‘There’s a Need for Organizers Everywhere’

Representative Pramila Jayapal on sparring with Bill Barr, Jeff Bezos, and Joe Biden.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool/Getty Images
Photo: Mandel Ngan/Pool/Getty Images

Pramila Jayapal has been arrested three times. First in 2010, and again in 2013, during her years as a community organizer in Seattle. But between arrests number two and three, which took place in 2018, a few things changed. For one, Jayapal had been elected to Congress. “I am an unusual elected official,” the representative from Washington admits early in her new book, though she adds that the late Representative John Lewis, “a moral North Star” to her, had a much longer arrest record.

By the time she became one of the few immigrants and women of color in an overwhelmingly white Congress, Jayapal was already a fighter. She remains one, as Attorney General Bill Barr and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently learned in contentious House hearings. Jayapal’s trajectory maps roughly onto that of the left at large. Her circumstances have changed, and so have ours; the president is now Donald Trump, and not Barack Obama. But her arrests all share a context. In America the immigrant is a consistent scapegoat, propitiation for a number of national sins. Jayapal protested deportations under Obama, then family separations under Trump.

“I really think that Trump is both a symptom and a cause,” she tells me from her home in Seattle, where she lives with her husband, Steve, and an 85-pound Labradoodle named Otis. “We have to deal with the symptom, and get Trump out of office. But we also have to deal with the cause, and that’s inequities in racial, gender, and economic justice, and the system that has perpetuated them.”

“My deep fear,” she adds, “is that we get Trump out of office, but don’t do enough to address the root causes. And we leave open that giant wound to fester, so that people can again use it to their advantage to divide us, and to get another Trump.”

She knows that half measures can fail. On June 8, she urged city officials to end the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash bangs. The city’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, had announced a tear-gas ban days earlier, but it was temporary, only banned one version of tear gas, and included a large carve-out, which the police quickly abused. Jayapal and several members of the City Council want a permanent ban, “a transformative new model” of policing that starts with a Robin Hood gesture. Take from the police, who are flush with cash, and give to the city’s needy. While that falls short of some activists’ demands — it’s not abolition — it remains further than even many Democrats want to go. She splits her time now between Seattle and Washington, D.C., where she recently helped the Justice in Policing Act pass the House.

In many respects, then, Jayapal is a politician of the moment. One of the most outspoken progressives in Congress, she represents an area that often functions like an incubator for left-wing policy and protest. The nation’s pundits would argue, perhaps, that what flies in Seattle won’t necessarily work anywhere else. Jayapal doesn’t buy that. “I mean, look at the $15 minimum wage, right? We were the first major city to do that. And I was on that committee. And now whether you’re in southwest Virginia,” she says, naming my native region, “or wherever you are, the $15 minimum wage is seen as really, really important. And that’s true on so many issues.” She relates a story about a community in northeast Oregon, where she once taught writing. (Jayapal majored in English, to the consternation of her parents.) “They had protests over the murder of George Floyd,” she continues. “And I never in a million years would have imagined all those people out on the streets in that very tiny, conservative area.” She has a point. People are protesting for Black lives in southwest Virginia, too, in the coal towns, and in the bigger cities. Outrage spreads far beyond the imaginary borders of blue America.

For all its progress, Seattle isn’t a liberal paradise, either. The city has its own complications and contradictions. Gentrification and a booming tech sector have driven up housing prices, and the mayor, Durkan, recently alienated progressives for her failure to control the city’s brutal police force. Activism runs into institutionalism, even in Seattle. That friction created an apt proving ground for Jayapal, who now co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Jayapal’s book, which is part memoir, part organizing manual, outlines those challenges at length. Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change traces her trajectory from activist to state senator to member of Congress. While she couldn’t have anticipated that it would arrive in such a charged moment — she tells me that she first signed her book contract in 2012 — she believes it has a lot to offer readers now. “People are always asking me how we address the issue of voices that are not at the table in policy-making,” she told me this summer. “And I think everything that’s happening right now, from the economic devastation of the COVID pandemic to the protests in the streets around the murdering of Black lives, is directly related to that to the question of power.”

That question has driven Jayapal for a long time. Before she was in politics or even activism, she was a new immigrant, sent abroad by her Indian parents at 16 so she could enroll at Georgetown University. Jayapal made a life in the U.S., and later married an American citizen. But she briefly lost her green card in 1997, after the premature birth of her child forced her to extend a stay in India. American immigration law stipulates that green-card applicants can only leave the U.S. for set periods of time. In the book, she credits professional connections for helping her come home. “My permanent resident status was restored, but all the years that qualified me for citizenship were stripped away and I had to start again from scratch,” she writes. She became a citizen in 2000, less than a year before the events of September 11, 2001 transformed both the U.S. and the trajectory of her own life.

In the wake of the attacks, President George W. Bush cast the war on terror in apocalyptic terms, an existential struggle between us and a broad category of other. People listened, and some, Jayapal notes, targeted Muslims and Sikhs — often mistaken for Muslims — for acts of vigilante violence. Jayapal then a distraught new citizen, began to organize, starting with a push to declare Seattle a “Hate Free Zone.” She later started a group by the same name; it has since evolved into OneAmerica. Jayapal says she sees parallels between the events that first propelled her into activism and the abuses of the Trump presidency. “The days right after Trump got elected felt very much like those post-9/11 days. Except that I had gone through it, and so I almost felt like I had a road map of what to do,” she says.

But it’s not all bad news. The Supreme Court’s June rulings on DACA and anti-LGBT discrimination at work made her “so joyful,” she says. Both decisions have personal meaning for her. The DACA ruling protects hard-won gains for the immigrant-rights movement. The Bostock cases, meanwhile, created new protections for her nonbinary child, Janak, who’s now in their early 20s. “Thinking about all those milestones that got us to this point, that just would not have happened without the organizing and the storytelling and the courage of people,” she adds. When her organization, Hate Free Zone, signed on to an amicus brief in Andersen v. King County, which challenged Washington’s ban on same-sex marriage, she says they were the only non-LGBTQ organization to do so. “We got so much grief from many immigrant communities who were not ready to sign on to marriage equality, who didn’t see it as the civil-rights issue that I did,” she remembers. “Then we invested for ten years in building the intersections between immigration and LGBTQ equality.”

Organizing has changed since then, she adds, and multiethnic and multi-issue coalition work has become more common in particular. But she’s still figuring out where she fits as a member of the Establishment. As an organizer, she was on the outside, pushing the party to move left on issues like immigration and the minimum wage. Her book recounts at length a struggle to convince other Democrats in the state senate to reject a bill repealing regulations on the payday-lending industry. It didn’t work. “I wasn’t part of the Democratic Party, with a capital D and a capital P,” she explains.

Now an insider, a rising Democratic star with a national profile, Jayapal can find herself on the receiving end of criticism from activists. Despite its name, the CPC is ideologically diverse, and its rank-and-file members aren’t all as liberal as Jayapal. On issues like national security and immigration, they can in fact be significantly to her right — and as a caucus co-chair, it’s her task to figure out where exactly to draw the line. “For me, it has to be a principled compromise,” she says. “So when people say, well, Republicans and Democrats should just compromise, I get a little testy because what is a compromise on family separation? Should we just lock up half of the children that have been separated from their families? That’s not really a compromise.”

That testiness reemerged in July, during Attorney General Bill Barr’s contentious appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Jayapal wanted Barr to explain why federal officers had attacked Black Lives Matter protesters but ignored death threats directed at Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer by opponents of her pandemic lockdown measures. Barr couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide a satisfactory answer. “You take an aggressive approach to Black Lives Matter protests but not to right-wing extremists threatening to lynch the governor, if it’s for the president’s benefit. Did I get it right, Mr. Barr?” demanded a visibly aggravated Jayapal.

The clash was prime viral content. But in context, that heated moment belonged to a deliberate and pointed line of questioning. “I wrote and rewrote that script multiple times,” she tells me by phone in early August. “I wanted to draw a very clear contrast that people would be able to understand. About how he’s using the Justice Department to further the president’s personal agenda, and doing it through trampling on the constitutional rights of some, but not responding at all to hate.” The anger, however, wasn’t part of any strategy. She had decided to start off softly, see how things went; with his evasive responses, Barr sealed his own fate.

“He was annoying me!” she explains, laughing a little. “So I had to respond in kind.”

Political life generates questions that nobody with principles wants to contemplate. When do you compromise, and how much do you concede? Ask an organizer and a congresswoman, and they’ll offer two different answers. For some lawmakers, compromise might be a refuge, a way out of taking a costly stand. But a politician who says they’re on the left, as opposed to the center, invites high expectations for their work. Jayapal wrestles openly with that dilemma. If she has to settle, she says to me, she’ll take a small step forward over none at all, and will continue to push where she can, as far as she can.

Take Medicare for All, which Jayapal strongly supports. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will probably never back Jayapal’s Medicare for All bill, but despite this, Jayapal, her CPC co-chair Mark Pocan from Wisconsin, and their allies were able to negotiate the first House hearings on the policy in 2019. The progressives pushed, too, for the inclusion of a patient voice on the witness list: Ady Barkan, who lives with ALS and is a prominent supporter of Medicare for All. The process of getting Barkan on the list “had been complicated, and almost did not happen,” Jayapal writes in her book. In the end, Barkan “decided to utilize his own relationship with Speaker Pelosi,” and told Pelosi it was his dream to testify for Medicare for All. Only then did he get the chance to appear.

With pro-Medicare for All progressives like Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones now headed to the House, Jayapal will have more allies than she did during that initial, historic hearing. The nomination of Joe Biden, though, represents something of a setback in the fight for left-wing policies. Biden is steadfastly opposed to Medicare for All, even in the middle of a pandemic; in the past, he’s even implied that he might not sign the bill if it reached his desk. If he defeats Trump, members like Jayapal and Pocan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will go from being the opposition within the opposition to a goad at the back of a conservative Democratic president.

But Jayapal is ready. To me, she stresses the importance of electing Biden, pointing out that left-wing Democrats stand to achieve more under Biden than they possibly could under Trump. She co-chaired the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on health care, another exercise in compromise. “We did not get Medicare for All. We never expected that we would,” she says. “But I would say that we did make some significant gains. Both in actual policy, and in the framing of how we can never again be caught flat-footed on health care during another pandemic. We’re really taking on racial inequity and untethering employment to health care, plus the automatic enrollment of uninsured into health-care options.”

“But the minute Biden is in,” she adds, “we have to switch to continuing the fight.”

It’s a fight she believes the left can win, on Capitol Hill and in the streets. To activists pushing for prison abolition and a health-care system that doesn’t abandon the poor to die, Congress can look like an obstacle, not an institution worth the time it would take to engage it. Why run for office when it takes years of work to even get hearings on Medicare for All? Or when the opposition party nominates an architect of the infamous 1994 crime bill to take on Trump? “There’s a need for organizers everywhere,” she points out. Not everyone needs to run for office. Someone has to stay on the outside, the place she once occupied, and press legislators for change, as she once did.

But Congress itself is an organizing opportunity, she adds, a chance to build infrastructure for ideas and politicians that even the Democratic Party leaves behind. “We are much more powerful if we are at the table with our voices, even when we feel frustrated that we aren’t getting enough of a response,” she says. “Just imagine what it would be like if we weren’t there.”

‘There’s a Need for Organizers Everywhere’