- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
Tonight Tribune will be hosting its annual Rally at The Old Market in Brighton from 6.45pm.
As this year’s keynote speaker, we are delighted to welcome the chair of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, Nina Turner.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Turner has previously served as a state senator for Ohio as well as president of the progressive organisation Our Revolution. In recent years, she has been one of the most prominent voices in the revival of the American Left.
Ahead of today’s Rally, she sat down with Tribune‘s Ronan Burtenshaw for an interview. (If you are interested in attending, there are a limited number of last-minute tickets available – register now!)
Can you tell us about your route into politics? How did you come to be an activist, and somebody who was running for elected office, and then part of one of these great movements of American politics in the past six years, through both Bernie’s campaigns and the revival of the US left?
I’m from a family of the working poor, and I’ve never forgotten that. Although I’ve been able to break that cycle, I have muscle memory for living circumstances where sometimes food is insecure, and shelter is insecure. Being vulnerable like that has never left me, and it’s something that informs me, from being an activist to being an elected official. I centre the poor, the working poor, and the middle class.
I had the opportunity to start an organisation when I was a junior in college called Students for Positive Action. We thought that if we could get people involved in the power of voting—and we’re fighting some of those same battles in the twenty-first century—that that could help them change their own lives by electing people who actually gave a shit about them and their conditions and had a desire to change them.
So I didn’t necessarily always see myself as an activist in that moment, but as more and more time has passed and I’ve had more opportunities in service, I reflect on that and say, wow, I was doing activism work even then.
Your earlier periods of activism would have interacted a little bit with the rise of Barack Obama to the position of US President, and all the symbolic moments around that, but also with some of the frustrations that people had about the outcomes of that presidency and whether working poor people had really seen an improvement in their lives. What was it in terms of what you were seeing in the political landscape that motivated you – not only to be an activist, but to be in the very particular position you are as somebody who is left-wing, somebody who’s outside the establishment, somebody who’s fighting for a different kind of politics?
I consider myself and many others in the progressive movement, both here and abroad, as freedom fighters. I refer to us as the twenty-first-century version of freedom fighters. Using the African American experience that as a backdrop to explain this, we know that in the twentieth century, we had young people really get involved. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King certainly was at the centre of that, as we talk about said leaders, and there were other leaders – his contemporaries, like Ella Baker or Cesar Chavez, and others who were fighting.
What connected all these people, whether they were black, or Hispanic, or from another ethnic or racial identity, was liberation: the connection there is centring humanity, and wanting to lift the human condition for all.
That is the centering point. And because of my black church tradition, black liberation theology was very much part of my upbringing. Also my college experience of studying history, particularly African American history, means that the struggle of people of African American descent in the Americas, particularly in the US, is really the grounding point for how we evaluate liberation or the lack thereof. It’s what many movements draw upon when we are fighting to change that human condition.
With Barack Obama, people had a lot of hope. Up until he was elected, there was a situation where they had never seen a black person elected to serve as President of the United States of America. The end of 2008 was a tipping point, where something that seemed unlikely to happen—for me, I never thought I would see it in in my lifetime—became a reality.
Senator Obama ran on the platform of hope and change, and people really needed that message at the time. Now those of us who are progressive, or left, or freedom fighters, we certainly debate how much change actually happened to the material conditions of the poor, the working poor, and the barely middle-class under his presidency, but there is no doubt that that possibility and the cultural symbolism of what could be, and also what can be into the future, still moves. It’s a powerful force, even in this moment, even if President Obama was not as progressive as we will have a right to be on many issues.
I think a lot of our readers and people who are coming to the rally will know you best from the Sanders campaign. In 2016 and 2020, both Bernie campaigns were international phenomena, drawing a huge amount of interest. And there are a lot of similarities in Britain with the growing left movement. What’s your takeaway now and your reflection on your experience, seeing those two different campaigns, and where do you think they leave the American left?
In terms of lessons learned in the candidacy of Senator Bernard Sanders, the genesis of the twenty-first-century version of the progressive movement was born from it. The bold agenda that he talked about, without fear of contradiction, is very much rooted in what the Senator was: a congressman, and a mayor – it’s really the synergy, the connection, brought to a national and international scale of all the things he was fighting for throughout his career.
He has been and still is one of the most consistent – not just public servants, but human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving and fighting with. In my life, I’ve admired a lot of historical figures, but in terms of coming up close and personal and being in the fight side-by-side with him, he has been nothing short of spectacular.
Senator Sanders’ campaign in 2016 opened us up in the United States, but also worldwide, to the possibilities of what working-class people from all backgrounds could fight for and expect to have. A lot of the time, there’s a type of politics that says to poor people that they don’t deserve dignity: dignity of your life, dignity of your spirit, dignity of experience.
What Senator Sanders came to say to the people in the United States of America often used international policies that were already grounded. The experiment had happened over and over again. Healthcare, for example: we have sisters and brothers and family and friends in other parts of the world – most industrialised nations have some type of universal healthcare. Why can’t we have that in the United States of America? Working-class people, poor people, deserve that. College for all: why do people have to either go bankrupt or pay college debt until they’re sixty or seventy? Some people go to the grave with some of that debt. You deserve better than that. There are other nations that have that. Since we are a hegemon nation, why can’t we have that?
And then to call out the ultra-wealthy in this nation, and that type of greed. Wealth in and of itself is not a bad thing. We should measure wealth from a spiritual standpoint: housing, clean food, clean air, and having money to not just survive, but to live. Senator Sanders used a lot of what is happening all over the world to centre the fact that if they can do it, with all our resources, we can do it. He didn’t just trigger the possibilities for the working-class people or poor people of this nation – he also triggered those types of possibilities all over the world. And the UK is no different.
Something I wanted to pick up on there: you were talking about the message for the working class. It’s clear from your recent campaign in Ohio that the programme you were fighting for alongside Senator Sanders for years is really something that outlasts his campaign and remains extremely relevant for working-class people: the fight for living wages, the fight for Medicare for All, the fight for public universal healthcare, the fight for the Green New Deal, and the fight for debt relief. Can you talk a little bit about those issues were that you were fighting for in your campaign in Ohio, and why that agenda is still so important in America in the twenty-first century?
We have a crisis on our hands of epic proportions, and it is a crisis of the human condition – whether we’re talking about universal health healthcare, the dignity of work, making a living wage, being able to work in safe working conditions, dealing with the climate chaos, dealing with the pandemic. We have to deal with that both as a nation and also as a world. Two things that we can unite on internationally and which I plan to work on are climate chaos and the pandemic. These are the realities that this pandemic has laid bare: no one, no world leader, no civic leader, no thinking person with a conscience can deny that the pandemic has opened up the problems, but also the promise in those problems, if we are willing to heed it.
Until systemic crises are dealt with, and until the material conditions of the poor and the barely middle class are dealt with in ways that are transformational, the types of policies that both Senator Sanders and I and others who occupy elected office, both here and abroad, talk about are always going to be relevant. What I want the movement to understand, whether it’s here or abroad, is that those of us on the left, those of us who are the twenty-first century version of freedom fighters, are fighting to uplift humanity itself.
Making sure that people have healthcare is about uplifting humanity. Making sure people have a job that pays a living wage, so that they can live a good life and not always have to work every waking hour, so that they can smell the roses or the daisies or the tulips every now and then, so they can take a vacation every now and then, so they can spend quality time with their family every now and then – that should not be something only reserved for the people who have the most economic wealth. That should be a right, by virtue of the fact that you are a living, breathing, thinking human being on this earth.
The intersectionality and the synergy of the left movement worldwide has to be about the uplift of the human condition: life, liberty, and everybody’s pursuit of happiness. For us to get at that in a universal way, and in a way that is lasting, that is enduring, we must challenge systems. That is what the left movement is doing all over the world, challenging systems, and I am honored to be one of the leaders in what I would call a righteous fight.
One of Tribune‘s founder members was a member of parliament in Britain, Aneurin Bevan, was also the founder of the National Health Service, which is one of the outstanding progressive achievements in British politics. Obviously, there’s a lot of echoes between that and your fight for Medicare for All, which has been going on for many years now.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of that fight for access to healthcare for all people, and for public healthcare, as opposed to healthcare that is a commodity?
It is unacceptable, untenable, and immoral not to have universal healthcare in the United States of America, so that people don’t have to worry. There are many things that you have to worry about by virtue of being a human being, but being able to go to a doctor in any of their forms—vision, hearing, mental health—should not be one of those worries. Some doctors who are on our side on this call it ‘sick care’ – they say we have sick care in United States of America, we don’t have healthcare. But it’s past time for us to speak up, and not just speak up, but push policies that no longer commodify health care – that guarantee healthcare as a human right, for every person in the United States of America.
It’s also something that I want to see go worldwide. But the wealth of a nation also dictates how quickly and how able that nation is do that. In the United States of America, wealth is not the problem: the problem is whether or not we have politicians with the fortitude to go against the forces that do not want to see universal healthcare, or to go against the forces in the pharmaceutical industry that don’t want to see us have prescription drugs that are affordable. Their bottom line is not health and wellbeing; their bottom line is the almighty dollar. It’s high time that those things change.
I want to bring the pandemic back into this. I think it’s immoral and untenable for any industrialised nation to hoard the vaccine. In other words, if poorer countries cannot at least get the first dose of the vaccine to their people, then that is all of our problem, because the pandemic is impacting humanity. To me, it is the obligation of wealthier nations to ensure that our poor nations have the vaccine. If they don’t, that has a direct impact on all of us.
Last time I checked the air, it doesn’t stop at a border. The pandemic travels all over the world. Dr. King said it the best: what impacts one directly impacts us all indirectly. The pandemic is one great example of that. I think it’s also a great opportunity for how we can come together as a world to tame this virus, and while we tame it, also do some other incredible things to lift the quality of life for people all around the world.
You mentioned there the fight against the forces and the power of organised wealth, which faces us whenever we try to change systems. When you were fighting for an agenda for working-class people in Ohio, that was something you came up against. How do you reflect on that now? What was learned from your campaign, and how can the Left come together to fight against extremely wealthy interests who don’t want the system to change?
As a movement, we’re going to win some and lose some. We must be resolute that even in situations where the outcome might not be what we want—and my race is one example of that—opportunities abound. Senator Sanders running for president: there were forces that we came up against then, too. I like how you said the power of organised wealth – they got together and said, we can’t let Bernard Sanders become the president of the United States of America.
That same force came into the local congressional districts to say, we cannot let Nina Turner become Congresswoman. What those forces seek to do is to siphon hope from the people who believe in this movement, in this agenda, by attacking its leaders. What I want the movement to know is that what we are fighting for is bigger than any one individual, and while Senator Sanders and myself, and so many others are representatives, what we are pressing towards is bigger than all of us. And I don’t want people to get so discouraged.
That is a tactic that they use. The idea is that if they can stop me, if they can stop Senator Sanders, then they can deflate the hope that we will ever have universal healthcare, or college for all, or paid family medical leave, and all of those other resources that people need to be able to live a good life. Another lesson learned is that those types of forces will stop at nothing: they are relentless, and so those of us on the left, on the freedom-fighting side, must take on that same persona – that we are going to be relentless as well in our pursuit for justice for all. Sometimes we underestimate how far organised wealth and power will go to forward its agenda. We definitely underestimated in my campaign how far they were willing to go to try to stop us.
So did we in Britain during the most recent election.
One thing that really struck me in your campaign was your emphasis on strong unions. As you know, this event that we’re doing in Britain is co-organised with the Communication Workers Union. The Labour Party is a party founded out of trade unions and the struggle of workers. Across the world, in a very similar pattern since the 1970s and ’80s, there’s been this united attack on unions, on working-class people, on decent wages, and on dignity in the workplace.
Why do you think that that struggle is so important today? And what do you think is the possibility of using that struggle to unite working people across different cultural, ethnic, national, and racial divisions, against those very, very strong forces who don’t want change?
Organised wealth has power, no doubt about it. We can’t delude ourselves. But so do organised people. That is what the trade union movement represents. I do believe that there is no force in this universe more powerful than conscious-minded, organised people who have decided that they will not be moved.
Reverend Jesse Jackson once said, referring to the American experience, that we may come from different courses and different walks of life, but we’re all in the same boat now. That was really his message – that poor, and poor working people must unite based on what we have in common. And what we have in common is that we’re catching the same kind of hell, whether it’s in Great Britain or Cleveland, Ohio, or Los Angeles, California, or Chicago, you name it – we are catching the same hell.
To me, the fact that we are catching the same hell demands that we come together as a united force to feed back against that, because what is the reality today does not have to be the reality tomorrow. We’ve seen that time and time again throughout history – that we don’t have to accept things as they are. We can see and understand things as they are, but we can also drain them and put forward the sweat equity to make it so. That is what the labour movement is about, it’s what the civil rights movement is about, it’s what the gay rights movement is about. You name any movement of marginalised people, and what it has in common is a liberation thread.
In that liberation, the goal is to elevate it, to lift, and to make better. Unions have always been a part of that, even when it wasn’t perfect.
Speaking of global – the British left that has gone through many of the same processes as the US left: Jeremy Corbyn was elected in 2015, and Bernie Sanders ran for the first time in 2015; Jeremy Corbyn ran his election in 2017, a year after Bernie’s first campaign finished. There was a 2019 election here, and a 2020 election over there. There are huge amounts of common ground between the two movements.
What is the importance of having movements that transcend borders – of having an international aspect to the struggle that we’re in? How do we go about building that?
I salute Tribune, I salute Labour Party activists, and I salute the Communications Workers Union, all of you for bringing us together. It’s forums like the one that I am blessed and honoured to be able to join you on that give us the opportunity to bring people together from different walks of life, to really internalise the commonalities that we share, to see the power of organised wealth interests, and of those who do not believe in a certain type of liberation. They benefit from keeping them separate; they benefit from divide and conquer. The more we can see the struggle for humanity and liberation in all its forms as a global struggle, the more powerful a force we will be.