“How in the world do you get past the pressure of all of the Democratic leadership saying: Nina, don’t do it?” Cenk Uygur, founder and host of TYT, asked Senator Nina Turner at TYT’s Economic Justice Town Hall how she will be able to stand up to establishment Democrats once elected to Congress to represent the 11th Ohio district.
Turner instantly replied: “I answer to the people who sent me there. [The Democratic leadership] are my colleagues, but I don’t answer to them.”
It’s the kind of response you expect from the bold, unapologetic, progressive Turner has proven herself to be. Even still, the town hall on June 26th, in Cleveland, Ohio, co-hosted by Uygur and Michael Render, pka Killer Mike (rapper, businessman, and activist), ended up being better than I expected.
The discussion instilled in me a kind of hope that I have been struggling with for some time now. And I was not alone. The auditorium was filled with people who came either as a supporter of TYT, Senator Turner, or Killer Mike. The diverse crowd cheered together as the three speakers spoke truth to power, dived into policy-first discussions, and expanded on how to accomplish our goals by working together instead of against one another.
“We’ve gotta lift up each other, and that doesn’t mean that we always have to agree but that doesn’t mean that we have to seek to destroy one another either,” Turner said.
The discussion took place at Beachland Ballroom and Tavern, a historic building in a historic town where owners Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy work with their general manager, Todd Gauman, and crew committed to supporting an “eclectic live music venue” that ultimately supports the community. From the venue to the audience to the production crew to the speakers, I gradually started to realize that we were standing in an important moment of history.
The 90-minute conversation about economic justice covered a variety of policies, including wages, education, community banking, racism, capitalism vs socialism, local businesses vs corporate giants. Turner kept reminding us that they’re all connected, that we can no longer allow ourselves to be so singularly-focused. We are capable of understanding how healthcare, living wages, taxes, war, and education affect one another. We are smart enough to handle these conversations, and we are powerful enough to fight for them at the same time. We are compassionate enough to find the areas where we can agree and work together.
I have to admit that, despite my optimistic disposition about life in general, I’ve been feeling rather frustrated with the increasing division amongst progressives, and even between the working class of the left and right. When Render started the town hall by recognizing this division, it set the tone for a conversation that filled me with gratitude to be part of that town hall.
“A lot of times when we talk about economic justice in particular for the African-American community, those who were brought here in bondage and used as capital for free for over 200 years, that feels like a very exclusive conversation and it tends to separate itself from worker-class white people.”
Turner then made it clear that the issues we face as a nation are about right and wrong, not left and right.
“This is about right and wrong. Is it right or wrong that somebody has a living wage? Is it right or wrong to have paid family medical leave? Is it right or wrong to cancel student debt? Is it right or wrong to make sure that no matter who you love, how you identify, that you get the opportunity to live a good life too? Is it right or wrong to have clean air, clean food, clean water? This boils down to right or wrong. It’s just that simple.”
Sometimes somebody says something so clear and simple that it seems like it’s something we’ve known forever. This is one of Turner’s gifts. She has a way with words that authentically expresses her commitment to fighting for the working class, regardless of background and even political party. She shows us how to talk about the issues and policies we care about in a way that unites rather than divides. This skill is far more important than progressives sometimes seem to realize.
In stark contrast, the way Trump spoke wasn’t just appalling - it was dangerous. His words didn’t just reflect his beliefs, which informed his decisions. His words inspired millions around the world to emulate him.
While words do matter, they can be cheap, no matter how impressive, if they aren’t accompanied by action. This is dangerous in its own way because it causes people to think everything is okay when it's not. We shouldn’t ignore the very real frustration that once progressives get in office, they seem to acquiesce to the establishment. I do believe that they go in with good intentions, but the system, as Turner explained, “is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
Render - as passionate, fierce, and bold as he is - acknowledged that every step forward must be seen as an investment, as progress. We will not get everything done overnight with one candidate, nor with one policy. He’s reminding us that the more of us we get into office, the easier it will be for progressive legislators to stand by their campaign promises. In the meantime, we must remain hopeful, united, and engaged.
The changes we’re fighting for are “not up to people who are currently prostitutes of the corporate class… It’s not up to them to give us the solution. It is up to us to show them the solution,” Render insisted.
The speakers discussed how we need to cross party lines because the issues affect all of us, albeit differently from one community to the next. They talked about the importance of also bridging cultural, ethnic, and economic divisions by acknowledging our differences while also seeing what connects us. They aren’t talking about lying in bed with corporate Republicans, nor corporate Democrats, as some are quick to assume. They’re talking about the working class, the voters. They’re talking about our very own friends, family, and neighbors.
It is, of course, possible for us to compromise so much that we don’t get any effective change. It is also possible for us to be so idealistic and unrealistic that the only thing we get done is to destroy any progress that we have made. There is a sweet spot somewhere within where we do not allow ourselves to compromise our values and the policies we’re fighting for, while being pragmatic about how we accomplish them. We won’t always get it right, but even in those moments there are lessons that I consider progress.
When Turner is elected into Congress, I’m confident that she will be the first to say - “Hold me accountable.” She has talked before about how we must show up to vote in primary elections, and hold elected officials accountable once in office. Gone are the days of voting in the presidential general election and then going to sleep. This is how we give progressive legislators the support they need to fight for us in the halls of Congress. This is how we show the corporate class what democracy looks like.
But how, as Uygur asked, do we help people to understand that we can in fact pay for policies like Medicare for All, College for All, and Green New Deal? Turner was adamant that we need to stop working within the framing of the corporate class. We’ll answer their questions when they answer ours.
“I didn’t hear anybody ask how we’re going to pay for the tax cuts that we give to the ultra ultra wealthy in this country… We pay for it because for every child that we lift, every family that we lift, that is a city lifted. That is a state lifted. That is a nation lifted. That is the world lifted. It is an investment. And that’s how we gotta see it. This ain’t about giving away anything.”
Those of us organizing on the ground and debating in online spaces have been saying these things for what feels like a very long time. Sometimes it feels like we’re in an echo-chamber where what we know to be true is not being heard where it matters. To have another candidate in the halls of Congress who gets it, who shares our truth with passion and compassion on a larger stage can in fact be a game-changer.
Turner, however, won’t be just another representative. She is a unique voice who has experience in elected office, who unapologetically represents the African-American community while uniting all of us to work together, and who has a very real chance of making it into Congress.
From the opening when Turner said that she will answer to the people who vote her into office, to the closing when she declared: “I don’t worship at the feet of any party, any man or any woman. Let’s get this clear - I worship God and I serve the people” - I gradually began to realize that I was standing in a historic room, in a historic moment.
It’s easy to get lost in the details and drown in the stress of organizing an event, but as I witnessed security guards go above and beyond by finding chairs for people who were too weak to stand, children sit in awe and engaged in this political discussion, volunteers arrive early to help as much as possible, TYT crew on the ground and in Los Angeles working patiently together through inevitable curveballs, the venue crew making sacrifices of their own to support their community - I reminded myself to stop, step back, look up, soak it all in, and really see what was happening - Democracy. Community. Compassion.
It is of course my optimistic disposition to believe that Senator Turner will deliver on her promises once in Congress, but I’m also cautiously optimistic. Can she single-handedly get progressive policies passed? Of course not. She needs us as much as we need her. It’s important that we remember this.
Understanding how all of this translates into getting policies passed may be part of the key to us actually getting things done.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. I love to hear from our community.