- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
In 2018, Rashida Tlaib was elected to Congress. Her election was extraordinary in many ways: she ran as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America; she became the first Palestinian-American in Congress; and she was part of a crop of left-wing challengers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar whose victories shocked the Democratic establishment in Washington. And they’ve kept shocking them. Tlaib, along with Omar, has been the target of vicious attacks for her solidarity with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) and criticism of the state of Israel. House Democrats have not only opposed Tlaib on these counts; they’ve allowed Republicans’ bigoted attacks on Tlaib and Omar over these issues to go unchallenged.
Tlaib has also used her platform to not only support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, but to support the struggle for a Green New Deal specifically for Detroit. There, GM recently closed its Detroit-Poletown plant, part of a string of North American plant closures that will put fourteen-thousand people out of a job. In response, the Detroit Democratic Socialists of America has proposed “making Detroit the engine of a Green New Deal”: using the urgent need for ecological transition to create new jobs and support the victims of GM’s closures. Tlaib has vocally supported the proposal, leading rallies of hundreds of people in Detroit and tying it in to her other environmental proposals.
Here, The Dig’s Daniel Denvir talks to Tlaib on June 3 about how growing up in Detroit has informed her politics, what economic justice in Detroit — and cities across the United States — would really look like, her advocacy for justice in Israel and Palestine, and the urgency of addressing dirty energy’s impact on working-class people. You can subscribe to The Dig and all the Jacobin podcasts at Jacobin Radio. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I met you while visiting Detroit in 2012, you were the on the phone with ICE trying to stop the deportation of a local man, and I overheard you say, “I thought the Obama administration was not deporting people like him.” You were a Palestinian-American state representative representing the heart of a very diverse, heavily Latino neighborhood of southwest Detroit, Mexican Town, just next door to Dearborn, the capital of Arab and Muslim America. Tell me about coming up in this area, as an organizer and a politician, in a city that is an icon of deindustrialization and segregation but also a remarkably diverse patchwork that represents precisely the vision of America President Trump demonizes.
The neighborhood of Detroit I grew up in has twenty different ethnicities, making it a very diverse, strong community. It is home to one of the larger concentrations of Latinos, but also has a large number of African Americans. Older neighborhoods like Delray have strong roots in Hungarian and Polish immigrants that came to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s almost like going through a history book. I became strong in the issues I’m passionate about because my neighbors were experiencing them as much as I was, and it makes me a better advocate to be in such a diverse community.
I notice when I’m away from my neighborhood just how different those other communities look and feel. For me, diversity was the norm. Being exposed to people’s different faiths, backgrounds, and experiences made me a better advocate. Every corner in the city of Detroit is a reminder of the Civil Rights Movement, the labor rights movement. There are also now much stronger reminders of the struggle with the broken immigration system and how that has hurt many of our Detroit neighbors throughout Wayne County.
How did you first get involved in working-class struggles in southwest Detroit?
So my dad only went up to a fourth-grade education, my mom an eighth-grade education, and both were born in Palestine. My mom grew up in the West Bank in the occupied territories. When my dad was nine years old, he moved to Nicaragua and found more poverty and decay and a lot of other struggles, so when he came to the United States at the age of nineteen he really didn’t feel economic stability until he finally got a job at Ford Motor Company, and got health insurance for the first time and involved in the United Auto Workers. I remember he was so proud to always vote. It was the first time he ever voted in his life when he was in the United States after becoming a citizen. I don’t care if you’re an African American, Latino, or a white family in Detroit, that story resonates with you because so many families here have struggled with immigration, with being working class or living in poverty.
It seems like southwest Detroit is a place where, as an organizer, it becomes very hard to separate issues like racial justice, immigrant rights, and workers’ rights.
All those issues are tied to economic justice. The struggle now in Detroit is between those who are “for development” and then those who are “for the neighborhood.” In the 7.2 miles being developed in Detroit now, they’re calling it “the comeback,” but more of our neighborhoods are struggling. Poverty is actually increasing, not decreasing, with this kind of development because we are choosing winners and losers. But what I love about my city is, I don’t care if it’s the mother down the block or the African-American leaders in church communities, everyone is speaking up to say we need to have a seat at the table and we need to have benefits to the community, talking about how if big corporations are going to get in the corporate tax welfare line you need to make sure there’s a legally binding contract that trickles down to the neighborhood beyond jobs.
Detroit isn’t just a city with intense poverty and disinvestment; it also has a very wealthy ruling class. There’s Dan Gilbert, the head of Quicken Loans, who is managing the gentrification of downtown Detroit, and you have a long history with Matty Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, the main bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Canada, which cuts through your district. Tell me about these fights.
The fight is about fairness. Think about the hundreds of schools impacted by the lack of funding — some have actually closed their doors. Our education system is neglected. Right after Detroit filed for bankruptcy, all these developers — mega-billionaires who can afford to do for-profit development without the subsidy from the city and state government, but we have to give them our money anyway — jumped into action. Recently we had Chrysler involved with Matty Moroun as well as other developers doing land swaps behind closed doors. All this festering corporate greed is hurting working families. They’re pushing people into poverty by making them pay for private development — shifting public dollars, tax dollars, directly away from schools that need services and other things that are critically important and putting them into for-profit development.
Yet Detroit is often blamed for causing its own problems, rather than these larger structures of inequality and segregation being blamed. Detroit and its public schools have both long been laboratories for conservative and corporate experimentation through state takeovers.
It’s sad because of the sense of entitlement by the billionaires in our city. This sense of “we can’t do development and create jobs if we don’t give them these huge checks, if we don’t give them more land,” and so on. How much is too much? When they say jobs: jobs for who? Sixty percent of people in Detroit work outside of the city. Seventy percent of people who work in Detroit do not live in Detroit. That statistic should set off alarm bells for city officials and the mayor.
There’s an imbalance here. We are wasting our public resources. We haven’t even hit the five-year mark post-bankruptcy and yet we are continually buying into large for-profit developments — and we still haven’t fixed our education system, we still have crumbling infrastructure. I have communities that are still waiting to deal with blight. We haven’t seen an increase of black homeownership in Detroit like we should. It’s as bad as it was before we passed the Fair Housing Act. These are our public resources, public dollars: when are we going to say it’s enough?
Today I was meeting mothers and families in the 13th congressional district which is the third-poorest congressional district in the country and we talked about the LIFT+ act I’m going to be introducing. It’s basically the earned income tax credit on steroids. It’s a broader umbrella saying if you are a single person making $50,000 or less, you should be able to get $3,000 of a big tax break that is going to help you with your quality of life. For families it’s going to be $6,000 and you don’t even have to get it in a whole lump sum but throughout the year. It will lift you up as a working family. We do so much for corporations, so I’m going to push back on “well, we don’t have the money.” We seem to have the money for the Trump tax cuts, and we seem to have the money for all these other large-scale for-profit developments. It’s frustrating because every time I pass that hockey stadium, the Little Caesars Arena, all I see is $400 million shifted away from our schools and put into an adult playground. I always say to people: why don’t they just sell more pizza? Our public dollars should be put toward our public resources. I can’t even get clean water in the majority of the schools in my district. And it’s not just Detroit; all the schools throughout the community have been suffering by not having access to clean water, not having small class sizes, and some schools are struggling to pay their teachers. It’s heartbreaking to see that we’re choosing developers and billionaires over real people — the people that actually put us in office.
Another piece of legislation you are working on would prevent auto insurance companies from using credit scores in determining rates. Tell me about the legislation: what’s the problem you are trying to address, and why is it a priority for people in your district?
It’s important to tell the story of the person who drew this to my attention — she worked at Beaumont Hospital in Michigan for over twenty years, and when she retired it impacted her credit score, and all of a sudden her insurance rate went up $350. You should have seen her face; she just couldn’t understand. She drove less, lived in the same place, drove the same vehicle — she was so taken aback, why was she being punished? She worked hard and did everything she was supposed to do and now they were saying, “We’re going to charge you more.” It’s a form of discrimination because more and more of my constituents, after becoming newly widowed or having something happen to their income, are paying a larger amount. A study from the University of Michigan showed that somebody with a DUI and a good credit score was paying far less than someone with a good driving record and a decent, middle-level credit score. That alone is discriminatory. The rationale from the insurance agencies was they thought if somebody has a low credit score, the likelihood of them committing fraudulent claims was higher. There is no proof of that, but they were just punishing people for being poor.
Forcing them to pay more because they are poorer, which is just corporate America plundering poor people.
That’s why it’s important to introduce a bill that prohibits credit reporting agencies from submitting credit scores to the car insurance industry. I think it should go further, to home insurance and other things. We are repeatedly seeing corporations using loopholes to get around race and other protected classes. They are now using income to discriminate against people, and it’s overwhelmingly communities of color being hurt.
Another of your bills addresses environmental justice both nationwide and in your district. It directs the federal government to study the effects of a by-product of oil refining called “petcoke.” You’ve fought against the scourge of petcoke in Detroit for years as a state representative, and if I understand this right, you even trespassed —
Allegedly! Allegedly trespassed —
You allegedly trespassed to get a sample of the material. Can you explain your petcoke legislation, and why environmental justice is critical in Detroit?
Absolutely. I grew up in a community where I thought the toxic smell was normal. Beyond the odor, I began to realize housing large-scale industry does massive damage to our public health. One in five children have asthma. I had no idea what these large black piles on the Detroit riverfront were. Somebody in Windsor called, asking what on earth was going on over there. I heard Marathon oil refinery had expanded in 2008 to bring tar sands from Canada, one of the largest expansions an oil refinery had in our country. Basically, it was taking the crude oil, tar sands, and producing petroleum they call petcoke and we call “coke milkshake.” The point is petcoke is carcinogenic, filled with toxins, and they got onto Matty Mouron’s property — Moroun to this day claims he didn’t know anything about it, which I don’t believe, and without any permit, without any environmental plan, without even any discussions about the water runoff issue regarding these piles — just dumped it on the riverfront! It was forty-feet-high with black dust blowing everywhere.
The Michigan department of water quality — and this was before Flint — told me it’s not toxic. I was taken aback. Just before I held a press conference about this, an ecologist in my district named Catherine Savoy said to me that she wished we had a sample because then we could just test it ourselves. And sure enough, I passed over some tracks and some piles and got through to put samples of petcoke in sandwich bags and got it to the ecology center. I was going to mail it out, but the postal service said petcoke was on the list of things they can’t mail because it could combust at any moment. So they can put a forty-foot-high pile of petcoke behind where people live on the riverfront but I couldn’t even mail it.
After we put out the results, the Michigan department of environmental quality came back and said its “only toxic if not contained” and that led to the city telling them to remove it from the riverfront. We had homes tested, and they found it on their window seal; for one woman, it was found on the sponge she uses to wash her dishes. So it was blowing everywhere. Mouron continued and asked for exceptions, saying they can’t afford to contain it. I’m really proud the city of Detroit decided to deny them a waiver to cover up the petcoke or contain it. Now more cities like Chicago and others are doing it. I want to see us push back and say enough! Enough with dirty energy, enough with jeopardizing our public health, and I say no more air permits unless the public health departments okay it. We know petcoke gives people respiratory diseases and cancer. It is really important that we start choosing people over profit, start pushing back against development unless it’s for everyone and not just for billionaires.
You said this petcoke came to Detroit from the Canadian tar sands — it’s just another example of how environmental struggles are connected all over the world from the site where the oil is being extracted, to places like Standing Rock where they are pushing in the pipelines, to working-class neighborhoods like yours that are being treated like a garbage dump, to everyone in the planet because of climate change.
To these oil moguls, mega-billionaires, and corporations, we are just their dumping ground. At one point, I was so angry with the governor for not doing anything that I was going to buy a bunch of petcoke and dump it at his mansion in Lansing because I just wanted to show people that’s how crazy it is. You did it in a low-income neighborhood, but what if I did it to you?
Why do you call for Trump’s impeachment despite the pushback you’ve received from the right-wing media, liberal civility scolds like Nancy Pelosi, and even progressive senators like Bernie Sanders who say the Senate will not convict?
I want to push back on this whole idea the Senate won’t convict. We’re the largest [Democratic] incoming congressional [House] class since the Watergate class in 1974. They didn’t set a standard of “Oh, well we need sixty-seven votes [in the Senate] before we proceed.” They chose their responsibility to uphold the US Constitution, and that meant stopping obstruction of justice and Nixon’s refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas. I’m glad they didn’t choose that standard to hold the president accountable because Nixon would’ve been able to get away with it.
Trump is ten times worse; this is probably the largest cover-up our country has ever seen, and it’s only getting worse. We passed bipartisan legislation, including exercising our war powers for the first time ever, to say we’re not going to participate in the humanitarian crisis that is happening in the Yemen war. We’re not going to help the Saudi Arabian autocracy. Republicans, Democrats, got out in the Senate and voted for it, all of us. And what does Trump do? He ignores it and exercises executive power to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, to help them continue the war in Yemen.
That is just one example. Over and over again, he ignores the fact that this is a coequal form of government. He’s setting the precedent that it’s okay to attack our democracy. Our democracy is not perfect, but we are allowing a crooked CEO to run this country. He’s running his businesses out of the Oval Office; there’s sensitive information that really jeopardizes our security. But even more importantly he jeopardizes all the work we’ve been doing to regulate drug companies, around the children in cages, and so on. We can’t do our job if we have an administration and cabinet members continuing to cover up criminal acts.
We passed with bipartisan support a subpoena saying give us the names of the children being held at the border, and they can’t even give us that! How are we as members of Congress, the ones who are supposed to hold the president accountable, supposed to do our job if he acts like a king? It’s completely lawless. We can’t hold him accountable unless we do an impeachment inquiry, and more and more of my colleagues are now saying that. They see how it impacts everything we are trying to do. I don’t want to hear even one more time “We need to wait till 2020.” You can’t start thinking about the election. No! He is currently the most powerful person in the country, or in the world! And there has been corruption after corruption, cover-up after cover-up; when are we going to say it’s our responsibility and our duty to do right by the American people and push back on him violating our Constitution? Because if we don’t, it will set a precedent, and this will not be the last crooked CEO that wants to run for president. We saw that President Truman went to war without going through Congress, and every single one since has gone to war without going through Congress.
My last question before I let you go is on the topic of Palestine solidarity: you and Representative Omar have been the subject of a horrific torrent of abuse because you both support Palestinian liberation and because you are both Muslim women. I’m sure this has been incredibly painful and difficult personally, but I also think it’s hopeful politically. Would you agree that defenders of the status quo are rightfully worried that the American people, particularly young people, are moving toward supporting justice and freedom in Israel and Palestine?
Yeah, I see more and more people opposing injustice and inequality. I can’t separate this from the most beautiful, blackest city in the country. In Detroit, there are reminders of the Civil Rights Movement on every corner — my African-American teachers and others used to show me neighborhoods and communities that were segregated, where if you were a biracial couple you couldn’t live or work or eat in certain places, you couldn’t eat in certain places. Even Congresswoman Barbara Lee was telling me about how her father used to wear his military uniform and hope that maybe he might get service at certain restaurants.
I can tell you when I was in Palestine with my mother and she had to get in a separate line. There are different colored license plates if you are Palestinian or Israeli. There is continued dehumanization and racist policies by the state of Israel that violate international human rights, but also violate my core values of who I am as an American. “Separate but equal” doesn’t work. I know that my ancestors were killed, died, uprooted from their land. That’s something that no one even wants to acknowledge that had to happen to create the state of Israel. Do I want to see that happen to other people? Absolutely not! But I want there to be a recognition that it happened and from there on, do some sort of healing process and understanding that it needs to then lead to equality and freedom for my grandmother who still lives there. She should be able to die with some sort of human dignity, and I know that will lead us to true peace because everything else is not working — over seventy years of struggle, and it’s because we’re not looking at it the way we should be. Just like we looked at the struggle for black Americans for true equality and access to opportunity to thrive. The same thing that has happened to the LGBTQ community. All of that is why I say free Palestine, that Palestinians deserve human rights. I see young people understanding that. When I see young Black Lives Matter activists with t-shirts that say “Free Palestine,” and I’m wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirt, I know it’s working.
We’re not just a country that’s divided, we’re also connected. As Americans, we appreciate these values and it gives us hope. I see more Americans understanding the plight of Palestinians, in a way that doesn’t dehumanize or degrade Israelis either, but does hold the leadership of the Israeli government accountable. They see Israel is proceeding in a way that is a direct violation of Palestinians’ core right to human dignity. The defenders of the status quo are right to be worried.