- Interview by
- Aqsa Ahmad
On Sunday, a seventeen-year-old high school student in Philadelphia found herself featured in a Joe Biden campaign ad. Which she thought was weird, because she is an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter.
Sabirah Mahmud, the national logistics director for the US Youth Climate Strike, was at Joe Biden’s presidential campaign kick-off rally in May 2019 to ask him to commit to a forum on climate change. Biden failed to give her a proper answer, but his campaign had no problem using a shot of Mahmud from the event, in her hijab, in a new campaign ad, as Buzzfeed reported earlier this week.
— sabirah ☾ (@sabirahmahmud) February 3, 2020
Jacobin’s assistant editor Aqsa Ahmad spoke with Sabirah Mahmud on her interactions with Joe Biden and appearance in his campaign video, the challenges faced by student organizers in the climate movement, and how we need a Bernie Sanders presidency to enact meaningful climate change policy.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Your tweet about being used as hijabi clout in a Joe Biden campaign ad went viral this weekend. Can you explain why, as a Bernie Sanders supporter, you were at a Joe Biden rally in May last year in the first place?
I’m with an organization called the US Youth Climate Strike. At the time, I was working on a state level, and we were urging presidential candidates to have a climate debate, which we did see in the climate forum that happened a few months ago.
During that time, we were getting our members to go to presidential candidates’ rallies and ask them these hard-hitting questions, and making sure they give us an answer on the spot. We had responses from Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang, but the only person we were missing was Joe Biden. That was a big press at the time because everyone was still riding the Uncle Joe hype.
So at the time I was told, “Hey, you’re one of the most prominent organizers in Philly. Joe Biden will be here. Do you think you can come?” I went — three hours early, so it was a very long wait. I ended up getting to the front and having a chance to talk to him.
I was asking him about the climate debate and explaining my organization, who I am. He interrupted me and was trying to seem like he knew better than me, saying “yeah, I know everything,” blah, blah, blah — just being like a white man explaining something to a brown kid. It was really odd. But he didn’t answer my question.
It’s funny that they used that particular shot of you because you don’t look too pleased to be there. Why do you think the campaign included you in their video?
I honestly still have no idea why I was in it because I never said thank you so much for your time, I support you — I didn’t say any of that. I literally just came for that question. I feel like I was just used for face value. It’s not like I was chanting, it’s not like I was clapping or smiling. It’s not like I was so enthusiastic like every single other person in that campaign ad. I had a stern face. So it doesn’t really make sense at all why I’m in that video other than for purposes of, like, profiting off my hijab or something like that.
Were you surprised by Joe Biden’s response to your question asking if he would commit to a forum on climate change policy, that “I’m the guy who did all this stuff . . . I started this whole thing back in 1987.”
Yeah, I was surprised. When you meet someone like that, you’re obviously astonished and super overwhelmed by the hype. But after thinking about how he responded to me, I kind of realized how bullshit it was — how it wasn’t okay, the fact that he spoke on top of me and didn’t even let me speak, didn’t let me ask my question.
And even after he stopped, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve been doing this” [climate change action]. I was like, “But will you commit to the debate?” And he was like, “Yeah, just send it” [to his staffers]. After I walked away, I was like, what does he mean by that? I didn’t get any card, no staffers came up to me after that, no one told me anything.
I didn’t even get what I was there for, and in turn I get used for his own profit. And this is something that really was so hard for me because [it was] during Ramadan. I had to break my fast just to not faint. As a Muslim, it really did break my heart, the fact that I had to break my own fast just to ask that question and I didn’t get the right response, and now I’m just used for clout.
Can you talk to me about how you came to organizing on this issue and became involved with the US Youth Climate Strike in the first place?
I got a random email from the US Youth Climate Strike. It was essentially a call for me to join and talk about this new initiative for March 15, which was the first global strike day. I joined the call, and I was really intrigued by the idea, because I’ve heard of climate change all my life. I was really interested to take action, especially with the IPCC report coming out and too many other things that were building up to this movement, so I started organizing.
My family’s from Bangladesh. My dad’s seven siblings and their children are in Bangladesh. The last time I went to Bangladesh was around 2012, and I got caught in a flood. My own nephew passed away from a flood. Around then, my uncle kept on posting stuff on Facebook about the pollution in Bangladesh, how there’s so much air pollution that they can barely live. It really broke my heart. That’s when I started passionately getting involved.
While I’m in this country, my family’s still struggling in Bangladesh, and it’s not getting better. My dad’s only sister — her house is on this really narrow road, and due to the water rising, that road is kind of breaking off. No cars can even go onto the road to [her] house. So in the next few years, if the climate crisis doesn’t get better, her house could get dislocated from the main road, and she wouldn’t have any way of getting out.
That’s the reason why it’s so scary and why I’m so eager to fight on these issues. In the moment I spoke to Biden, it was really frustrating — how I have so much experience, my family is literally suffering, but he would invalidate that by [talking about him] doing something about climate change in the ’80s.
How have your friends, teachers, and classmates responded to the climate strikes, and what are the challenges or misconceptions you and your fellow organizers find yourselves coming across when organizing on climate? We publish a lot of articles here at Jacobin about why strikes and collective action are so important. You’re a high schooler — how are your teachers and classmates responding when you say, “we’re organizing a strike on Friday and we’re not going to school”? I imagine some would say, “Oh, can’t you just do this on the weekend or something?”
Yeah, they definitely have said that — “Why don’t you strike on Saturday?” And I was like, “What are we striking from exactly?” I sometimes would go around my school and give talks, and people would just be like, “What’s the point? You’re causing a disturbance.” Historically, strikes have been [done] by people who have jobs, but more strikes are happening, more walkouts, more organizing rallies [by students].
This is something a lot of organizers will tell you about — we’ve lost friends or opportunities from organizing. Even with school, it’s been hard to balance the two. My friend recently got a truancy notice for [missing school] for strikes, and it’s really worrisome because now we’re getting reprimanded for these things.
What do you think it will take to enact climate change policy?
A Bernie presidency, honestly. I don’t think any other candidate will ever understand this much about the climate crisis. They don’t understand as much as Bernie does, and they don’t listen to us. Who else has actually come to a climate strike and stood in solidarity with us? No one. Bernie has, though. He did that in Iowa, and that’s the way that we need people to get involved. He’s the one who’s been in movements, who’s stood with us in the streets, whereas other candidates will tweet their support from their closed offices. He is actually coming to the people and listening to us, which is what all candidates should do.
He’s been vocal and concrete in his beliefs. He’s going against the [status quo] by supporting Palestine. And then there’s also the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and all these things that should be rights, because as a Muslim we know that we shouldn’t deny anyone something that should be a right, like getting medical help.
What’s your take on the environmental policies and stances of the other 2020 candidates?
They don’t understand the environmental impacts. They don’t really understand that it’s not a future thing. It’s something that’s happening right now.
Candidates try to say, “Oh yeah, we’ll take these preemptive measures, we’ll do it in a a few years.” They may not see it, but there are climate disasters happening around the world and in this country right now.
Us youth are literally scared of the future. I have to take the SAT in a few months, and I’m just dreading it because I don’t even know — by the time I graduate college, will there even be an earth? Will I even have the opportunity to have a job? Will there be an ecological disaster? I don’t know, and it’s really scary.