Transcript by Haley Freedlund
Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s Civic Series. In this episode, L.A. Kauffman, a journalist and organizer, came to Town Hall to speak about her experience on the front lines of protests and demonstrations for over 30 years, and her book, How To Read A Protest: The Art Of Organizing And Resistance. Kauffman dove into the history of America’s major demonstrations, spoke to the power of collective action, and the bottom-up model for organizing that’s transforming movements.
L.A. Kauffman: Thank you all for coming out tonight. It’s really lovely to see everyone after what has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster of the last 24 hours. Well, two years, yeah. How’s everybody doing today? Feeling a little better than 24 hours ago, right? That was pretty brutal. I’m sure we will be discussing the Midterm results directly when we get to the Q&A, but I’m going to begin by stepping back and talking about my book, and about protest more generally and how it’s changed.
Obviously, what’s been front and center in our minds over these last days have been electoral politics. But the way that the change and progress happen is very complex, and requires many different kinds of pressure, many different forms of collective power. I’ve been an organizer of various kinds for a very long time. Here I am in 1982 at my very first protest march, which was a march for the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois. I know, we’re still working on that one, right? When you say it’s a long game, it takes a long time for change to happen. So this was me in 1982. I was 16 years old, but I was already not just a marcher. I was an organizer. I was part of the Milwaukee, Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women, working for the Equal Rights Amendment and many other issues. And I have been an organizer of various kinds since, and in particular, I’ve been involved in a lot of direct action organizing. That’s what my first book was about. But I’ve also been involved in mass protest organizing. And in particular, I was the Mobilizing Coordinator for the New York Protest, February 15th, 2003, which still stands as — it was part of what is still the largest single day of protest in World History. So many millions of people all around the world mobilized to try to stop George Bush from waging war against Iraq, that it still has not been exceeded. And it also didn’t work. Right? We did not stop that war from happening. I went on to be the Mobilizing Coordinator for quite a few other major protests coordinated by United For Peace & Justice, including this one, which was a march outside the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, which still stands as one of the very largest protests in US History. We had 800,000 people there, making it one of, you know, maybe the top five or six protests by size for a single event in the US. It also didn’t work, right? I mean, we didn’t stop George Bush from getting re-elected after that march. It wasn’t the only factor in trying to stop his re-election. But being part of those events, which on the one hand felt so extraordinarily powerful and successful in terms of turnout, and had such questionable impact in terms of policy, haunted me for years and years. I never doubted that we were right to do it. I never doubted that we were right to try to stop the war on Iraq. And I think it’s important for people to stand up and say that they don’t agree with what’s happening, even if they don’t think they can change the course of events. I think it’s important to do that for your sense of self and integrity. And I think it’s important to do it because, as I’ll be talking about, we don’t always know what we accomplish when we do that. We don’t know what the longterm effects are going to be. But nonetheless, something about the particular disjuncture between the incredible response that we had in our organizing, and the really small impact that we had, haunted me for years and has been in the back of my mind, and was in the back of my mind when I attended the Women’s March right after Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017.
So this is the DC Women’s March, which is the one that I went to. But as you probably know, they happened all over the country. There were 650 of them. And when I went there, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been to so many big protests over the years that a lot of them had kind of come to seem boring to me. I mean, you go and you march, you listen to a bunch of speakers at a rally, and then you end up asking yourself, “What did we do? What did we accomplish?” I haven’t always felt that way about smaller protests, which are more targeted often, and more focused, part of an ongoing campaign. But these big gatherings, where we come together in such huge numbers, what exactly do they do? So I was really struck by the 2017 Women’s March, by how different it felt. And by how different it seemed from any of these big gatherings I had been to over the decades before, and this book, in looking at this march and contrasting it with this march: which you all will know, the 1963 March on Washington, the one where Dr. King gave his famous, I Have A Dream speech. In looking at this, I decided to look closely at those two marches and think about how protest had changed over time in order to try to get a handle on what protest does. On why and how and when it works. So, this book uses partly as its point of departure, the signs that people used at the protests. If you look at these signs here at the ’63 March, you’ll see how uniform they all look, how they all have the same typeface, they all have a small number of slogans. And it turns out, as I was doing the research for this book, that this is not accidental. That this was a very, very deliberate, conscious choice. This march, most people don’t realize, I didn’t realize until I started looking closely at the history, was the first mass march in America. We hadn’t had a mass march on Washington before. There had been parades, and there had been some smaller things. There had been things, of course, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And there had been these pageants and processions that happened that were done by groups from suffragettes to the Ku Klux Klan in Washington. But this, the mass mobilization was brand new. And people were very nervous about the idea of bringing a quarter million people together in one place in Washington, DC, and people were particularly nervous about bringing 250,000 mostly black people together in Washington DC. And there was a lot of racist panic about how there was sure to be rioting, there were sure to be disorder, there were going to be all of these problems. And so, the organizers, including A. Philip Randolph and the great organizer Bayard Rustin, if anything, they erred on the side of too much control in order to be sure that they had a peaceful, orderly gathering that would reflect well on the Civil Rights Movement of the time. And one of the organizing choices that they made was this choice, which seems really bizarre in retrospect, to control all the signs. I mean, if you’ve mobilized a crowd of a quarter of a million or more, trust me – it’s really hard to get them to all do the same thing. So the idea that they could pull this of sort of flabbergasted me and I got a good sense from looking in the archives of how they did it. I mean, they had this incredible force of volunteer marshalls to keep the peace. And they would just go up to people and surround them and take their signs away if somebody brought their own handmade sign.
Now, part of what stood out to me at the Women’s March in 2017 was that it had the very highest percentage of handmade signs I thought I had ever seen at a protest. And when you go and you look at the data about office supplies sales in the run up to the march, it’s confirmed. People couldn’t find any more foam core and magic markers. They were selling out all over the country. And there was this way in which — let’s see if I can find that picture again, here we go — there was a way in which that drive for people to create their own signs and express their own view of why they were there, as opposed to carrying a sign that was written by somebody else paralleled a lot of things about that mobilization that made it distinctive. That this was in so many ways, the way these 2017 Women’s Marches came together was so different from anything we’ve ever seen in the past. And how they started on the internet, and were a kind of viral groundswell. There were certainly established organizations that stepped up to help, and to help make them happen, and to handle a lot of the boring nuts-and-bolts stuff that people don’t realize goes into making a big protest like this happen. Anything from porta-potties to working with the mass transit to make sure that you can get everybody there. There were people who were experienced organizers who stepped up, but so much of it was new. So much of it was this kind of viral creation by women who were alarmed, disgusted, horrified by Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency. I never say his election because I do not think he was legitimately elected. I’ve just gotta say that. So his elevation to the presidency. And there was a way in which this groundswell that wasn’t controlled by any organization had a feeling on that day. There was a feeling in DC. I mean, in theory, they had a march route, but in practice, we just flowed through the streets like water. There were so many people and we so overwhelmed any kind of volunteer infrastructure, that we just took over the streets in this way that felt more like an uprising than it did like one of these staged, carefully-ordered marches. It was an utterly peaceful uprising, and quite an extraordinary coming together. The joy that we took in just seeing each other’s signs was so powerful.
But what was really remarkable was this was only one of some 650 marches that took place around the country. I have a lot of photographs of them in the book. I just brought one of them here. I forget the name of the town in Alaska, but here’s a small town in Alaska where people marched. People marched 650 locations. To give you a sense of perspective, before those Women’s Marches, I can’t come up with many examples where there was ever a case where there were more than 200 coordinated protests on one day. Having protests coordinated around the country is a common thing. They’re happening again tomorrow. But before the Women’s Marches, it had been this clump of major cities, about the same cities that when there were civil rights coordinated protests in the 60s, still had them again in the 80s and then the 90s, and then up until the recent day. And this was just an explosion that happened everywhere, from the bottom up, led by women, done kind of improvisationally, all over the country in every single congressional district. And now, from the vantage point of two years later, I think you see exactly those same qualities. For example, in the incredible Get Out The Vote mobilization that we saw for the Midterms yesterday, all over the country, decentralized, women-led, improvisational, bottom up mobilizing. The kind of work that multiplies your effect. You have one vote, but if you get out the vote, you multiply the impact that you have. And it happened all over the country. And a lot of it wasn’t driven by the Democratic Party. It was driven either by advocacy groups or by the thousands of local resistance groups that people formed after these marches. People formed at least 6,000 local resistance groups. It’s contracted somewhat in the last two years, but it’s only contracted to about 5,000. And that, just to give you a numerical comparison, the Tea Party at its height had 800 to 1,000 groups. We talk so much about how powerful and influential the Tea Party was, and we right out of the gate, had at least six times their numbers in terms of local groups and organizing notes. So when I look at those protests, those Women’s Marches, I see them — and I’m going to read you a passage about that — as having shaped what happened going forward in a way that would have been very difficult to pin down the day after, when people were doing all of that commentary like, “Well, women marched all over the country, but are they going to pass any legislation?” There’s this way in which we impose on protests this litmus test of whether or not they lead to short term legislative change. And that’s how we assess whether they had an impact or not. But that’s not how change happens. If you’re going to get to the point where you’re creating legislative change, there’s going to have been many, many other ingredients, and many, many other factors along the way. Some of which is protest, and a lot of which is not. A lot of which is work that is less glamorous, like all the Get Out The Vote work that people have been doing, where they were going around and making phone calls, sending texts, knocking on doors. It’s not glamorous, you’re not with a ton of other people when you’re doing it, but it’s crucial. And you need something that gives you that sense of being part of something larger than yourself to keep doing it. And that’s one of the things that protests do.
Before I read a couple of passages from the book, I want to just talk about — I talk in this book about how there’s many, many different kinds of protests and how there’s a tendency to kind of collapse and conflate them all when people talk about protest. So I wanna — it was just a few days after the Women’s Marches that we had the Muslim Ban protests in airports all around the country, which was another example of a real grassroots groundswell of another kind. It was a crisis emergency response. Contrary to some people’s myths about it, it was not a fully spontaneous event. There were longstanding immigrant rights organizers, one of whom I did my book launch in New York with last week, Murad Awawdeh, from the New York Immigration Coalition, who knew that this ban was coming, had planned for some kind of response, had a text network in place, had other forms of outreach in place. So they were ready. Boom. When the crisis moment hit to put out a call. But anybody who’s been an organizer knows, sometimes you put out a call to action and you get three people. Right? There. You know, and even though it’s a pressing urgent issue, people are tired or there’s something sometimes ineffable about these moments. And so this was a moment of powerful groundswell, of a real grassroots uprising. It was on a different scale from the Women’s Marches. I mean, it did touch every single international airport in the US, and a bunch of other airports as well. There were cities who had airports where there would be no international flights arriving, but people still wanted to make a stand. So they showed up and held a protest at those airports as well. And organized in a matter of what seemed like minutes. I mean, these unfolded over the course of a day. And there something in this. Although the numbers here, I think the numbers at JFK probably never got above 5,000 — That’s about 2,000 people you can see in that image — there’s something in that willingness to rise up that is so precious and that is so needed. So, I’m going to take a minute now to read you a couple of passages from the book. So the first is about the power of protest.
L.A. Kauffman (reading from book):
“Part of the power of the Women’s Marches was that they never even pretended to be about applying direct pressure on the new president. They were sending a different kind of signal. The trajectory of movements is long and slow and complex. Protests do sometimes force direct concessions; smaller, sustained, targeted ones do so more effectively than mass mobilizations, but that’s far from the only way they can be effective. Organizing isn’t a science, it’s an art. When the odds are against you, protest can shift the term of public debate or expand the sense of what’s politically possible. They could motivate people on the sidelines to step up and take action. They can put an issue on the agenda or increase the urgency with which it is addressed. They introduce friction where injustice depends on the illusion of harmony. The work that protests do often can’t be seen in the moment. Their effects tend to be subtle, dispersed, and catalytic. There are occasions, of course, when you’re destined to lose whatever it is you’re fighting for, and a protest is just a cry of frustration. But other times, the arc of history does bend towards justice, and there are magical moments when often, quite suddenly, you win. Protesting is always an act of faith, a gamble that action might spark more action. That inspiration will travel in unpredictable ways. That taking a bold public stand will set new forces in motion. That justice will prevail. Perhaps the biggest challenge that movements face is sustaining the hope that’s required for people to keep taking action over time. So sometimes, the most consequential way a mass protest can work is by changing the protesters themselves, giving them the taste of collective power. They need to stay in the fight.”
LAK: The day of the Women’s March in DC, there was a moment at the end of the day, when the huge crowds — there weren’t that many marshals relative to the number of crowds so people were just kind of flowing around — and people were all around the White House. And I was with two very long-term, direct-action organizer friends of mine. And I had this vision that if we had the capacity to pull together a couple of tactical teams, we could have just gotten all the women to stay. To just stay outside the white house on Donald Trump’s first night there. Just, I don’t know, make some noise, hang out. I wasn’t imagining a blockade. It was more like just a presence. I looked back in the historical record and there was one time in 1970 when that happened. I write about it in the book. When anti-war activists, after the Kent State shootings, converged in Washington, DC and Nixon freaked out so much that he surrounded the White House with a ring of 60 buses to keep them away. And so I write:
LAK (reading from book):
“Nothing at all like that happened on the day after Trump took office. Neither a raucous occupation, like the one of 1970, or some imagined woman-led alternative. Instead, as the day wore on and darkness approached in DC, marchers started placing their homemade protest signs along the fence around the White House. First, just a few, then whole stacks of them, creating something between a collective art installation and a simulated barricade. And then the protesters went home, as protestors had done after dozens of major demonstrations before them. Some, no doubt, felt that they had now done their part, having contributed their bodies and voices to the momentous gathering. But both at the big DC March and at the hundreds of sister marches all around the country, a noteworthy number of protesters, mostly women, took the day as a call to further action. You could feel it in the determined mood of the crowd, and you could read it in the signs: an intimation of the bottom-up, women-led organizing to come. All around the country, an impressive number of those who marched were galvanized into further action, taking the sense of collective power they felt in the streets and carrying it forward. Back in their local communities, they donated money to progressive organizations and made phone calls, millions of phone calls, to their elected representatives. They joined existing groups and formed thousands of new ones. They took on the unglamorous and often invisible work required to keep those groups going. They showed up for many subsequent protests, both local and national, ensuring that every initiative by the new president was met by loud and visible opposition. They turned out in large numbers for politicians’ town hall meetings, and thousands decided to run for office. They registered people to vote, and went canvassing door to door for progressive local candidates. The difference was palpable and dramatic. Movements had created big marches many times before, but this time, in a way that was impossible to predict and marvelous to observe, marching had created a movement.”
LAK: Thank you. All right. Well, I think I’ll leave the Muslim Ban protest photo up because it’s such a wonderful one. And I would like to introduce Aneelah Afzali. I’m so honored that she’s here to join me tonight in conversation. Aneelah is the Executive Director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound. She also serves as a board member of the Faith Action Network and on the steering committee of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network. She’s a graduate of Harvard Law School who left her legal career five years ago, and has since served as a community activist, interfaith leader and justice advocate. She has won many awards, she was named one of the 2017 Most Influential People by Seattle Magazine, and was named the 2018 American Muslim of the Year by the Council on American Islamic Relations. And I am so honored to have you here tonight.
Aneelah Afzali: Thank you so very much, L.A. Kauffman, for having me here. And thank you to all of you for being here with us for this, I think a very relevant and timely conversation. And I want to start, maybe, by just asking: how many of you have been involved in a protest? I expect all the hands to go up. Okay, good, good, good to see that. And good to know that.
LAK: Actually, if I can interrupt, I’d like to see how many of you had ever been to a protest before Donald Trump was elected? All right. We’ve got the hardcore here.
AA: This is a good audience, then.
LAK: These are our people.
AA: Well, because that’s a very good point. Because there’s a lot of people who are just mobilized by the ascendancy of Donald Trump. So it is good to see some people who are actually veterans of protests. I’ve certainly been involved in a lot of protests for a while, including at the organizational level. So I know some of the challenges that come with that. And I want to start maybe by asking some specific questions of you, L.A., and maybe we can all benefit from the responses.
And the first point I want to start with is something that you mentioned, which had to do with the signs. The signs in the 1963 March that were very controlled, versus the Women’s March, that was very uncontrolled. That was very open for everybody to sort of come up with their own message and their own signs. And I have some specific questions that. Like first off, if you could maybe talk to us about the pros and cons of each one of those two approaches, because I can see both. And I personally have been involved in certain protests where we really wanted to control the message. In particular, because it has involved certain marginalized groups, where media or others tend to demonize and use any messaging in a negative way, and use it in a way to potentially hurt the communities who are out there. And I see this most importantly in — there was an anti-Muslim hate rally that happened across the nation with Act for America, the largest anti-Muslim hate group. And the messaging for that protest, our response to the hate rally was to bring together a wide diverse coalition. It was actually beautiful to see here in Seattle and across the country. But we were very particular about making sure that our signs stayed positive. We did not want people coming out and labeling everybody on the other side as a racist and Islamophobes and using other bad words and things like that because we had to control the narrative. Because we knew as marginalized people, if a bad result comes out of that, if violence comes out of that, the people who are involved there, they can go home and get away from it. But the people who’d be most impacted are, for example, the American Muslim community and other marginalized communities, who would then face the consequences of the negative messaging and any sort of violence that may result. So we were very particular, and I remember sort of begging all the coalition partners to say, “Please keep it positive. Do not turn it into negative messaging, do not turn toward violence or anything else.” So I wonder if that also plays a role in the 1963 March, that was a lot of our black sisters and brothers, versus the Women’s March, which was overwhelmingly white. So I’d like to hear your thoughts, both on the pros and cons, and whether or not there was any race implications or involvement in that.
LAK: I think absolutely, with the ’63 March, those kinds of concerns about how — let’s say, rogue messages — could be interpreted, and how readily they would be seized upon, were certainly a concern that the organizers of the ’63 March had. The particular, specific context was ’63, it’s kind of just before Black Power starts bubbling up. And there was concern about messages that were too angry, or too militant, because there was an awareness that that was the sentiment in some of the grassroots. And that that might not play so well. It was not the image they were looking to to project. And I think you have seen, for instance, in subsequent organizing by the Women’s March organization, as opposed to the initial event that came together, a real attention to message control, precisely in order to foreground the leadership of women of color and ensure that the framing of issues is intersectional. That there’ve been many, many other groups over time who have had reasons why they wanted to carefully frame the messages on their protests, and even the way they looked. So Act Ip would be a really powerful example of that, where Act Up developed a particular graphic style, a particular sensibility that was very aligned with their queerness, with their outrageousness, with the way that they wanted to speak truth to power. And they didn’t like people like messing up the look with a hand scrawled sign. So there’s sometimes reasons that are aesthetic, and they’re not specifically political, or don’t have to do with the dynamics among different elements in a coalition. So it’s not as if I was putting forward ‘controlled signs bad, uncontrolled signs good’ as a simple dichotomy. But when I am pointing to is something about movement building and ownership. And there is a way in which the sense of ownership over that moment that women had, that first Women’s March, where they were all without having gotten any memo that said, “bring your own signs,” when they were all just moved to make their own signs, that there was something in that that was generative in that mood that helped shape what happened going forward.
AA: Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things too, is symbolism. At these marches at these protests. It’s very significant for instance, and in certain cases, to have an American flag. Especially when the whole notion of patriotism seems to be dominated at times by one party, or one side. And I personally am an advocate, or have been an advocate, of trying to reclaim that narrative of patriotism. It is one of the most patriotic things you can do to get up and protest against injustice, in my mind. So I see that as very patriotic. We care enough about our country, that we want to make it better, that we are out there using our bodies, using our voices, using our feet, and trying to make a change. So I think the symbolism issue also plays into some of these with the language and the messages of the signs. So I was just curious if you have any thoughts about some of that symbolism?
LAK: Right. Well, that’s an example, in not-so-distant history, when there was really intense debate over the signs. Which was in the Immigrants Rights Protests of 2006. I don’t know if people remember, but those stand as some of the very largest protests that we’ve had in US history. Particularly down in LA, there were these massive — the day without an immigrant — these massive walkouts, millions of people. And there was a lot of political tension around the first round of these protests. They came in in a succession of waves. And the first round, a lot of people brought flags of their home countries. Right? Out of just pride and connection to their homelands. And those were seized upon by Fox News and other right wing outfits. “That means that they’re just here for Mexican pride,” or whatever racist anti-immigrant narrative you want to have. So there was a real attempt by the organizers in the subsequent ones to encourage people not to carry any flags but American flags. And then when you make a political request like that, there’s going to be people who aren’t comfortable with it. So, these questions about signage ended up intersecting with sometimes deep organizing conversations that people need to have, and maybe don’t have the time to have in the course of quickly mobilizing to respond to a crisis. Because exactly as you say, the symbolism involved has deep meaning.
AA: Absolutely. And I think, actually, the fact that there was a lot of American symbolism at the Muslim Ban protests, that that actually really helped shape public opinion and shift public opinion. Because initially, people were in favor of it. There was a large percentage of people who supported the ban on Muslims. And then once the protests happened, and the symbolism, and recognition that this was a violation of our American values, and this goes at the core of what makes us American and our constitutional values and other values like that, that you started seeing the poll data show something different, and public opinion was being shifted by the symbolism that was used at the protest. So, absolutely.
But I think you’re also right on the point that some of this has to be conversations, because there is disagreement, often times in the parties that come together to organize, or the organizers, or the organizing groups behind a lot of these sort of mass protests. So that actually gets to the second question, or second big area that I wanted to explore with you, which is this idea of in-coalitions. When you’re building coalitions to try to make an impact in some of these very large areas. And you have groups from very different backgrounds, and people from very different backgrounds, coming together, how do you manage the differences that often arise? The differences in sort of methodology, the differences in tactics, the differences in viewpoints of messaging and symbolism, and even just basic differences between different parties, but they’re all trying to come together, or they all care about this one issue? How do you sort of manage that? I know I’ve faced that. I know many other organizers have faced that struggle sometimes within coalitions on the left, or otherwise, where there is some significant disagreement. And sometimes it’s work, that we still move forward together. Other times you have to realize that there are just certain groups or organizations or individuals that you can’t work with. So how do you manage all of that, and make the best decisions in a way that makes effective change still happen?
LAK: Yeah. I don’t know that I have a simple answer for how you do that.
AA: Come on, L.A.!
LAK: I’m sorry. But except to underscore how crucial that work is, and how when I was telling you about there being all this unglamorous work of movements — that certainly isn’t glamorous, right? We’ve all been in meetings. But it can sometimes be some of the most enduring. When I look back at that anti-war work that we did in 2003, in 2004, at the beginning when I was saying, “Well, it didn’t work.” I obviously think that it did it accomplished more than just enabling us to feel good about ourselves in the morning afterwards, because we’d taken some kind of stance. And one of the things in that particular case, some of the really enduring value of the work we did, was the coalition that we built in United for Peace and Justice. And I’m happy to see one of my colleagues from the group here tonight.
United for Peace and Justice, before the Iraq anti-war movement, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the peace movement in this country was overwhelmingly white. Overwhelmingly. United for Peace and Justice, very early on, made this decision at the February 15th, 2003 March that three-quarters of the speaking slots were given to people of color. And the steering committee, once we first had a formal steering committee, was 50% people of color. Which maybe doesn’t sound that radical now, but in 2003, this was not a common practice on the left. And years later, the relationships that people built and the trust that people built slowly over time, with bumps along the way and disagreements and conflict and all of that — I think it still continues to bear fruit. But for example, behind the scenes in Ferguson, Missouri. When there was the uprising there, after the police shooting of Mike Brown. Some of the ways, if you know what happened behind the scenes — some of the ways that that response came together and was elevated from being just an angry, initial response into an ongoing organized movement, had to do with relationships that were forged on the United for Peace and Justice steering committee. There were these cross-racial relationships built over time, years before, that then people could call on in this new moment of crisis. So while I don’t have a simple answer for how we work it out, I do think that that it’s important to come up with structures that are containers that can allow multiplicity, where we can have multiple political philosophies, multiple tactical preferences, multiple ways of being, and manage to work alongside each other in solidarity. There’s a wonderful essay by Bernice Johnson Reagon about coalitions from the Home Girl Anthology, which is a Black Feminist anthology from the 1980s that just comes to mind. If a coalition isn’t uncomfortable, it’s not big enough. Right? If you’re not in coalition with people who you really kind of don’t like, if you haven’t expanded your circle widely enough, it’s not a big enough coalition. So I guess my response is that we have to live in that discomfort and work through it because that’s the heart of the political work.
AA: Well, I guess some of my coalitions definitely have been big enough, because I definitely faced some of that. I see that we’re getting a little bit of notice about time. So I really want to get to a topic that I think is on everybody’s mind, which was last night’s election and the results from that, and the next steps, and what does it mean for us, and what role does the movement and the protest then the organizing and everything behind the election results? What does it mean for us? What are the next steps moving forward? I’ve said this before. Yesterday’s election results, they’re like tea leaves. You could read anything into them. I find a lot to celebrate and a lot that I’m excited about and happy about and energized about, and I’m looking forward to 2020 and the potential for the future of our country. But then I also find a lot that I’m absolutely devastated by, and I’m disheartened. It’s a mixed bag in a lot of ways. And I really want to spend some time talking about the role of protests and movements, because none of the successes that were the big successes from yesterday would have happened without all of the organizing, all of the movement power, all of the people on the ground making them happen. Right?
LAK: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the grassroots resistance is the hero of yesterday’s Midterm Elections. It wasn’t the Democratic Party that made those wins happen, right? They happened despite the Democratic Party, not because of it. They really happened where they happened because of relatively autonomous mobilizing, Get Out The Vote work that came from the grassroots up. A lot of it was coordinated by advocacy groups, including the big national ones. But a lot of it happened very much at a neighborhood level, at a community level, was a continuation of this decentralized, bottom-up women-led movement we’ve had since Trump took office. I’m pretty good at managing expectations. So I had no illusions that we were going to win the Senate. I was pretty jazzed by the results. I didn’t think we were going to win the Senate. Of course, I’m devastated by some of the big losses, Texas, it’s brutal.
But the fact that when I look at the numbers about protest under Trump, it’s always staggering. I keep a spreadsheet of the numbers of people who’ve been cumulatively protesting under Trump on my wall because the numbers are — I know, I’m a kind of a protest geek, but — the numbers are so high. It’s been between 14 and 22 million people have protested since Trump took office. There’s nothing close to that in the past. And the question had been hanging over us. Was it going to translate into retaking institutions of power in any meaningful way? And I think it did. I mean, retaking the house is huge retaking. The state legislatures that we took are huge. Restoring the voting rights of folks who have been convicted of crimes in Florida is huge. The wins that we had are really enormous and consequential, and they are absolutely because of the way in which people, dug in to this Get Out The Vote work. And then the fact to my mind, that this work was done so autonomously of the Democratic Party is the second huge win of the night. Because the Democratic Party is not going to save us, and electing a Democratic House is not going to magically create a bulwark against Trump. We have seen how anemic the opposition leadership has been. I live in New York. My Senator is Chuck Schumer. It’s so embarrassing. Here he is out here portraying himself as the great leader of the resistance while he’s fast-tracking Trump’s judicial appointments. Are you kidding us? This is your idea of being the opposition leader? They’ve been utterly toothless. Obviously there’s some good eggs in the bunch who are going to be strong leaders, no matter what. But on the whole, what’s going to hold them accountable is going to be us. And it’s going to be our continued willingness to apply pressure by marching in the streets, by getting on the phones, by organizing in groups, by exercising pressure in all kinds of ways. But by doing it in the same spirit that we’ve been resisting till now, which is to say, not waiting for permission. Not waiting for direction. Certainly not waiting for the Democratic Party to tell us to go pressure it, to do something real.Cause that ain’t gonna happen. But by continuing to stand strongly for these values that we hold dear and that are being violated every single day under this presidency. I’m curious to hear your take on the Midterms.
AA: Yeah. Actually, the thing that gets me most jazzed up and excited was, I had made a list of all the firsts. You know, the first American Muslim women, the first Native American women. In fact, two Democratic and potentially one Republican Native woman. The first Black Congresswomen from a number of different states, the youngest woman elected, the openly gay, or first Latinx. This list is just so powerful in and of itself, but you’re right. That isn’t necessarily the success of the Democratic Party. And I, myself, I try to be nonpartisan and I certainly have no allegiance to the Democratic Party. I have a lot of critique, in fact, of the Democratic Party. And I think in certain places, they actually prohibited a potential win of somebody who was committed to justice and really would have been a powerful voice in Congress because they did not want to support that movement as opposed to maintaining a more corporatist, establishment, Democratic, mainstream, moderate kind of position. And that actually is something that I see right now that’s a huge challenge on the left or on the liberal side. What is this going to mean for us moving forward? Do we go with the progressive side, these strong advocates of justice? Do we take that as the route, and really be able to deliver to the base, which I think is wanting that? You know, within the left, the base wants that. And also they’ve had success in winning over people from the center and the right, even. Even the places where some of the candidates lost, like in Texas and Georgia, that are now still being debated, some of these places that were sort of unheard of. Kansas, Nebraska, places that were just numbers, that were so profound, which really talks about the importance of going to the people, based on the issues that matter to them. Medicare For All. Healthcare is big. Education. The economy. Really connecting with people on that, and having a strong firm commitment to justice, as opposed to a lot of the corporate, PAC money types and what that brings with it. So it’s been very beautiful to see that, but I see this potential divide within the left, because now there’s a struggle for control. Is Nancy Pelosi going to be the leader? And what is that going to mean when she’s has people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and Sharice Davids? All of these other people who may not connect very well with her, and their constituents certainly may not connect with that kind of leadership that is a lot more moderate.
But then also, what does it mean for 2020 and the potential future? Because as strong as we’ve seen the Left go further left, we’ve also seen it on the Right. And that’s the part that’s really disturbing, you know, 2016 was not an anomaly with Trump. At least he’s made it not be an anomaly now, because we are seeing the support that he has gotten significantly increase. The Senate races that were contested where he showed up, the Republican candidate or the candidate he was supporting won. So this is almost hardening both sides, and that’s creating a potential continued divisiveness. And for me, who considers myself a bridge builder, and I try to reach across the aisle and talk to people across the aisle, what is this going to mean moving forward? And that’s something that I struggle with, because it’s making it harder and harder to reach people across the aisle when people are really tribalized in that way. When they are connecting to their own base. They’re rude. I know a lot of Republicans who were never Trumpers In 2016. I had the honor of joining Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal to the first State of the Union-style address by Trump to the joint session of Congress. And I remember being there, sitting there, and the thing that hit me the hardest, that hurt the most, was to see all of these “Never Trump” Republicans rise in unison with everybody else, with all of these statements that the president was making. And some of these were horrific ideas or rhetoric or proposals that were really demonizing communities like my own. The ones that we stand up for. So it was really painful to see that. And I feel like that is now pulled into the rest of the country. It wasn’t just at the congressional level. Now the rest of the country is really digging their heels in and becoming stronger and more committed to their positions, their tribes, so to speak. So I think it is more important than ever for us as individuals, as hard as it may be, to speak to people across the aisle. Because I know a lot of times people say, “Oh, you know, dismiss them entirely.” And I’m very strong on saying we should not be using name labels, whether it’s racist, homophobic, Islamophobe, any of those kinds of labels. We shouldn’t just be dismissing family or friends or larger network people. We should be looking for opportunities to connect on the issues that we as individual Americans care about and can connect on. And this is why the healthcare, the education, economy, those are the basic issues that we have to be able to reach across the aisle and connect with people on. And we have to have candidates who can spread that message in a positive way, not a negative bringing people down attacking way. And that’s why, honestly, I’m a little concerned about the next steps. Because I know there’s a lot of momentum now with some on the left to want to pursue impeachment. And now with Robert Mueller and Jeff Sessions, that’s a controversy and what are the next steps there? So I see a lot of issues and I think it is time for us to really double down. I think our democracy depends on this. For to really double down on connecting with people on the basic issues and being able to build those bridges.
As difficult as it is, and as divided as we, are because 2020 is going to be a real battlefield. I feel like it started today. I know there’s already protests scheduled for tomorrow with Jeff Sessions being fired. So it’s a daunting time, but I have to say — I look at this list, I get jazzed up and excited. I’ve said this to people even before today, even before the election results, that it is an amazing time to be alive. It is an amazing time to be alive right now, working on these movement issues, being at the front lines of this kind of advocacy, working with other people. I mean, the kind of coalitions that have been built? The kind of people from different ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, gender backgrounds, coming together, standing united for these issues that matter to individual Americans? I mean, this is the most powerful time I’ve seen in my own lifetime. I’ve never felt like I’ve had more power than I do today to make a difference. And I think that’s true for every single one of us. And I think we have to double down on our commitment to justice, to fairness, to dignity of every individual. I think we have to build coalitions as difficult as they are. I think we have to forge ahead with that strong sense of justice and the real commitment to the basic issues that unite us, and be very clear in our messaging as well, to be able to reach across the aisle. So those are just some of my thoughts on it.
LAK: Why don’t we open it now to questions? Yes, ma’am, do you want to go first?
Patron 1: So I have two questions. The first is talking about the toothless Democrats, and Pelosi has no intention of not being the Speaker of the House. Everything she said today was, “I’m perfectly capable.” And what’s the first thing she talks to Trump about, the criminal? “Let’s build roads and bridges. And that’s something we can agree on, bipartisanly. Is infrastructure.” So is a person like that, with the other corporate Democrats that kind of kept Bernie down, are they going to try and keep the uprising of the progressive people down when it comes to impeaching Trump? Finding out his criminal background? Doing the right thing for Medicare For All, and all of that? That’s the first one.
LAK: Yes. Yes they are. And it’s our job to not let them do that. I mean, the Democrats have been complicit in normalizing Trump. Trump is not a normal president. The way he has been acting, the things he has been saying, the hate he has been stirring up, should have been outside the bounds of acceptable discourse long ago. And every time those Democrats show up and treat him as if he’s an ordinary normal, legitimate president, they’re contributing to his continued power. And the only thing that’s going to stop them from doing that is us. I’ve been saying for some time. As I said, I live in New York. And I keep saying to some of my fellows in groups in the city, “We need to stop protesting at Trump tower. We need to do less protesting at Trump Tower and more protesting at Chuck Schumer’s.” Right? Because we can go outside Trump Tower. It’s important to have a visible show of opposition and dissent there. But after a certain point, you’re not really accomplishing anything by going there except for rubbing up against the pro-Trump tourists, which is boring. And going and taking our outrage to Chuck Schumer seems to me like, politically, a much more productive thing. I’m heading to the Bay Area tomorrow. And I think the Bay Area Left, suddenly, has a big, important job in this next period. I mean, not that they didn’t have it before, but there’s going to be a different dynamic now, if Pelosi does continue as Speaker, where it’s time to hold her to account.
Patron 1: And then the other question is this, the protests are amazing. The grassroots effort is amazing. It’s great that people are rising up, who never rose up before. But whereas Richard Nixon could actually be intimidated by large crowds of protesters, Trump just leaves town and goes to play golf.
LAK: We haven’t surrounded the White House yet.
Patron 1: And makes crazy suggestions that those protesters should be charged with with being terrorists, you know, how he wants to charge people who protest. So it’s like, he leaves town. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t talk about it. He’s a sociopath. He just does his own thing and makes believe it’s not going on. So what about that?
LAK: Well, first, I just want to respond on the Nixon point, because Nixon was very similar. If you’ve ever heard of his famous Silent Majority speech, that was given in the wake of what was, to that moment, the largest upsurge of protest ever in US History. We’ve now greatly exceeded it. But his response, there’s a theatricality to those denials and that was true for Nixon. And it’s true for Trump. So Nixon at the time was saying, “You know, these are just scruffy, ne’er do wells. And the real majority is the silent majority.” It’s only with the benefit of hindsight and the fact that a variety of records from inside the Nixon White House are available, that we know how rattled he was by those protests. So just because Donald Trump performs that he doesn’t care doesn’t mean he really doesn’t.
AA: And I would just add that we’re living now in this internet age. It doesn’t matter where anyone goes. They could go to a different country, does not matter. They will see the images. They will see it on video. They will see covered in media. It doesn’t matter if they’re not physically there themselves. And I will say with Trump in particular, perhaps even more than many other presidents or many other individuals, he cares what people think about him. He is very narcissistic. He is in some ways, Teflon, like the things that you throw at him don’t really stick, but he absolutely cares. And he pays attention to that. That’s why crowd size was so important to him. So he does care about it. He does see it and he will see it. And I think going back to your point earlier, L.A., It’s not even about protesting against Trump himself. It’s really changing public opinion. That’s the way I look at it. Honestly, I try to stay from even critiquing Trump himself. I put him aside. He’s not the target for my criticism or my advocacy work. The work that I do, like you mentioned, people in the Democratic Party who need to be moved, especially now with the House being taken over by the Democrats. Now’s the time for us to be contacting our Representatives and making sure we’re holding them accountable because otherwise they may not do the right thing for a number of different reasons. It is up to us to really push them and hold them accountable because before they had the excuse that they were not in a position of power. Well guess what? Now they have power. So now they need to hear from us even more. And we need to make sure that we, the people, are driving the agenda and making sure they do what we hold them accountable for. So that’s what I would focus my attention on. And I think the media attention and just the mass protest and the mass organizing and the mass movement work absolutely will make a difference whether it’s in the public or behind the scenes.
Patron 1: Thank you.
Patron 2: Both at the rally that you mentioned, against the anti-Islamic groups, you had these guys, the Proud Boys or Patriot Prayer. If you’ve ever seen them, these guys look like MFA professional wrestlers. Fascists are not just in books, you can see them in action. And I was at a defense perimeter for Planned Parenthood a few weeks ago, and it’s something to see 10 of these guys that are literally fascists, and possibly armed there. But there were many more than 10 times that many peaceful protestors. I was not unhappy to see a few Antifas show up, even though they were in pink sweaters, not black. But my concern is that there’s been an impression that the Antifascists show up, the Proud Boys show up, and they’re basically looking for a gang fight. And I have enormous respect. As I said, I was happy to see them there and they were peaceful. But I wonder if there’s a better way to coordinate, just as there were many mass protests that were organized marshal groups. If there’s any way to reach out to them and get them to coordinate with labor and marshaling groups so that they are a defense against the Fascists, because we know that Fascists wants to start a fight. They’re not afraid of being punched in the face. They like it. It helps their street cred. So if there’s a way to coordinate with the Antifas, Black Bloc, Antifa, whatever you call them, so that they’re part of the movement and not just a separate group that just have gang fights, which only feeds into what police provocateurs want.
LAK: Well, that goes back to the coalition-building question, right? Those would be some tactical differences that people have. And there have been moments. The last time I was in Seattle was 1999 during the World Trade Organization protests. So it’s a little weird to be here without tear gas everywhere. It’s changed a little over time. But that was a moment when there was a real split in the movement — they’re now called the Antifascists, then it was the Black Bloc — over tactical choices. And there was sort of, let’s say, bad behavior on all sides. That the Black Bloc crowded into the space and time that groups that were trying to keep their events strictly nonviolent wanted to keep a buffer around, so the Black Bloc behave badly. But then some of the self-described peaceful protesters behave badly by denouncing the Black Bloc publicly in the media. And after that, there were a lot of really powerful, closed door conversations that brought together a huge range of folks from anarchists on one end to organized labor and everybody in between. And there was a whole period when there were these written solidarity agreements that were quiet, that weren’t a public thing, but that were understood. That were a kind of a form of, “How do we deal with the fact that we have fundamental disagreements about what’s violent and nonviolent?” We have fundamental disagreements about what’s the best strategy, but we need to not be denouncing each other publicly. And we need to not be endangering people who want to come to a protest and have reasonable expectations for what level of risk they’re placing themselves in. Know whether they’re coming to a legal, permitted march where they can bring their kids and their grandma and their their friend who’s a power chair, user, or they’re going to some place where they can expect that things are going to get rough and tumble. I can’t speak for all around the country, but I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like the Obama years, like the slumber that a lot of people went into during the Obama years, that in that long sleep, there’s all this movement infrastructure that we lost. We lost a lot of habits, and we lost a lot of structures. We lost things like, we don’t do action guides the way we used to. I don’t see people doing trainings the way they used to. And we’re not having those conversations the way that we used to. So my only answer is more dialogue.
AA: Yeah. And I would just add that absolutely, conversations need to be had. But I don’t like the idea of feeding into exactly what the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, or some of these White Christian Fundamentalist types want. I don’t like that idea of giving them that. They want attention. And oftentimes, their numbers are very small compared to the people who show up in opposition. And the more we feed into that, it really helps elevate their status. And I do not like that. I also just for faith reasons, I absolutely, as an American Muslim, as a Muslim in general, absolutely am against violence. So I don’t want to be part of any of these movements that involve violence in any way. And actually, that was one of the big pieces that we had to talk about, because I was very adamant that at times, particularly when you’re talking about certain people, they are able to get away from the narrative that comes out after, or the consequences do not follow them. And the consequences do directly impact the marginalized groups. So with the Muslim hate groups that had shown up, I made a very strong case to people. And I said, “Look, if you want to put your ego or your emotion ahead of the community or the cause, then go do what you’re doing. But don’t say you’re doing it for the American Muslim community. Don’t say you’re doing it in solidarity with Muslims, when the Muslims here are directly asking for nonviolence, are directly asking for sort of positive messaging.” So that is something that I think needs to be discussed every single time. And I do believe that the most marginalized, most impacted communities have to be given the lead on those kinds of decisions.
Patron 3: I really appreciate this great conversation, especially after last night. So thank you for all of the issues that are brought up. So here’s my specific question. I actually connected with you a couple months ago. I organized a group in Seattle, and we do overpass protest. We each hold a letter and it’s actually reversible. So it’s a two-sided message. We’ve been out since inauguration morning more than two dozen times. I have about 100 people, 125 people who all go out. Not all at one time, but the last couple of times we’ve had so much energy. Everybody wanted something to do. We’ve had 40 and 50 people out. Normally, we have maybe 20 people, 25 people out. But we have this ongoing conversation, so I’d love your thoughts about what that messaging should be. So, you know, if you’ve got 20 letters, you have two, three, four words, right? So we go back and forth between — we have done things that say, “worst president ever,” “fake president,” a lot of things like that. Everything gets enormous response in Seattle. Everybody loves that. But then we also do things that are maybe more uplifting or more a call to action. “Ban assault weapons,” “teachers rise up.” So we have this ongoing conversation amongst all of the people in this group, because we’re very open to what our messaging should be. So I’d love your ideas. Some people go, “Oh, don’t sound so hateful. Don’t sound so mean.” We do have a banner, but the messages are always different and they’re very timely. So should they be inspirational? Aspirational? A call to action? So I would just love your thoughts to a mass audience, and we’re not trying to persuade. I’m never trying to persuade Trump people. I’m reaching out, trying to energize people.
LAK: Well, do you want to answer first?
AA: So my view is always, it depends on who your audience is. You’re not trying to reach Trump people, but are you trying to reach people in the middle? Who could go either way? And if that’s the case, absolutely go with positive, uplifting messages or direct action calls. I think the attacks do not help at all. This is something that I’m constantly struggling with, with people that I work with. I’m constantly telling them, “Do not have that message that does not help.” If you’re in a smaller rally with your own base, and you’re just trying to mobilize them then perhaps that works. But in the other and the mainstream audience, when you’re out on the streets, that message is exactly what our opponents often use to demonize us. It in fact hurts us with the middle and the right. And in fact, it may get a lot of people honking. You may get a lot of people excited and happy to see that, which gives you that sense that, “Oh, it’s a great sign.” But in fact, it ends up hurting us. So I absolutely would say positive, aspirational, and action call-oriented.
LAK: Yeah. There’s a linguist named George Lakoff who has a book called Don’t Think Of An Elephant! Of course, somebody says, “Don’t think of an elephant,” you think of an elephant, right? So there is a way, just as you know, just as a basic fact of linguistics, that when we’re saying, “Stop Trump” or that the focus is on Trump as opposed to on us. That said, I think some of what you’re doing with these actions, by having a presence, is creating a sense of connection. And in some ways there’s no wrong choices. In some ways, you could overthink what the exact message is. It’s the fact of being there, and the fact of people standing together consistently, that’s going to have the most enduring impact. There are moments when the mood is right for the negative message, I think. But I agree with Aneelah that overall, it’s the positive messages that move away from that negative frame that are likely to galvanize and inspire people.
Patron 3: Okay. Thanks.
Patron 4: Again, thank you for such thoughtful responses. I’m thinking a lot now about this urban/rural divide. And as I listen, and I since of course have been part of protests. It strikes me as kind of an urban phenomenon. And we know that the numbers, the situation is stacked against the numbers. In favor of the rural districts, et cetera, as far as how things have been gerrymandered, et cetera. So I’m just curious. Your thought about the relationship of protest and this challenge we have between the urban mass and the rural community who really get a different kind of media entirely. Their communications patterns are different, the cultural surroundings are different. And so what are your thoughts on impacting that?
LAK: I have a lot of thoughts on that because although I live in New York city, I spend part of my year in, and have for 20 years, in a part of upstate New York. It’s part of the swing district where we just defeated John Faso and elected Antonio Delgado after an unbelievably racist campaign that didn’t work in an overwhelmingly white district. And so last weekend I was up there in New York 19, I was in these tiny little towns, I was in one sort of medium sized town. Another town that the locals do call Trout “Crick,” New York, in an area that went, I think, 2-to-1 for Trump, going door to door. I’ve been doing lots of antiracist organizing in that area for the last couple of years around a campaign that I started against the Confederate flag at our local County fair. So I’ve been kind of deep in this question of, “How do you do rural anti-racist organizing in a pro-Trump area?” And I think, at least in what I’ve seen, there’s a lot more happening that’s undecided in rural areas than we think of when we just write them off. That there’s a lot that, first of all, those numbers about the 650 protests or the 900 protests, that means that things are happening in smaller cities, which are regional hubs for rural areas. So there may not be something in Trout Creek, but there’s something in nearby Delhi, or Oneonta, the next larger towns nearby. So the things that are for people in that little rural area are the hub, and maybe those protests only have like 20 people standing up against the Family Separation policy or whatever the issue is, but 20 people in an area like that is really something. And I think it’s like any other kind of organizing. It’s about the getting out and talking to people. So in this area where we just won that district as part of the campaign around the Confederate Flag and say it was the Confederate Flag. Our local organizing group has had a two-year-long anti-racist film series at the local little community college. And it brings 40 or 50 people once a month, and that kind of stuff has a cumulative effect. It’s easy to assume that the rural areas are just so economically precarious at this point in American History that they’re unreachable politically. And certainly in my area, I saw, after Trump did the “Grab Your Pussy,” the tape came out. I saw people mobilizing more for Trump rather than less. So I kinda knew he was going to win before he did, from seeing that up there, seeing how people responded by women, white women, wanting the Trump yard signs after he said that. So I think rural areas are very much in play and I do think white women are the key. I think it’s a question of trying. I don’t know about rural white men. I don’t know if we can reach them or not. We see that the numbers yesterday about how white women voted around the country were, in some places, just awful. I mean, Georgia, it was something like 79%, some just absolutely overwhelming margin of white women for Kemp. But the national average, I take some heart in the fact that the national average of white women voting Republican went down from 53 to 50. And I think that when we talk about persuading people and bringing them over, that this work, particularly for fellow white women, antiracist white women to take on that this is the crucial block to try to shift in the rural vote. Is for progressive white women to try to reach out to white women who are sort of wavering, and who could be pulled in a more progressive direction.
AA: I would add that I actually do this thing called Faith Over Fear Road Show, where me and a white male Christian pastor, we go around to smaller towns across the state of Washington to help them understand the Islamophobia industry and stand with our Muslim neighbors and recognize how they are being manipulated with fear through some of the information that they are getting. And in that process, I’ve learned quite a bit, but sort of what some of what I’ve learned, and this is definitely something that I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, is that a lot of people just need to actually connect on a personal level. Need to actually be treated like a fellow human being, as opposed to entirely just dismissed or demonized or anything else. And I’ve been able to do that. And you see the change in people when you have those kinds of personal connections. And I will say for most of the Faith Over Fear Road Show events that we’ve done, oftentimes in the smaller rural towns, many times the people there had never even met a Muslim in person before. So it has a significant impact when you have that personal connection. But I think it takes certain personality types to do that. Not everybody can do that. In fact, tomorrow night here in Seattle, I’m doing an event where we’re talking with Evangelical Christians and Trump supporters and others across the political spectrum on the topic of racism. And that’s another topic that is very heated, that is very divided and to be able to get together and just talk with people and actually listen to other people as opposed to just dismissing them entirely. So I think if you have the personality type that you could not get extremely worked up, that you could actually listen and talk to people and show them humanity. At the anti-Muslim rally, where we had our counter-protesters, I put up a sign, an “Ask a Muslim” booth. And I had people come up there. Like one woman, one, couple husband and wife, the woman was in a wheelchair. On her lap. She had a horribly anti-Muslim message on her lap, and she comes up and we’re talking. And I talked to her and I held her hand, and I showed her empathy. The way that I look at it is oftentimes, it’s not people intentionally wanting to be bad. It’s that they are misinformed. They have been fed a narrative, a diet of hate and divisiveness and fear. And just getting past that, the way you get past that, is not to further push them away by demonizing them. But instead to show them. “Hey, look, I understand what your concerns are. Let me address them. Let me show you how you have been misinformed.” Because they were making statements about what’s in the Quran that were totally wrong. They were making statements about all kinds of things that were just a reflection of inaccuracies, misinformation, and it’s intentional. It’s happening in our country right now. So that’s what I would say is, for the rural towns, if you have the personality type that you can actually go and connect with people, go and connect with people. And have the difficult conversations with people. Connect on a human level. And don’t expect to change them overnight.
You know, honestly, many people in this room even, or many other audiences, are not where they are today except for the evolution that they had in their own thought. You know, on racism, on white supremacy, on white privilege, on so many other topics. And we have to give other people the benefit of that doubt as well. Give them the opportunity for them to grow. And also know that oftentimes, change happens over time, but it also, in many times, happens when you’re not directly confronting someone about it. And what I mean by that is, I have had conversations with people that I know I will never convince the person I’m talking to, but I also know that there’s an audience listening around and those people who are silently observing, those passive participants, so to speak, they’re the ones that I’m trying to change their minds. I’m not trying to change the mind of the person that I’m immediately talking to. And this is why it’s so important to remain calm, to not use bad language, to not curse people out, to not do any of that stuff. And really stick with values, start with values, find shared values, build commonality, and really help inform and know that people’s hearts and minds do not get changed with facts and stats and information. I have all the facts and stats that you could imagine on all data in our country about who’s the actual security threat. You know, we heard Don lemon say it. It’s White men. It’s not people who look like me, but that’s not the narrative of fear in our country. It doesn’t matter if you have the stats. People will still believe certain narratives. But the way you change hearts and minds is through personal stories. That is the way you actually change hearts and minds. So sharing personal stories, talking about the positive lives and contributions of certain groups that you’re trying to stand up for, like American Muslims, for instance, or others, that’s how you reach people. That’s how you connect with people. So I would just say, start with values, build commonality, share personal stories, and really help reinforce that kind of common humanity.
LAK: Yeah. And I’ll just circle back by bringing us back to the theme of protest, because I think part of why and how protest works, is that it brings people together in real space. In real time. We put our bodies next to each other. We feel our sense of ourselves as a collectivity, which is a thing that happens in houses of worship all the time, where people get together. There’s a power in that, especially — not in spite of this internet age, but especially —because so many of us live so much of our lives digitally, that part of the enduring power of protest is that it brings us together to speak as one in a physical space. And we know from history that that matters, and that the impact of that plays out over a long time. So I want to thank you again, Aneelah Afzali, for joining me here tonight, and thank you so much to Town Hall Seattle for hosting, and thank you all of you for coming out tonight.
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