window in time and that it’s not sustainable?
Winnie Wong: Well tactics are constantly evolving, right? So, if for me I viewed Bernie Sanders as a tactic, which I think I’ve talked about extensively in other interviews. It doesn’t mean that when it’s time to come up with a new tactic I won’t be ready, right? But the reality is Bernie is the most high profile politician not just in America but in the world. So it’s really helpful for us to be building power under a canopy that is Bernie Sanders-branded. People for Bernie is a big canopy, it’s a big umbrella. Millions of people stand under it. They agree with his policies, they agree with his politics, and so that’s where we are in this moment. Bernie Sanders isn’t going to live forever, neither will I, neither will you. But in this moment his politics and his policies are resonating with millions of people across America, but also across the world, and those are the economic conditions of the 99%.
Nina Turner: In terms of your cache in this movement, it really is no small feat that you were able to create People for Bernie and not only create it, have a hashtag that took off, not just in the world … I would daresay people on other planets are hashtagging Feel the Bern. That really is a big deal. And as a woman and a woman of color, to be able to use your intellect and your creativity to do something like that that will never, it will be forever #FeeltheBern. How do you feel about that space and what do you do to take that Feel the Bern moment of your leadership to the next level for what we have to do in this country moving forward? And particularly if you could talk a lot about the midterm elections of 2018.
Winnie Wong: So I see myself as nobody extraordinary. I’m an organizer, I’ve been an organizer for a decade and I will always be an organizer probably until the day that I die. So I’m pleased that hashtag was helpful in distributing the narrative of the Bernie campaign across the internet, right? I’m happy that it resulted in millions of young people discovering Bernie through various social media channels like Instagram and Twitter. Then they getting involved-
Nina Turner: How did it come to you, though? Was it just you were laying, drinking coffee or-
Winnie Wong: We were actually talking about it in our team chat. We have like 8 or 10 people in a chat that we created inside Facebook and we were sort of joking about it. This was like, day one. This was the day that Bernie announced his campaign. So I had previously been involved in the Draft Warren movement. So when we knew that Elizabeth Warren was not going to run for President my co-founder Charles Lencher and I decided that we needed to do something and we needed to create a grassroots movement online that would lift up this democratic socialist from Vermont who was little known at the time. We knew that only really inside organizers knew about Bernie Sanders and that it wasn’t, that he wasn’t this phenomenon and that most people across America did not know who he was and that he didn’t have this great name recognition. We saw it as an opportunity though, because we knew that so many organizers, committed organizers, movement people were excited about Bernie because they are familiar with his work.
So we really started People for Bernie with a main Facebook page and a main Twitter account, but we also created simultaneously 50 constituency Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. So each for Bernie constituency had its, had a place. We had African Americans for Bernie, Asian Americans for Bernie, Latino Americans for Bernie, Teachers for Bernie, Cats for Bernie, Stoners for Bernie. I mean, it went on.
Nina Turner: I even saw Jesus Christ for Bernie.
Winnie Wong: And then more people started creating their own Facebook groups as well. We started with 50, and then we said we need a catchy hashtag, and we talked about it within the group and then we came up with that. It wasn’t this Machiavellian moment of me sitting at home saying, “A-ha, this is it.” It was really a group effort between myself and the core members of our collective. But the tactic of course was that we encouraged people to use the hashtag across the internet. And we also gave away the passwords to those constituency Facebook pages.
We had a large number of people join our first conference call, over 1,000 people. Then we introduced ourselves and said, “We are people, we are activists, we are supporting Bernie Sanders on his primary campaign. We want you to get involved, and here are the ways you can get involved. If you want to volunteer go to room one, if you want to make phone calls go to room two, if you want to get involved with social media go to room three.” And we found that 50 people went into the social media room and I just gave them the passwords and they started-
Nina Turner: And they did it.
Winnie Wong: And they started creating their own communities.
Nina Turner: You’re a spark yourself, Winnie. Let’s put Senator Sanders aside just for a moment, because we need him, we’re going to keep him in this movement but you are a spark in and of your own right. What motivates you to get in the arena?
Winnie Wong: The privilege of being able to do this work is something that I’m very much aware of. I love this country, I love that-
Nina Turner: Tell us about you and your background and your family.
Winnie Wong: So I grew up in Massachusetts. I grew up in Boston. I grew up in a community that was very close to the black community and then also the Asian American community. I grew up on Beacon Hill, so it was a very sort of affluent community, but because of the way Boston is designed the neighborhoods are all very close to each other, so I grew up right in the city. So I was really influenced by all of the different communities and had exposure to so many different communities at a very young age. My parents are very progressive people.
So I spent a lot of time as a teenager working at a health center. My parents insisted I take my summer job there, and it was actually at this community health center in Boston, it was a community health center for Chinese people and for Puerto Ricans that I became radicalized. I started seeing how our government could do good, right? How we could actually lift people out of poverty. If you had good elected leaders, how that could happen. So it was incredible for me to learn at a very young age what it was like to-
Nina Turner: How young were you?
Winnie Wong: Like 13.
Nina Turner: 13.
Winnie Wong: Yeah, it was like my first job, I was a volunteer. Then when I was 14 I was legal to work there so I worked as a receptionist and I stayed at that health center until I was 17, and then I graduated from high school and I had other summer jobs. But I spent three years there at that health center and then was also involved with the Food not Bombs movement. So I was really radicalized by community right? Being of service in your community as a person of relative privilege, it was very helpful.
Nina Turner: And that’s in your bones.
Winnie Wong: Absolutely.
Nina Turner: I mean, when you walk into a room people know. If you had three things that you could say to people to motivate them or to push them or to call them to action in the midst of a climate in this country and in the world that seems to have gone mad, what would be those three things that you would say to any generation, to any group of people to mobilize and/or to move them to action?
Winnie Wong: I think that the first thing that we have to do is to not be afraid. Fear is never the answer. So I would say to young activists who are joining the struggle that they shouldn’t be afraid. They shouldn’t be afraid of the things that they don’t know. They shouldn’t be afraid of the unknown. They should get out of their comfort zone and they should be more open to embracing and learning about things that they don’t know, because the more that you learn the more powerful you’ll be. So that’s the first thing that I would say to them.
Then the second thing I would say is to love each other. That is the only way that we’re going to win in this current climate. This is an administration that really is driven by hate and fear. So the counter, the antidote to that, of course, is fearlessness and love. So it’s critical that we don’t … that we show up for each other and get excited about those midterm elections. We have to win in 2018 and, because if we don’t win we’re going to have four more years of Trump, potentially 12 more years of Trump. So these elections are very important.
So the third thing I would say is it’s critical that people participate in, participation across the board is necessary and that means that you have to show up for the protest, you have to show up to the phone bank, and on election day you have to cast your vote at the ballot box. Those are the three things that I would say to young activists or anyone really who is interested in getting involved.
Nina Turner: To not be afraid.
Winnie Wong: To not be afraid.
Nina Turner: To not be afraid, yeah.
Winnie Wong: To not be afraid. Fear is the mind killer. I think this is not a trope, it’s true. Fear is the mind killer. And they feed, they want you, the opposition, the garbage fire Trump government, they want you to be afraid of all of the things that they are doing now to divide us. By rolling out these policies on unconstitutional executive orders that are designed to make you afraid of what they might do, yanking undocumented mothers off of buses, deporting Muslims, keeping you from entering the country. It’s all designed around fear but what they’re really doing, we all know, maybe people don’t know, is they are keeping you in this state of absolute and utter fear so that you are paralyzed and you can’t do the thing that will organize against them and the government that is privatizing all of your benefits.
Nina Turner: So Winnie what does victory look like and who are the we, and will any Democrat do? Is it good enough to be a Democrat? Mickey Mouse could run and be a Democrat. And I love Mickey Mouse, for the record, but what does it mean, what type of candidate or candidates are we looking for, who are the we, and what does victory look like?
Winnie Wong: Well, I’m looking for a Nina Turner Democrat.
Nina Turner: But what are the attributes to that kind of persona?
Winnie Wong: People who are going to be unflinching in their advocacy of working people, of poor people, of people of color, of women, of those who are most disenfranchised, of those who are marginalized in this country, of those who have been pushed to the edge. People who are going to advocate and work for those people. People who prioritize people over profits, people who will fight, who are committed to fighting the 1% and the ruling class, that are just constantly trapped in the revolving door of our government in Washington, DC. Those are the types of Democrats that we need. We need Democrats that are committed to fighting corruption.
Nina Turner: Is the Democrat label, if I’m hearing you correctly. The label Democrat is less important than the character and the caliber of the person?
Winnie Wong: Yeah. The values. The values, like progressive values, in people. We need to make sure that those people who are running on a ballot line … Regard the Democratic Party as a ballot line.
Nina Turner: Okay.
Winnie Wong: Right? We need real progressives with progressive values who will fight for people to run on the Democratic Party ballot line in 2018. It’s that simple.
Nina Turner: Does that mean we challenge establishment Democrats if necessary?
Winnie Wong: Absolutely, absolutely. It absolutely means that. But we have to be strategic about it as well, so that is why it’s important for the political education piece to be rolled out over the next six to nine months, because it is a really critical time that we’re in now.
Nina Turner: And what’s at stake if we, the collective we, and I call it people of consciousness, right?
Winnie Wong: Right.
Nina Turner: We need people of good consciousness from all backgrounds to come together and say, as Fannie Lou Hamer once said “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Because some folks don’t believe that they can make a difference. What are some really simple things that people who feel as though their voice is not being heard or they’re not big enough or titled enough to get involved in this fight, what would you say to them? You know our sister Rosario Dawson said, and this is one of my favorite quotes from her, she said “I am here to encourage your courage.” What would you say to encourage people’s courage?
Winnie Wong: Well, when we talk about being titled enough I think that nobody’s really titled enough. And that’s important. I think that people need to think about running not just running for federal office, right? They need to be running for school board, they need to be running for city council, they need to be running in their mayoral races. There’s a lot of elected jobs that are out there. I think, like 45,000 is the number right? So I think it’s possible for people to run for these offices and they need to view these offices as … I mean, it’s a service to your country, it’s a service to your brothers and sisters. So that, I think, is something that the Democratic Party, and of course the progressive movement, needs to convey. We need to excite people. We need to excite people. And if the Democratic Party is not willing to do that then we will do it at People for Bernie. Some of our allies in the progressive movement will do it with us.
Nina Turner: How do we know when we’re there? Is there a there there? How do we know? Is it more of a move towards making sure that we secure our climate? Or more of a move to really deal with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act on the federal level, and also in state legislatures where they have taken away access? I mean how, what’s our measure? How do we know when we’re there?
Winnie Wong: Well, I think it’s important for people to support black struggle. I’m going to go ahead and say that. I mean, if there was one movement that you need to support and you need to learn from it’s really the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s pretty coherent. Their platform pretty much lays it out. I think the Women’s March on Washington also has a pretty coherent platform. I was one of the 18 co-authors on the platform document. I think we need to create intersection in our movements.
Nina Turner: And what do you mean by that? Some viewers might not know.
Winnie Wong: You can’t just attend the climate march without realizing who is impacted first and worst. Right? Which is people of color who live on the front lines in impoverished communities. Why do they live in impoverished communities? That’s another layer that you have to examine. So it’s a constant education process, and I think that the internet is really a great resource for that type of educational development. A lot of young millennial activists see the intersection between race and climate, right? Between class and climate, between woman and climate, between black folks and climate.
I mean, so the internet is a bountiful resource for discovery and that’s why I would urge activists who are new or just ordinary folk who are tuning in to really read that Black Lives Matter policy platform. The Movement for Black Lives platform. To really read the Women’s March on Washington policy platform and it really lays it out very clearly. What are we fighting for? Who are we fighting for? How do we win?
Nina Turner: And that we’re all in this together.
Winnie Wong: We’re all in this together. I mean, we’re all in this together. We have a lot of work to do, we have a lot of work to do but the conversation is starting. We’re in the middle of the political revolution. Bernie called for the political revolution.
Nina Turner: He did.
Winnie Wong: We thought that we were in the middle of it during the primary, but then it turned out that in the, now that we’re two months into the Trump garbage fire government we find ourselves really in the thick of the political revolution.
Nina Turner: We’re in need of everyday people putting extra on their ordinary to make extraordinary things happen in this country.
Winnie Wong: That’s right. That’s right.
Nina Turner: We’re going to do it, sister.
Winnie Wong: And yeah, Nina Turner Democrats.
Nina Turner: Well, thank you so much, Winnie, for joining us today.
Winnie Wong: Thank you for having me.
Nina Turner: Oh my God, this was so phenomenal. And thank all of you for joining us too. I’m Nina Turner and you have been watching the Nina Turner Show on the Real News Network.