Linda Sarsour: We Can’t Afford to be Bystanders During Covid-19

 

 

 

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A pandemic is no place to be a bystander, says Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour. In this episode, Laura interviews Sarsour about her recently published memoir We are Not Here to Be Bystanders, which tells her story of growing up in Brooklyn and Palestine and becoming the Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York and one of the co-chairs of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Sarsour describes how Covid-19 is affecting her work, what contact tracing triggers for people who were forced to register as Muslims after 9-11, and what Muslim Americans have learned about being targets, even as so many serve as front-line healthcare providers.

 

For more on Covid-19, check out our series, Forward Thinking on Covid-19.

 

 


 

 

“In the weeks after the attacks of 9-11, women who wore niqabs were threatened. Now everyone’s being told to wear a mask.”

 

 


 

 

In This Episode

 

Linda Sarsour, Executive Director of the Arab American Association of New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript

 

 

Laura Flanders:

None of us can afford to be bystanders in times like these but the path to taking meaningful action in the face of injustice isn’t always clear. Muslim Americans have a long experience of being spied on, detained, harassed, even killed and figuring out how to respond in constructive ways. In her new memoir, Palestinian America Brooklynite, Linda Sarsour describes how she found her calling as a community organizer and unapologetic Muslim, as she puts it in We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders. Her memoir in which she shares her experiences from high school in Brooklyn to directing the Arab American Association of New York, and becoming co-chair of the 2017 women’s march on Washington.

Laura Flanders:

Linda Sarsour is my guest on the Laura Flanders show this time. The place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome. Linda joins us now from her hometown in Brooklyn. Linda, welcome. Glad to have you.

Linda Sarsour:

Thank you so much for having me, Laura.

Laura Flanders:

So let’s start with right now, I’m talking to you from a little cabin upstate where I’ve been sheltering in place for a month. You’re talking to me from Brooklyn. What are you seeing and what are you doing right now in these times of shutdown?

Linda Sarsour:

Laura, it’s really hard for me. I’m an organizer. I’m a mobilizer. My work everyday is to get up and go out on the street, meet new people and organize them to do something. And so being sheltered at home has been very difficult for me. I’m in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not the Brooklyn that people know. It’s very dark and ominous. Ambulance sirens all day long, all day long. I live in between two hospitals. I also live in a community in Brooklyn, labeled a NORC, then a natural occurring retirement community out in Southwest Brooklyn. So a lot of my neighbors are elders and ambulances are on my street at least once or twice a day.

Linda Sarsour:

And so it’s scary and fear is not something I choose, but it’s a lot about how people are feeling around me. So there’s a lot of death, a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. And it’s empty out in the streets. It’s not the Brooklyn that everybody knows.

Laura Flanders:

This period. I mean, your community has been in virtual lockdown before, thinking of the period right after 9/11, is this moment triggering stuff for people where you are?

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

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

Laura Flanders:

Is your dad’s shop still open? I mean, we say it’s a shutdown, but a lot of people are working and a lot of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are working, both in groceries and in healthcare.

Linda Sarsour:

My father owned a bodega in New York city for almost 40 years and actually sold it about two years ago. But as you know, in New York city, majority, overwhelming majority, of the bodega’s and the essential workers are people from the communities that I come from. They’re Muslim American, they’re Palestinians, they’re Yemeni Americans, South Asians, and of course central Americans who are from, also very significant in the community that I live in right now in Brooklyn. These are the essential workers. There are people.

Laura Flanders:

And what about health care workers? We’re seeing a lot of Muslim healthcare professionals provide extraordinary service and some of them go above and beyond. I’m thinking of the guy in Connecticut, was it Saud Anwar, who discovered how to use a single ventilator for seven people and then go to parade in his village. Is anything, do you think changing is a penny dropping about the work that Muslim Americans do here?

Linda Sarsour:

One thing that people don’t know about Muslims is we’re actually 13% of the medical population of doctors in nurses and healthcare. We’re also about 12% of pharmacists in the United States of America. So it’s guaranteed that if, God forbid something were to happen to you, somewhere along the line you are going to be treated with love and compassion and expertise by a Muslim American healthcare worker. And it unfortunately it hasn’t stopped the Islamophobes, Laura, you would think that they would take a break, understanding that this pandemic does not discriminate against people’s political ideology or where they come from or their faith and they continue to put forward.

Linda Sarsour:

There have been social media campaigns around this idea of the Corona Jihad, somehow we’re behind it, the Muslims are behind it. Donald Trump has engaged in some of this Islamophobia and other people that are in power. There was this one tweet from a very prominent radio host with millions of followers that said something to the effect of basically using a tweet to kind of blame all Muslims and say here’s what we can do to the Muslims afterwards. And I’m like, “Really folks? This is not the time.” Well, it’s never the time, but it’s definitely, this is definitely not the time for that.

Laura Flanders:

It’s looking about your pride as a Muslim. I’m going to ask you to read a portion from your book where you talk about putting on the hijab for the first time and why. At the end of that, you describe the three words or you mention three words and you actually, you can read it now or you can read it later, whichever is comfortable for you. Do you want to read it now? It’s beautiful.

Linda Sarsour:

No one noticed me as I picked up a black two piece hijab and slipped it over my dark shoulder length hair. I smoothed wayward strands under the headband and walked over to the mirror, standing on tip toe behind my mother and sister to see myself. “What do you think?,” I asked them. Everyone turned my way and the voices around me hushed one by one. My mother and Heba moved aside to allow me an unobstructed view of myself. Jamar reached out and adjusted the soft black cloth gently then touched my cheek. “It suits you ,” she whispered as if loath to disturb the unexpected reverence of the moment. I could tell she sensed the emotion welling up inside her oldest daughter.

Linda Sarsour:

My sister’s watching me silently recognized it too because gazing into the guilt edged mirror, I felt as if I was truly seeing myself for the first time. A young Muslim woman stared back at me, her chin lifted high, dark coal lined eyes alive with interest and something more. For the first time in my 19 years, I appeared to the world as exactly what I was, unapologetically Muslim. I remember placing a palm over the mound of my belly and thinking simply this is it. Three small words. Yet they held a lifetime of searching.

Laura Flanders:

Those three small words. The book is packed with moments like that, that crystallized some truth for you. Have you had any recently? Is this pandemic been a moment of any this is it kind of moments?

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

We finally realize that those in power every tool at their disposal and they’ve had extra resources to provide for our people. So I have gotten into this moment where when I get out of this pandemic, I’m going to be an even different kind of organized, just even more bolder and more braver than I ever was before.

Laura Flanders:

Was it a stretch for you to get involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign? You, community organizer in the streets?

Linda Sarsour:

To be honest, I’ve never really got involved in a presidential campaign before Bernie Sanders. I was obviously involved back in 2016 and one of the reasons was not because of Bernie Sanders, he’s a great guy, I think he is a bold man with a vision. I got involved because he aligned with my values and principles. I mean, he was fighting for the things I’ve been fighting for for almost two decades now. And he also did something that our country thinks is really radical that he claimed that the Palestinian people were people who deserve human rights and that they too should be spoken for and spoken about and that they too deserve to have human rights. And for me that was something that I hadn’t heard in national politics before. And so that was a big motivating factor for me to support Senator Bernie Sanders.

Linda Sarsour:

And also I like to make history. That’s been my work. I’ve made history many times in the last two decades. And for me, I was moved by this idea that in a time of rising fascism and rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia, that we could elect the first Jewish American president. I mean, what kind of message would we send? What kind of story would we have written in history that in the face of a Donald Trump administration, we ended up coming out of that with a Jewish American president who was a democratic socialist who was moved by his own Jewish values too fight for justice for all people? And that’s what I believe about my own faith. And unfortunately we fumbled as a country on that, but it’s still a vision that I have in my heart.

Laura Flanders:

So Joe Biden, can you get behind him? Do you think he can win?

Linda Sarsour:

I think for me, I’ve started to frame this in my mind in a way that makes sense for me and makes sense for my values and my principles. And for me, Joe Biden is the person I want to choose as my opponent in the white house. I’m not choosing him because I think that he’s going to be the greatest president we ever had. I’m not choosing him because I believe that he aligns with my values and principles, but I’m choosing him because he’s not a fascist.

Linda Sarsour:

And I believe as an organizer and a mobilizer that I can organize our country and organize Progressive’s and organized people of color and immigrant communities to push Joe Biden to be held accountable to our communities, to push him to be better on the issues that we care about and to build the political will for him to do what he needs to do. For him to say, “Listen, I’m being pressured. I have to do the right thing because these people are organized.” I don’t believe that we can do that under a Trump administration.

Laura Flanders:

You talk about Trump as a fascist. I’d love you to elaborate on that, but to talk about him as a catalyst too, good and bad. He capitalizes things. What do you think of where we stand right now in relation to him and our so called democracy?

Linda Sarsour:

Donald Trump is a dictator. He has been very clear about that, even in light of the pandemic. When asked whether governors should reopen their States, he basically said, “I am the authority. I am the biggest authority.” He is a man who wants to bust unions. He has defunded the national endowment of the arts. He has targeted different communities in this country, including Muslims and black people and undocumented immigrants and LGBTQIA people. He has caged children and separated them from their mothers and they may never ever be reunited with their mothers. He is a warmonger.

Linda Sarsour:

As we know, there have been many before him, but he’s also a warmonger as well. He has surrounded himself with some of the most bigoted, xenophobic, Islamophobic, antisemite white nationalist. He has praised the white nationalists. This is a dangerous presidency. This is not just one that continues to oppress and impact our communities as we’ve seen in the past, but if we allow him four more years, we could potentially be in a situation that we cannot remedy and especially when it comes to the Supreme Court. If he gets another appointment on the Supreme Court, we could lose the Supreme Court for the next four to five decades.

Laura Flanders:

One of the things I’m trying to get my head around is around this discussion around contact tracing because on the one hand, communicable disease, it sounds important and critical even for public health, on the other hand is the history of everything we know about policing the body and policing certain bodies and a sort of stalker state as I’ve had one guest call it.

Laura Flanders:

Your people have been in a registry before, after 9/11 and probably since that we don’t even know. How are you thinking about this contact tracing, plotting who people have contacted, perhaps using technology in the name of public health?

Linda Sarsour:

I think for me, I’m obviously committed to finding the other side of the pandemic, the end of the pandemic because it has disproportionately hurt immigrant communities and black people. In many cities, as you know, in Detroit and in places like Milwaukee, close to 80% of the deaths are black people. And so there’s something to say about that this pandemic has reinforced the disparities in our healthcare system, but when it comes to the tracking, for me it is very triggering.

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

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

Laura Flanders:

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

Laura Flanders:

But I do need you to address the accusations of antisemitism that followed the march and particularly around your fellow co-chair, Tamika Mallory, how are you thinking about that now and are there learnings from all of that for you that we should share?

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

They have been at the forefront of intervention and anti gun violence intervention. They have been a central in a reentry programs for those who are formerly incarcerated. They run food pantries in some of the poorest cities in this country. And in fact in the cities where they are the most prominent, believe it or not, you see low crime rates, they are able to police their communities in ways that are dignified, that allow people to feel safe.

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

I have a different experience than a white woman in Arkansas or a white woman in even San Francisco. And so that has been the learning process and I think white woman understanding the severity of the issues that we are being impacted by in this country and understanding that the boldness and the bravest people at the front lines of the movements are us, are women of color. And so if we are dilegitimized, if we are discredited, it discredits our entire movement. So unfortunately some women have fell for the slander and the vilification, have not given their women of color sisters the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to have these deep conversations. And I hope that that was a learning experience for folks.

Laura Flanders:

Yeah. You’ve certainly given plenty of white women, including myself, plenty of benefit of doubt about many things. So I thank you for that and we keep on learning. I’m talking with Linda Sarsour. Her book is, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders and in it you mentioned you talk about your mentor, your second mom I think you call her, a legendary community organizer. What would she be doing in this moment when it’s hard to do community organizing in the way that she did it? Invite people over share food, share things, comfort physically. How do we do it? How are you doing it?

Linda Sarsour:

Basma would be the woman with the mask delivering groceries to people’s homes. She would be the women organizing donors in our community to ensure that the least of us have just as much as those who have an abundance of things. That’s just who she was and she was willing to risk her life for it. And right now in this moment, as you know, there have been these mutual aid groups that have been created across the country. We have them here in New York city and I’m a proud member of one. And it’s some of the most heartbreaking work when just a few weeks ago I went to the home of a older Bangladeshi woman who has a daughter who lives in Oregon and then has another daughter who lives in Bangladesh. And believe it or not, they contacted us through Facebook who’s mutual aid group that they found just based on location.

Linda Sarsour:

And here’s a woman who lives alone, 70 years old, severe asthmatic, who was terrified of even leaving her front door and not able to get groceries is on public assistance. And that for me, looking at her, seeing almost your grandmother in her just tells you the amount of vulnerable people that are trying to figure out how to move through this pandemic. Some who you we may not know. And Basma taught me always, she said, “You cannot go to bed knowing that your neighbors are hungry. You cannot go to bed knowing that there’s someone in your midst that needs you and you are able to offer a service and you are not doing that.” And so in this time that’s the kind of organizing and the limited organizing that I’ve been able to do. Just to make sure that I still have that spirit inside of me, that that flame inside of me doesn’t go away.

Linda Sarsour:

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

Laura Flanders:

Much missed. You mentioned grandmothers, yours lived in your family’s Palestinian village in Al-Bireh. What do you carry with you from that village and how do you carry Palestine foreign policy in your heart, even as the domestic demands of politics here are so great, and many people are inclined to say, “Let’s just deal with this right now. We can’t deal with that.”?

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

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

Linda Sarsour:

So I am able to show up in the movement as an intersectional leader that basically teaches people that our liberation as Americans and our domestic policies intertwine with people all over the world, including in Palestine. And that is the threat to the opposition. The minute you start making global connections, that’s when the opposition is like, “You crossed the line here.” So they’re fine with me fighting locally, organizing my local community. The minute we start going broader and we go international, that is when we become a threat to the status quo in this country.

Laura Flanders:

To shift the status quo is going to require a lot of people taking a lot of unpopular stands. Two questions for you. One, what can you teach us about dealing with that, people’s attacks? Because you’ve got a lot of experience. And then finally, you started by talking about yourself as a mom and your kids. Where are they getting pleasure in this period? Most teenagers are not getting to be the teenagers in the regular way?

Linda Sarsour:

You know, my kids are like any other children and I actually, believe it or not, I’ve explained to my children that this idea of staying at home, these lockdowns are things that Palestinians experience quite often in Palestine. And telling them that maybe this was a way for them to really understand the plight and the struggle of the Palestinian people who often are under curfew, who often are being told to stay home, sometimes days and weeks at a time.

Linda Sarsour:

And I said, “You’re lucky you don’t have to experience more things like shutting off of electricity and shutting off of water.” So that’s the kind of mom that I am.

Laura Flanders:

So where’s the pleasure, Linda? Where’s the pleasure?

Linda Sarsour:

students, they’re still in contact with their friends at school. Obviously watching television, we watch movies together, and of course FaceTiming family. We are able to FaceTime family both here and in Palestine. So having that family connection. And being able to do exercise literally right on our sidewalk, right outside the house, I’m making sure they stay active.

Linda Sarsour:

But to your question about this upcoming administration, and it’s hard for me to say this, but yes, we hope that it is a Joe Biden administration and we’re going to have to be an opposition. We’re going to have to resist this administration regardless that they are Democrats and it’s going to get us the wrath of many people, including neo-liberals and other Democrats and people who are going to say, “You just don’t like anybody. You just want to be an opposite opposition to everything.”

Linda Sarsour:

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

Laura Flanders:

Linda, thank you so very much.

Linda Sarsour:

Thank you.

 

 

 

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