Linda Sarsour: An Accomplice by Any Means Necessary

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Linda Sarsour is dangerous.

Her praise of Black women leaders, dangerous. Her commitment to unraveling the knots of white supremacy, dangerous. Her growing thirst for knowledge beyond her success, dangerous.

Linda is completely immersed in complicated, life-threatening work. Funny thing is, she never set out to stand toe-to-toe with the system in the middle of the street. She never prepared herself to lead the spectacular women's march. She never dreamed that she would be in Kentucky fighting for justice for a slain Black woman she did not know.

Linda wasn’t supposed to be dangerous. Linda was supposed to be a high school teacher. That’s the life she planned for herself. The safest, most steady life was imaginable. And yet, she has become one of the most influential women on the front lines fighting racial injustice today.

As a Palestinian-American and as a mother the risks that Linda takes on behalf of Black women, and all marginalized people, proves that she is a pure reformer. She is not an activist with an agenda. She has no reason to pretend for politics. The personal sacrifices she has made to fight against racial injustice can not be faked. Her commitment to the social justice movement can not be tweeted, or re-posted, nor canceled. Linda will go down in history, not because of her social media following or the way she rocks sweatpants with a fabulous hijab, but because of the model she represents. She gives other non-Black folx who are called to fight side by side with us during times of injustice the best example of how to co-conspire.

She talks with a won’t-back-down confidence that only Brooklyn girls have. She organizes on behalf of humanity. She knows when to step up, and when to stand down. She’s more than an inspiration, she is a prototype for all co-conspirators in the fight for Black liberation.

I spoke with Linda about how she navigates the complex space of being a Palestinian woman on the battlefield of systemic racism, the connections between Palestinian people and Black Americans and the importance of our votes.

Branden Janese: I wanted to hear you talk a little more in-depth about one of your Instagram posts. You wrote about how you felt after learning of the grand jury verdict in the Breonna Taylor case. You are on the ground doing the work for a lot of Black people, a lot of Black women, while feeling all of the same pain. Can you talk about the idea of noticing that your grief somehow is different or unique?

Linda Sarsour: I appreciate that. As you said, I'm so close I have a front row seat. The day of the announcement, we were at Injustice Park, where there's a memorial for Breonna. And there were many, many, many Black women who came on that day. And we had an iPhone that was connected to a big speaker so that all of us can hear the actual grand jury decision. People were gathered around this little speaker that was on the table and got to hear how this cop was indicted on some minimal charges that had absolutely nothing to do with Breonna Taylor’s murder. And when that came down, some women were wailing. Other people were outraged and you just heard a lot of anger, a lot of rage, a lot of grief. And I had every single one of those feelings. I was outraged. Tears started flowing through my eyes. I felt so defeated in that moment.

And then I saw these Black women just really embracing one another, trying to console one another. And I took myself out of that situation because I saw the beauty of that relationship and that sisterhood that was happening right there. And it's not that I didn't feel sisterhood with the Black women that were there. They were my sisters and these are women I've been organizing with. But I realized that as a Palestinian woman, I'm never going to have to be in a similar situation. I don't have to sit with the idea that one day I can be shot in my home or I can be shot walking down the street or I can get into an argument with a cop and then that will be the end of my life or the end of my son's life. And so, my grief comes from a place of humanity, of place, of wanting to live in a country where everybody is treated with dignity and respect, where everybody feels safe walking and living and enjoying life and being in their communities. But my grief is not the same. The women in the park all could have been Breonna Taylor. Any one of those women could have been murdered in her home. Any one of those women could be one day a target of state violence in a way that I can't see because there is no precedent for women like me being victims of state violence in the same way that Black women and Black people are. So I felt at that moment that I wanted to give them space to share the same grief because they all have the same grief that was different from mine, and I wanted to give him the space to be together. Where I wasn't taking up their space.

BJ: I'm wondering if the sensitivities that you have to these situations have been prepared by some personal experience. Even though perhaps you don't really have the fears of being a victim of state-sanctioned violence, I'm wondering have you ever been in the position where you were a part of the larger group grieving and noticed a non-Palestinian woman in the mix, moving away or as to not take up space.

LS: I never realized that that was happening around me. I'm Palestinian, and I have a lot of immediate family that lived in Palestine, and there [have] been so many moments of war and murder, people living under occupation. Before my grandmother died, being able to call my grandmother, her not picking [up] the phone and [me] not understanding and being so scared about why my grandmother didn't pick up the phone, did something happen? I have a clear alignment with the struggle of Black people in America. And it's one of the reasons why I committed myself to Black liberation because I truly believe that when Black people are free in the United States of America, that people all over the world will be free, including Palestinian people. A lot of Black activists have taken on that position as well. There's been over the last 10 years really accelerated solidarity between Black people and Black activists in America and [Palestine] and the Palestinian struggle we have had, [including] the Dream Defenders in Florida, which is a Black-led organization. [They] have worked on delegations of Black activists to Palestine and to really show them the military occupation that's being funded by the U. S. Tax dollars and watching young children who are being stopped and frisked by Israeli security forces. The ways in which the crime of poverty, the crime of being a marginalized group in Palestine is very similar to the experiences of Black people in America. We know that different police departments in the United States of America have actually been sent to be trained by the Israeli security forces. There's a very thin line that you can spread between the experiences of Black people in America and the experiences of Palestinians.

Also, we think about the for-profit prison industrial complex. There's a company called G4S and they own a lot of the private prisons in the United States and all over the world, including in Palestine. So, the same prisons that make profits off of the incarceration of Black and Brown people in America are also making profits off the incarceration of Palestinians. So that for me has been what has connected me between Black liberation and Palestinian liberation and that there's an opportunity for me to show up wholly for Black people, not only because they deserve to live in a country that treats them with utmost dignity and respect and treats them as whole human beings, but that being on the beginning of the path of liberation for all people, including Palestinian. So I've done the studying and I've been able to be in spaces with Marc Lamont Hill, who, as you know, has spent significant time in Palestine and in fact, is working on a documentary right now about Black Palestinian. So there are actually Black [people] that live in Palestine.

BJ: When I hear you talk, it sounds like you're continuing to learn, right? It sounds like you're learning so much all the time. Even as successful as you have been, it seems like you're still learning. Not only in terms of foreign policy and civil rights, internationally and here in the states, it sounds like you're also learning in terms of womanhood and sisterhood. I'm wondering if you can talk about the importance of remaining receptive, remaining aware and curious, especially when you're dealing with work that is highly sensitive?

LS: My evolution over time has been to be the best accomplice to Black people that I can be, and that required me to learn sometimes the hard way. Being able to understand what my role is, to take leadership from Black women, to follow the leadership of Black women. And that doesn't mean I don't contribute to that leadership. It just means that there is a fight that's happening. Black women really do understand what is necessary for the site. They understand what needs to be done. And for us as allies, people who are not Black, [we need] to think about what we bring to the table, making sure that what we bring to the table is beneficial to all that are at the table. I'm from Brooklyn. Folks who are from Brooklyn, we take up a lot of space. We're loud, we are talkers, and it required me to be in spaces to listen and to be more open, to learning and understanding that I'm always going to be a student in this movement. And that I know a lot of things, but there's a lot of things I don't know. I really have gotten much deeper in my organizing, become a lot more humble because I've actually been humbled in the movement to know, to learn about things historically that have happened to Black people in America that I have no idea about. [I’m] learning about medical experiments and some of the experiences that have happened over time are watching you know documentaries that folks have recommended to me around the experiences of the inflation of Black people.

What I would want people to know is that there's never going to be a perfect ally, but we require allies to strive to be better than they were the day before. And that requires us to listen, to be open and also for us to be willing to sacrifice. What happens with allies in the movement is that they are only willing to do things based on their comfort and once things become uncomfortable, allies often back away. I want to be an accomplice. I want to be able to sacrifice everything that I have for the things that I believe in. I've given a lot to this movement. I believe in it that much.

And seeing those Black women so broken by [the Breonna Taylor] decision led me into a place of reflection that took me to stand by a tree to put my grief out. I had so many feelings that I wanted to put out there in a way that was personal to me. But at the same time...standing by the tree also required me to reflect on what more I can do. There's more work that needs to be done. What happens today? This afternoon? What happens tomorrow? What happens the week after that? And that's what I want allies to do. You gotta think about one of the things you're ready to give up. What are the things you already sacrificed? I moved to Kentucky from New York and I left my family. I have three kids that I left back home in New York. I come back every couple of weeks to make sure everything is alright and to make sure all the bills are paid, read the mail and things like that. I was willing to sacrifice that and I don't need people to praise me for. It's a decision that I made for myself because I am never I'm not going to be fully safe in a country where a Black woman can't even be safe in her own home. And that's the thing that made the Breonna Taylor case so personal for me.

There's no justification ever for the murder of anybody or any Black person in America by police. I haven't seen a case anywhere where there's true justification for it. We have seen white people who have assaulted police officers who have literally been taken away alive to see their date in court. Breonna Taylor was sleeping in her house. The idea that we believe that our homes are our sanctuary, being inside is the only safe place. Even Breonna wasn't safe in her home.

That quote [by] Malcolm X which says, “The most unprotected person in America is the Black women. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman. The most disrespected person in America is a Black woman.” I'm on a mission to prove Malcolm X wrong. That we got to a better place since he hasn't been here.

BJ: Can I ask you about [the language you use]? You use the word ally a lot and I'm wondering what you think about the term ally versus the term co-conspirator. Ally feels like something that is free, that you can pick up and put down when you feel like it. There's something about the term co-conspirator that puts you on trial, that puts you in the courtroom, in the mix.

LS: For me, ally doesn't require anything. It requires me to show up and I can leave at any moment. An accomplice is someone who is with you in the good times and with you in the hard times, it’s someone who's willing to sacrifice the things that they have and the things that they love for what they believe in. And that's the kind of people that I want to be around. I have made a decision in my life that I'm ready to die for the things that I believe in. And we have been in many situations where we've come face to face with threats, smear campaigns and attacks against our families and threats against our children. That's what an accomplice is. Someone that is willing to put themselves in a situation that may not be safe in order to make the majority of people safe. I'm willing to risk my individual life if that means that many people will benefit from my working sacrifice. An ally is the first step that you're willing to show up for someone who's marginalized, someone who has been a victim of injustice. An accomplice is someone who makes a very intentional decision to stay until that justice is won.

BJ: Considering the stress of the work that you do, especially in this political climate, in the climate of the pandemic, how do you maintain yourself emotionally?

LS: We actually broke quarantine back in the end of May around the case, and we traveled to Kentucky. I have made every precaution to keep myself safe from the pandemic. [I] make sure to follow every kind of guideline that has been given. I follow just because I want to keep my family safe. I have tested negative many times [for] COVID-19. But the general experience of sacrificing is what is required because that's what I learned through history. And if we're going to be students of the civil rights movement and students of different revolutions around the world, there has never been a time where people won justice without having to sacrifice, without having to come face to face with hate and violence and targeting. Because that's all the revolutionary went through. From Fred Hampton to Rosa Parks to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcolm X, revolutionaries around the world have always been met with fierce opposition. So I don't feel like I'm an anomaly. I don't feel like I've even sacrificed as much as those folks have sacrificed before us.

A pandemic can not stop people from fighting for justice, and even this pandemic has exposed the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people. When we look at cities like Wisconsin, we're only, you know, 24% of the population of what Milwaukee is Black. But then over 70% of the deaths are Black. When you look at states like Michigan, where Black people are only 14% of the Michigan population but then we're also close to 70% of the deaths in Michigan. This is the exact racial injustice that we fight against every day. The lack of healthcare and access to health care for people of color, particularly Black people and Black women. Black women have to show more symptoms and pain in order to get treated the same as a white woman who walks into an emergency room with even less symptoms and pain, this is what our country is about. It's racial injustice at every single level.

We've tried to put in all kinds of safeguards for our families to understand that we may be here today, but we may not be here tomorrow and our work will not go in vain. It's one of the reasons why I wrote “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders.” I started writing this book when I was like, 38 years old, people usually write autobiographies a lot later in life, when they've kind of been through more. And the reason why I wrote my book so early is because I didn't know how long I had and I wanted my community, Muslim Americans, Palestinian Americans, particularly to have a book that they can go back to read about the challenges and obstacles that women of color in leadership face and how they can navigate those. [I wanted to] talk about some of the campaigns and important moments in my career where we have won some semblance of justice and so that there's some sort of hope in that.

BJ: So this isn't an emotional journey for you. This is a necessary journey for you.

LS: It's a spiritual journey. Definitely a spiritual, personal and emotional journey for me to be who I am today. It requires you to have been impacted by some sort of traumas to come here. We didn't choose to be activists. I studied English literature and secondary education because I wanted to be a high school English teacher. That was my dream from when I was a very young person, in middle school I made the decision that I wanted to be a high school English teacher. Then 9/11 happened, which is how I got into this work. Being from a directly targeted and impacted community in post 9/11 America, and then venturing out into the larger world of police accountability and criminal justice reform based on the way the system was treating Muslim Americans, [I found] the intersections between Black communities and Muslim communities.

I didn't choose to be an activist. That wasn't my thing when I was a little girl. It's something that, because of the trials and tribulations that we've experienced being members of marginalized communities that brought us together. That's the kind of sisterhood that Tamika and I have. She has traveled to Palestine. She has learned my story. The story of my family has met my family and got to hear the first hand experiences of Palestinians living under occupation. And we've made a commitment to one another that I will fight for Black people and Black women, and Tamika is gonna fight for my people. And that kind of sisterhood in the movement that is way deeper than just allies. What you would do for your biological sister is what I would do for Tamika. That's the thing that has made us successful over time. [We are] two women of color, one being a Black woman and me being able to say I will follow this Black woman. Also being able to be confident for her, for us to consult one another. And often what comes out of that work that we do together is [a] success. We’ve made history over and over, over the years. We did the women’s march. Nobody expected the women's march to be what it was. We led the largest women-led civil disobedience around integration and family separation. We held the largest women's convention in 40 years. Now, we're doing this work [for] Breonna Taylor.

BJ: Brilliant. What's next for you?

LS: We're starting a tour in nine states for elections called the state of emergency, going to communities that no campaigns wanna go to because they don't believe in the power of voters who may not have been engaged in the past. We're going to be doing that in states like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, in Michigan, amongst others.

On October 17th, we're bringing Breonna Taylor's mother to New York to have a rally with Eleanor Bumpurs’ family. [Eleanor Bumpurs] was an older Black woman who was murdered back in the eighties in a similar way [to Breonna Taylor]. [We want to] remind people that Breonna Taylor’s story is not an anomaly, it didn't just come out of nowhere. This is part of a long, systemic policing issue that has happened across the country, including in New York. And so we've had multiple women murdered by NYPD and Eleanor Bumpurs was one of them.

We're doing a state of emergency rally here with Breonna’s mother and with Eleanor’s family and others who are going to basically call on people and say, ‘Listen, we know that this election is not exciting. We know that you're not mobilized. You don't feel motivated, But we want you to know that we're here to tell you to vote for our children.’ Vote for Breonna. Vote for Eleanor Bumpurs. Vote for George Floyd. Vote for Sandra Bland. Vote for Philando Castile. Vote for Atatiana Jefferson. [We want to] focus people on some local elections: district attorneys, prosecutors, attorney generals. Daniel Cameron is an Attorney General. He is not appointed, he is elected. So if you're mad at the miscarriages of justice that are happening to Black people across America, then understand that one of the tools that you have is elections and [the] Democratic process.

[The tour] is happening in New York because New York is the media capital of the world. We hope that it allows for a national broadcast so that people across the country can see and [think], “You know what? I may not like Biden. I may not align with his values. I may not align with his platform. But I will go to the polls and vote for Breonna Taylor because Breonna Taylor can’t vote for herself.”