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We Can’t Afford to Be Bystanders During a Pandemic, Says Activist Linda Sarsour

Sarsour is part of a generation that won’t take the government’s word, but will ask questions and demand accountability.

Activist Linda Sarsour speaks during a "Women For Syria" gathering at Union Square, April 13, 2017, in New York City.

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Linda Sarsour has become one of the most celebrated intersectional movement leaders to disrupt the economic, political and racist paradigms in the United States. Her memoir, released in March 2020, profiles how a young Palestinian American Brooklynite would later become the co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.

In this interview, Sarsour draws on lessons learned from a post-9/11 era that unjustly targeted Muslim American individuals and families, and reimagines organizing and collective social action in a global pandemic that is reshaping the very nature of our society.

Laura Flanders: Your community has been in virtual lockdown before … [in] the period right after 9/11. Is this moment triggering stuff for people where you are?

Linda Sarsour: Absolutely. I mean, as a New Yorker, the sirens and being part of a community that not only was directly impacted by 9/11 as any other New Yorkers were, we then had to feel the aftermath of becoming the suspect community, somehow being connected to something that had nothing to do with us. So I feel the same ominous darkness that I felt immediately after the horrific attacks of 9/11 — and for many Muslims, as you know, Muslim women decided not to go out, to go to the grocery store. Many of them would not even take their children to school for the first maybe week or two after 9/11 because the bottom line was, it wasn’t safe for many of us, and many, particularly immigrant women in our community who did not feel safe wearing hijab and going out.

Now I feel a different kind of sense because going out to the grocery store for essential items, I’m covering my face and it’s interesting, as you know, around the world there have been policies targeting Muslim women in particular who wear niqabs, who cover their face [who are talked about as] security threats, and now we’re in a global pandemic and we’re encouraging people to cover their faces and so it’s just the irony, it’s all really confusing.

Your book is packed with moments that crystallized some truths for you. Have you had any recently? [Has] this pandemic been a moment of any “this is it” kind of moments?

Absolutely. I mean, as you know, during the pandemic [and] the suspension of the Bernie Sanders campaign, people are not accessing hospitals because they’re worried about their health care bills that will come after. The crystallization for me has become to be even more unapologetic and to fight harder than I ever have for things like Medicare for All. No more negotiating, no more working within the system, no more trying to be rational and appeasing those that are in power.

How are you thinking about this contact tracing, plotting who people have contacted, perhaps using technology in the name of public health?

Knowing that my community (in particular) and even Black people and those who are not Black Muslims know from COINTELPRO and know from other times in our history of government tracking, surveillance and technological surveillance that it is going to infringe on our civil liberties. We have to figure out a way with some of the champions in places like Congress and allies and those, even libertarians and others, how we’re going to band together to say we can support elements that are going to address this pandemic directly.

But what happens to the information that has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic? Is that expunged? Where is that stored? Where is it not stored? And so, we have to, as the American people, ask these questions. And oftentimes — and you know this, Laura, from history — the American people don’t ask questions. They watched the internment of the Japanese; they have watched the exclusion of the Chinese. They have watched us build up policies and they take the government’s word for it. And I want you to know that I’m part of a generation that will not take the government’s word for it, that we are going [to] ask questions and demand accountability.

Let’s talk for a minute about the Women’s March because I want to talk about the demands of the Women’s March and what might have been different about our moment now had those demands been paid as much attention to as the controversies that followed the march.

I think for me, Laura, as a Muslim American and for Tamika [Mallory] as an African American woman, we found ourselves at the highest platform in this country on that 2017 Women’s March. And we were very powerful, we had amassed a lot of political capital. The bottom line is our opposition was not going to let us just fly by. They were going to find ways to try to discredit us, to invalidate the work that we were doing. And as you know, historically — particularly to Muslim Americans and to Palestinian Americans — accusations of anti-Semitism or the weaponization of anti-Semitism has been used quite often and it had been used against me in the past, so I was not surprised.

And I think the addition of Tamika Mallory’s presence at our Saviours’ Day, which is as you know, an annual event of the Nation of Islam, refueled that and reinforced the accusations that many were labeling us with. And what I say to people is that every community has different experiences, and the Women’s March and our leadership at the time immediately rejected the anti-Semitism and homophobia and misogyny that comes from the minister Louis Farrakhan. But we also had to recognize and teach white women in particular that the relationship that Black people have with the nation of Islam is not the same relationship that white people have to them.

And so, what we learned is that there has to be a lot more learning to do, that we cannot organize in this country, we cannot build a movement in this country without understanding where we come from, who our, quote, people are. And unfortunately, people try to impose on us [who] our people should be and who our people should not. And so, the lesson learned is not that there’s any regret; I think that there just needs to be more conversation and more courageous conversation. And one of the things I did learn, and I’ve been teaching white women in particular across the country, is that unity is not uniformity. I’m not trying to be part of a movement where we are all the same and we’re all [believing] the same things, because it’s not possible.

Talk about your mentor Basemah Atweh, your “second mom,” I think you call her, a legendary community organizer. What would she be doing in this moment when it’s hard to do community organizing in the way that she did it? How do we do it? How are you doing it?

Basemah taught me always; she said, “You cannot go to bed knowing that your neighbors are hungry. You cannot go to bed knowing that there’s someone in your midst that needs you and you are able to offer a service and you are not doing that.” And so, in this time, that’s the kind of organizing and the limited organizing that I’ve been able to do. Just to make sure that I still have that spirit inside of me, that that flame inside of me doesn’t go away.

And that means building those relationships and telling somebody, “I got you. Here’s my number. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.” And I do that in my neighborhood. I wrote little notes and I set them in the mailboxes because there’s a lot of old people on my block, here in Bay Ridge, and I said to them, “I’m your neighbor, here’s where I live, this is my number. If you need anything, just let me know.” And that’s how simple organizing is. It’s just letting somebody know that I got your back and I’m here for you. Basemah Atweh, may she rest in peace. She passed away May 6, 2005.

You mentioned grandmothers. Yours lived in your family’s Palestinian village in Al-Bireh. What do you carry with you from that village and how do you carry Palestine [and] foreign policy in your heart?

Absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the major reasons why I’ve been a target of the right wing and particularly right-wing Zionists — because I do carry Palestine with me everywhere I go. It’s who I am and I do it for my grandmothers and my great, great, great grandmothers in Palestine.… I am a manifestation of their story and my grandmothers were born before the creation of the state of Israel. There was a story before the state of Israel, and I’m able to tell that story because I am a descendant of people who lived and co-existed with Christians and Jews before there was ever a state.

And so I tell that story and I’m able to challenge Zionism. I’m able to challenge the longstanding foreign policy of the United States of America. When I fight for Medicare for All, Laura, what I tell people is, “Here you are fighting for health care. Just this idea that health care is a human right and you’re fighting for that in America in the land of abundance.” Well, we have trillions of dollars that we send the state of Israel in military aid that is used to occupy the Palestinian people who are me. And so our allies in the movement, they look at me and they say, “Well, that’s not okay. That’s not right.” When I look, when I work on issues of policing — we know that the U.S. police forces across the country go to Israel to be trained.

They are getting their training from Israeli state police and so I get to make the connections between the type of stop-and-frisk policies that we see that are implemented against the people of Palestine. When I would talk about the prison-industrial complex, and you think about corporations like G4S — which not only imprisons Black and Brown people and profits off of them in America, they also imprison people in Palestine and are profiting there.

So I am able to show up in the movement as an intersectional leader that basically teaches people that our liberation as Americans and our domestic policies intertwine with people all over the world, including in Palestine. And that is the threat to the opposition.

To shift the status quo is going to require a lot of people taking a lot of unpopular stands. What can you teach us about dealing with people’s attacks? Because you’ve got a lot of experience.

I have been in a position, a very unique position as an organizer. I’ve received the wrath of everyone from the right all the way to the left and everybody in between. And my thing is this: I have convictions, I have values, I have principles and I stick to them. I do not cower to whoever likes me and whoever doesn’t like me. And if you don’t have enemies in this work, then you’re just not doing it right. And that’s how I know. When everybody’s pleased with me, I have to go back and reflect because I’m doing something wrong. So I’m prepared for the opposition, all types of opposition, and I hope others are, because really, our lives depend on it.

Linda, thank you so very much.

Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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