Meet Rashida Tlaib, the soon-to-be congresswoman who got arrested at a protest this month like a true badass
The November 2018 midterm elections are coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning—and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.
“We were both in handcuffs in the backseat, and…”
That’s Rashida Tlaib talking, and no, this is not usually how my conversations with future members of Congress go.
Tlaib will almost certainly get elected to represent Michigan’s 13th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives this November, and she is far from your average congresswoman. For one thing, she got arrested this month with at least 18 other people while protesting on the streets of Detroit with the Fight for $15 movement. (“I’ve done worse,” she tells me nonchalantly when I ask her about the arrest. She then quickly launches into a full-throated argument for why workers’ rights are so critical.)
A former attorney and fierce social justice activist from Detroit, Tlaib emerged victorious from her crowded Democratic primary in August to take the party nomination for the currently unoccupied House seat (it’s the one vacated by former Rep. John Conyers, who resigned over sexual harassment allegations last year). Since there’s no Republican candidate on the ballot in the extremely blue-leaning district, her seat in Congress is all but assured. That means she’s already set to make history: Tlaib will be one of the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress in America, a distinction she’ll likely share with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. A daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Tlaib was also the first Muslim woman elected to Michigan’s state legislature.
During her six-year tenure as a state representative, Tlaib was also no stranger to breaking the rules to protect her residents. In 2013, huge black piles of petroleum by-product started showing up along the Detroit River, and when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (the same group that allowed the Flint water crisis to blow out of control) did nothing about it, Tlaib took matters into her own hands. She scaled piles of debris herself with Ziplock bags in hand, trespassing on oil refinery property to collect samples of the dust for testing. Her efforts caught the media’s attention, and the city eventually passed ordinances to have the black mountains of pollutants removed.
I spoke with Tlaib about why members of Congress should be the ones leading protests (not complaining about them), why political labels often miss the point, and how she hopes to empower the next generation of Muslim women to follow in her footsteps. She was even brought to the point of tears as she told me about one particularly moving encounter with a young Palestinian girl in a blazer.
HelloGiggles: First of all, I need to ask about this: You got arrested at a protest this month!
Rashida Tlaib: I’ve done worse. You know, I’m an activist and a social justice attorney here working on a lot, especially worker rights, environmental injustices, really focusing on how to push back against the corporate greed that seems to be pushing the agenda here in my district.
But we sat there. We just put two tables out on Woodward, which is a main street. I mean, we were toward the sidewalk. We were out there. We just put these two tables out, sat down, as more of, ‘Hey, we’re here, we’re ready to negotiate a union.’ And I was surprised because even when the police officers showed up, I looked around the table and thought, I’m probably not going to get arrested for this. No big deal, right? But I was taken aback by the fact that they actually did decide to arrest us. I think 18 of us were arrested. It looks so far like they’re not going to charge us. I heard they’re filling out the paperwork saying ‘disorderly conduct,’ but I don’t think they’re gonna move forward with it. I mean, we were on one side. They could’ve allowed the traffic to go. I don’t know.
The point is, I love the fact that I stood there. Me being there gave a lot of the workers courage. I was transported with a young woman named Jasmine who is a janitor at the airport who was also arrested and transported with me. We were both in handcuffs in the backseat, and I proceeded to tell the officer, ‘Hey, this is why we did it. I’d like you to know why we were out there.’ What I heard afterwards is, she told somebody she’s always wanted to run for office, but she thought, well, you know, how can she run for office being the activist that she is?
I think being there [was valuable], being next to the people I represent who are really just fighting for better quality of life and caring about Priscilla, who’s a young mom saying, ‘You know, I get my schedule the day before. Do you know how hard it is to figure out how to care for my kids when I’m not given enough notice?’ So many talked about how working at McDonald’s is not a high school job anymore. It’s a 40-hour-a-week, full-time position that is helping support their families financially. Another person talked about being grabbed at work and not really knowing where to go. There’s no union, there’s nobody outside as an advocate for the workers in many of these service-industry jobs. I mean, we’re talking about I think 52% of those who work at McDonald’s are women, and so many of them are put in positions where men are in management. When they have issues, they really don’t have anywhere to turn. Another gentleman at the table—before we got arrested, everybody told their story to the microphone, but also we started talking to each other—he started talking about job security. You know, if you’re out sick for one day, the huge threat of you losing your job—they’d rather you come in sick than not come in at all.
So few really talked about the $15 minimum wage increase as much as they talked about organizing and having job security. The anxiety, the fear, all of those things emotionally come in when you have this job that at any moment they could just let go of you, and that’s it. And it hurts you getting another position by the way. They talked about, yeah, if you get let go and try to apply for another job, it really does jeopardize your chances of getting that job even if you get another at Burger King or a Wendy’s or somewhere else as a cook.
So I loved being there. The smiles of their face—like, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting with us.’ It was irreplaceable. It was better than voting. It’s as good as me voting for a $15 minimum-wage increase bill or co-sponsoring that bill. I’ll tell you—to me, that’s what needs to change among members of Congress. And the women that I’ve met so far that are going to be new to Congress also feel the same way. We have to go beyond just voting the right way and introducing bills but being part of a movement’s work.
HG: Particularly after all the chaos around the Kavanaugh confirmation process, a lot of Republicans and President Trump himself are very heavily criticizing the heated protests that have been happening in D.C., saying they’ve been too aggressive or are ‘bullying.’ Even among progressives, I’ve noticed a lot of debate over, should we be protesting, or should we just be voting?
RT: People always seem to try to have people’s credibility lost in what they’re trying to fight for. Think about the fact that every single woman out there—it wasn’t about Republicans or Democrats. Sexual assault doesn’t have an R or D next to its name. It was about the control, about oppression, and that’s how it felt. As soon as he was confirmed, I felt already oppressed myself. I’m a future member of Congress, and I felt like I was silenced. And if I felt that way, think about the thousands of other women out there, especially the younger ones, how they’re feeling right now. To me, it gives more credibility to the cause to have people out there that are passionate and pushing back against that. Everybody wants to politicize it, but no. I can tell you, if we literally went to the woman who texted me, ‘Are you going to D.C.? Tell me; I wanna go with you,’ these are not people who even have voted in the past.
I talked to someone who says, ‘I can’t believe how many people came out to vote this past election.’ I said, ‘I know.’ I expected 60,000 people to come out to vote in the 13th. We’ve seen it as low as 46,000, as high as 55,000. Do you know how many came out? 89,000 people came out to vote in the 13th. And the majority—they were women. I think they were African American women predominantly. The point is, these are not people that are members of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. These are people that are really concerned about the future of our country. Going door-to-door, the things [people] were asking me were not about policy but more about, are you gonna sell us out? Are you gonna become like that?
That made me look into, well, who is in Congress right now? And I found out half of the members of Congress are millionaires. Over 250 are millionaires. And think about it. That’s an income bracket that the majority of Americans, the ones who are frustrated, the ones who are angry, the ones that even felt compelled and angry enough to vote for Trump—because it was more of an anger vote than anything—those individuals don’t even realize that they just uplifted those 250 members of Congress. I don’t care, Democrat or Republican—I’m being really clear—they live in a different, a very different world than the majority of Americans in our country. And Congress used to be that balance against corporate greed. That’s where the working class got elected. That’s where the farmers, the folks that were on the ground, that’s where you were able to have the checks and balances and fight against corporate greed and allow unionization, allow women to vote, allow equal rights to our African American brothers and sisters, all of those things. And now you can see they have actually been able to take over Congress.
HG: It’s interesting hearing you talk about both parties this way. I know you’re a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Do you consider yourself a socialist?
RT: No, I consider myself an advocate. People want to box me in—oh, she’s a socialist. I can tell you I became a member of DSA because they were a tremendous partner to me when I was fighting against corporate tax breaks. The biggest issue in my district was the fact that 60% of public money was being steered away from schools and neighborhoods and into a hockey stadium for a billionaire. I didn’t have enough Democrats standing with me and pushing against it, but DSA was there 100%.
Same thing when I go and speak to the League of Women Voters. I’m a member of that. Or I’m a member of the NAACP. Many of these organizations are my partners, and I’m proud members of each and every single one of them, and I’m supportive of their mission and driving a lot of their causes. But at the same time, I’m me. I’m the girl from southwest Detroit that believes that every single person should have access to thrive, to live in an equitable society, and trying to label me, it to me makes this much more a political kind of agenda than really just about real people and real change and bringing hope to people. That’s what I want to focus on. I don’t want me being part of an organization [to mean that] whatever that organization is doing is all of a sudden what the cause is for my 13th congressional district residents. That isn’t it. It’s whatever they want. I’m a member of the 13th. I can say that for sure.
HG: You’re right. A lot of the media are characterizing you as being part of this far-left movement within the Democratic Party. Do you identify with that description, or not so much?
RT: It is interesting to see how even Democrats and now Republicans and the mainstream media try to say I’m from this other group from the outside, when in essence I’m probably in line with the majority of Americans across the country. To me, giving me these labels and trying to make it out like we’re some sort of brand new, organized mission—no. Most of us women—think about it—Jahana Hayes, Ayana Pressley, myself, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, most of us didn’t even know each other. We jumped in because, I know for myself, I didn’t want to be in the outside ring anymore. And I was tired. I was tired of the sellouts. I was tired of not only Republicans getting disconnected more and more from what’s happening and how painful all the policies have been and how hurtful they have been for residents and families, but I also was tired about the Democrats doing the same thing. Sometimes I couldn’t even tell the difference between a Democrat and Republican.
I think many of us women that are coming, this beautiful rainbow of all of us, we’re driven by this desire to see social justice. We’re not part of any establishment, any specific group. No one came out and was like, ‘Let’s recruit them.’ I think we just felt this desire to do something, and at that time, it was to run for office. And it just so happened we started winning. Ha!
HG: Your election is basically in the bag. What will be your first initiatives once you get into Congress? Is there a single issue that is your first priority?
RT: Oh, yeah. You gotta go to RashidaForCongress.com. My primary bill and my first bill will be the Justice For All Civil Rights Act. The Justice For All Civil Rights Act really goes to the core intent and really the core meaning of the Civil Rights Act of ‘64. In 1964 we passed this historic act, and do you know over the last 50 years what the increasingly conservative courts have done? They have diluted it. Watered it down. Now corporations have been able to say, ‘Nope, you gotta show intent,’ and that makes it harder for advocates like myself and others who are seeing, for instance in the 13th congressional district, we have the highest car insurance rates in the country, and it’s a predominantly African American district. The third poorest congressional district in the country, and we have the highest rate of car insurance. And do you know why they use credit scores and all of these things? They say, hey, if you’re poor, if you have a low credit score, the likelihood of you committing fraud is higher. That means you’re already criminalizing people based on their income. Ding, ding, ding, that should be! It’s a discrimination policy and procedure. However, they diluted the Civil Rights Act to the point where it’s harder for us advocates getting their lawyers to fight against them.
For me, I’m getting back to how we passed it in ’64. The Justice For All Civil Rights Acts says that if you can show that the impact itself, that the impact of the policy on the ground, discriminates against people of color, discriminates against people because of their sexual orientation, against their immigrant status, against their sex, against all of those things (and you look at disparate impacts, seeing the fact that less than half of the families in the 13th don’t own their own homes, looking at the banking policies, all of that). If we can show that the impact of the procedure that they have in place in corporations or even in the public sector, like in our collections system, in our police system—if there’s a discriminatory impact, then it’s a civil rights violation. Period. And if we do it, then it’s going to be transformative for people. I don’t want to do Band-Aids. I don’t want to do, hey, insurance company, don’t use credit scores. No. Because they’ll figure out another way to implement discriminatory policies. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 needs to be restored, and the Justice For All Civil Rights Act, hopefully of 2020 (laughs), will get it back to that core value.
HG: So your bill has to do with intent vs. impact.
RT: Right now you have to show intentional discrimination. My proposal would be that we could show disparate impact. If you can show that the impact in itself on the ground as it’s implemented is discriminatory, it’s a civil rights violation.
HG: What can Congress do when we have a judiciary branch that’s now going to be working against a lot of these progressive goals? It seems like your answer is to restructure some of our existing legislation.
RT: Restore it. They’re diluting it. They’re watering it down. They get to interpret those laws. We’ll pass a law—I see it done in Michigan all the time. We can pass all kinds of protections and laws as members of Congress or members of the legislature across the country. When a corporation says, ‘I don’t like this,’ they can take it to court. Progressive organizations have done it also. Look at same-sex marriage. We’ve had great victories as well. However, it’s very much an integral part of each other. When we have courts that use cases, now we have case law that basically says, well, this is what the intent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is. And that’s why we have inequity in education funding. That’s why we have only 40% of all Michiganders right now that are African American own their own home. It used to be 70%. You can see the drastic change that’s happened, and I think people don’t realize it wasn’t a new bill. It was the courts that did it.
HG: The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just dropped a pretty grim report that we’ve got like 10 years to get global warming under control before it starts wreaking havoc on the world. What’s your action plan once you get to Congress?
RT: It’s really critical that we look at the Clean Air Act and some of these other policies. Same thing—you can see the watering down has happened. For me, you know, one in five children has asthma. I think it’s higher; this is an old study. We have so much industry in the 13th congressional district. In one of my zip codes, I have three times higher rate of asthma hospitalization among adults than anywhere in the state. All of this is from diesel emissions, from the fact that 27% of trade comes through my district and through my community. We have to be able to push back against the corporate assault on our environmental protections. I started the We Have the Right to Breathe campaign when I was a state representative because, for my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, environmental justice was not a core issue that they wanted to work on. We thought, okay, what are we going to do on the local level because they dump petroleum coke on the riverfront? They did all of these things, and I introduced bills, bipartisan supported, and they would just sit there on the shelf.
It’s really important to me as a member of Congress to uplift the other movement work that is happening locally. Because I think that’s what’s going to happen—for us to be able to get local, city governments and others to implement some of these protections that hopefully will push Congress to finally wake up and understand that climate change is real but also that we actually pay the toll and pay the cost so much more. And I’m not talking only about economics. I’m also talking about the human cost. I think all of us have known someone who died of cancer. It’s all based on output—bad air quality. For us in Detroit, I smell it. But I think some people don’t understand how it’s all integrated into our public health. These folks can live in areas—and again the 250 members of Congress probably—where they’re away from industry, and they’re away from what it feels like and what it means to live near industry in our country. For me, it’s going to be uplifting the movement work and trying to take the We Have the Right to Breathe campaign on a national level.
HG: You’ll almost certainly be one of the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress, alongside Ilhan Omar. How does it feel to be among the first people breaking this ceiling?
RT: Most of the time I answer the question in this way: I didn’t run to be the first of anything. I love the fact that myself, Ilhan, Jahana, Ayanna, all of us are firsts. The first African American woman in Connecticut getting elected, the first African American woman in Boston—we all are firsts. But what is more exciting is the fact that we are people that have student debt, mortgages, issues with our education. We have young kids going to those school districts that are underfunded and overcrowded. That excites me so much more.
However, I was reminded over the weekend. I went to an event, and these young girls—I mean, I cried. These young girls got up and performed this kind of cool dance, and I remember afterwards their hugs were so tight. (sobs) I mean, it brought me to tears because I realized, like, I don’t know. Sorry. (crying) It was just so powerful because I remember being 8, 9 years old and feeling rejected constantly because I was Palestinian, I was a brown girl, my name is Rashida. I think for me, meeting this young girl named Ryanne—her name was Ryanne—and she came up. There’s a cute video. She comes up to me, and I was like, ‘Look at you with the blazer!’ She has a cute blazer on, and it was so adorable. And she was like, ‘I was trying to look like you.’ (sobs) And I was like, ‘That is so cool!’
I was like, ‘Well, you’re going to be a future president.’ And she nodded her head. I really think she believed it! I was like, good! I say, ‘You could be President of the United States,’ and she goes, ‘Mm-hm!’
In that moment, I realized, that’s really cool. Like, I’m a warrior. You know what I mean? I’m a warrior—I hate bullies. I hate when people pick on my family and residents. It really drives some force in my belly, this flame and fire in my belly, and I just fight back. When this seat opened up, I was like, oh yeah, I’m going. I’m gonna fight back. I’m gonna work so hard, and I’m gonna show people that they actually matter and that they have tremendous amounts of power to push against the corporations who have more money. Who cares? Watch. It actually is so much more rewarding when we have nothing but we still win. And we have won so many battles that we don’t even realize.
But I knew over the weekend that it wasn’t just about justice for my residents in the 13th and uplifting them and showing them love. It was also inspiring the whole generation. They were all Palestinian. They were all Palestinian girls. It was really incredible. It was a great moment.
Rashida Tlaib (bottom right) with Ryanne (to Tlaib’s left). (Courtesy of Rashida Tlaib)
I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but change is coming. This is the most women that have been elected in 40 years. We got a lot of fire and energy and a lot of courage. That’s one thing that’s different.