An Ecstatic Homecoming for AOC

At a recent town hall in Queens, AOC received a rapturous reception from constituents, many of them activists who spoke out about their local organizing work. The lesson was clear: to keep up the fight, she and her Congressional colleagues will need more than applause — they’ll need a movement behind them.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds an immigration town hall In Queens on July 20, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

If you needed relief last Saturday from the hot stink of New York City on a 100 degree day — and from the lingering stench of Donald Trump’s “Send her back!” hate rally in North Carolina — you should have been in the modest auditorium of P.S. 16 in the Corona neighborhood of Queens.

That’s where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hosted an immigration town hall translated into seven different languages for attendees who hailed from across the globe and now live in the Congresswoman’s New York 14 district.

Some in the audience held signs with messages like “Queens has your back” and “This is our country” — eager to show AOC some love after weeks of seeing her attacked: first put down by the leader of her own party as not having “any following,” then targeted by the President’s racial taunt to “go back” to whatever nonwhite country he thinks she’s from.

Ocastio-Cortez kicked off the forum by grinning and saying, “They ‘sent me back’ to Queens and I’m happy to be here!” The room exploded, obviously.

The love flowed both ways. AOC praised the immigrant-heavy Queens and Bronx neighborhoods of New York 14, and state assembly member Catalina Cruz — another young Latina who ousted an old guard Democrat last year — said she was honored to serve a district where the majority of people aren’t citizens.

Those demographics were well represented in the room. When Ocasio-Cortez said that the White House is trying to end all forms of immigration — including legal migration channels such as asylum and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — many of the audience nodded knowingly because they were TPS holders who had come with local organizations like African Communities Together (ACT) and the Nepali group Adhikaar.

Others in the auditorium, like Victor Rodriguez, were born and raised in the district. “I finally feel represented,” Rodriguez told me. ““We liked Joe [Crowley, who was upset by AOC in last year’s primary], but he never put on a campaign. This girl came in, put on a campaign, spoke the truth, and won.”

“Here’s the thing,” he continued. “She runs around and she speaks the truth and then Fox News won’t stop. The first thing they find is some shit from Boston University of her dancing. They’re running around thinking that people in Corona, Queens are gonna fucking listen to them saying all of this crap that’s untrue.”

At the town hall, which was open to all, Ocasio-Cortez had seemingly unanimous approval. It was a satisfying retort not only to Trump’s blood-and-soil bread and circus, but also to the steady drip of anonymous Democrats complaining that AOC is politically toxic with “mainstream” (read “white”) voters, and unqualified for the spotlight that rightfully belongs to those oh-so-compelling party chiefs Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

“[People] talk about her chasing fame,” Rodriguez tells me, “because she’s putting in a Green New Deal, trying to impeach the president, trying to do things we actually want.”

“Organize, Organize, Organize”

Perhaps the most notable way the event differed from a Trump rally was not its content but it’s form. The main event was not a ninety-minute egomaniacal speech but a forum of immigrant activists and community organizers talking about their lives and work.

Bishnu H — a food-delivery worker, TPS holder, and Adhikaar member — spoke about his gratitude for being able to earn a living to send back to his family in Nepal, but also asserted that he deserved more. “I’m not just someone who came here to work,” he told the audience. “I came here to build a life …. It’s my dream to build it here with my wife, my son, and my daughter I’ve never met.”

Lupita Romero, an activist and DACA recipient, talked about migrating from Mexico as an unaccompanied minor in 2001 — noting that If they had come ten years later, “that could have been me and my brother in one of those cages” — and made a powerful case for the call recently taken up by AOC to abolish not only ICE but the larger Department of Homeland Security.

Organizers from ACT, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Make the Road New York (MRNY), and Asian Americans for Equality then discussed their organizing strategies to defend their communities from Trump’s raids.

DRUM’s Roksana Mun explained how her group expanded “know your rights” trainings beyond the usual movement spaces — where the most vulnerable people are often unwilling or able to go — and brought them into living rooms, subway stations, and local businesses.

“Our community is strong,” said Yatziri Tovar of MRNY, noting that in the past week’s much hyped immigration raids, not a single arrest had been made in New York City. “Why is that? Because our people know their rights and are asserting their rights.”

“Organize, organize, organize” — as Mun later put it — was the town hall’s main message. AOC closed the event by urging attendees to join the organizations on stage with her or find ways to become active else where in their neighborhoods.

It’s a far cry from the lazy media narrative that casts Ocasio-Cortez as Trump’s demagogic doppelganger on the Left. If you’re looking for a mirror image of “Send her back!” it’s certainly not “organize, organize, organize” — you’d do better with “Orange Cheeto” one-liners and Russian-agent conspiracies on liberal Twitter and MSNBC.

How We Win

Yet for all the legitimately inspiring aspects of the day, also notable were some features that arguably should have been there but weren’t: there were no plans for backing up AOC’s denunciations of migration concentration camps with protests at local detention centers; no socialist groups looking to bring more immigrants into their movement.

These absences are understandable: immigrant organizers are beyond busy trying to defend their communities against ICE raids, and DSA members in Queens have been focused on monitoring the recount in Tiffany Caban’s district attorney race. But they also seem like signs that a Left that isn’t used to having one of its own in Congress is understandably just learning how to take best advantage of this new phenomenon.

When Ocasio-Cortez spoke at the town hall about the vote that she, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley took against emergency funding at the border, the truth-telling that Rodriguez admires was on full display:

If we wanted a humanitarian-only bill we should have drafted a humanitarian bill. I don’t think a humanitarian bill includes ICE and I don’t think it includes CBP. And I’ll be very honest. I got heat from my own party for making that point … But don’t call it a humanitarian bill. It’s a border-militarization bill.

But it wasn’t clear how we in the audience could help amplify her voice in the fight, how to raise our collective strength in defiance not only of Trump’s threats but also the absurdity of Pelosi’s claim that AOC and the squad represent a mere fringe element.

Trump’s rallies are organizing spaces for the Right, both literally as far-right recruitment grounds and more broadly as places where large numbers of people can actively shape (and degrade) politics with envelope-pushing chants and sometimes acts of violence. It’s not clear what a left-wing version of that type of mass participation looks like — other than that it would look nothing like that.

Today’s socialist officeholders are supporting strikes and social movements in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, but left movements are just starting to learn how we can participate in these debates beyond via Twitter likes. This isn’t just about having AOC’s back, although that’s part of it. It’s also about not relying on her to always be in front.

Ocasio-Cortez has shown integrity this year in planting a flag in Congress for defunding the immigrant-terror apparatus. But it’s worth noting the helpful push in that direction she received from the Left after she had earlier joined Democrats in voting for a bill that included ICE funding on her very first day in office.

Neighborhood activists, some of whom participated in Saturday’s town hall, organized to get their new representative to reverse course. Three weeks later she did just that, and explained to reporters that her vote change happened because “We’re hearing back a lot from our local community, and they’re uncomfortable with any vote on funding for ICE.”

It’s a modest organizing story, but one that should be built on in the coming months. Because each month closer to the presidential election, the mantra will only grow louder that AOC’s radicalism is jeopardizing Democrats’ chance to end the Trump nightmare.

It’s to the credit of AOC and the rest of the squad that they’ve shown no signs of caving to this stale centrist conventional wisdom. But as she stressed in the auditorium of P.S. 16, it’s up to us to organize to make sure that they don’t have to.