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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Opens Up In This Wide-Ranging Interview

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Opens Up In This Wide Ranging Interview
Date Posted: Saturday, July 13th, 2019

It’s hard to recall a newly elected freshman representative to Congress who has made a bigger impact than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her primary victory for New York’s Fourteenth District seat—as a young woman of color beating out a long-established white male incumbent—was big news, and Ocasio-Cortez has been generating headlines almost daily ever since.

Practically the day she took her seat in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez became the hero of the left wing of the Democrats and a favored villain of Fox News and the right. She battled Nancy Pelosi to make the Green New Deal a priority, and has been involved with a movement to launch primary challenges against centrist or right-leaning Democrats. Like Bernie Sanders, she embraces the label of democratic socialism and supports free college education for all Americans. She has called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Ocasio-Cortez joined David Remnick in the New Yorker Radio Hour studio on July 5th, just after her trip to the border to examine migrant-detention facilities. They spoke about why she courted controversy by referring to some facilities as concentration camps; why she thinks the Department of Homeland Security is irredeemable; and whether Joe Biden is qualified to be President, given his comments about colleagues who supported forms of segregation. “Issues of race and gender are not extra-credit points in being a good Democrat,” she says. “They are a core part of the . . . competencies that a President needs. . . . Where are you on understanding the people that live in this country?”

David Remnick: I think it’s about a year ago that this all began. This big victory for you happened. And does the year seem like five minutes or twenty years?

alexandria ocasio-cortez: Um, a little of both. It’s hard, it kind of feels like both of those things at the same time. Sometimes it feels like forty-five years, because each week feels like a saga. But at the same time it’s hard to believe that it was just a year ago. So I guess it does, in some [way], feel longer than a year. But also it’s such a short period of time, and it went by so quickly, as well.

Well, what shocked you the most?

In this whole year?

Well, and holding this office, and the political life once you’re in office.

I think, when I first got into office, after getting sworn in, I struggled with a large deal of imposter syndrome. “Do I belong here? They’re going to find out! As soon as they find out, they’re gonna”—

Take it back?

Exactly! It’s gonna get taken back! And so I struggled with that a lot. But after acclimating to the actual functions of this job, and this role, I think one of the things that has been shocking to me is how normal it is.

Normal in what sense?

In how enormous decisions are made in ways that feel like a typical office.

For example?

So, there will be miscommunications, or there’ll be debates, or there’s that guy you don’t like on the second floor, or, you know, things like that. And they all have real dynamics, and real consequences in decision-making. For example, last week, with the border supplemental [bill], which was this big controversy, both within the Party but also nationally.

This is the conflict between the Senate Democrats and the House Democrats, as well as with the Republicans.

Right, right. And so the ways that this very flawed supplemental—which I’ve personally voted against, along with many other members—the way that it came to the floor was, like, What’s going on? Who’s saying what? And you’re hearing secondhand about what might be happening, and it kind of unfolds within thirty minutes, and then, before you know it, Congress has voted on $4.6 billion with no accountability to some agency.

So what you’re saying is governing is a mess, in a way?

Yeah, it’s a mess. [Laughs.] It’s a mess.

Well, when you came to Congress, did you have a plan? How you wanted to be? What you wanted to push forward? How you wanted to communicate?

I think in some parts—how I wanted to communicate, yes. And I think for me, over all, the plan was to try to expand our national debate and reframe our understanding of issues, because I felt as though that was something that wasn’t being done enough, especially on the Democratic side, for Democrats.

We don’t know how to talk about our own issues in ways that I think are convincing, so we fall into Republican frames all the time. And we’re too often on the defense, we’re too often afraid of our own values and sticking up for them. And I feel like we run away from our convictions too much. And so one of the things that I wanted to do was to hold a strong line, and redefine our values, and remind people that I think what we need to be doing right now is coming home as a party. I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of F.D.R. I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of working people. And it feels to me that at some point we did start becoming afraid of those things.

And became the party of what instead?

I think we became the party of hemming and hawing and trying to be all things to everybody. And it’s not to say that we need to exclude people, but it’s to say that we don’t have to be afraid of having a clear message. To say, we believe in the human dignity of all people. We believe that health care should be a right. We believe that all people should be paid a living wage. We believe that, as our economy evolves, it’s time to expand public education beyond K through twelve, to K through sixteen, K through college, or K through vocational. And what we call bold agendas, or Republicans call socialist, are things that they’ve always called socialist. And [we should] wear it, understand that that’s what they’re going to say, but don’t run away from the actual policies that can transform people’s lives.

Well, let’s talk about the socialist issue—I certainly was going to talk about it later, but let’s get right to it. You were endorsed by D.S.A., Democratic Socialists of America. You identify that way, as does Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech reaffirming this notion, and everything that he says sounds like, to me—and I know this is a constant debate—sounds to me like New Deal Democratic Party values. And F.D.R. always said, “I am a liberal. I am not a socialist.” So how do you—

Well, I think, to me, how you wrestle with that term is relatively inconsequential with respect to the policy, right. So if you want to support free college and you say “I’m not a socialist,” or if you say “I’m a democratic socialist” and you support free college, at the end of the day, we’re supporting free college. And that’s the thing that we should be focussing on. And I think, for me, particularly when it comes to democratic socialism, the key word is that small d-democratic, is democracy. And so it’s really about making sure that workers have democratic power in our economy.

And, for me, one of the reasons that I lean into it is because I think it helps people who understand those principles be able to understand our stances on issues across the spectrum, as opposed to saying, “What is your stance on health care? What’s your stance on education? What’s your stance on wages?” In having people understand my general paradigm, and how I think about them, that my priority is for workers to have power in our economy, you can almost predict where I’ll land on an issue. And when I come out in favor of a position, it is within the context of that.

So when you came to Congress, Nancy Pelosi, particularly on this subject, the notion of democratic socialism, was—I would say the best phrase for it was—pretty dismissive. Were you very annoyed by that?

I wasn’t annoyed. I think, with a lot of the dismissiveness that I’ve encountered across the board, I’m not annoyed. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it. Because I feel like I’m going in with my eyes pretty open, or as open as they can be, given the context with the system that we’re encountering, right. Most Americans disapprove of how Washington, D.C., works. And they’ve disapproved of how D.C. functions for years.

And now you’re in the middle of it. You’re in the thick of it, and you see it up close in a way that even the best reporters can’t, much less citizens who are not spending all their day thinking about this. What have you discovered about the way Washington works that you didn’t know before? Good, bad, or indifferent.

I’ve been pretty shocked with the concentration of power internally—not just the influence that lobbyists have, which I think a lot of people kind of understand and see—but how the actual rules within Congress have changed over the years to put, I think, an insane amount of power in a handful of people within even just the House of Representatives.

Are we talking about the House Speaker? The majority leadership in the Senate?

The Speaker, leadership, committee chairs . . . Congress used to function in a way where each member used to have much more power as an individual than they do now. And over the years the rules have changed to kind of consolidate power, to a very large degree, with the Speaker, with the Minority Leader, et cetera. In fact, Justin Amash, who just resigned from the Republican Party, congressman from Michigan, made this same exact point when he decided to leave the Republican Party—the Republican caucus, rather.

What’s your relationship like with Nancy Pelosi? Tell me how that works, what are the dynamics of it.

I think sometimes people think that we have this, like, we have a relationship.

Are you saying you don’t?

Not particularly, not one that’s, I think, distinguished from anyone else. Like, if there is a legislative need—you know, the last time I spoke to her one-on-one was when she asked me to join the select committee on climate change.

What did you say?

I said no. [Laughs.]


Because I had made very specific requests, which I thought were rather reasonable, for the select committee on climate change. I asked that it have a mission to try to draft legislation by 2020, so that we essentially have a two-year mission to put together, whether it’s a Green New Deal or whether it’s some sweeping climate-change legislation, that the select committee have a legislative mission. I asked for it to have subpoena power, which most committees do. The last select committee had subpoena power, but now this one doesn’t. And I asked for the members who sit on the select committee to not take any fossil-fuel money. And none of those requests were accommodated. And so I didn’t join the committee.

Are you better on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out?

I think I’m better on the outside looking in on this issue.

Why is that?

Because, given that none of those standards were met, sitting on that committee, I would have to own anything—I would take responsibility for anything that comes out of that committee. And when the actual, in my opinion, the structure of it is compromised in very deep ways—I don’t think it was, like, I’m going to take my ball and going and go home. It’s, we have a select committee whose mission I was uncertain on whose members take fossil-fuel money. You know, that is beyond just a mere disagreement. I think there’s a structural problem with it. And there are plenty of other caucuses, as well, that work on climate issues.

So I think that, ultimately, I’m fine with the decision, especially given the committee assignments that I was ultimately given, which were very intense and very rigorous. I was assigned to two of some of the busiest committees and four subcommittees. So my hands are full. And sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to keep me busy. [Laughs.]

Well, how did Pelosi react when you turned her down on being on that?

She was fine with it. She said, “O.K.”

Did she think you were being one way or another? Was she annoyed?

I don’t think so.

She doesn’t do annoyance.

Yeah, I mean, maybe she does do slight annoyance, but it’s not direct, or indirect, I don’t know. I think this is the thing, where it’s, like, first of all, I think leadership, their primary goal right now is making sure that everyone who won a swing seat comes back. So I think that that’s where a lot of their time—rightfully, I think, justifiably—is invested, in those relationships.

I think there’s one thing that everybody would agree on, including your most ardent opponents, is that in this year your voice has cut through. It’s cut through to supporters. It has certainly cut through to the Murdoch press. You are big business, for Fox News, and for the New York Post, and all the rest. How did it cut through, why did it cut through, and was that the plan?

It takes a lot to unseat an incumbent, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican. It takes a lot because, when someone is used to voting for the same person for twenty years, it just becomes a challenge of changing habit, as well, which is very difficult. And so in order to make that argument, over a year, while I had no money to amplify my message, when I had very little resources, very little outside attention, I needed to, over the course of a year, year and a half, really hone in a very strong voice that cut through to the needs of my constituents. And so I think that after the primary, when a lot of people started to say “What’s going on here?” I continued in that same voice that still cut through to my constituents and to my district.

It takes a lot to unseat an incumbent, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican. It takes a lot because, when someone is used to voting for the same person for twenty years, it just becomes a challenge of changing habit, as well, which is very difficult. And so in order to make that argument, over a year, while I had no money to amplify my message, when I had very little resources, very little outside attention, I needed to, over the course of a year, year and a half, really hone in a very strong voice that cut through to the needs of my constituents. And so I think that after the primary, when a lot of people started to say “What’s going on here?” I continued in that same voice that still cut through to my constituents and to my district.

I think there’s a couple of things. One is that there is kind of an apologetic nature, I think, to a lot of Democratic messaging. It’s, like, This is wrong! But not all people! Or, But not all this!

And particularly freshmen, and particularly women, even? Do you think that’s the case? Because it seems the strongest voices by leaps in this freshman class are women, and women of color.

Yeah, yeah. Well, I think, over all with the Party, that has been the norm. But when it comes to women of color in Congress, particularly the freshmen, it’s that we both have encountered and represent communities that have been auctioned off and negotiated off for the last twenty years, and we’re over it. You know, if we’re gonna have a change election, it needs to—

What do you mean by auctioned off?

Well, we see in these negotiations all the time, it’s, like, fighting for black communities, or policies that help women—they’re bargaining chips. And they’re the first chips that are reached for in any legislative negotiation.

Now, you have just come back from the border, and this was an experience that, I think, was disturbing on a number of levels. Talk me through that trip. What did you see? Just in human terms. What did you see?

I mean, it was horrible. We went in to this facility, and, first of all—

What town are you in?

We’re in El Paso. El Paso, Texas. And our first stop, we stopped and we met with A.C.L.U. representatives. The second stop, we went to an actual shelter for children. And then our third stop, which I think was the worst, which is where we saw some of the most inhumane behavior, was the El Paso Customs and Border Patrol detention facility.

What are you seeing there?

So we walk in, and that morning the ProPublica piece had been released.

This is about the Facebook group of people who were working there, and all kinds of abusive comments, directed at you and others.

Yeah. And there were ninety-five hundred current and former C.B.P. officers engaged in a secret, violently racist and sexist Facebook group, where they mocked migrant deaths, where they actually discussed launching a GoFundMe for any officer that harmed myself or Veronica Escobar. And so we get there, we sit down in this boardroom, and all these C.B.P. officers are standing up around us. And another member kind of confronted them and said, “Well, what about this group. Are any of you all in it?” You know, there’s twenty thousand members in C.B.P., and this Facebook group had ninety-five hundred people in it. And so it immediately did not start off well. And their excuses for the group were automatically very disturbing.

What were they?

They’re saying, “We had no idea about this. We just found out about this.” Ten thousand members in this group, and management and superiors are saying they had no idea about it.

“A few bad apples,” I think, was the phrase by the leadership.

Right. And, first of all, if you did not know that there are ten thousand members in a violent Facebook group, you’re either being dishonest or your management is terrible that you don’t know about this. So it’s one of the two things. And then we find out later that they did know about it, that they have known about it for years. So we find out in retrospect that they weren’t being forthright with us. Then we leave it, you know, it was this whole argument, and then another member said, “You know, they’re trying to filibuster us in this conference room so that we don’t see what’s going on.”

So we go out, we step out, and we get into this main control room, and it’s basically, it’s kind of a circular room. And the center of the room was this little perch with screens and with surveillance feeds. And then the perch had a little wider sub-perch on the outside, and it was surrounded by glass, and that’s where—

This is where detainees are living?

This is where detainees are being kept. I wouldn’t even call it living. Because it was that inhumane. And then there were these cells all around.

Inhumane because it resembled a prison? Inhumane because of the crowding? What were the conditions that you saw?

It’s not even living. So, we walked in and in one of the cells, the cell is just all concrete. There were just women on a concrete floor, and then there were two concrete slabs where they could sit, and then in the back there was a toilet, and a concrete slab in front of the toilet, but no door. And these women were just in these sleeping bags on the floor over each other. There’s no way that they could all sleep at once. Almost no way. And . . . I mean . . . they were being—it was, it was the physical manifestation of Trump’s rhetoric in calling migrants animals. Because that’s how these women were being treated. Their hair was falling out, they had sores in their mouth due to the lack of nutrition in the food that they were being given.

What were they being fed?

They would wake up in the morning, and C.B.P. would wake them up between 5 and 7 a.m., they said, pretty much for no reason. They’re being woken up very early in the morning, but they wouldn’t take them anywhere, they weren’t allowed to go outside. They were just being woken up. In the morning they’d be given, like, this one woman took out a Nature Valley oat-and-honey bar. For breakfast. And then I saw two oranges on the floor. And they said that they would be given sometimes a sandwich, or a burrito, but no greens, no fresh food. And the lack of those nutrients develops canker sores. If you’re just eating bread for days and days—

How long have they been there?

One woman had been there for sixty days.

And these are people who had come from where?

The women in the first cell were from Cuba. They were all from Cuba. And so they’re being detained there, and they separated these women.

From their children?

Yes. Yes.

Where are the kids?

I mean, this is when all the women started sobbing and breaking down. You know, I went in there, I just started asking questions, and when I was asking basic—we went in, in this cell was myself, Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, Joaquín Castro, Joe Kennedy came in.

So you and Castro are the Spanish speakers here, and communicate directly. And you’re asking them what?

So first I start asking them, “How long have you been here?” And I start asking these questions, and at first they didn’t know what was going on. And so then I was, like, “Hold up, rewind. This is who we are. We’re members of Congress. We know that there are issues in this facility and we need to find out what’s going on.” And that’s when they just started bursting. They were almost falling over each other trying to tell me everything. You know, “They took my kids over here,” “I have two children here,” “I’m trying to find out where they were,” “They took me here,” “They moved us there,” and so on. So first I started asking them what their day was like, to understand their conditions from their perspective. I asked them who had been separated from their children in that room. Two of the women had their children taken away.

But, meanwhile, it’s important to contextualize this, that family separation is more than just taking parents away from their children. What people are saying and what the Administration is saying and qualifies as an unaccompanied child, and quote-unquote fake families, or human trafficking—what they are talking about with respect to that are also children that come with their brothers and sisters, and children that come with their grandparents, children that come with their aunts and uncles. And in Latino culture, Latino culture is extremely familial. You know, I was raised with my cousins as my siblings. I was raised with my aunts and uncles as secondary parents. And it was not unusual at all for me to spend days with my aunt or uncle. And that’s pretty much like a parent. And so when the Administration comes and says that a child with their cousin or a child with their aunt or uncle is unaccompanied, it’s a violation of the actual spirit of what is happening.

And so, anyways, there were two women that were separated from their direct children nonetheless. And so I asked them where they went. And I also asked what some of the other facilities were. Because we saw all these empty tents. We went in, here and in Clint, there were all of these tents that almost look like dog kennels, and they were just empty. And I asked these women, “How many people are here?” And they’re, like, “There’s no one else here, there’s no one else here.” And I said, “Well, why is there no one else here? We’ve been hearing that there are hundreds of people in these facilities.” And they said, “They took them all away.” And I said, “When?” They said, “The day before yesterday.”

To where?

And I asked them where, and they said two places. They dumped a lot of them in Juárez. So they took hundreds of people and just dumped them in the streets in Juárez, Mexico. And then they also took them, some of them, to Arizona. To certain C.B.P. facilities in Arizona which also have been notorious for poor conditions.

Now, is that legal?

For C.B.P. to do that, it is.

You know, there’ve been a couple of articles lately saying, basically, that the cruelty of all this is the point of the policy. What does that mean?

It is, the cruelty is the point. And, you know, a lot of folks on the right tried to bring up Obama and say, “Obama did this, Obama did this, Obama did this.”

Do they have any point?

They have some points, but they don’t have others. Obama never separated children from their parents. That’s a violation of international human rights. Obama never took this into overdrive the same way that the Trump Administration has. But Obama did pursue policies, and he laid the groundwork on this whole idea of quote-unquote deterrence. And deterrence is what has evolved into where the cruelty is the point, because it’s this idea that you can get people who are seeking asylum in the United States to think twice, to prevent them, if you inflict a little pain on them when they come. So the idea is, if a family knows that they’re going to be detained when they get to the United States, maybe they won’t come to the United States. Maybe they won’t seek asylum here. Maybe they’ll seek asylum elsewhere. And this policy of deterrence started under Obama.

To stick with the border here, Vice-President Pence and Nancy Pelosi reportedly have some kind of handshake agreement about conditions within the detention facilities that you visited—the amount of time children could be held there, and that Congress will be notified within twenty-four hours if a child in detention dies. Do you trust the Administration to honor that agreement?

Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I don’t trust them at all.

Source: thenewyorker.com

Date Posted: Saturday, July 13th, 2019 , Total Page Views: 1334

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