Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Channeling the Protest Movement into Real Change
The last of Ayanna Pressley’s hair fell out in the middle of December, on the day before the Massachusetts representative and the rest of the House voted on President Trump’s articles of impeachment. Losing her crown of Senegalese twists — the signature hairstyle that Pressley, 46, had been wearing since winning the 7th Congressional District seat two years ago — was traumatic for several reasons. It was also the anniversary of her mother’s death. “I was missing her. I was mourning my hair. I was mourning the state of our democracy,” Pressley said when she revealed her alopecia diagnosis in January.
The world has only become more tragic and tumultuous since then, but Pressley, who is currently running unopposed for re-election in November, has not slowed down. She has emerged boldly to become more than an aesthetic icon for both black women and the new progressive wave of Democratic political power. Last fall, Pressley introduced the People’s Justice Guarantee, a resolution laying out many of the principles now being discussed in city halls across the country in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests: decriminalizing nonviolent offenses and shifting budgets to support community-led public-health and safety initiatives rather than punitive policing. Since the uprising, Pressley has put forth a series of bills and resolutions calling for targeted reforms to criminal justice, transit, and other areas where underserved communities are being discriminated against. “You believe black lives matter? So legislate like it. Invest like it,” she tells Rolling Stone. “This is the moment. This is the reckoning. I don’t see this waning. I really don’t.”
I want to hear what your emotions are right now, in this moment of reckoning, just as a black woman, and as an American.
I’ve had moments when I have felt completely gutted, exhausted, filled with tremendous dread. To see so many unarmed black folk murdered consecutively at a time when we are in the midst of a pandemic, which has disproportionately hit black communities. The gravity of this tsunami of a crisis within a crisis, it has been heavy. But I have made a promise to myself, and I’m enlisting all of my accomplices in the work of justice to do the same, which is hold space for our righteous rage, be radical and bold in our demands, and also hold space for our radical healing. The day after [George Floyd’s homicide], I had put up a thread on my Twitter and I said, “Just for a moment I’d like to deviate from the onslaught of images of black men being choked, brutalized, surveyed, profiled, policed, lynched, murdered.” And I created this timeline on black boy joy and black man joy, and it did go viral, but some people responded that they thought it was tone deaf. And I said, “This is what we’re managing, that we would retweet what [rapper and activist] Killer Mike referred to as ‘murder porn,’ and then wonder when is the right time to promote our humanity, to promote our joy, our healing.”
I think often about those images being recirculated. I understand that they often provoke action — I don’t think we’d see people in the street if we had not seen George Floyd under that man’s knee. But what damage does it do to us to continually see this “murder porn”?
I’ve been guilty myself of watching those things on repeat. And I think you’re trying to reconcile something, or — here’s the thing, to be black in America is to have your pain delegitimized. Black pain has been delegitimized since the inception of this country. And we see that embedded across every issue. Where it might be more obvious is in police brutality and in our health care system. And that’s why there has not been justice. We have had people that are sworn to protect and to serve operating with reckless impunity. And because of statutes like qualified immunity, which I have introduced a bill with Rep. [Justin] Amash to end, there is no consequence. There is no justice. If we can, through lawmaking, codify hate, hurt, and harm and foist it onto black folks with great precision, then we can be precise in the work of healing and justice in our lawmaking and in our budgets.
What should Congress be doing going forth to meet the demands of the uprising?
Listen, we’re just getting started. In the early days of the civil-rights movement, which we’re still in, because folks like to think it was bookended — they’ll winnow down the story and have you thinking Rosa sat and Martin marched and Medgar died and then John crossed a bridge and black folks had full emancipation and liberation. And, of course, we know that is not true. Every transformative change, just our basic rights — which we’ve had to organize, mobilize protests, and demonstrate for — was only brought about because of movements. Birmingham was 37 days. The Freedom Rides were seven months. The Greensboro sit-ins were six months, and the Montgomery bus boycott was 381 days.
So I’m very encouraged by the sustainability of this current chapter in the civil-rights movement. And I do think it will lead to what the early days led to. And that is law change, [like with] the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. I believe that Congress must act as the conscience of our nation in this moment. It is important to get folks on the record. We have close to 200 co-sponsors for a resolution [against police brutality], but I want to vote. I think the House should go on record condemning police brutality, racial profiling, and excessive use of force. Congressional intent is a powerful tool.
Congressional intent, to me, is about showing people where you stand.
Absolutely … I mean, look, we’re in a Democratic majority, we have the most diverse and representative Congress in the history of Congress, the biggest congressional black caucus that we’ve ever had, and we should act like it. I know that in some instances we’re still kind of building our muscle and figuring out how best to flex that.
What do you think we should be hearing from your nominee right now, Joe Biden?
Actually, I think it’s what we need to be hearing from everyone. I don’t want to pretend that any one person, even the president of the United States, could alone undo 401 years of structural racism and systemic oppression. And particularly when you talk about the issue of police brutality and accountability. That’s why who your district attorney is matters. That’s why who your police commissioner is matters, right? This is work that we all have to do, to be actively anti-racist in dismantling these systems.
I would say the fact that we have a nominee and candidates and electeds that are saying black lives matter, that in itself is growth. But what that is indicative of is a culture shift. As my friend, [political analyst] Tiffany Cross reminds me, we have a culture shift, but we have yet to see a power shift. That’s why the only receipts we can care about in this moment are law change and budget change.
Think of how long it took for people to say black lives matter at the level at which they’re now saying it. And now think about how long it takes for the laws to shift, as you mentioned with the bus boycotts and Freedom Rides. We’re talking about long years to get to the reparative processes that this society needs.
I hear you on that. But I do believe we are well-positioned to take the Senate back, and that’s going to make a big difference. But I would also say that that’s why governors and mayors and secretaries of state matter, because these are people who, with the stroke of a pen, can effectuate the kind of change we’re talking about, who can make sure that black folks are getting city contracts, who can fund communities. Instead of school police, school nurses.
But to your point, people will say to me, “Well, you’re going to pass this, but the Senate won’t pick it up.” Well, just because they don’t want to do their job that is no reason for me to abdicate my role and my responsibility. Because at the very least you set a new floor. I represent the Massachusetts 7th District, a seat that was held by John F. Kennedy. This is one of the most, if not the bluest, one of the most progressive seats in the country. Diverse, vibrant, dynamic — and one of the most unequal. We’re in a three-mile radius from Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, [and] Roxbury, the blackest part of my district. Life expectancy drops by 30 years and median household income by $50,000. I feel I have to lead, because if you can’t lead from the most progressive seat in the nation, God help us.
We’re still dealing with a pandemic that is disproportionately killing black and brown and indigenous folks, and people are out here not wearing masks. How does the federal government mitigate this crisis, particularly for those who are underserved?
The scale and scope of this, the gravity of this, it is overwhelming. Although we have passed numerous bipartisan bills on the House side in the midst of COVID, our disconnected and callous colleagues across the aisle in this GOP-led Senate just don’t get it. We’re in a pandemic. You’re supposed to be leading, and we started out behind because of their science denials and their criminal negligence.
And you look at those lines in Kentucky and Georgia [to vote], and you get angry. I just need to say stop with this narrative that black folks don’t vote. I saw so many parents with their kids. Six, eight hours in line. Elders, young mothers with babies on their hips, in inclement weather. We have been the preservers of democracy and this party for decades, so black folks vote. And when we don’t, it’s not because we’re ignorant and apathetic and don’t know any better, it’s because we know too much! We know too much based on our lived experiences, and there is a deficit of trust.
You came forward in January to talk about living with alopecia. How have you seen that revelation impact your constituents?
I’ve been embraced by the people that I represent. I won’t pretend that it’s easy all the time, because to be a black woman, to be a black woman in Congress, and to also be navigating the world bald, makes many people uncomfortable, and they are often vitriolic and hateful in their response. But representation is a powerful thing. And so when I’m tempted to shrink in a corner, because I’m still coming to grips with this, I think about all of the men, women, and children living with alopecia who have contacted me just to tell me what it means to them, to turn on the television or to open a newspaper and to see themselves reflected back. And so I’m going to continue to stand firm in it.
There are so many extraordinarily pressing problems right now. If Democrats are successful in November, there’s the worry that Congress will get only one or two chances to take really big swings. What do you think would be the first thing a Democratic White House and Congress should tackle?
Maybe we would go back to the first bill that we voted on in this 116th Congress, H.R. 1, because everything comes back to rooting out corruption. I mean, you have to begin there. We have to address corruption, the influence of dark money in our elections. We have to protect our elections and increase access to the ballot.
But I don’t believe in this you-only-get-one-bite-of-the-apple thing. Are you looking at what’s happening in the country right now? We better be moving on more than one. This is the time for overhaul. Folks talk about how they can’t wait till COVID is behind us so we can return to normal. There’s no returning to normal. The normal was insufficient, it was unjust, and it wasn’t adequate to begin with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity and appears in the August print issue of Rolling Stone. See the full video interview below.
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