- Interview by
- William Shoki
In 2018, a socialist bartender from the Bronx named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked everyone (even herself) by unseating the fifth-highest ranked Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. The secret to her success was a relentless “ground-game” — hundreds of volunteers who knocked on doors, made calls, and generally pounded the pavement in her district, which covers part of the Bronx and a big chunk of northern Queens, New York.
Many of those volunteers were mobilized by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA. The DSA has been around in one form or another since the early 1970s, but it became a force to be reckoned with after the 2016 election, when thousands of people, galvanized by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 bid and angered by Donald Trump’s win, began flocking to the organization. (With fewer than seven thousand members in May 2016, DSA membership now exceeds fifty-five thousand, with more than 180 local branches nationwide).
Since then, it has helped propel socialist candidates to national (Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) as well as state-level elected offices. A recent show of muscle was again in New York City, where it brought a queer, Latina, socialist public defender named Tiffany Cabán just fifty-five votes short of defeating a machine politician in the Democratic primary for district attorney of Queens. Now that same New York City DSA chapter is putting its weight behind a “squad” of candidates for statewide office. One of those candidates is the Uganda-born and partly South African–raised Zohran Kwame Mamdani.
Mamdani, whose parents happen to be the prominent Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani and Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair, is a twenty-eight-year-old rapper and foreclosure-prevention counselor running for New York State Assembly. Below is his conversation with William Shoki, a staff writer at Africa Is a Country, about identity and class, running for office, and what it means to run as a socialist in America.
How long have you been in New York City?
We moved to New York City when I was seven, so it’s coming to twenty-one years now. We actually moved from Cape Town. I was born and raised in Kampala, and we moved to Cape Town when I was about five and lived there for two years. Between birth and getting to five, there were a few months where my dad worked in Durban so we lived there for a little bit. In 1999 we moved to New York, and I’ve been there since. So, this is definitely home for me.
Do you ever go back to Uganda? One of the reasons I’m interested is that my parents are East African, but I was born and raised in South Africa. As much as I am South African and identify as a Joburger, it’s still for some reason difficult to part with the Tanzanian identity. Even though I don’t spend much time there, nor do I have a foothold there in terms of what my plans are for the immediate future, I nonetheless call myself a “Tanzanian South African.” So it’s a strange, diasporic identity I haven’t made sense of yet.
It’s definitely a complex journey because I am many different things all at once. There’s no question in my mind that I’m Ugandan. There’s no question in my mind that I’m Indian. And there’s no question in my mind that I’m a New Yorker. And I’m all of these things, yet in each of these places I’ve been made to feel that it’s not actually my home to call — in Uganda, I’m told this guy is actually Indian; in India, I’m told this guy is actually Muslim; and in New York, I’m everything but a New Yorker.
But I’m realizing that it’s not a determination I should be outsourcing to others. It’s something that if I know and feel, then I need to become comfortable in asserting. Others will take time in catching up to that. It also helps to understand that if you’re part of any diaspora you have to live in multiple worlds at once, and have multiple sets of cultural references and histories — so that if you were to describe yourself in one singular term, it doesn’t really capture the different ways in which you think about the world.
What do you think this perspective does for your campaign?
When I was a kid I used to struggle with the experience of always being a minority. Not only national heritage, but even religious heritage — not only am I Muslim, but I’m also Shia, not Sunni. And my father would tell me that it’s not something to face anguish about, because when you’re a minority you are constantly seeing the truth of the place. You’re not lulled into the promise that is fed to everyone about how perfect and pure society is, because you’ve constantly been made to feel the exceptions, you’re constantly having to go through the “terms and conditions” of that promise.
The way in which it informs our run for assembly in New York sState is that, if you’re always on the outside then you have an understanding of the flaws of this society in a way that someone on the inside might not have had to grapple with personally. I don’t think that representation in and of itself is enough to deliver us to the world that we need, I think it’s a part of it. The real, key power of representation is that you not only look like someone who hasn’t been at the table, but that you in fact change the nature of which discussions are prioritized, and that you’re fighting for a different set of priorities that have been ignored. Arundhati Roy has spoken of the idea that “there are no voiceless people, there’s just the unheard.”
So many communities in New York City and state have been speaking for decades but have simply been ignored. When you think about New York City, South Asians are a rich part of this city’s history and cultural fabric, and yet there has been no representation of South Asians at a legislative level — never has a New Yorker of South Asian origin been elected, at any level. Whether it’s the level of a city councilperson, or a congressperson, or a state senator, or whoever it may be — and yet there are more than 330,000 South Asians. We have more than 750,000 Muslims, but there’s only one Muslim in the entire 150-person body of the New York State Assembly.
And it’s not simply that people don’t look like us, but that the issues that disproportionately affect these communities are not being discussed with the emphasis and importance that they should be. Forty percent of New York City cab drivers are South Asian. More than 50 percent of street vendors are South Asian. Around 38 percent of all New York City public school students are either Muslim or Jewish, and yet religiously permissible food is hard to come by in New York City public schools, and New York State public schools.
These issues for most people don’t seem like the most critical ones to fight for. But a Muslim kid whose parents are unable to pack them lunch every day is in effect being forced to choose between eating and what they believe in. So it becomes a matter of hunger for food or hunger for faith — pick which hunger you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of the day.
You’re campaigning in a borough that’s said to be one of the most diverse in the United States. As much as you’re sensitive to the importance of representation for different identities, the platform you bring emphasizes a common struggle to New Yorkers in the housing precarity they face. Why do you think this is a unifying struggle? Is that even important to begin with?
A unifying struggle is critical because for so long, what we’ve been told are oppositional forces are in fact facing the same issues as we are — the true cause of the issue, the true set of actors benefiting from the status quo are not named in the discussion.
For example, in New York City and New York State, we have a massive housing crisis. More than a hundred thousand New Yorkers are estimated to be homeless at this time. For a quarter of Astoria residents, half of their income goes to rent — and I’m one of those residents. For a long time, people said if you’re pro-tenant, you’re anti-homeowner, and vice versa. And I work as a foreclosure -prevention housing counselor, I work with low-income homeowners. What I’ve seen in my work is, it’s not tenant versus homeowner. Really, what it is, is tenant and homeowner versus financial speculator and investment bank portfolio.
We have seen the takeover of neighborhoods that used to be the landing ground for immigrants new to this country trying to build a life for themselves and their families. Now, so many of those homes are being bought up by unnamed investors in the form of limited liability corporations, and now a third of the purchases in multiple neighborhoods are by these kinds of entities instead of families. We need to reassert that the importance of a home is what it provides a family, not what it provides a bank account and a bank balance.
Homes should not be a place of financial speculation, they should be a place of stability and setting a foundation for a family to build on for the rest of their lives. This is not the only issue we care about, but the reason it’s a flagship issue is that it’s a building block of the major crisis facing New Yorkers across all communities. Everybody is facing this, but if you’re a South Asian immigrant and you don’t speak English, then all of a sudden the crisis takes on a different dimension where you cannot even access the services that exist to alleviate this kind of issue.
If you are a black New Yorker seeking housing, you don’t simply have to deal with the rising rents, but you also have to deal with the racism of landlords who don’t want black tenants. These things are amplified by the ways in which racism and anti-immigrant bias function in our society. That’s why our slogan is “Roti and Roses,” building off the labor chant of the early twentieth century in Massachusetts where they said they were fighting for “Bread and Roses” — for that which is necessary to survive, and that which is necessary to thrive. We call it roti and not bread to make clear that while this is a universal cause, we’re also making sure to highlight the struggles of specific communities that have been left out in the cold for decades.
Why then, is it important in District 36, Queens and New York generally, to be more than a progressive legislator who’s alive to the cultural dimension of these struggles, but an avowed democratic socialist as well?
To be a democratic socialist means that you are committed to the state providing for people that which is necessary to live a dignified life. Because if you are dedicated to that vision of a society, and that is your true aim as a legislator and organizer, then you are far more willing to go up against the powers that be that will throw obstacles in your way.
Let me be clear, for us to succeed we have to do it with allies from across the ideological spectrum — there are many fights where democratic socialists and self-described progressives will be on the exact same side. There are times, though, when there will be division and you always need organizers who are willing to expand the political imagination beyond what is considered acceptable.
What was so appealing about becoming a self-avowed democratic socialist and a member of the DSA in New York City is their willingness to take on things which are seen as beyond the pale. I began my political organizing life around Palestinian solidarity, I cofounded my school’s Students for Justice in Palestine — and on that issue especially in New York, a lot of progressives are “Progressive Except Palestine.” But when I got to a DSA meeting, I find that there is nothing beyond the pale.
What we are fighting for is a world that provides these things for everyone, regardless of whether they live under occupation or if they are right here in District 36 in Astoria. We are fighting for equity and equality. For too long people have been afraid to call things as they are, and it’s been such a beautiful experience to fight alongside people who do not flinch when we describe [the situation in Israel-Palestine] as apartheid because of the actual conditions demanding to be called as such.
Your multicultural heritage is something that is increasingly shared by many leading American progressives occupying the highest levels of office, such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Do you think your background places you in a position where, as these two congresswomen do, you can speak more forcefully on foreign policy issues or does that overstate what your unique identity allows you to do?
My identity has informed my understanding of the world. There will be those that have the exact same identity but have a different understanding of the world, which goes back to the point on representation and how you have to build upon more than just that. But from my experience, you cannot ignore the things that you have seen.
When you are from the places where I am from, being Ugandan and being Indian, you see what this country has done from a very different perspective. In Kampala, the average perception of so many things in terms of the world around us is radically different from what we are fed in the United States. Bringing that perspective to the discussions here is critical, because if you simply have an inward-facing discussion while the policies you’re debating will impact the world at large, it does a disservice to everyone and has grave consequences.
It’s so exciting to see people like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar being on the national stage and reframing the discussions on both American foreign policy and American domestic policy, but how the state is structured and who it benefits, because it changes what is possible.
For so long, if you had certain views you were made to think you had no place in this country’s civic and political life. What these women have done, and many women before them, is to make clear that our place is not only here but our time is now, and it’s our job to struggle in public around these issues, because what the opposition would love us to do is be silent and discuss them only in private.
As a final question, the places you hail from, and honestly the world at large, are experiencing political breakdown with significant and far-reaching problems. In Uganda, President Museveni’s bid to run for a sixth term has sparked a popular resistance to that, and in India, Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalism is oppressing Muslims with new intensity. One of the cornerstones of socialist politics, of course, is building a left-wing internationalism. What is the role of the DSA in that, given its rise to prominence as an insurgent socialist movement in a country that’s been so obstructive to that throughout history, which makes it exciting and inspiring to many people across the world, including me.
We need to make clear that our commitment to these ideals is not restricted by borders, it is a universal commitment. One of the major things that appealed to me about the organization was its clear stance in favor of BDS. We have to make that commitment clear, but also need to first focus on how to stop the ways in which this country is harming the world through the continuation of decades of failed and extremely horrific foreign policy that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives across the world and overthrown more democratically elected governments than I can count.
Once that is achieved, next is to figure out how to act in solidarity with other socialist movements, other movements fighting for the working class across the world. We cannot fight fascism alone, we cannot do it on a country-by-country basis. We have to do so in a way that amplifies the work that allies are doing across borders.
When I look at each country I’m from and see that each of them is run by Museveni, Modi, and Trump, it’s very easy to feel defeated. But the reality is that it shows us the commonality of the experience that people in this world are facing today, and as much as it’s terrifying there’s also this promise of a world that we could actually create together, evident in the protests taking place. People are fighting back not merely to return to the past but to create a new future, and that’s very exciting.