On the Ground at Netroots Nation 2019
Netroots Nations had over 4,000 attendees this year, and featured three days of back-to-back panels, discussions, and keynotes. Those present tried to get to the heart of our current political landscape, learn, and examine the best way to effect change. There was plenty to digest and unpack. It’s taken me a week.
My walk over to the Philadelphia Convention Center included traversing an underpass that was serving as a shelter to homeless men and women. It was a real time reminder of the pressing challenges impacting people on-the-ground.
There were trainings, special events, film screenings, and vendor booths (from tech products to animal rights). It was impossible to cover everything, but my agenda of women’s issues, the environment, and human rights overlapped with talks on immigration, voter suppression, and getting more people into the conversation.
Thursday began with “Making the Green New Deal Real.” It had a vibrant panel with Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement setting the tone. “The climate crisis is the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes,” she pronounced. She called for a recalibration of American values and a condemnation of the last forty years of corporate control. “It goes beyond the realm of environmentalism,” she said. “It’s about climate justice.
Kevin de León, who served in California’s State Senate, made it clear that “climate change is not an academic or science issue — it’s a lack of leadership issue.” He spoke about a “comprehensive approach to decarbonization” while underscoring that a “carbon tax is not a panacea.”
California, the fifth largest global economy, has legally committed to renewable energy by 2045. De León offered, “Earth may be fine, but humans won’t be.”
Brad Johnson, editor of Hill Heat, connected the dots between the Trump agenda of racism, anti-immigration, and the “global south becoming unlivable.”
Naomi Klein commented, “It’s easy to understand why the right is freaked out. The climate crisis is a huge conflict to centrism.” She used the term “climate barbarism” to qualify what is happening on the border, and to highlight the “relationship between storms and undemocratic governments.” Klein’s top advice was, “Move quickly, move forward, and push from the outside.”
Prakash emphasized, “We need to win over working people.” Connecting with labor movements and getting an “army of young people” involved is Prakash’s vision of how to elect “a generation to office that will enact our values.” She also advised calling on politicians not to take fossil fuel money, and to push the DNC to have a specific climate debate.
De León was also on the “100% Clean Energy Revolution: Paths to Victory in the States” panel. Again, he pointed to the need to put laws into play that would task states with renewal requirements for actively setting goals.
Taking on Environmental Justice, Rep. Chris Rabb related how his grandmother had prevented the siting of an incinerator in her Baltimore African-American community. “We need the political will to be on the right side of history. Not all elected are visionaries.” Adding levity to the mix while pushing the importance of taking action, Rabb said, “I’m a parent, I’m an earthling, and this is the only planet that I’m familiar with.”
Using personal stories to create a narrative that people can relate to was the focal point of “Tools for Intersectional Climate Justice.” Jade Begay spoke about Indigenous solutions-based actions. “As Indigenous peoples, we are not immigrants on this continent. We must reclaim the narrative of Indigenous people for Indigenous people.” Interrelated was the reality of voter suppression in Native American communities.
By 2050, it is estimated that 200 million people will be migrating due to the climate crisis. Sabelo Narasimhan, Digital Campaign Manager at 350.org, talked about the need to understand core causes tied to the rise of the fossil fuel industry. “In California, 92 percent of those who live near toxic sites are people of color. If you don’t address the roots, you’re just trimming the hedges.”
“Women Marched, Ran and Won — What’s Next?” took a look at how women could move forward while working together. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said, “We are in a moment that is both terrifying and enraging, but we’re not taking it sitting down. Women are at the center of change. Domestic workers have built a moment. Women’s soccer is galvanizing a conversation about pay equity.” Garza acknowledged that even though progressives were “at an apex where conditions are getting worse, movements were getting stronger.” Her essential concerns were about the schisms of division. “We have to stop making the old mistakes. We need to do things differently. We need more diversity.”
Cortney Tunis, Executive Director of Pantsuit Nation, asked, “What would be different if there were more progressive women in government?” She answered by stating, “Women are ready to do the work, but they are severely under-represented. Everybody needs to be at the table. We have to close the gap around race and sexuality (Fact: The life span of a black, trans woman is 35-years-old.). Power must be built among those previously disenfranchised.”
The co-founder of UltraViolet, Shaunna Thomas, framed the question as, “How are things changing structurally? What does a post-patriarchal world look like?” She also called attention to the fact, “There are plenty of women who do more to prop up the patriarchy than most people I know.”
Garza noted that many women feel that feminism is just for white women. “Others have been locked out,” she said. “It’s been defined as a cisgender, U.S. born, and able-bodied class narrative. What will we fill the gap with? We have to close the gap between how decisions are being made and who is making them.”
Perhaps one of the hardest working women at Netroots was Lizz Winstead, comedienne and activist. Each day at noon, Winstead ran Operation Save Abortion. With her posse from the Abortion Access Front, they did a rundown of all the assaults on reproductive rights that aren’t getting any traction above-the-radar.
Winstead also moderated the panel, “Abortion is Not a Wedge Issue.” The goal of her work is to center abortion in the conversation and to eradicate the stigmatization that does “the community a disservice.”
Examining how abortion has been framed in the past, Winstead discussed how top Democrats have spoken about it. “Bill Clinton suggested it should be safe, legal, and rare. The use of the term rare was the equivalent of putting a moral caveat on abortion.” He wasn’t the only party stalwart who didn’t prioritize the subject. “Pelosi has said abortion access is not key; Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, ‘It’s about jobs and the economy.’” Winstead added tartly, “The list of our supporters is sad, and we don’t hold them accountable.”
A main factor in the equation for the panelists was the “misuse” of language. “When we say pro-choice, it removes the realities we need to be fighting for,” said Roxanne Sutocky from The Women’s Centers. “By not using the word abortion, we have ceded the language to anti-abortionists.” Sutcoky believes that if clients don’t want to use the word, it’s because “shame has been put on them by others.” Winstead said, “If we’re going to defend something, we have to name it.”
Reproductive rights have been tied to cisgender women, which leaves trans people and gender non-conforming people out of the discourse. Sebastian Pelaez offered: “Analyze the space you occupy. Make sure gender pronouns are reaffirming. We’re in scary times. When you use very gendered language you exclude the trans community. It’s on us to be inclusive.”
With everything that I learned at Netroots, my biggest takeaway came from, “Defending the Census: The Next Frontier in the Fight for Our Democracy.”
The room was packed, and part of the draw was former Attorney General Eric Holder, who received major applause. Moderator and lawyer, Adam Bonin asked, “What the hell is going on?” Holder responded, “Welcome to Trump’s America.” Then he added his definition of the word hypocrisy: “A photo of Jeff Sessions.”
“We need a fair census count for accurate redistricting,” said Holder. “Delegations are not reflecting the will of the people. Republicans are defending the will of Republicans and the wealthy.” Holder made his concern palpable. “This election in 2020 is existential. The local and state levels are key.”
Vanita Gupta, who served under Holder as the head of the Civil Rights division at the Justice Department stated, “The reality is federal government has to do a count of everyone. We never got a 100 percent count.” Gupta stressed the level of fear in “the hardest count” communities and mixed-status families. “Folks are going to want to sit the census out. But we must do it. It’s the only way to fight back.”
There were two Secretaries of State on hand. Alex Padilla, from California, said, “If we don’t participate in the 2020 Census, Trump wins.” Denise Merrill, serving Connecticut, reflected on the fact that “there is so much less trust in government.” She suggested to the crowd that they reach out to state legislators, and get involved in taking a pro-active stance on spotlighting the census, including involving local Indivisible groups.
2020 will be the first digital census, which raises the questions of: “Will the census be secure; how to overcome the digital divide; how can a complete count be ensured.”
CensusCounts.org was repeatedly mentioned as a leading source for background material. Although the census bureau cannot divulge any data for seventy years, there is no guarantee that ICE won’t get information. “These fears are legitimate,” granted Holder. “We have to protect people. The political direction of this country is at stake. If we don’t participate in this census, they win.”
The impact of an undercount resonates in three key areas: Resources, Redistricting, and Reapportionment.
“We have to be in all places in all states,” Gupta said. “We have to combat disinformation on the web and social media. A correct count shifts power. The census must be added to our talking points.”
Holder backed up that premise. “We’ve got to get ready. There will be disinformation from the Russians and domestically.” Pausing, Holder asked the filled room, “What are you going to do?” After letting that sink in, he wrapped up with the thought, “The democracy we all love is at stake. Conservatives hold on to the past. Progressives look to the future.”
Sandra Cordero, Families Belong Together: “There’s nothing else as someone else’s children. It’s on all of us.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley: “The Progressive caucus is only 40 percent of the Democrats. We have to Dump Trump, Ditch Mitch, and Save America.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar: “What is causing mass migration? No one goes to the mouth of the shark unless the mouth of the shark is safer than home.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “Our destinies and freedoms are tied. Don’t allow them to divide us. Redefine that table.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “We need to get rid of cash bail, but we can’t replace it with another system (data) that treats blacks and whites differently.”
Rep. Barbara Lee: “This administration is working overtime to bring us back to medieval times. We’re not just spinning our wheels. We’re showing people what we want to do. Let’s go out and change this country!”
Photos: Marcia G. Yerman