PHILADELPHIA — Progressive activists are tired of the spiraling fight between Democrats in Washington and are lashing out at House leaders for taking on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other new women of color in Congress.
“We didn’t just send them to Congress to have a symbolic seat at the table,” Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, told BuzzFeed News at Netroots Nation, a progressive conference where over 3,000 activists gathered in Philadelphia this weekend. “We sent them there to govern with our interests in mind.”
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chided members of her caucus for tweeting complaints about other members, seemingly referring to Ocasio-Cortez and other new progressive members and their staffs who have vented about more moderate Democrats. But late Friday, the verified Twitter account of the House Democratic Caucus tweeted out a screenshot of a tweet from Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, accused him of singling out a woman of color, and instructed him to “Keep👏🏽Her👏🏽Name👏🏽Out👏🏽Of👏🏽Your👏🏽Mouth.”
That tweet — in addition to reported comments from an anonymous Democratic aide accusing Ocasio-Cortez of “only [being] a woman of color when it’s convenient” and saying that she’s a “puppet,” which were connected to a photo of a puppet Goomba, a brown mushroom character from Super Mario Bros. — has escalated a weekslong fight that progressives see as a heavy-handed attack from the establishment on a group of women of color, who they believe are the future of the Democratic Party.
The fight between establishment Democrats and the group of progressive first-term Dems — specifically Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — stems from criticism from progressives after a House border funding bill, which included more protections for migrant children, was blocked by moderate Democrats while the Senate's version of the border funding bill was sent to the floor. Pelosi later mocked the group’s influence to the New York Times, saying they made themselves “irrelevant” to the process by voting against the House’s original bill.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told the Times. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
“The base of the Democratic Party looks a lot more like AOC and Ayanna Pressley than Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer," Waleed Shahid, the spokesperson for Justice Democrats — a progressive group that helped Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Omar win their seats — told BuzzFeed News. “There are way more young people, people of color, working-class people, and women. The base looks like these members, who supported her bid for speaker, not like the centrists or Blue Dogs who have been trying to oust her for years.”
Shahid, whose organization has backed primary challengers to several incumbent Democrats already this year, said Justice Democrats is not currently planning on endorsing someone to run against Pelosi in California.
“I think the base of the party wants bold leadership right now, and they might start wondering why the speaker of the House and the party leader is spending time attacking progressive members. And down the road, they might start wondering what other House leadership might look like,” Shahid said.
Late Saturday afternoon, Justice Democrats and a mass of other progressive groups — including the Working Families Party, Indivisible, She the People, and the Sunrise Movement — released a short statement saying it was "deeply concerning that senior Democratic Party leaders and their aides have been escalating attacks on new leaders in the party who have been rightfully advocating a stronger approach to holding the Trump administration accountable to human rights abuses being committed on the border and against immigrants.”
“This is not a good look, given that women of color were the core vote who gave her that job she has in the first place,” Allison told BuzzFeed News about Pelosi’s comments. “To diminish, to tokenize, and to vilify women of color who are coming into Congress and breaking all these barriers, after posing with them in all white, and then you dismiss them as ‘just four votes’? They’re not just four votes! For many of us, they’re the physical manifestation of generations of blood, sweat, and tears for representation in Congress.”
"I think that it would be hypocritical to me to remain silent on injustices just because those injustices may come from our side of the aisle," Ocasio-Cortez told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. "I think that it erodes one's integrity and neglect to only point out wrongs when Republicans do them and to not point out wrongs when Democrats do them too, frankly."
Ocasio-Cortez told the Washington Post the same day that Pelosi’s comments seemed like she was just keeping the progressive caucus at bay to protect moderate Democrats, but it became an “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
“This tension is kind of strange because that’s something that Leader Pelosi has never been accused of and known for, and I really do hope that these bright, brilliant women can cross that divide generationally and ideologically and come together to do what this country needs them to do, which is to be strong and to be bold,” Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign cochair, Nina Turner, told BuzzFeed News. She said that although she hasn’t kept up with all the back-and-forth between progressives and establishment Democrats in Congress, she’s “taken aback by some of the things that I’m reading, but it is my hope that they can come together.”
Progressives agreed with Ocasio-Cortez’s view of Pelosi’s comments over the weekend at Netroots Nation.
“Commenting on a woman of color speaking out and trying to silence her with accusations of racism is just nuts to me, but it’s that basic thing they revert to. They throw insults, cry innocent, hide your hand, but that doesn’t work anymore,” Brittny Baxter, a movement organizer with Democracy Initiative, told BuzzFeed News about comments from Pelosi and House leadership regarding progressives like Ocasio-Cortez.
At a Saturday Netroots panel, where Pressley, Omar, Tlaib, and Rep. Deb Haaland were greeted to a standing ovation, Aimee Allison asked what they say to women of color who are feeling sad and frustrated because of people who are trying to silence the work they’ve done in Washington. As she asked the question, activists in the audience unfurled a banner thanking women of color for their leadership.
“I think you have to be unapologetically you,” Tlaib responded. “Sometimes that means — I know for me and a number of my sisters, we represent our districts and we focus on the things that matter in our districts and to bring them into this space, and that does sometimes...that does mean I have to vote no on detaining children at the border.”
“There’s a constant struggle oftentimes with people who have power about sharing that power,” Omar said. “We are not really in the business of asking for the share of that power; we’re in the business of trying to grab that power and return it to the people.”
“A lot of this is that there are a lot of Democratic members of Congress that feel threatened by this younger, more progressive generation of Democrats,” Shahid said. “They’re not used to being challenged in that way.”
Shahid said that Justice Democrats is calling on Pelosi to put the same amount of energy into condemning attacks on progressives as she’s put into comments about centrists. “The thing about the CBC story, where a senior aide said AOC isn’t a real person of color and texted a racist meme of a Goomba, is that we haven’t seen that same level of condemnation and the calls for unity we’ve seen from Pelosi when it comes to people criticizing the Blue Dogs,” Shahid said.
“The Democratic Party’s leadership loves black and brown people in a really transactional way,” Baxter added. “The problem is that the Democrats in power are the moderates who think they’re doing all right because they’re not outwardly racist and trash, like their raggedy-ass cousins, the Republicans, but the reality is that the work that we’re doing and advocating for is being prohibited and inhibited because they know they’re going to lose power.”
“When she attacks them, she attacks all of us,” Allison said. “From a practical standpoint, when you don’t have women of color fully engaged and excited about the party as organizers and voters, you will lose the White House. And when she attacks them, she’s undermining the coalition needed to win anything.”
Progressives at Netroots said they’ve grown tired of the attacks on women of color in the Democratic Caucus while it remains silent on issues like the border camps and environmental protections.
“They’re not going to get out of the way; they’re going to get moved out of the way,” Baxter said of Democrats who have chastised progressive women of color like Pressley, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez. “They have to be moved out of the way because at this point, we’re fighting for our lives. We’re fighting against a president who’s rapidly speeding us toward nuclear war; our earth is dying, and he’s rapidly moving us towards that; we’re putting children in cages. And all of this comes from a fight that directly and first impacts black and brown lives. And if these folks aren’t making conversations about how to fix this ... then they need to get out of the way.”