The Only Ones Who Get It

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Christ Chavez/Getty Images

By ABE ASHER

On Monday in West Texas, a delegation of more than a dozen congressional Democrats toured detention facilities in which the Trump administration has been holding migrants for the past year-plus in horrifying conditions.

Among the delegation were a trio of first-term representatives who are among the most recognizable in body: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

What they and their colleagues reported seeing in El Paso and Clint should enrage every person in this country.

Ocasio-Cortez and California Rep. Judy Chu reported that women were being forced to drink water from toilets. Others have no access to running water or showers. People have been crammed into cells for inordinate periods time, denied medication, and seen their access to legal services limited.

The only photographic documentation from inside the facilities the delegation toured exists solely because San Antonio Rep. Joaquin Castro, brother of presidential candidate Julián, smuggled a camera inside of one of the buildings.

What is happening at the border is, just as it was last summer when agents were separating parents from their children, simply a humanitarian crisis perpetrated by people profiting from it in money, sadism, or both.

On Monday morning, as the delegation’s day was just beginning, ProPublica reported on the existence of a Facebook group in which Border Patrol agents crack jokes about people dying in their facilities and assaulting Latino members of Congress.

The group includes nearly 10,000 current and former agents – or nearly half the number of agents currently employed by the patrol. The culture of the agency is thoroughly and completely rotten. Consistent reports of sexual abuse of detainees should shock no one.

A number of these facilities, meanwhile, like the one in Homestead, Florida that a number of Democratic presidential candidates visited when they were in the state for last week’s debate, are privately run.

The Homestead facility is operated by the for-profit company Caliburn, which was awarded that privilege by way of a $341 billion no-bid contract and counts among its board members Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly.

There is a large industry benefitting from the operation of these centers, just as there is a massive industry benefitting from the operation of the standard American prison and defense systems.

Ocasio-Cortez, of course, reignited the public debate over the condition of the detention centers two weeks ago by (correctly) calling them concentration camps and leading the U.S. Holocaust Museum to make absolute mockery of itself by claiming that no event anywhere can ever be compared to the Holocaust itself.

Ocasio-Cortez has met this moment by relentlessly, uncompromisingly, unsparingly calling out lies and speaking the truth. That is what it looks like to fight and to lead, and it’s a model that she and her young progressive peers have owned over the last year.

They are not beholden to the status quo. It’s not just that they don’t take corporate money, important as that is. It’s more that they simply do not believe that the ultimate goal in American politics is conviviality.

They do not think that the David Brookses and Bret Stephens of the world should be coddled and courted because they are conservative and powerful, they understand that they and the privilege they represent must be toppled, full stop.

Civility? Civility is not about getting along with everybody. It is about respecting and adhering to a certain set of norms around how we live with each other, norms that are currently being violated in this country and by this country, on the border and beyond it, every single day.

If you get along with white supremacists, as Joe Biden did, or trust war criminals, as Hillary Clinton did, there is something deeply, disturbingly wrong with you. You either never had any sense of decorum, or you lost it somewhere along the way.

Few people in politics, on either side of the aisle, represent this mental malaise as well as Biden – a man who is perpetually reaching for the America that has served him so well, one in which, as he put it so recently to a room full of donors, “nothing [would] fundamentally change.”

Nancy Pelosi is not here to support people like Ilhan Omar. She has routinely dismissed the progressive wing of her caucus on issues ranging from impeachment to the budget and is still, as of this week, doing things like handing out extra money to the Department of Homeland Security.

For all of the credit she gets as a deft political maneuverer, she and people like Chuck Schumer – who isn’t even that – do not drive the conversation in this country, or, increasingly, in their own party. Not on the climate, not on healthcare, not on immigration, not anywhere.

Eventually, these progressive lawmakers will endorse either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren for president. But what the country needs most is for them to continue to flatten everything in their path, accumulate as much power as they can, and wield it as ruthlessly as the Republicans have over the last decade.

The left is building the infrastructure required to support them. Organizations and firms like Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, IfNotNow, MVMT Communications, and the Democratic Socialists of America are equally important in this struggle.

Politics need not be war. But it is also not a sporting event in which, whatever side you’re on and however things shake out, no one takes anything that happens personally, Dick Cheney is still a “decent man,” and Rick Snyder gets a fellowship at the Kennedy School.

These young progressive leaders going to make their fair share of mistakes. They’re certainly going to suffer their fair share of abuse. A number of them already have. And they’re going to press ahead regardless because they have the fierce urgency of now.

That is what Tlaib said at a rally Monday evening in Texas, shouting over a cacophony of racist protesters. Take a look at her. She’s not kidding.

Neither is Pressley. At that same rally, addressing those same protesters, she said this: “I learned a long time ago that when change happens, it’s either because people see the light, or they feel the fire. Today we are lifting up these stories in the hope that you will see the light.

“And if you don’t,” she concluded, “we will bring the fire.”

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