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Ilhan Omar, the left-leaning freshman congresswoman from Minnesota, represents Minneapolis and its suburbs, where the wave of protest against police violence and brutality — the systemic killing of African-Americans by American police — first bloomed in the wake of the hideous murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. New York spoke to Omar, who came to the United States from Somalia as a young teen in 1995, about her city’s history of inequality and of civil unrest, and about the direction she and her colleagues want to lead the Democratic Party in the fight against structural racism and injustice.
Rebecca Traister: I want to start by asking you about your district in Minneapolis. Does it surprise you that this wave of protest begins there, both from a police violence perspective and a protest perspective? What is the culture and history of protest and fury there?
Ilhan Omar: We all watched the horrifying death of George Floyd in the hands of the police officer, and police officers who failed their oath by not interfering and preserving that life. The outrage and frustration that we see now is truly warranted; the sadness and the heartbreak that many in our community feel is completely justified. What we’re also seeing is people exploiting that pain for their own destructive gain. So we’ve seen our city set ablaze: minority businesses destroyed that we’ve spent many years creating investment opportunities for; it’s been really sad, and outrageous in itself to watch that.
Minnesota and specifically Minneapolis — we’ve had a history of police brutality. The feeling that justice will not only be delayed by denied is one that is justified because we’ve found ourselves in that position time and time again. In many of those [previous] cases organizers have mobilized themselves and taken to the street to ask for justice to hold these police officers accountable, to push for reforms and demand change. And what we are now seeing is people feeling like enough is enough. The fact that our outcry has now reached 50 states across this country is one that for many of us makes us feel like this might be setting us in a trajectory to that change and to that justice. A few years back when police officers took the lives of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile we had an encampment set up that lasted for a really long time, in the dead of winter, and to no end, without actual results. The kind of distrust that exists within the system, with the inability for leaders to actually create change, with the economic and social neglect and disinvestment, with the history of being really brutalized by the police in what many see as state-sanctioned violence — it’s really all coming to a head.
A few months ago when the city of Minneapolis was deliberating its budget many in our community gathered together to try to stop the mayor’s proposal in increasing the police budget; [the proposal] went through and the calls against it fell on deaf ears. So there is a renewed call to defund the police, a renewed call to strengthen the civilian-policy oversight review board; there’s a renewed call to get rid of laws that are prohibiting cities from requiring police officers to live within the boundaries that they police and there’s a renewed call for us to fully dismantle the system and reimagine something new. People don’t even think reform is possible and for the first time we are seeing municipal leaders — almost all city council members in Minneapolis — on the record saying this department is beyond reform and we have to dismantle it.
RT: This week Minneapolis became the first school district to vote to terminate the police department’s contract with its public schools, something you’ve been pushing for and applauded. Are you feeling hopeful that other of these concrete reforms, including some that you just mentioned, are now more within grasp than they have been before this wave of protest?
IO: Yes, I pushed for a bill that would prohibit municipalities from using their resources, and school boards from using their resources, from getting into a contract with the police department. My daughter, Isra, and many of the students in the Minneapolis school district have, for about two or three years, been pushing for these contracts to be nullified and for them not to walk into school and see police officers be present in the institution that is supposed to nourish and protect them. So yesterday, to be part of the rally that preceded that vote and to see it unanimously voted on — to get rid of police presence in our schools — I think is giving people a renewed hope in what’s possible when we mobilize, when we are strategic and clear in our calls for systematic change. The people who have formulated the policies that lead to police brutality, to disinvestment, to the brutalization of black lives in our communities have been strategic, have been meticulous, have been intentional. So now it’s really up to all of us to be intentional, to be strategic and to have clarity in the things that we are asking for so that we can have a better community, a better city, a better state and a better future for all of us.
RT: Wednesday felt like a slightly calmer night across the country. I woke up on Thursday wondering whether that means that the wave of protest is fading or whether it means that the forces of good are prevailing. Do you have a sense of optimism?
IO: I do. I actually think our calls to ask the state to step down and to respect people’s First Amendment right to protest and utilize their voice have been heard. I joined my constituents in asking for the excessive force and its presence to be diminished because I believe aggression begets aggression. And what we have seen, last night and yesterday, is the amount of people who are coming out to protest multiply, and people holding their ground and saying “I have a right to be here and to ask of my state to do better and your brutality and your willingness to dominate our voices is not going to win.” In Minneapolis, in Washington, D.C., and across the nation we still saw people in massive numbers pour out into the streets.
And it’s interesting, right? Because there was a stay-at-home order that many states put in place [in response to COVID-19] and there were people who came out to protest against that, and there were protections put in place for them to be able to do that. There was also no curfew put in place [for COVID]; there were people even asking if states had the authority to ask for people to stay at home. And I am baffled by the fact that no one is even asking if states have the authority to ask for and implement curfews. If states have the authority to have the kind of aggressive force presence in our streets. What happens when in the interest of safety you engage in a process not only to endanger people but also to curtail their rights to be able to have movement. It’s fascinating for the people who have for many a year said “live free or die” who now think it is justified for people to not ask for their liberty, for people to not ask to live in a dignified state, for people to not ask for all of their constitutional rights to be protected. So we’re seeing double standards be deployed and again it’s just a reminder of whose life is valued, whose isn’t; whose voice is valued and whose isn’t; whose rights are valued and protected and whose isn’t, and what people consider to be a legitimate voice to hear and not hear. A few years back when I was in the state house there were proposals to criminalize protest. And I spoke on the House floor that the reason that many of these proposals were happening were because people were not interested in seeing us and hearing from us. And that’s what we’re seeing when the president says he wants dominance over protesters, in contrast to him saying “liberate” your cities and states. That again is a reminder of who deserves liberty and who needs to be dominated.
RT: I saw your tweet, in reference to low-flying helicopters, Trump’s invocation of martial law, that you’d “seen this movie before” and didn’t think it would happen here. Were you making a comparison to your experiences in Somalia?
IO: I wasn’t drawing a parallel to what I’d seen in Somalia. That is a very different situation when you’re actually in a country that’s involved in a civil war. But the contrast is to [other] countries; we can go back to the Arab Spring. We can look at what’s happening right now in Hong Kong. I had the fortune of being in Honduras in November of 2017. And in many of those cases we’ve seen the United States and the international community speak about the impunity with which extreme violence is committed and how there is a violation of human rights when you see police and military engaging with protesters who are exercising not only in our country what we see to be our First Amendment right but internationally the rights which are universally understood that people have to speak up and to mobilize and assemble. The right to assemble is something that everyone across the country and the world understands and values. So in all of those cases, in every single country where there has been unrest and a public outpouring, we have always sided with the people. And we’ve condemned the nation and their leaders who have quote-unquote engaged in a process which we think is a domination over the people who are rightfully assembling. To now have a president who thinks that is a justified thing to do here in United States really is a shameful thing and again is something that goes against the values and the principles we hold so dearly in this country.
RT: What is it like to be in Congress at this moment, and what are Democrats doing? I’ve noted your support of one of the earliest bills to come out of this so far, enabling those abused by the police to seek recourse by ending qualified immunity, which was proposed by Justin Amash, until recently a Republican. What needs to happen within your party to turn Democrats into a real opposition party on the issue of structural racism and police violence?
IO: We have to be aggressive. We have to be united. We have to hear the calls of the people we represent who are desperately and urgently and righteously asking for us to reimagine many of the systematic injustices that they have endured for so long. My colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus and I are working on a package together that will really not only deal with police brutality in its acknowledgement but also having the actual policies that will deal with it but also thinking through the underlying cause of the brutality which is the social and economic neglect and the dehumanization of black communities in this country and the history in which we haven’t really reckoned with when it comes to black people being enslaved to lynching to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to police brutality. Now this is a wakeup call for all of us. And I trust that leaders [Nancy] Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are going to allow the Congressional Black Caucus to lead on this issue; they reference the Congressional Black Caucus as the conscience of Congress, and for them this is the opportunity to utilize the lived experiences that members of the Congressional Black Caucus have in this country as black people, to awaken the conscience of the nation to the reality of the kind of changes that we need.
RT: When will you introduce that package?
IO: My hope is that it will be in the next couple of days. Pieces of it have already been introduced. Ayanna and I introduced ours; Senator Harris and I are working on other reforms that are right now in the leg shop and will be out [soon]; we are also right now looking at an emergency economic package for many of our communities that are devastated and so all of those will be put together as a package, hopefully calling it The Black Lives Matter Act or something like that and have it move in the next couple of weeks. We have been very forthcoming with our leaders in asking to be brought back and to vote on this package. We’re already beginning the process of having hearings. We’re also doing public town halls and we’ll get feedback for some of the policies we have. I mean, we as Congress just unanimously the other day voted to ban the export of tear gas to Hong Kong police. In which we said that their use of crowd-control tactics, which falls short of international standards, is appalling. And to have that now happen in our own country and watch state-sanctioned violence take place, to look at the devastation economically and socially in our jurisdiction and to not act as urgently as we act when things are happening abroad, would be really shameful and many of us are calling our colleagues to task in being consistent on that and acting as quickly as possible.