“We are what America looks like”: The trials of ‘the Squad’

“Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world and that is the work we want to get back to.”

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SOURCENationofChange

“Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world and that is the work we want to get back to.”

-Ayanna Pressley

One of the most disturbing things about the harsh criticism directed at four new members of the U.S. Congress is where the most recent round of it started. While we might have expected that Republicans, both in government and in rightwing media would find reasons to go after them, a lot of the shade being thrown at Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, collectively referred to as ‘the Squad’, has been coming from within their own party.

While this has been an ongoing story since these women, all endorsed by the Justice Democrats and at least two by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), came into office in January, over the last couple of weeks, it has erupted into a very public rift between them and the Democratic House leadership. Unsurprisingly, the hostility directed at the four progressive representatives soon drew in the current U.S. president, who found himself siding with the most powerful Democrat in the country, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for what was obviously the most cynical of reasons.

The current dispute began, at least in part, after the four went against party leaders and most of their centrist colleagues, especially in the so-called ‘Problem Solvers Caucus’, late last month to vote against a Senate appropriations bill that gives the current administration further funding to deal with the crisis at the U.S./Mexico border.

The reason articulated by these Congress members for their no votes was a simple one: the $4.59 billion dollars mandated by the bill would be handed over with no strings attached, as Pelosi decided not to try and amend or make changes to the legislation, which passed anyway on July 27th. This means that Americans are being asked to trust Mitch McConnell and the current occupant of the White House to do the right thing for the asylum seekers held in camps mostly located along the U.S.’ southern border.

In the eyes of these four and other progressive democrats like Mark Pocan (D-Wis), giving the administration this money before taking a week off for the 4th of July holiday defies rational explanation. At best, it’s the same bad political strategy of trying to work with Republicans in a bipartisan manner (as many centrist Democrats in the Senate did in voting for McConnell’s bill). With no guarantee that the money will be used to alleviate the ongoing human tragedy on the border but could be used by law enforcement or the private corporations profiting from some of these camps had to have played a part in compelling the members of the squad to vote against it, knowing full well that their votes would be symbolic.

One good reason that Ocasio-Cortez gave for not voting to pass the Senate bill was that as many as half of her constituents in New York’s 14th district are from relatively recent immigrant backgrounds and her main concern is to represent them by addressing an issue that they tell her they care about.  One rarely hears such talk from the centrist Democrats who have controlled the party since at least the Bill Clinton era and who speak more to the donor class that sustains their election spending than the mostly working people whose votes put them in office.

The House leadership, especially Speaker Pelosi, admittedly the party’s most impressive fundraiser, have been more than outspoken in criticizing these younger members who have brought a more activist energy to the party. The speaker even used an interview done in her California vineyard the weekend before last to make the fissure public and dismiss the work that the four have been doing, telling New York Times journalist Maureen Dowd, ““All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.” 

Later she added, “As I say to these people, come to my basement. I have these signs about single-payer [healthcare] from 30 years ago. “

The latter statement is telling, in that the Speaker basically admitted she’s been unsuccessful in bringing Americans the healthcare they need for 3 decades and counting. 

Suspiciously, just last week, someone leaked ‘anonymous polling’ that was said to show that white, non-college educated voters don’t like these new representatives, especially AOC. More interesting was the fact, reported by the Huffington Post, that she performs as well as Speaker Pelosi with these voters in similar polls.

A little less than a week prior to this poll being leaked, three of the four, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley and Tlaib, were investigating the conditions at two facilities in Texas where migrant asylum seekers are being held. They were not only shocked by what they found but by the way they as members of Congress were treated by officials and guards.

Their statements in regards to this treatment were vindicated when it was discovered that almost 10.000 people were posting on a Facebook page dedicated to members of Border Patrol, where vile memes and racist statements were being shared, especially in regards to AOC, the youngest ever woman elected to the United States Congress.

To put this in context, the entire Border Patrol is just 15,000 people and the current head of the agency, Carla Provost, was also a member of the group, although she failed to disclose this until it was reported elsewhere. 

Showing a political savvy that was barely recognized by the press, after their return from the fact-finding trip, Ocasio-Cortez insisted on being sworn in before testifying before the House Oversight Committee about what she and her colleagues had seen on the country’s southern border. While unnecessary in the normal run of things, and ridiculed in the rightwing press, speaking under oath I gave her words greater power.

She explained what she had experienced powerfully, saying, “When these women tell me that they were put into a cell, and that their sink was not working, and we tested the sink ourselves and the sink was not working, and they were told to drink out of a toilet bowl — I believed them. I believed these women.”

“And what was worse about this, Mr. Chairman,” she continued, her voice beginning to shake, “was the fact that there were American flags hanging all over these facilities — that children being separated from their parents, in front of an American flag — that women were being called these names under an American flag. We cannot allow for this.” 

Tlaib and Pressley also spoke forcefully about the terrible injustices they’d witnessed, injustices we saw for ourselves when the vice president visited another Texas facility this past weekend with the press in tow.

What we saw during that visit were dozens of desperate people crowded behind a fence, sleeping on the same concrete floor and being fed what one said was three tacos a day. Others claimed that they had not showered in weeks. The idea seems to have been to show men rather than women or children living in this way, but for anyone with a conscience, the age and sex of those held in these camps makes no difference.

While the squad has been dismissed by their own party’s leadership, they have galvanized progressives who see the opportunity for real change rather than simply continuing to try and negotiate with what has become an ever more extreme right in the form of the Republican party. While the current president’s absurd tweets calling on these women, three of whom were born in the country, to “go back to where they came from” deserved censure, it never came.

While it is only just beginning, for the Justice Democrats and DSA, the plan seems to be the long term transformation of the Democratic Party, with grassroots candidates like those in the squad, turning it into a true force to make the lives of working Americans better. Expect more members to join the squad in 2020 and beyond.

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