This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the Friday after the turmoil spurred by white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia, Sarah Jaffe spoke with Nina Turner about the state of race relations in the United States — and much more. Turner is a former state senator from Ohio and is currently president of Our Revolution, the next step of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Sarah Jaffe: It is obviously more important than ever, when the president can’t bring himself to denounce neo-Nazis, to build a really strong anti-racist left movement. What are Our Revolution and other groups doing to actually build an anti-racist left?
Nina Turner: Lots of people are still very raw, and rightfully so. We saw white supremacist neo-Nazis descend on Charlottesville, Virginia; at night was the first display, Friday night with the tiki torches. It just brought back all the ugliness in terms of the history of this country of what the KKK-inspired-type groups did in the late 1800s. So, to come face-to-face with that kind of legacy in the 21st century is haunting, disturbing…. This is a heavy time for our country.
— Nina Turner
In all of the work that we do, we are looking towards forming that more perfect union, but it is even more necessary now in the face of such overt racism. There are so many formal groups out there doing this work: Black Lives Matter, The Brennan Center, Democracy for America, Democratic Socialists of America, National Nurses United. But there are everyday people out there, too, who are dismayed, disappointed and just as horrified that we would come face-to-face with this.
We are also going to have a deeper conversation about institutional racism in this country, probably in ways that we might not have touched upon so deeply. We have to talk about that, because as much as seeing neo-Nazis marching and KKK-inspired white supremacist groups marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, is disturbing — we still have systemic racism in this country. It is very much a part of Our Revolution’s work — to work on changing systems that promote discrimination and bigotry in ways that hurt communities of color, particularly African-American communities.
It is bringing people together, too. We need some healing, too, because as bad as this is, we have always been a nation of progress. We have got to take the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our history. We are not going to let a neo-Nazi-KKK remix of the worst kind stop us from knowing and doing what we know it is we can do when we come together. We can’t allow ourselves to go backwards.
When you look at wages, for example, people might not see the $15 minimum wage as a racial justice issue. But when you face the fact that African-American women make about 67 cents on every dollar that a white man makes, it becomes one. When you look at the fact that most African-American households are led by women, then there is an economic and racial and social justice component to wanting to raise the wage. Now, as we talk about those issues, we are going to talk about those through that lens.
SJ: That brings us to the People’s Platform. I wanted to talk a little bit about the idea of putting together a platform, a list of policies to push for.
NT: It is important because people need to see it. They need to be able to hold it in their hands if they want to, whether it is on a tablet or a piece of paper. It is the affirmation that we stand for this, that our value propositions will be expressed through public policy and that is really what the People’s Platform is.
The reason why we decided to take [on] legislation is because we did want it to be tangible. Sometimes we talk about these issues in ways where people can’t see that they can be realized, and the beautiful thing about the People’s Platform and the coalition that we have of supporting organizations is that it is tangible, it is real. It is important to have all of these options, because for some people the environment might be the most important thing, to other people economic justice might be the thing, for other people racial justice. So we have something in the People’s Platform for everybody.
The College for All bill has been introduced that will require the federal government to pay two-thirds of college. We know how important that is to make sure that we have a workforce that is highly educated and highly skilled. It is about making that kind of investment.
Medicare for All, which is the signature of Senator Sanders’ campaign, is the foundation of what we do. It is affirming that we as a country can create an environment that doesn’t leave anybody behind, that is not attached to a job. To me, that kind of thing can spark an entrepreneurial spirit if somebody knows that their health care is not tied to a job and they can dream bigger and they can do things that probably ordinarily they would not do.
And what we are saying to the Congress, but particularly to the Democratic Party, is, “Here it is. Your members introduced these pieces of legislation. Sign on to them and let us show the people of this country, the folks of this country that this is what we stand for, this is what we are fighting for.”
SJ: Let’s talk about a couple of the other things on this platform, like the EACH Woman Act, because this has been an issue of tension — that Democrats are saying that abortion is not a litmus test for the party. I would love for you to talk about the importance of saying, this is in fact a foundational issue.
NT: It is important. People want to call it a litmus test. It is really just a value proposition that women in this country should have equal access to abortion coverage within their health insurance. To me, this goes within Medicare for All, but we have a separate bill. It is a medical procedure. It is something that we settled in this country and this should not be up for debate. We want people to see it through that lens, that women should have the right to have an abortion and it should be safe, it should be legal, they should be rare. I don’t know many people jumping up and down saying, “Abortions for all!”
Somehow we have lost ground on this debate because I think we talk about it in ways that don’t allow people on the other side who might bend a little to fully understand this. Now, in terms of litmus tests, there are some Democrats that are pro-life. I get it. But they shouldn’t legislate that. My mother was an evangelist. I was taught from a very young girl that abortion is murder. Some people have been socialized that way through their religion. I get it. I respect their view.
Women have this right and it cannot be taken away. We have to affirm it. It doesn’t mean that a pro-lifer can’t run, but what it does mean is that I would want to see them commit to not legislating that way. It should be up to the women. Yes, that is firmly in the People’s Platform.
SJ: Let’s talk about voting rights and the decimation of the Voting Rights Act, the attacks on the right to vote on all sorts of levels over the last several years.
NT: Oh my God, if people only knew. We should really use this moment as a teachable moment to go back through history and not revisionist history. Let’s tell the truth that African-Americans were terrorized just because they wanted to vote, just because they were fighting for liberation and equal rights in this country. It is just as simple as that. That is the stain on America. It is not the “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” The founders were brilliant, but they didn’t mean “all” when they wrote those words. But the fact that they wrote those words gives us leverage and gives us the opportunity in the 21st century and every generation thereafter to leverage those words. That is what we do.
Voting is the greatest equalizer. It is one of the greatest equalizers that we have, because it is really, truly the only space in this country where you can walk in, it doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, where you live, you are equal. You are on an equal platform.
You have elected officials who are systematically, since President Obama was elected, chipping this away. As a state senator, I served in the legislature in Ohio where my Republican colleagues introduced this piece of legislation, that piece of legislation, not to expand the franchise, but just chip-chipping away, and “by coincidence” these bills had a voter suppression impact on guess who? People of color, poor people, students, even people who have disabilities. Imagine that. It just happened to be the people who tend to lean — you never know if somebody is going to decide if they get the chance to get there — but they happen to lean Democrat.
— Nina Turner
It is a travesty for anyone who is elected to office, who serves in an elective office, to engage in voter suppression. We need to expand the franchise. That is what the Automatic Voter Registration Act is, just a simple, eloquent piece of legislation that just requires every state to enroll every voter when they go get their driver’s license. However, I would like to take that further — when people are born, let’s go and register them! Let’s get them registered there and then. How beautiful could that be?
The work that we do in the political class, those of us I call the elected ministry, is to motivate people, to not just mobilize them. It is to motivate them and to remind them that this power is their power and that their voice does matter. I get why people are frustrated on all sides. There is a power class here within the Democratic Party and also the Republican Party that says, “We know better than you, Mrs. Jones, and you, Mr. Gonzalez. We know better. We are going to tell you what to do and what to think. We are going to lock out black, working-class men and women across the spectrum,” and people are tired of it. So they opted out during the presidential election year.
If that doesn’t cause shockwaves for anybody that truly cares about this democracy, that people are just saying, “I am over it and I don’t believe anymore” — that is when we are really in trouble. Saying to folks that their vote does matter, that their voice matters, and making it easier for them to access that ballot box, that is the way we should be going in the 21st century, not backward.
SJ: The one piece of the platform that is not actually an existing bill that has been introduced in Congress is the climate change bill. What are some of the things you would like to see in such a bill?
NT: My climate experts have said environmental justice is a bigger umbrella, but I know that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is working on introducing that bill. Within that bill we will address the issues of reducing emissions and making sure that we have renewable energy. That is just one start to that bill, but overall, I want to see Our Revolution continue to push for the reduction of global warming, and that we should get there by 2034.
When the president pulled out of the Paris accord, what does that say to the world? Many of our Republican colleagues are just flat-out ignoring the science. When the scientists get together and tell you that this is real, we ought to believe them. Just to flat-out ignore that science puts us all in danger.
Hello, Flint, Michigan, which has been the canary in the coal mine for us in terms of us not having the types of infrastructure in this country that ensure that everywhere in this country folks have access to clean water. We are going to keep pushing — environmental justice is vitally important to the mission of Our Revolution.
SJ: You famously took this platform to the Democratic Party and they didn’t treat you very well. I want to ask you about that.
NT: No, they didn’t. I don’t know why. We had communicated with them three weeks earlier that we were coming. We let them know, “We are going to deliver the platform.” We had a press conference earlier that day near the Senate. We had Rep. Ellison speak, Rep. Jayapal spoke, Rep. Grijalva spoke, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard spoke. It was a beautiful thing, and we just kind of went on a progressive stroll, so to speak. It was very calm, just kind of walk over to the DNC and to be greeted with barricades, to have security guards out there…. It was just stunning. It didn’t have to go that way. The People’s Platform is really about the people and many of those bills were talked about in the progressive [DNC] platform that was passed last summer.
SJ: I hate to say it, but it seems sometimes like the resistance to signing on to this stuff is not because people are opposed to the policies, but that they don’t like being pushed.
NT: Well, my God. How do we get change if not by pushing? Women would have never gotten the right to vote without a fight, a push. My ancestors would not have been freed without a push. Let’s just think about what status quo has meant generation to generation to generation. All the great changes that we have ever had in this nation, for the most part, 99.9 percent of them came because people were pushed. People with the power were pushed. The status quo was pushed to change the environment by which people have to navigate. So, they might not like the push, but that is what they signed up for.
They also signed up to listen to the voices of the people and hear what the people have to say. That power is temporary. It belongs to the folks in Ohio, it belongs to the folks in California or Michigan or Mississippi. The power does not belong to the person that holds the seat, whether it is local or federal. It belongs to the people.
SJ: What are the plans going forward to organize people around this?
NT: We are preparing for when the members are back. We have our membership all over the country making calls, visiting the local offices. If their members are having any type of town halls, expressing why the People’s Platform is important to pushing our nation forward in a very progressive way. This platform is not just for Democrats. It is for everybody. The overwhelming majority of Americans, if you take the label off and you just talk about the issue, they agree with these things, they want to see these things.
— Nina Turner
That is what Our Revolution is about. We are about pushing issues, pushing progressive candidates, and transforming the Democratic Party, holding the Democratic Party accountable to the value proposition. Progress is not always pretty. Sometimes it is a little messy, but at the end of the day, if life is made better, if we can lift anybody a little higher, it is well worth the fight.
One of the things that really motivates us with Our Revolution is we’re just really happy that Senator Sanders had the vision to call upon Americans in this country to stand up and create a revolution across this country to take back their voice. Campaigns end, but revolutions endure. This is a generational proposition: that that next generation has a moral obligation to push and make this country and this world better for the next and should be continued and continued and never end.
SJ: How can people find the People’s Platform and get involved with this?
NT: They can go to www.ourrevolution.com. When they go there, the People’s Platform landing page pops right up. There is also summerforprogress.com. They can find it there, as well. Take whatever part of the People’s Platform that matters most to them and push for that. Collectively, if we are working towards this end, we are going to see things change in this country.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.