Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and what has changed, and what is still the same.
Sarah Jaffe with Nina Turner:
Nina Turner: I am Nina Turner. I am a former state senator in the great state of Ohio and President of Our Revolution.
Sarah Jaffe: We are talking on a Friday, nearly a week ago a whole bunch of white supremacist groups descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. What are your thoughts about what is going on, the national conversation on what has been happening since Charlottesville?
NT: It is heavy. Lots of people are still very raw, and rightfully so. We saw white supremacist neo-Nazis descend on Charlottesville, Virginia; at night was the first display, Friday night with the tiki torches. It just brought back all the ugliness in terms of the history of this country of what the KKK-inspired groups did in the late 1800s. 1865, I believe, was when the KKK was founded—right after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which set black folks free from slavery.These types of terrorist groups terrorized African Americans throughout the south. So, to come face to face with that kind of legacy in the twenty-first century is haunting, disturbing. . . . It just raises so many emotions. This is a heavy time for our country.
SJ: I want to talk a little bit about the questions of building a really strong anti-racist left movement now, because it is obviously more important than ever when the president can’t bring himself to denounce neo-Nazis.[*] I would like to hear your thoughts about the work that Our Revolution is doing, the work that other folks are doing, to actually build an anti-racist left.
NT: Yes, that is so important. In Our Revolution, we have always had a social, political, economic, environmental justice screen through all of our work. In all of the work that we do, we are looking towards forming that more perfect union, but it is even more necessary now in the face of such overt racism. And other groups, too, Democracy for America, Democratic Socialists of America, National Nurses United, you name it. There are so many formal groups out there doing this work. Black Lives Matter. The Brennan [Center]. The institutes that write [about] and study this kind of stuff. But, there are everyday people out there, too, who are dismayed, disappointed, and just as horrified that we would come face to face with this.
So, our work and our push, we are going to continue to do the things that we have always done; whether it is Medicare for All, whether it is standing up to increase the minimum wage in this country to $15 an hour, whether it is talking about the private prison industrial complex that makes a profit off of keeping folks in prison. And we know that disproportionately those people are black and they are brown and they are poor.
But we are also going to have a deeper conversation about institutional racism in this country, probably in ways that we might not have touched upon so deeply. We have to talk about that, because [alongside] neo-Nazis marching and KKK-inspired white supremacist groups marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, we still have systemic racism in this country. [And this] is very much a part of Our Revolution’s work, to work on changing systems that promote discrimination and bigotry in ways that hurt communities of color, particularly African American communities.
When you look at wages, for example, people might not see the $15 minimum wage as a racial justice issue, but when you look at wages in this country and the fact that African American women make about sixty-three cents on every dollar that a white man makes, when you look at the fact that most African American households are led by women, then there is an economic and racial and social justice component to wanting to raise the wage. Now, as we talk about those issues, we are going to talk about those through that lens.
It is bringing people together, too. We need some healing, too, because as bad as this is, we have always been a nation of progress. We have got to take the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our history. We are not going to let a neo-Nazi-KKK-remix of the worst kind stop us from knowing and doing what we know it is we can do when we come together. We can’t allow ourselves to go backwards.
SJ: That brings us to the People’s Platform. Looking at different countries, different places, things like the Vision for Black Lives platform—these kinds of policy platforms are becoming more and more common, progressives and leftists are them putting out. I wanted to talk a little bit about just the idea of putting together a platform, a list of policies that we are going to push for.
NT: It is important because people need to see it. They need to be able to hold it in their hands if they want to, whether it is on a tablet or a piece of paper. It is the affirmation that we stand for this, that our value propositions will be expressed through public policy and that is really what the People’s Platform is.
We decided to take legislation because we did want it to be tangible. Sometimes we talk about these issues in ways where people can’t see that they can be realized. The beautiful thing about the People’s Platform, and the coalition that we have of supporting organizations of the People’s Platform, is that it is tangible, it is real. The Education for All bill has been introduced.[**] We know how important that is to make sure that we have a workforce that is highly educated and highly skilled. That is what this is about. It is about making that kind of investment.
Medicare for All, which was the signature of Senator Sanders campaign. It is the foundation of what we do, which is affirming that we as a country can have Medicare for All, we can create an environment that doesn’t leave anybody behind, that is not attached to a job. To me, that kind of thing can spark an entrepreneurial spirit.
Let’s tell the truth: that African Americans were terrorized just because they wanted to vote, just because they were fighting for liberation and equal rights in this country.
If somebody knows that their healthcare is not tied to a job, they can dream bigger and they can do things that probably ordinarily they would not do.
And what we are saying to the Congress, but particularly to the Democratic Party, particularly to the Democrats that serve in the Congress is “Here it is. Your members introduced these pieces of legislation. Sign onto them and let us show the people of this country, the folks of this country that this is what we stand for, this is what we are fighting for.” It is important to have all of these options, because for some people the environment might be the most important thing, to other people economic justice might be the thing, for other people racial justice. So we have something in the People’s Platform for everybody.
SJ: You mentioned healthcare and Education for All bill. I think the Raise the Wage Act speaks for itself. Let’s talk about a couple of the other things on this platform, like the EACH Woman Act, because this has kind of been an issue of tension for a while, that Democrats are saying that abortion is not a litmus test for the party. I would love for you to talk about that particular one and the importance of saying, this is in fact a foundational issue.
NT: It is important. People want to call it a litmus test. It is really just a value proposition that women in this country should have equal access to abortion coverage within their health insurance. To me, this goes within Medicare for All, but we have a separate bill. It is a medical procedure. It is something that we settled in this country and this should not be up for debate. It is a medical procedure. We want people to see it through that lens, that women should have the right to have an abortion and it should be safe, it should be legal, they should be rare. I don’t know many people jumping up and down saying, “Abortions for all!”
Somehow we have lost ground on this debate because I think we talk about it in ways that don’t allow people, necessarily, on the other side who might bend a little, to fully understand this. It is a medical procedure. It is in that universe and the decision has to be made between the woman, her doctor, her family, whatever decision she makes, but it is a medical procedure and we have to protect women’s access to that.
Now, in terms of litmus tests, there are some Democrats that are pro-life. I get it. But they shouldn’t legislate that. I grew up in a very religious family. My mother was an evangelist. I was taught as a very young girl that abortion is murder. Some people have been socialized that way through their religion. I get it. I respect their view. But I don’t want to have people who run for office legislate that way, they are going to take women back.
There have been people like Vice President Biden, who is Catholic, and who has, at times, talked about this issue from a personal space. But he also understood that someone who holds the people’s power should not be doing things that hinder people’s abilities, that what we do with that power matters.
Women have this right and it cannot be taken away. We have to affirm it. I see it through two different lenses. It doesn’t mean that a pro-lifer can’t run, but what it does mean is that I would want to see them commit to not legislating [against] abortion, the right to have one or not have one. Women make lots of decisions, it should be up to the women. Yes, that is firmly in the People’s Platform.
SJ: The next thing on this list brings us back to an issue around Charlottesville. Let’s talk about voting rights and the decimation of the Voting Rights Act Attacks on the right to vote on all sorts of levels over the last several years have, among other things, helped put Donald Trump in the White House.
NT: Oh my god, if people only knew. We should really use this moment as a teachable moment to go back through history—and not revisionist history. Let’s tell the truth that African Americans were terrorized just because they wanted to vote, just because they were fighting for liberation and equal rights in this country. It is just as simple as that. That is the stain on America. It is not the “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” The founders were brilliant, but they didn’t mean “all” when they wrote those words. But the fact that they wrote those words gives us leverage and gives us the opportunity in the twenty-first century to leverage those words. That is what we do.
Voting is the greatest equalizer. It is one of the greatest equalizers that we have, because it is really truly the only space in this country, other than educational spaces—but that is a whole other thing—the only space where you can walk in, it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, where you live, you are equal. You are on an equal platform.
You have elected officials who are systematically, since President Obama was elected, chipping away. As a state senator, I served in the legislature in Ohio where my Republican colleagues introduced this piece of legislation, that piece of legislation, not to expand the franchise, but just chip-chipping away and “by coincidence” these bills had a voter suppression impact on guess who? People of color, poor people, students, even people who have disabilities. Imagine that. It just happened to be the people who tend to lean, you never know if somebody is going to decide if they get the chance to get there, but they happen to lean Democrat.
It is a travesty for anyone who is elected to office, who serves in an elective office, to engage in voter suppression. We need to expand the franchise. That is what the Automatic Voter Registration Act is, just a simple, eloquent piece of legislation that requires every state to enroll every voter when they go get their driver’s license.[***] However, I would like to take that further—when people are born, let’s go and register them! Let’s get them registered there and then. How beautiful could that be?
Democracy is stronger, is better, is more robust when people participate. We should want to encourage that. In 2016, during the presidential election, too many people opted out. They decided that they weren’t going to do it, for whatever reason. I think the voter suppression bill has something to do with it, gerrymandering has something to do with it. People do not believe that the system works on their behalf, they don’t trust politicians, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. They feel as though they have gotten a bad deal. And they are right. They are absolutely right.
The work that we [have to] do in the political class, those of us I call the elected ministry, what are we going to do is motivate people, to not just mobilize them, but motivate them and remind them that this power is their power and that their voice does matter. There has been an erosion of that. I get why people are frustrated on all sides. There is a power class here within the Democratic Party and also the Republican Party that says, “We know better than you, Mrs. Jones and you, Mr. Gonzalez. We know better. We are going to tell you what to do and what to think. We are going to lock out black, working class men and women across the spectrum,” and people are tired of it. So they opted out during the presidential election year.
If that doesn’t cause shockwaves for anybody that truly cares about this democracy— people are just saying, “I am over it and I don’t believe anymore”— then we are really in trouble. Saying to folks that their vote does matter, that their voice matters, and making it easier for them to access that ballot box, that is the way we should be going in the 21st century, not backwards.
It was very calm, just kind of a walk over to the DNC. And to be greeted with barricades, to have security guards out there—it was just stunning.
SJ: The one piece of the platform that is not actually an existing bill that has been introduced in congress is the climate change bill. I would love for you to talk a little bit about some of the things you would like to see in such a bill.
NT: My climate experts have said environmental justice is a bigger umbrella, but I know that Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is working on introducing that bill. Hopefully, it will be introduced this week. Global warming is a real threat to our communities, to everybody, to everything. What is our obligation to make sure that we secure Mother Earth for ourselves ad future generations? Within that bill that we will address the issues of reducing emissions and making sure that we have renewable energy. That is just one start to that bill, but overall, I want to see Our Revolution continue to push for the reduction of global warming, which I believe that the congresswoman’s bill will tackle, that we should get there by 2034. That we should work to get there, that we should encourage our fellow neighbors and the world to do the same thing, because we certainly cannot take on something like this by ourselves.
The president, when he pulled out of the Paris Accord, what does that say to the world? Many of our Republican colleagues are just flat out ignoring the science. When the scientists get together and tell you that this is real, we ought to believe them. Just to flat out ignore that science puts us all in danger.
Water is a part of that, too. We know that wouldn’t necessarily be in this bill, but just making sure that everybody in the United States of America has clean water. Hello, Flint, Michigan, which has been the canary in the coal mine for us, excuse the pun, in terms of us not having the types of infrastructure in this country that ensures that from every village, every township, every city, that everywhere in this country folks have access to clean water. We are going to keep pushing. We are going to do a whole umbrella, more than what this bill is going to do, but environmental justice is vitally important to the mission of Our Revolution.
SJ: You famously took this platform to the Democratic Party and they didn’t treat you very well. I want to ask you about that.
NT: No, they didn’t. I don’t know why. We had communicated with them three weeks earlier that we were coming. We let them know, “We are going to deliver the platform.” We had a press conference earlier that day near the Senate. We had Congressman Ellison speak, Congresswoman Jayapal spoke, Congressman Grijalva spoke, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard spoke. It was a beautiful thing and we just kind of went on a progressive stroll, so to speak. It was very calm, just kind of a walk over to the DNC—and to be greeted with barricades, to have security guards out there . . . It was just stunning.
It didn’t have to go that way. The People’s Platform is really about the people and many of those bills were talked about in the progressive [DNC] platform that was passed last summer.
It very much encapsulates what the Democratic Party said that it stands for. What happened there was truly unfortunate, but I hope beyond that moment, that day, that the Democratic Party will partner with the organizations who have signed on to the People’s Platform to both push and lobby all Democratic congressmembers who sign onto those bills so that we can make that progressive platform real and not just some pretty words that we got all excited about last summer at the convention.
We can take those words and turn them into actions. This is really what people are looking for. It is bigger than what happened. It was unfortunate what happened at the DNC, but I want to take that and invite the DNC to join us on the People’s Platform. We had a little over 115,000 signatures on those petitions. People from all walks of life all over this country saying, “We want a People’s Platform and here it is. This is our will. Here it is. Join us in this effort.”
SJ: I hate to say it, but it seems sometimes like the resistance to signing onto this stuff is not because people are opposed to the policies, but that they don’t like being pushed.
NT: Well, my God. How do we get change if not by pushing? Women would have never gotten the right to vote without a fight, a push. My ancestors would not have been freed without a push. Let’s just think about what status quo has meant generation to generation to generation. All the great changes that we have ever had in this nation, for the most part, 99.9 percent of them came because people were pushed. People with the power were pushed. The status quo was pushed to change the environment by which people have to navigate. So, they might not like the push, but that is what they signed up for.
We are about pushing issues, pushing progressive candidates, and transforming the Democratic Party.
They also signed up to listen to the voices of the people and hear what the people have to say. That power is temporary. It belongs to the folks in Ohio, it belongs to the folks in California or Michigan or Mississippi. The power does not belong to the person that holds the seat, whether it is local or federal. It belongs to the people. What we are saying is that we want the Democratic Party to reflect that, to be willing to put something on the line for the citizens of this country. They might want to call it a push. We want to call it a policy agenda. It is the People’s Platform. They should embrace it and fight for it.
SJ: What are the plans going forward to organize people around this? Are there lobby days planned? Are there actions or anything like that?
NT: We have had some lobby days. The members are on recess right now. So we have had lobby days across the country. Folks going and making phone calls. We are going to continue making calls. We are going to continue to visit offices and we are preparing for when the members are back. But we do have our membership all over the country making those calls, visiting the local offices. If their members are having any type of town halls, visiting their members there and expressing why the People’s Platform is important to pushing our nation forward in a very progressive way.
This platform, even though it is being pushed by Democrats, it is not just for Democrats. It is for everybody. The overwhelming majority of Americans, if you take the label off and you just talk about the issue, they agree with these things, they want to see these things. I really very much want the Democratic Party to be the party that will have the bold agenda, and that is also willing to push this agenda forward, because if the Democrats won’t do it, then who will do it?
We must continue this fight. That is what Our Revolution is about. We are about pushing issues, pushing progressive candidates, and transforming the Democratic Party, holding the Democratic Party accountable to the value proposition. Progress is not always pretty. Sometimes it is a little messy, but at the end of the day, if life is made better, if we can lift anybody a little higher, it is well worth the fight. That is what we do every single day.
I hate to call it a slogan, but one of the things that really motivates us with Our Revolution is [how] Senator Sanders had the vision to call upon Americans to stand up and create a revolution across this country, to take back their voice.
Campaigns end, but revolutions endure. This is a generational proposition. All of us have an obligation to make this space better for the next generation coming after us. This cycle repeats again. [The] next generation also has a moral obligation to push and make this country and this world better for the next. That cycle should be continued and continued, it should never end. The People’s Platform is our way of doing our part to push not only the Democratic Party, but to push the conversation in the political sphere about what it means to make this country better for everybody.
SJ: How can people find the People’s Platform and get involved with this?
NT: They can go to www.OurRevolution.com. When they go there, the People’s Platform landing page pops right up. There is also summerforprogress.com. They can find it there, as well. Please, I want everybody to get involved. Take whatever part of the People’s Platform that matters most to them and push for that. Collectively, if we are working towards this end, we are going to see things change in this country. I really do believe it. We can’t do it without the people. Join us. We want them to join us.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
[*] Trump—who initially decried violence on “many sides” at the Charlottesville protest—did denounce racism as “evil” at a hastily assembled press conference the Monday after the protest, noting, “those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” The following day, he reversed course again, telling reporters at Trump Tower that there is “blame on both sides.”
[**] The College for All Act of 2017 was introduced in April by Senator Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal and would eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities for families making up to $125,000 and make community college tuition- and fee-free for all.
[***] Under the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2017, any citizen who interacts with a participating government agency— to get a driver’s license, apply for public services, register for classes at a public university, or become a naturalized citizen, etc.—would be automatically registered to vote unless they decline.