Building Movements, Building Power

An interview with political activist Linda Sarsour

by Zach Ngin & Sara Van Horn

Illustration by Georgianna Stoukides

published February 15, 2020


Linda Sarsour is unequivocal. Whether addressing a crowd at a Bernie rally or explaining the salient points of Kingian nonviolence in an interview backstage, her purposeful energy—and thick Brooklyn accent—reflects her years of experience as a local organizer.

Sarsour might be best known as one of the co-chairs of the 2017 Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in the history of the United States. But her organizing is rooted in two decades of community-based work in Brooklyn. From 2005 to 2017, Sarsour served as the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York, a civil rights and social services organization. She helped fight against the biased policing of Muslim communities and successfully campaigned for the recognition of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr in the city’s public schools. In recent years, she has organized in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and is currently the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President Trump’s travel ban.

Sarsour was recently in Providence for a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement hosted by student organizers at Brown University. On January 28th, she returned as the keynote speaker at a rally hosted by Rhode Island Students for Bernie. (Anchita Dasgupta and Peder Schaefer’s report on the event appeared in the College Hill Independent last week.) Before the event began, the Independent sat down with Sarsour in the dressing room of Columbus Theatre in Providence. We spoke to her about the Sanders campaign, her vision of solidarity, and the potentials and limitations of electoral politics.




The Independent: Can you talk about your background, your activist work, and what brings you to this rally today?

Linda Sarsour: I am a Brooklyn-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants. I have been an organizer for almost twenty years now. I started out organizing around hyper-local community issues, specifically around language access for my community, which was an Arabic-speaking immigrant community in New York City. I was a leader of a non-profit that served refugees, asylees, and immigrants, predominantly from the Middle East, for about 15 years. And so I’ve been really immersed in the immigrant rights movement and, from there, found the intersection between immigrant rights and criminal justice.

I was an early supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders in late 2015, when no one thought he was a serious candidate. I believed in his platform and he was my primary protest candidate that I supported to help push Hillary Clinton to the left. Then, as I supported the campaign in 2016, I realized that we could actually win this nomination. I was, of course, extremely disappointed with the Democratic Party and the ways in which this movement we were building was being sidelined, although there was so much enthusiasm around it. I continued to fight for Medicare for All over the last few years and really just continued to double down on the conversation that Bernie Sanders helped ignite back in 2016, and now I’m back again for Bernie 2020. I’m a national surrogate with the campaign and I get really excited about coming to gatherings, canvasses, rallies. I want to be amongst the regular folks who are supporting the senator and I’m excited about just being here in Rhode Island. I’m excited about the enthusiasm of a younger generation that is committed to an inclusive, progressive society, including one that centers the dignity of Palestinians.


The Independent: How do electoral politics—and presidential elections in particular—fit into the broader work that you’ve done? What are the potentials and limitations of electoral politics as a strategy?

Sarsour: Electoral politics for me is only a very small part of my larger theory of change. Remember that there are many people in our country who are shut out of our democracy: undocumented people, incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people. Any time that you engage in a tactic or a theory of change about how we’re going to bring about transformative change and there are some people who can’t participate, then that tactic is not enough. So electoral organizing in and of itself is not enough. For me, it’s a tool in our toolbox. And it allows us to alleviate some suffering—harm reduction—and it allows us to create space, especially when we elect people who actually align with our principles and values. We give ourselves just some room to continue to build power.

So for me, movement building is not electoral organizing. And electoral organizing in and of itself is not movement building. For me, I still organize around issues. I organize with people who are unable to participate in our democratic process because I believe that everyone—in a real, true, inclusive movement—has to have different ways to participate. And movement building gives people other ways to participate in building power, even if they can’t do that one thing which is voting.


The Independent: I see Bernie as one of the only candidates—as the only candidate—that’s calling on a movement in addition to an electoral process. Do you see that as something that sets him apart? The fact that he’s very explicitly calling on a wider social movement?

Sarsour: Absolutely. It’s one of the reasons why I’m part of this campaign. And a lot of the time people question why we’re supportive of this campaign, they say, what are you doing, you’re an intersectional feminist, you know, you have been organizing on criminal justice reform and immigrant rights, you are one of those people who have pushed for representation and for supporting and centering people of color and marginalized communities and you’re supporting an old, white man for president? And what I say to people is that I’m not supporting an old, white man. I’m supporting an intersectional movement that believes that the solutions to the ills of our country are with the working class, with people of color, with the most marginalized people. I truly believe in my heart that that’s what Senator Bernie Sanders believes. And when we think about this campaign and who supports this campaign, it is absolutely reflective of the type of movement that I want to be a part of. The majority of our donors are women. The majority of our donors are working class—nurses and teachers and fast-food workers. They are members of unions and immigrant communities and communities that for so long just haven’t felt heard.


The Independent: I think that brings us to a really salient topic, which is solidarity. Solidarity seems like a common theme in your work, both with the Bernie campaign and with working against state violence and for Palestinian liberation, so we wanted to ask what solidarity means to you and your work.

Sarsour: Senator Sanders defines solidarity in such an accessible way and it really moved me. It was at the rally that he did with AOC in Queens, New York. He got up and was basically like, Are you willing to fight for someone? Are you willing to fight for someone that is just not you? And that is what solidarity means to me. Solidarity is not about words. Solidarity is when you are willing to risk and sacrifice something for someone else to live better and have access to something you have access to.


The Independent: Why do you think socialism is an important political framework right now? What aspects of that word or vision are useful to you? And why do you think it’s appealing to so many people right now?

Sarsour: In our country, wealth should not be concentrated in the top one percent of the one percent while there are people living in utter poverty. And socialism really is about closing the gaps, it’s about investing and giving people the opportunity not to just survive in America but to thrive in America. So when we think about the policies that Senator Sanders is putting forth, it isn’t in fact real socialism. Some of these policies are “socialist” policies, just like the fire department or the libraries, you know. The librarian doesn’t ask you whether you are a billionaire or whether you are a working-class college student. We all get access to libraries. You know, God forbid, your household’s on fire: you pick up the phone and call the fire department. It’s a public good that we all get to share. And that’s why Bernie Sanders doesn’t equivocate or try to make things complicated. Everybody gets their student debt cancelled. There’s no formula for it. Because at the end of the day, Bernie Sanders understands reality. The reality is that the children of billionaires are not going to public universities. The children of billionaires don’t have college debt. So these frivolous arguments being used against us to paint us as some sort of radical fringe are not even true. Bernie Sanders is in fact not even a socialist candidate. I think what we’re doing in this campaign is normalizing things that are seen as radical by a segment of our population but in fact are not radical at all. People should have healthcare. Healthcare is a human right. People should not be graduating from college literally shackled in debt and unable to start a career or have a successful future.


The Independent: We’re here today at a rally organized by students in Rhode Island. Where do you see the power of student organizing and why is it important? What do you see as the role of college students at this moment?

Sarsour: College students are literally the nucleus of this campaign. I’ve been to Iowa, to New Hampshire, and I’ve seen the power of college students organizing. They’re enthusiastic. They’re also worried about their future in terms of climate justice. And they are also students who understand what it means to have student loans, knowing that the job market is dismal in America, particularly for college graduates. And so for me, we can’t win this campaign without college students. It’s just the bottom line. They’re our key constituency and it’s an opportunity for Bernie Sanders to prove what it looks like when you expand the electorate.

The voting rate for college students during the 2016 general election was very low. This particular constituency has not always been a reliable voter base, and not all campaigns may be investing in this particular voter base. But the Bernie Sanders campaign is. We see them not as low-propensity voters. We see them as high-potential voters. Because literally they are the generation that has everything at stake—them and the generations that come after them.


The Independent: I was speaking recently with a student activist with Brown Divest who diagnosed much of the campus as supportive of Bernie but not necessarily supportive of the fight for Palestinian sovereignty. So what would you say to those who support Bernie’s call for radical, political change, but who believe talking about the struggle for Palestinian liberation is either too radical or too extreme for the Bernie campaign or for the left?

Sarsour: To be quite clear, as someone who’s a big supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, we do not agree on many things about Palestine. For example, Bernie does not support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement. I do. Senator Bernie Sanders supports a two-state solution. I don’t think that’s a viable solution anymore. I think it’s a pie-in-the-sky, never gonna happen. But I’d say to folks who believe in the Palestinian people, who believe in Palestinian human rights: this is the campaign for you. Because this is the only campaign where we can have that conversation. This is not the campaign where we’re going to find all those solutions. Senator Bernie Sanders is not going to be the savior of any people. This is the campaign where there are people willing to hear you out, where there are people who unequivocally believe that the Palestinian people at the bare minimum deserve basic human rights. Bernie’s old, but his ears are on the ground. And he has helped us be able to talk about Palestine at such a high level in a way that we haven’t done before. So to those who support Bernie but don’t agree with him on these issues, I say, you know, that’s okay, there’s no perfect candidate. But for us, as a community, as a movement that supports Palestinian rights, there is absolutely no other candidate in this race that is the boldest and bravest on this issue other than Bernie Sanders.


The Independent: In the last couple years, the left has spent a lot of time thinking about the historical circumstances that led to Donald Trump’s election. I’m curious about how you understand the historical circumstances that have allowed someone like Bernie Sanders to run for president.

Sarsour: You know, we’re always blaming people outside the Democratic party on why we got Trump. I blame that on the political left, on “progressives,” neoliberals, and the Democratic party. Until Bernie Sanders took us to this national conversation, we kept trying to assume what moves the American people. We shied away from talking about healthcare for all; we shied away from saying cancellation of student debt; we shied away from Palestinians deserve human rights and criticizing the state of Israel. We shied away from universal daycare and shied away from calling for incarcerated people to be given the right to vote. We shied away from saying end cash bail and the dismal, corrupt, racist criminal justice system that we have, assuming that the American people did not want to touch those issues or were in opposition to those issues. And so Bernie Sanders comes along, a senator from Vermont who had no idea that the minute he started talking about these issues in a public way, everyone was like, who is this man? I’m with you. We don’t even need to know who you are! You are speaking to our pain and to our aspirations as a people.

Bernie Sanders built an entire movement off of talking about the issues that neoliberals told us for so long were radical and never going to be mainstream in America. They kept pushing us to vote for candidates that were maintaining the status quo. And then Bernie comes along and shatters that whole thing. It’s been shattered in local elections too. In Chicago, something like six of the new city council members are socialist. And you have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, you have Rashida Tlaib winning, people who are full-fledged democratic socialists and really believe in Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Our failure has been in assuming we know what the American people care about. So I don’t blame “the opposition.” The opposition is internal for our communities. And in the political sphere, now we are the ones with the political capital. They are losing steam and it’s evident when we’re watching Bernie Sanders—the momentum he has is unmatched by any other candidate.


The Independent: Given the violence of the current administration and of this country more broadly, what does it mean to commit to nonviolence as an ethic or a strategy?

Sarsour: I’m actually trained in Kingian nonviolence and I adhere to the six principles of nonviolence. One of them is to attack the forces of evil, not those doing evil, which is why I’m not an anti-Trumper. My work is not about taking Trump out of office; my work is like Dr. Martin Luther King’s: attack the forces of evil. Militarism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, xenophobia—those are the ills of this nation. And what’s happened in this country is that the resistance has focused solely on one man who absolutely does embody those things. But if Trump is not the president anymore, those things still exist and will continue to exist unless we as a people rise up to address those issues.


ZACH NGIN B'22 and SARA VAN HORN B'21 are high-potential voters.