Interviews for Resistance: A Democratic Socialist on Running to Transform the Democratic Party

A candidate for city council in South Fulton, Georgia, talks about running for local office as a way to infiltrate and transform the Democratic Party.

Sarah Jaffe

khalid kamau helped to organize the Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. He intentionally lowercases his first and last names. (khalid kamau/ Facebook)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same.

"The middle class has disappeared. Now, we have a working class and wealthy class."

khalid kamau: My name is khalid kamau. I am run­ning for city coun­cil in the city of South Ful­ton, Georgia.

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s start with your deci­sion to run for the city coun­cil. Talk about what made you decide to run for elect­ed office.

khalid: There were a vari­ety of fac­tors, but it all real­ly began with Bernie Sanders. I don’t think any of us yet rec­og­nized how mon­u­men­tal his cam­paign was. Every pres­i­den­tial race brings into the polit­i­cal process a new gen­er­a­tion of vol­un­teers, peo­ple who are will­ing to knock doors and get involved in pol­i­tics, but Bernie gal­va­nized a group of high­ly edu­cat­ed, high­ly skilled activists. These peo­ple were pret­ty much already polit­i­cal­ly involved, folks like myself. Then, he charged us to run for local office, specif­i­cal­ly, as a way of both infil­trat­ing and trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, and work­ing our way up the polit­i­cal ladder.

I think one of the big mis­takes that many folks on the left, par­tic­u­lar­ly, make — but peo­ple in gen­er­al — is this idea of try­ing to trans­form gov­ern­ment and soci­ety from the top down. So, only focus on the big races: the pres­i­den­tial race or governor’s race. We hope to get some­one in office that way and that they will make this change from the top down. What we have seen, obvi­ous­ly, from states like North Car­oli­na is that even when you are able to win the big seats, which are usu­al­ly long­shot races, if you haven’t infil­trat­ed that par­ty or that gov­ern­ment struc­ture from the ground up, it is very hard for a head of state, whether it is a gov­er­nor or the pres­i­dent to real­ly insti­tute change if they don’t have a coop­er­a­tive Con­gress or state leg­is­la­ture or city council.

Then, the sec­ond impor­tant thing about going the oth­er direc­tion is that you are real­ly devel­op­ing a set of peo­ple that vote in key posi­tions. For exam­ple, both with the nom­i­na­tion process for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and the elec­tions this last month of the DNC chairs, there weren’t enough pro­gres­sives in deci­sion-mak­ing places, be it superdel­e­gates or del­e­gates to the con­ven­tion, but also post hold­ers and coun­ty chairs that get to vote at the DNC win­ter meet­ing for the DNC chair. Those posi­tions are held by peo­ple that get into them years before those elec­tions hap­pen. So, years before the 2016 con­ven­tion and years before the 2017 DNC win­ter meet­ing, peo­ple ran for elec­tions and got into those seats. It is real­ly impor­tant that we do the real­ly hard, long game ground work. Those are the things that excit­ed me, per­son­al­ly, as an activist and polit­i­cal organizer.

I was think­ing about how I could get involved in metro Atlanta, in my local area. By the grace of God, it turned out that the area that I lived in, which was unin­cor­po­rat­ed, decid­ed to become a city. So, here, this place that I was cur­rent­ly liv­ing, which is where I was born and raised — I live in the house that I grew up in as a child — was incor­po­rat­ing and becom­ing a city. That was a nat­ur­al fit. Then, I learned the specifics, that this city will be the largest city that the state of Geor­gia has cre­at­ed in over 100 years and that it is near­ly the size of the cap­i­tal city itself, under­stand­ing the size and scope of the city, which peo­ple who are not as polit­i­cal­ly involved are just becom­ing aware of. Every day peo­ple are begin­ning to real­ize just how large this city is, how many dif­fer­ent coun­ties and munic­i­pal­i­ties we will touch. We have the pos­si­bil­i­ty to have the largest pro­gres­sive city in the South if we can win four out of the sev­en city coun­cil posi­tions and/​or the mayor’s office.

The third key point is that by hav­ing a city that is pro­gres­sive, it gives us a chance to make the argu­ment for pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy. A lot of these poli­cies that Bernie and oth­er pro­gres­sives have talked about, whether it is a $15 min­i­mum wage and uni­ver­sal health­care or hav­ing elec­tion day be a nation­al hol­i­day, lots of peo­ple think, Oh, those are good ideas, but they can’t work. They are not sus­tain­able. They are not eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble.” So, we are ask­ing peo­ple very often in nation­al elec­tions to take a chance on some­thing that they have not seen at the local lev­el, on a small­er lev­el. This is our shot, in Geor­gia specif­i­cal­ly, but in the South in gen­er­al, to show that these poli­cies actu­al­ly do work and that they are not just good ideas, but they are smart ideas and they can grow economies and trans­form regions and get peo­ple involved in their elec­torate and their local gov­ern­ment. Those are things that excite me.

Sarah: I under­stand you work with a vari­ety of orga­ni­za­tions and activist groups in the Atlanta area. I would love to hear about some of the orga­niz­ing you did with Black Lives Mat­ter, the Fight for $15.

khalid: I helped orga­nize the Atlanta chap­ter of Black Lives Mat­ter. I was at the very first meet­ing. It was actu­al­ly called by a very for­ward think­ing com­rade, Mary Hooks. She called togeth­er a meet­ing, so I got involved with that. We had done a lot, par­tic­u­lar­ly around address­ing police vio­lence. I call it blue on black” crime here in Atlanta. That is actu­al­ly anoth­er thing that inspired me to run … because there have been quite a few inci­dents in Geor­gia. We have been try­ing to at least have tri­al for police offi­cers. We have not in the past sev­en years — there have been over 70 shoot­ings, 70 killings of civil­ians by police and we have not once in those sev­en years ever had a tri­al, let alone a con­vic­tion, just nev­er even a tri­al about it.

We have been real­ly push­ing as well for mar­i­jua­na decrim­i­nal­iza­tion because that is a big dri­ver in the prison pipeline. Geor­gia is actu­al­ly [at the top] for dis­parate mar­i­jua­na arrests, for black and brown peo­ple being arrest­ed at a dis­pro­por­tion­ate rate. Those are the two big things we have been work­ing on.

I real­ize with this new city, that a lot of the posi­tions that we were try­ing to replace or a lot of the ordi­nances that we were try­ing to have changed, as a brand new city, we would get to write those ordi­nances. We would get to select or vote on the police chief or the city court sys­tem. It just seems like a nat­ur­al progression.

I also worked with orga­nized labor here in Atlanta both for the Fight for $15, but also in my own job. At the time that I began work­ing for the Sanders cam­paign, I was actu­al­ly a para­tran­sit bus oper­a­tor here in Atlanta. Atlanta tran­sit sys­tem, which is called MAR­TA, Metro Atlanta Rapid Tran­sit Author­i­ty, decid­ed to out­source over 300 bus oper­a­tors and mechan­ics. It was real­ly an effort to get out of its con­tract with the union, to get out of its pen­sion oblig­a­tions and its health insur­ance oblig­a­tions that had been nego­ti­at­ed by orga­nized labor. We fought that for sev­er­al months. The out­sourc­ing hap­pened and I lost my job, which real­ly fur­ther rad­i­cal­ized me.

The good news is that a fed­er­al judge has actu­al­ly over­turned that out­sourc­ing and issued an injunc­tion. Those tran­sit work­ers are going to get their jobs back. MAR­TA is still appeal­ing that deci­sion, but as of right now it looks like the court has ruled in our favor, so those jobs will go back. Just being a part of those dif­fer­ent move­ments was real­ly what helped when it came time for me to run for office in terms of endorse­ments and vol­un­teers. It was real­ly just sort of a nat­ur­al evolution.

Sarah: Geor­gia is not a state with a big labor move­ment. It is a so-called right to work” state. I would love to hear you talk a lit­tle bit more about being involved in the labor move­ment in Geor­gia, in Atlanta — the pit­falls, but also the pos­i­tives of the labor move­ment in Georgia.

khalid: With the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion that we have in office and the bal­ance of the Supreme Court right now, we may be nation­al­ly mov­ing to a nation­al right-to-work law and over­turn­ing decades of prece­dents that favored orga­nized labor. I think it is sort of excit­ing and infor­ma­tive to be in this state to see how labor orga­nizes and recruits when it is not auto­mat­ic for work­ers to be enrolled. How do you, in a right-to-work state, explain the val­ue and impor­tance of join­ing the union and sup­port­ing the union? My work, pri­mar­i­ly, has been with ATU, the tran­sit union. But, I was also a mem­ber of CWA and I have been endorsed in this race by the Teamsters.

Sarah: I found out about your cam­paign through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, who were very excit­ed to have one of their own run­ning for office. I would love to hear you talk a lit­tle bit about the con­nec­tions that you have to nation­al groups and think­ing about run­ning for local office in the con­text of build­ing a broad­er move­ment across the country.

khalid: I think it is very impor­tant. We only have a two-par­ty sys­tem, unfor­tu­nate­ly, right now. So, in states where Democ­rats are not in pow­er, red states, it is very impor­tant to net­work nation­al­ly so that you can get a lev­el of sup­port both finan­cial­ly and in terms of vol­un­teers that your par­ty local­ly may not be able to sup­ply. I don’t think that we have a short­age of vol­un­teers in Geor­gia, but it has been amaz­ing the groundswell of finan­cial sup­port that I have got­ten nation­al­ly just being aligned with Our Rev­o­lu­tion and Bernie Sanders and by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, which Bernie also came out of. I trav­elled to New York to speak at the youth con­fer­ence, signed up scores of vol­un­teers, received thou­sands upon thou­sands of dol­lars, at this point, tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in dona­tions from across the country.

That is very key in financ­ing these insur­gent cam­paigns because even if you are able to gar­ner sup­port from your local state par­ty — which, very often, you will not because they have their own estab­lish­ment can­di­dates that they pre­fer to sup­port — it is very impor­tant for true pro­gres­sives to net­work across state lines and to pool their resources across state lines into races that we can both win and that can have some notable impact on pol­i­cy for a region.

Sarah: Relat­ed to that, what has been the reac­tion of the estab­lish­ment Democ­rats to your cam­paign? How have they react­ed to you? Espe­cial­ly, after your pret­ty over­whelm­ing vote total in the first round of this election.

khalid: They have been qui­et­ly sup­port­ive. There is always a com­pli­cat­ed polit­i­cal cal­cu­lus. In my race, it was real­ly his­toric. We have sev­en city coun­cil dis­tricts and a may­or. So, eight seats and we had over 71 can­di­dates for those eight seats. Many estab­lish­ment Democ­rats in Geor­gia were afraid to endorse me or any­one in any of the races, because they were afraid of who they might piss off that was con­nect­ed to one of the 71 can­di­dates. All of us know our dif­fer­ent peo­ple. So, a lot of them just stayed out of the race. Then, very often — and it is prob­a­bly a good thing — many state par­ties and state par­ty lead­ers, because this is an over­whelm­ing­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic race and region, many of them have a pol­i­cy of just not get­ting into races where there is a Demo­c­rat on Democrat.

So, their sup­port has been tepid, at best. But, hav­ing true pro­gres­sives, unapolo­getic pro­gres­sives, I real­ly see us build­ing a move­ment that is sort of like the Tea Par­ty where we are not afraid to endorse in intra-par­ti­san races or non-par­ti­san races. Peo­ple like the DSA or Our Rev­o­lu­tion are look­ing for bonafide pro­gres­sive can­di­dates. Those are the only peo­ple they are going to sup­port and they will sup­port them even if they are run­ning against anoth­er Demo­c­rat and they put mon­ey behind it. Then, you do have a few coura­geous estab­lish­ment Democ­rats like Ted Ter­ry, who is the may­or of Clark­ston, who is real­ly a mod­el for pro­gres­sivism in Geor­gia. He has raised the min­i­mum wage of city work­ers to $15 an hour and made vot­ing a munic­i­pal hol­i­day and also less­ened the penal­ties for mar­i­jua­na so that work­ing-class peo­ple are not just being locked up for smok­ing a joint.

That is also the impor­tance of hav­ing true pro­gres­sives get orga­nized in a fundrais­ing way and in a vol­un­teer way to real­ly influ­ence local elec­tions. Hope­ful­ly, this is just prac­tice for first a statewide move­ment to get involved in pol­i­tics at the state lev­el and then, the nation­al lev­el. I think this cam­paign has been gal­va­niz­ing for pro­gres­sives because they under­stand, Oh, when we get involved and we start orga­niz­ing in a very tar­get­ed way and sup­port­ing peo­ple at a very tar­get­ed way, we can win races and if we can do this local­ly, we can do it on larg­er stages, as well.”

I think the thing that is most pow­er­ful about this race, or even my cam­paign, is that I love Bernie, but I think where his cam­paign failed — I don’t think this is a per­son­al fail­ure of Bernie, but per­haps of the peo­ple that were around him and advis­ing that cam­paign — is that there wasn’t enough atten­tion paid to peo­ple of col­or. I am not sure that peo­ple of col­or who were in that cam­paign were lis­tened to the way they should have been. Bernie didn’t make — he made a very excel­lent class argu­ment. I think it is implied that peo­ple of col­or are more dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed by class dis­par­i­ties than whites. I think there was an assump­tion that peo­ple of col­or would under­stand that and would under­stand that the argu­ments that he was mak­ing about class and equal­i­ty were implic­it­ly also argu­ments about racial inequality.

I think that, frankly, because Bernie was an old white man, black folks, peo­ple of col­or, did not implic­it­ly get that he was speak­ing to them. I did think he was speak­ing to them, but I am not sure every­one else did. One of the things that the pro­gres­sive move­ment is going to have to do is find lead­ers of col­or and can­di­dates of col­or to car­ry this mes­sage. When I speak about it, right­ly or wrong­ly, when I am talk­ing about income equal­i­ty and when I am talk­ing about work­ing class fam­i­lies, the black and brown audi­ences that I speak to do implic­it­ly get that I am speak­ing to them and that I am speak­ing for them and that I am speak­ing about them. I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly go around mak­ing a lot of racial argu­ments. I think that my bonafides of Black Lives Mat­ter speak vol­umes about my own racial pol­i­tics and that I can make these argu­ments of class and peo­ple of col­or get, because this city is 89 per­cent African-Amer­i­can and because I am African-Amer­i­can, peo­ple know that I am talk­ing about them.

The best way to reach out to com­mu­ni­ties of col­or is by hav­ing can­di­dates of col­or and insti­tut­ing these poli­cies in cities of col­or. If you look at a lot of these most pro­gres­sive places, they are places like Seat­tle or Mass­a­chu­setts, in a lot of these most pro­gres­sive cities, they tend to be small­er cities, they tend to be more white and more afflu­ent. The idea is that only rich peo­ple, only rich white folks can afford to enact these kind of pro­gres­sive poli­cies. I think it is going to be real­ly impor­tant that the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, specif­i­cal­ly, but the left in gen­er­al, that the lead­er­ship needs to look like its base of voters.

I know that there has been all of this angst about How do we get work­ing class white vot­ers?” But, right now, the most con­sis­tent vot­ers in Amer­i­ca are black women and the most con­sis­tent­ly pro­gres­sive vot­ers are black and brown folks. We need to grow the base of our par­ty or of that move­ment with those folks and make sure that we are run­ning can­di­dates in places and insti­tut­ing poli­cies in places that sup­port those folks. I do think that the big issue of these next few elec­tions, and I think the next 20 years of Amer­i­ca, the biggest chal­lenge that we will face is income inequal­i­ty and this grow­ing dis­par­i­ty. The mid­dle class has dis­ap­peared. Now, we have a work­ing class and wealthy class. We real­ly need to keep ham­mer­ing that truth into the pub­lic and polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion that is hap­pen­ing. That is what I hope to do, is to bridge that racial gap for peo­ple to under­stand that whether you are red or yel­low, black or white, that we are all suf­fer­ing from income inequal­i­ty for the past 30 years.

Sarah: What are the next steps here? When is the runoff?

khalid: The runoff is April 18th. Ear­ly vot­ing has already begun. It will be going on for three weeks through the Fri­day before April 18th. Then, on April 18th, that Tues­day will be our elec­tion. In addi­tion to my race, when folks get in touch with me, they can find out about peo­ple that I am endors­ing across oth­er city coun­cil dis­tricts. Once again, it is about being effec­tive in imple­ment­ing these pol­i­cy changes. That is not some­thing I can do uni­lat­er­al­ly. I will need a vote of four and, hope­ful­ly, a pro­gres­sive­ly dis­posed may­or to make these changes happen.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you?

khalid: They can get in touch with me at Khalid​Cares​.com. You can find out about me, you can find out about oth­er races here in the city of South Ful­ton and in the state of Georgia.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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