Q&A: A Socialist on student activism

Councilwoman hopes to build a movement to resist the president

Councilwoman Kshama Sawant speaking at Inauguration Day protest. She is one of very few socialists elected to political office in the country.

Miles Whitworth

Councilwoman Kshama Sawant speaking at Inauguration Day protest. She is one of very few socialists elected to political office in the country.

Oscar Zahner, Political Correspondent

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City councilmember Kshama Sawant is no stranger to activism. One of the only socialists elected to political office in the country, Ms. Sawant made a name for herself by organizing demonstrations for tenant’s rights, the increased minimum wage, and marriage equality. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Sawant’s unique political affiliation and her penchant for community organization has manifested in a series of anti-Trump rallies. Defeating Trump’s agenda at the local level has become one of Sawant’s primary concerns.

The Ballard Talisman was fortunate enough to sit down with Ms. Sawant to discuss her recent activism, her thoughts on the future under President Trump, and the power students have to affect that future.

What do you fear most from a Trump presidency?

“Judging by the state of the executive orders to the cabinet choices and the Supreme Court nominees, I think it is very clear that Trump, and Steve Bannon, and the whole right-wing bigot-dominated administration are very serious about carrying out Trump’s campaign promises: a wall against Mexico, discrimination against immigrants, seriously going against women’s reproductive rights, and even going after labor unions. Most importantly, I imagine that we will see entire communities in America being targeted if we do not build movements of mass resistance and civil disobedience immediately.”

What do you think this “mass civil disobedience” should look like, and how, specifically, do you think it will slow Trump’s agenda?

Addressing the second question, you can see an example of community action in the protests at SeaTac. After Trump’s executive order, some passengers that were flying from certain countries were actually detained and were going to be deported. It was the direct and urgent community response at SeaTac, and at JFK, that put the Trump administration’s back against the wall, and forced them to back down from deportation. In my view, history abounds with examples of non-violent civil disobedience has immediate impact on political outcomes. To me, the SeaTac action represents the first days of real civil disobedience that many of our generations had, which inspired a sense of power among young and working people, and inspired us to say, “we can go much farther than this.” In terms of what we should do, I think it’s a twofold process. We’ve seen one part of that process in the SeaTac response: immediate responses to dastardly actions like Trump’s executive order. The SeaTac actions were organized in a matter of hours.

The second part of the process involves actions that we must take with a lot of deliberation. For example, the Socialist Alternative is calling for massive demonstrations on Women’s Day, March 8. This is going to be a long-term struggle, so we’re going to need to take action around concrete political demands. We need to demand an end to sexual violence on university campuses, we need to demand that there is no attack on reproductive rights, and, I believe, we need to demand full coverage health care for all, which should address reproductive rights. Another example of a day we plan for is May Day, which has historically been a day for immigrant rights. In 2006, for instance, there was an attempt by congress to pass a piece of legislation that was very bad for immigrants. And on May Day of 2006, the immigrant activist community organized nationwide strike activity, called the “Day without an Immigrant.” That’s the power of the working class. This machine of capitalism entirely depends on these millions of people going to work. It’s that kind of courage, where working people refuse to cooperate, that’s when you can have massive impact on the status quo.

What do you think young people, who may not be part of the labor force, and may not have the power to strike, can do?

“If you look at period of radical movements in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, those may not have happened had it not been for young people on high school and college campuses who played both a direct and catalytic role in building social movements. I would say that campus movements are extremely key to what we can do on March 8 and May 1. And I would say that we’ve already shown one indication of what students can do on Inauguration Day. We had socialist students organizing peaceful walkouts from 16 campuses. That’s a small glimpse of what students can do. Student leaders can work with labor unions and other movements, and can potentially organize mass walkouts that could turn into huge rallies. There’s a spirit of rebellion among young people right now, and that’s what gives me the most confidence and hope in carrying out my own work.”

Speaking specifically to walkouts, what’s your take on schools districts leaving absences for protest unexcused?

“I think that the school district has a historic opportunity to stand with the righteous students who are fighting against the agenda of Trump and the billionaire cause. If they take the position that they’re going to penalize or punish these courageous students, that’s quite shameful on their part.”

Do you see any similarities between a political movement against Trump, and a movement like the Tea Party that rose in opposition to Obama?

First, let’s be clear of the massive differences. The Tea Party was a right-wing movement that was extremely divisive. At the heart of it, if you adopt the heart of the right-wing agenda, you at by definition anti-woman, anti-people of color, anti-immigrant. That’s the substance of the right-wing ideology. Personally, I would not want to draw any kind of commonality with any right-wing agenda, or an attempt to create a movement out of the right wing. Another thing to remember about the Tea Party is that it came into being in what I would call an “AstroTurf” manner, meaning it was bankrolled by the Koch Brothers and other right-wing billionaires. It’s not the kind of movement we’re building, which is being built up from the grassroots. It is not being dictated by billionaires in any way whatsoever.

The only way we are going to succeed against Trump and the billionaire cause is if our movement is audacious and democratically organized, and does not limit itself to what’s acceptable for corporate politicians. That makes it fundamentally different than anything like the Tea Party movement. I do want to add one point, though. First of all, the Tea Party did not capture the majority of Americans; the majority of America is not right-wing. The majority of America is turning left. So it’s interesting to examine why, when the majority of America is turning left—51% of people under 29 are rejecting capitalism—why is it that a right-wing zealot was elected to the White House? Examining how the Tea Party movement came into existence, and how it was able to have any echo in society might provide some answers. While the right wing doesn’t appeal to the vast majority of Americans, the Tea Party ended up making gains because they were able to occupy a vacuum of political space that was left because the vast majority of Americans are disenchanted with both right-wing republicans and the corporate agenda of the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are clear ideological differences between the Democratic and the Republican parties, but they both represent Wall Street greed.

So there is such a feeling of anger among working-class people, especially among younger people, that the billionaires who caused the global economic crisis are making more and more profits, that inequality is at its height at a time when America is the richest nation on Earth, and poverty levels are skyrocketing. There’s a lot of anger about low-wage jobs, about mounting student debt, the fact that we can’t afford health care and rent while the number of billionaires is increasing, all this had left a vacuum in society because the Democratic Party, despite its ideological differences from the republicans, fail to stand up for the needs of working people. That’s why it’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders’s campaign had a huge echo. If you go back to 2010, when the Tea Party made such huge gains, that happened because there was no left-wing alternative. What we need to do is provide that left-wing alternative for the millions of people that are looking for. We need to stand for social justice, and we need to refuse to be co-opted by the corporate party. But there’s one step more: our movement needs to run its own candidates, to provide a clear alternative to the corporate politicians.”

The reason I bring up the Tea Party as a comparison is that at the walkout on January 20, you suggested that we gridlock Trump’s agenda, the same way that the Republicans and the Tea Party gridlocked Obama after 2008. Would you say that your movement would use a similar playbook, and seek a similar goal with Trump?

I would say that we, the left, Socialist Alternative, are building on the history of socialist movements and leftist movements which have used civil disobedience to change society for the better. Because of the complete absence of a real, organized left to counter corporate politics, the Tea Party movement was able to co-opt those tactics that had historically been used by the left, and by socialists. I used that comparison as a grim reminder that we urgently have to rebuild the left, because otherwise the Trump brand of populism will continue to have a little bit of echo for the people who are left behind when no one’s fighting extremely brutal economic policies that have affected their jobs and their livelihood.

What I meant by that comment was that if we are going to protect Muslims and immigrants, we are not going to win that fight by negotiating with Trump. I was trying to send the message to the Democratic Party that if the republicans were able to so effectively lockjam Obama, even though the Democrats had the White House and the Senate, then what is stopping the Democrats from doing the same? If they’re truly against Trump’s agenda, then why aren’t they using every possible avenue to to jam up his agenda? We need to play the role that, historically, socialists have played: building power from below. If we do that, we can make historic changes. Why aren’t the Democrats refusing to accept the cabinet appointees en masse? Why don’t they filibuster the supreme court nominee? Why don’t they stand up for women whose reproductive rights are on the chopping block? Our movement can’t be limited to the agenda of these democratic politicians if they don’t show this kind of leadership.

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