Representative Ilhan Omar was not elected to represent the status quo. The Minnesota Democrat speaks for her constituents, and for a future in which they might know economic, social, and racial justice. That horrifies conservatives.
Good. These are times when it is right and necessary to unsettle those in power, and Omar did just that on Tuesday when she proposed expanding the current debates—many of which have been amplified by anger over the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Omar’s Minneapolis district—to focus on systemic change that targets unjust economic and political structures.
“We can’t stop at criminal justice reform, or policing reform, for that matter,” she announced Tuesday. “We are not merely fighting to tear down the systems of oppression in the criminal justice system. We are fighting to tear down systems of oppression that exist in housing, in education, in healthcare, in employment, in the air we breathe.”
Omar pulled no punches during an outdoor press conference at Minnesota’s state capitol, where she and her allies put their calls for sweeping legislative initiatives—such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which has been passed by Democrats in the House of Representatives but is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate—in a broader context.
“We must recognize that these systems of oppression are linked. As long as our economy and political systems prioritize profit without considering who is profiting, who is being shut out, we will perpetuate this inequality. So, we cannot stop [with reform of the] criminal justice system,” explained the Somali-born refugee, who served in the Minnesota legislature before her election to the House in 2018. “We must begin the work of dismantling the whole system of oppression wherever we find it.”
Omar’s remarks drew sharp rebukes from Republicans in Washington, D.C., and from their amen corner in the media.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy pushed the hyperbole button and tweeted, “The Democrat Party has given up on America. All they want to do is tear it down.”
Donald Trump Jr. demanded to know whether presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden agreed with Omar’s argument, and warned, “If Joe Biden wins in November these are the people who will be the thought leaders in the Democrat party. These will be the policies that the Democrats push. Wake up America.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson played Omar’s statement about dismantling systems of oppression, labeled her a “vandal” and grumbled, “She hates us.”
Senator Marsha Blackburn took things even further. “lhan Omar took an oath to defend and protect the Constitution, not shred it,” roared the Tennessee Republican. “Omar and her Marxist comrades are a threat to our Democracy. Omar should resign.”
Omar wasn’t shredding the Constitution or threatening democracy. She was calling for a more perfect union.
And Omar is not backing off, which ought to be a lesson for progressives in times when half-steps are no longer sufficient.
Instead of doing what Democrats so frequently do when asked about the limits on their political power in an era of divided government, Omar explained that on fundamental questions of right and wrong it is necessary to stand resolutely on the side of justice. “How is it that we are always expected to negotiate ourselves out of the negotiations? How is it that we’re expected to negotiate the interests of our communities, the equality for our communities, the justice for our communities out of any sort of legislation that is supposed to move? This is the question that we are always asked. How come you’re not compromising? Compromise has brought us here. Compromise has brought the kind of oppressive system that allows for someone like George Floyd to get the life stifled out of him for eight minutes and 46 seconds.”
Then Omar turned the discussion toward those who refuse to embrace systematic change in a time when that is precisely what is needed.
She suggested that instead of asking why Democrats will not compromise in order to achieve piecemeal progress, reporters might ask members of the Senate’s Republican majority, as well as cautious Democrats:
“How come you are not negotiating with them? How come you are not listening to the voices that have been marginalized for decades and centuries in this country? How come you are not listening to the cries of the mothers and the fathers in our communities? How come you are not listening to the people who are telling you that we don’t feel like our lives matter equally in this country?” Because when you have legislators who are living every single day in the midst of communities that are constantly feeling pain, being told by legislators who have no idea, not a single idea, not because they’ve lived through it or because they represent people living through it, constantly telling them what should be and what can be acceptable treatment for themselves and for the communities that they represent. And I just think that is really the most emblematic part of this conversation and it’s truly why we continue to have a system that isn’t equal for us.
This is not the first time that Omar has stirred controversy. It will not be the last.
Republicans are free to disagree with her. But they would do well to recall that no less a patriot than Tom Paine called the American experiment into being with an admonition about how asking hard questions regarding injustice invariably draws rebukes from those who are unprepared to face the truth. “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not YET sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour; a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom,” the pamphleteer announced in the introduction to Common Sense.
Outcry over Omar’s advocacy will undoubtedly continue. But so will she, asking this essential question: “So when do we, as a society, uplift and uphold the pain and the struggles of the people who are actually living through a system that doesn’t recognize them as equal, a system that doesn’t recognize the systematic trauma that they have been through, a system that doesn’t recognize the continued pain and invisibility and lack of care that they feel every single day?”