Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is a veteran defender of civil rights and civil liberties with big ideas about how to serve her constituents in the Detroit area, usher in a new era of economic, social and racial justice in the United States, and promote peace and cooperation on the global stage. Unfortunately, since she arrived in Washington, she’s been targeted by Republican members of Congress, right-wing media, and even the president; they’ve crudely and dishonestly attacked Tlaib, seeking to marginalize the first Palestinian-American Muslim women ever to serve in the US House.
It’s been rough. But she is not backing down.
Tlaib is being heard in Congress and across the country. People are listening to this remarkable attorney and activist, who draws inspiration and strength from her immigrant family and from the Detroit labor, civil-rights, and social-justice communities with which she has long been involved.
This week on Next Left, we talk with Rashida Tlaib about her political roots, her ideas, and her determination to hold the president of the United States to account—using the impeachment powers accorded the House in the United States Constitution.
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Rashida Tlaib Calls for Taking Immediate Steps Toward Impeachment on Her First Day in Congress, The Nation, John Nichols
Johnson & Johnson Hit With $300 Million in Punitive Damages in Talc Case, The Wall Street Journal, Peter Loftus
No, Rashida Tlaib Is Definitely Not Antisemitic, Jacobin, Megan Day
Now is the time to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump, Detroit Free Press, John Bonifaz and Rashida Tlaib
The Constitution Demands It, by John Bonifaz, Ben Clements, and Ron Fein
“Sign O’ The Times”; by Prince
This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Our theme song is “Deli Run” by Ava Luna.
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Introduction by John Nichols: I’m John Nichols of The Nation magazine, and this week we’re taking the next left with Rashida Tlaib, a new member of Congress with deep roots in the multiracial, multi-ethnic politics of Detroit. Tlaib is a lawyer, with a passion for civil rights and civil liberties, she’s the first Palestinian-American woman to serve in the US House of Representatives, and she’s prepared to impeach Donald Trump. We’re speaking in late May in her Washington Office, just hours after the president and his Republican allies in Congress have again deliberately misconstrued Tlaib’s words and attacked her unfairly. But what we’re most interested in today, are the ways in which she is bringing the Motor City’s activist energy to the nation’s capital.
John Nichols: Rashida Tlaib. Thank you for joining us on Next Left.
Rashida Tlaib: Thank you so much for having me.
John Nichols: It’s a pleasure. You come out of one of my favorite cities politically in the whole country.
Rashida Tlaib: Oh, I love Detroit, too.
John Nichols: Detroit and Wayne County, places like Dearborn.
Rashida Tlaib: Yes, I agree
John Nichols: Dearborn is not quite in your district, right?
Rashida Tlaib: I have Dearborn Heights, which is a neighboring city, but I only have half of Dearborn Heights. But yeah, Wayne County. I’m a Wayne County girl.
John Nichols: I had the chance when I was a very young reporter to travel the country with Nelson Mandela when he made his first trip to the US after being released from prison.
Rashida Tlaib: What a gift.
John Nichols: His great desire, which did indeed happen, was to go visit uh Dearborn and go to Local 600, the UAW local. He believed that the unions in Detroit had been among the first in the country that had spoken up about apartheid and said “It has to be different.” And I think that’s a good way of beginning because you really come out of Detroit politics, right? And that politics is way ahead of the curve on economic and social and racial justice issues.
Rashida Tlaib: Yeah. I mean, if you look at any movement, the ones that really transformed our nation, started in Detroit. And it’s not just the labor rights movement, but every corner is a reminder of the civil rights movement. Uh, I mean, I grew up learning about Grace Lee Boggs and, uh, Mary Mahaffey and I mean all of these incredible women who, uh, really led huge fights, uh, against not only poverty injustices in that way, but also even on world politics and on just the basic right to, to human rights. And even to this day, I always tell people, you know, it wasn’t just my mom, if you grew up in Detroit, you have mothers everywhere, every corner, like there’s a mother that is raising you, is teaching you to be unapologetic and strong. I mean, I remember black mothers in Detroit telling my mother, “No, no, no, no. You don’t let anybody talk to you like that. You speak up.” Like even teaching my mother who was a new immigrant to the United States, to always be strong and be powerful and never to be silent.
John Nichols: When your mom was a young immigrant and you were very young girl, you would sometimes translate for her, but not because she didn’t speak English, but as a way of helping her.
Rashida Tlaib: So I was her translator until I was 12. It’s stories. I know. I remember going to uh, Sears and my mom would always, I mean if you have an immigrant mom, I think all of them have this similarity in that they want to know how much something cost when it’s 20 or 30 percent off. I feel in many ways the self-check areas now that you see in department stores are because of people like my mother constantly needed to know how much things cost. Uh and so I would go up to the counter and my mom would be next to me and I would only translate what my mother said, not what the cashier said. But I remember this one moment at Sears where the woman was just so loud and she’s like, “Well, she’s needs to speak English.” And I said, “Ma’am,” and I was 12 I was like, “Do you, do you see that I’m not translating what you’re saying to her. I’m only translating what she wants to tell you because she doesn’t want to speak English because so many people have made her feel less-than because of her accent or she’s, you know, it became somewhat of a phobia for her.” I even see it still happening to her sometimes where she closes up and if you ever hear her, she speaks perfect English, but she’ll, you know, her, her throat gets tightened up a little bit. She tells me she just can’t speak. Um, because people yelled at her so many times. I think, you know, being a child of immigrants, there’s incredible hardships that you go through that no one else truly understands until you live it. Um, but I also think being the oldest of 14 was something, um, that probably really shaped the person that I am today. I’ve been taking care of people all my life. They probably helped me be the public servant and the kind of fighter that I am than anything. No degree, no amount of, uh, even the mentors that I’ve had, even the people that I got exposed to, could match up to being the eldest of 14. Again, all the challenges, everything, uh, it always kind of landed in my lap and I had to always help my mother and my father through it.
John Nichols: Another member of Congress, Raul Grijalva, his dad was a union activist. His dad spoke English, but not well. And so when Raul was like 10 or 11, he would go to every union meeting to help his dad take notes and translate and things like that. And I actually think that experience is a way of learning to assert yourself and be present in this adult world in an outspoken way.
Rashida Tlaib: I think we care more because we see something that we can connect with and it doesn’t, you don’t have to, you know, for one, when I see a resident and they’re going through something, I don’t know how, but I, it reminds me of my mother and what my mother went through. But yeah, I remember filling out forms. I remember actually teaching my mom like about homework and what that was, you know, she only went up to eighth grade education. My father only fourth grade education. So a lot of the things that I was experiencing for the first time, she was also experiencing for the first time and being exposed to for the first time. My mentor Steve Tobocman always says, you know, “You’re always so worried about, oh, I don’t know enough about this issue and I don’t know…” He goes, “You know what people care about Rashida when they meet you that they, what they get a sense is how you make them feel, and the fact that you actually do care more than the others, you know, that maybe want to serve them in Congress.” And that always gave me a sense of confidence, uh, that if I’m staying rooted and grounded in community and the challenges and hardships of everyday people in my district, then I’ll be able to thrive here and I’ll be able to do good for them.
John Nichols: You also had a pretty amazing political education, because obviously you went to law school and you, you worked in the legislature some, eventually got elected to the legislature, but you also worked with a remarkable organization in Detroit, the Maurice Sugar Law Center, which is this intersectional legal endeavor that brings together race and class and gender and immigrants and all of that. I think it’s a remarkable place of training and engagement.
Rashida Tlaib: I was recruited to be on the board of directors of the Sugar Law Center. I was the youngest member and I was working at a nonprofit organization at the time, and I think I may have just finished law school, but I had heard of them. But getting in there and being among giants like Bill Goodman and Julie Hurwitz, these human beings who, you know, as a young girl sitting there, you know, listening to them talk about international human rights and “We should, we should look at the UN articles” and, and, uh, people talking about police brutality in a way that brought in the history of it. Uh, the rooted kind of structural racism, so for me it was like going to class to learn, we brought in history, we brought in that institutional knowledge I think that is so critically important. It has been missing, and sometimes in these spaces. I could tell you moments where I had these “Aha, oh my God, you’re right. This is happening to people” [experiences]. And when I was done in the legislature, that’s where I went to go work [with] John Philo and…and all these incredible human beings, again, advocates on the ground. I mean, we sued the governor because he was denying unemployment benefits—and we found out it was because they put a computer system in that was denying people benefits, saying they committed fraud, and we found out it wasn’t true. I mean we, we won.
John Nichols: You worked there with Jewish, Muslim, Polish-American, African-American lawyers, all profoundly accomplished people. You’re this young woman brought in and, and, in a sense, you got a chance to see what could happen when people from across racial lines, across religious lines, ethnic lines work together.
Rashida Tlaib: But historically that was Detroit and it always has been. So that part wasn’t extraordinary for me.
John Nichols: I understand.
Rashida Tlaib: It was like, you know, cause I grew up in a community, it was 20 different ethnicities. So I don’t know anything different. that’s the incredible thing about Detroit is that again, always people come together based on values, on missions to free people from whatever injustice is at the forefront in this country, and we all just work together and it’s so organic and it’s so real. I wish we could mimic it all over the, all over the nation. But yeah, it was such an honor and privilege and they continue to text and email me and always check up on me.
John Nichols: You came out here to Congress with all these ideals and all these values and all this experience and I want to talk about some of your policy initiatives and things you’ve worked on, but I’m struck by how almost immediately there was a desire to pigeonhole you, right. To say, “Oh wow, she’s one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Oh, she’s not very complimentary towards the president.” And suddenly there was this effort to, to put you into a very small box, to marginalize you.
Rashida Tlaib: Yeah, you know, more and more as I’m here four months now. One of the things that I realize is, when people don’t have a policy agenda, they don’t have a plan for the American people, it’s easier to just go bully someone and target them. Women of color we’re pretty new to this space. We’re easy targets because people easily will fear us if they just tell people, “Be scared. She’s Palestinian, you should be scared. She’s also Muslim. Be scared,” but it’s because you know the, the GOP, the individual one in the White House, is feeding into hate because that’s all they have right now. They don’t have a plan. They don’t know what they’re going to do about infrastructure. The health-care crisis, the immigration, humanitarian crisis that we’re facing right now in our country, it’s pretty unprecedented what we’ve seen in our country. All that has been distracted by attacks on people like myself and Ilhan Omar and it, it is something that I hope, you know, many of my colleagues here will push up against. We can’t continue to enable that approach to public office that approach to, to even leadership and trying to move our country in towards a positive direction—around shared values, around dignity, and we all need access to opportunities to thrive. Start with that. You know, this is an institution that is very much broken right now and very much in need of an injection of, you know, looking at the real human impact of doing nothing. The fact that there’s a sense of urgency for me and many of us, this beautiful rainbow of women that are coming in, we’re looking at each other. Many of us are moms, we like fixing things. We want to do something now and people here like that. “Well that’s just not how it is.” Sometimes I feel like I’m like a six year old, you know the six year old. Always ask why, why, why? That’s how I feel. I’m like, “Well, why? Why can’t we move this?” Insulin, the access to insulin is almost nonexistent for the most vulnerable. I had a mother testifying in committee losing her six year old child because she couldn’t get access to insulin. I mean, it just, it brought me to tears, and another son who talked about how a corporation like Johnson and Johnson didn’t tell people and didn’t share with them that the, that the powder, the baby powder was cancerous, until it was too late and all he wanted is congress to uplift his mother and have her legacy be that story that, you know, doing nothing, this is what it looks like. You lose a mother too early. And for us that’s what we want to talk about. That’s what we want to uplift in this space. But instead, you know, they want to focus on my faith.
John Nichols: It strikes me that you did accomplish something. We’re meeting on a day when you’ve been all over the news. What was striking was that you gave an interview in which you spoke very movingly about your ancestral experience as a Palestinian. You spoke about the concern for creating a safe haven for Jews after World War II. And (powerful Republicans) immediately tried to demonize you, to make you seem horrible—calling you an antisemite… What was interesting, in this circumstance, is that an awfully lot of prominent Democrats immediately stepped up…. Progressive Jewish groups stepped up and defended you and said, “This is not right. What’s happening here is not right.” And so perhaps as painful as it is, there is a little bit of something there. I know it’s frustrating. You tell me.
Rashida Tlaib: The founders and leaders of the Sugar Law Center, they always said, you know, “We’ve been through tougher times Rashida, we’ve been through these kinds of moments. You have to find these moments of light in this time of darkness in this painful time.” And it is, it’s very painful, and I do think the light is that, uh, people are finally speaking truth, and truth to power and pushing up against hate. I think together we can fight this, but only together—and we’ll be stronger afterwards.
John Nichols: One of the interesting things, though it gets lost so much to the way the media covers so many things, is that you ran for Congress on a platform of civil rights and civil liberties. You have this incredibly bold, extensive detailed plan for how to make democracy real for everybody.
Rashida Tlaib: I created four neighborhood service centers, in the first four months I did 153 appropriations requests, I’ve met with every single mayor on the ground, I have started the series, this is kind of a community conversation series throughout the district. I’m staying as rooted and grounded in the work at home. That’s what I bring here. Every time I’m in committee hearings, you know, I always remind my legislative staff that have worked here in DC for so long and I love them. They’re so talented and brilliant and beautiful and I’m mentoring them that we have to connect back to the district, because some of them will never ever be able to afford to come here or have access to this space where there’s so much power to change their situation at home. So when I put these questions together, when I, when I come to this space, I say, how can we bring them into the room? And so the community that raised me, you know, raised me to be courageous, unapologetic. I love it when even when I do something and they’re like, “Oh, Rashida, but you know, when you did it and I felt more liberated.” So there’s always this constant support at home that is very uplifting. But I, you know, I think the neighborhood service centers is going to change people’s lives today. I don’t want my residents to wait until I pass universal health care to get access to health care. Just the other week we had this woman for over a year, had been waiting for her Social Security benefits. And you know, she’s hearing impaired. She paid into the system, and she was due all this money. She was almost going to lose her home, everything her, her car, uh, and it took us the power of this office to pick up the phone and advocate on her behalf and we were able to get her $38,000 in back social security payments, and to me it just, every time that happens, every time we are able to get access to resources, these everyday challenges that my residents go through, the power of this, the letter head, the power of this office, the power to convene, all of that is as critically important as any bill that I would introduce and try to push forward. That is going to be able to be the one area that I’m going to be able to really try to combat poverty in my district, combat the challenges in my district.
John Nichols: It’s interesting, as we talk here, that there’s all this controversy, right? All the things that make these last 24 hours rough. Do you get frustrated when you don’t get to focus on the nitty gritty of this work?
Rashida Tlaib: I do…
John Nichols: It’s got to be frustrating when people are literally lying about you, trying to silence you—and you want to work on fundamental issues. This is how, in so many cases, good people are ground down.. and just wonder whether it’s worth it.
Rashida Tlaib: It is worth it when I go home and see my two children’s faces, my two boys, they are a constant reminder. I mean, even when I won, I mean, I showed Adam that bullies don’t win, that this president could say all kinds of hateful things about Muslims. But look, your mother won in a district that is majority non-Muslim community, they didn’t share the same faith or ethnicity as I am. And they elected a fellow American. I mean, that is the part of the American story nobody wants to talk about and nobody wants to highlight. But my God, if it’s happening at home in Detroit, you know, I tell people, they sent a historic member to Congress again. Uh, they made history again. They are leading the charge in saying, no matter someone’s background, no matter someone’s faith, you can be a member of Congress. All the movement towards white nationalism and the white supremacy movement in our country won’t stop us from doing good and from uplifting and sending someone like myself here—we change the world, not even just the nation, by having somebody like me in saying to a little child anywhere in this world and saying somebody like me, the possibility of someone like me serving in the United States Congress, that alone was this bright light that came across the world. People were so inspired by it, and I keep telling people it’s the district. It’s, it’s, it’s the county I was raised in. And it’s great because my district, uh, you know, some of my residents are like, “It’s great. You’re Muslim, but you’re different. We like that you don’t take corporate PAC money, that you’re really at the forefront.” And I served six years in the state legislature and I took on billionaires, took on corporate greed. That’s why I wanted to come here. And I don’t like bullies, it’s not just the president. I don’t like corporate bullies. I don’t like people that try to taint our democracy. It infuriates me. And I keep saying, how do we take back our democracy? You take back our democracy by sending people that are not going to sell us out, by sending people that are going to stay rooted in the community.
John Nichols: And I wrote a book about impeachment, which you gave to every freshman member of Congress.
Rashida Tlaib: Um, it’s such a great gift. Did you see?
John Nichols: I saw the note!
Rashida Tlaib: You should know how it went down. So it was orientation week and uh, you’re, you know, all of a sudden I was getting, you know, uh Speaker Pelosi sent, you know, something to I think chocolates and, and every person that was, uh, in, in some sort of leadership role was sending stuff to our hotels who would come in and their stuff right already on our, uh, in our hotel room. And I said, “Can I do that?” And, and my chief of staff said, “Sure, I’ll find out.” I said, “Well this is my gift is, is The Guide to Impeaching the President.”
John Nichols: And, and the interesting thing, it’s actually a book by John Bonifaz…
Rashida Tlaib: Yes.
John Nichols: And some other excellent lawyers. I got to write an introduction to it, but we were quite struck by that…. I want to close off, one of the things that you’ve stood out for is raising the issue of impeachment. But I think it is important that people understand that it isn’t about hating a man, it’s very much rooted in what you were just talking about taking on the bully, but also about the rule of law, about rules.
Rashida Tlaib: Yes
John Nichols: I have been struck in this Congress that a young new member is the one who has come and understood the constitution and the process.
Rashida Tlaib: I came here to put country first—and if (we) put our democracy first, we will always do the right thing by our country. And for those that are always looking at political strategies and so called polling and all these other things, that to me, sometimes will not lead us in the right direction in history. We’ve seen it over and over again. This is a president—I mean character flaws aside, and I consistently say that, uh, because that’s what distracts us is his character flaws—put that aside, put his characteristics aside and and some of his comments aside and look at his actions. After he took the oath of office and said he was going to uphold the United States Constitution, he has not upheld it, himself personally. There’s anti-corrupt[ion] laws in the United States constitution. They were there before I was born, before he was born. They were put there specifically for somebody like Donald J. Trump, it says that you have to completely, completely separate those completely, walk away from any conflict of interest. So you’re your foreign investments, your foreign businesses. You can’t have that connection or tie because it very much corrupts the process, corrupts our democracy. I mean, it’s, we have right now the first time ever in the history of our country, you know, all 44 presidents did this. They divest. They completely divested from their business interests. I mean, Carter sold his farm. You saw people putting it in a true blind trust and walking away from it because they understood the importance of this institution, importance of our democracy and protecting our democracy. Right now you have a president, a lawless president that is running his corporation out of the Oval Office that is kind of an upgraded version of pay to play, I say. You know, it may not be boxes and handing over money, but the fact is we have corporations that want to merge with others that are spending a hundred, T-Mobile spent $195,000 at the Trump hotel in DC in the same breath that they’re trying to lobby the federal government to be able to approve a merger with Sprint, T-Mobile to merge with Sprint. And you have foreign governments like Saudi Arabia who spent 195 like no $270,000 at the Trump hotel in DC. And you know, again, if you look at how this administration also uses, the Trump organization, his businesses interchangeably with the Trump administration. I don’t think people realize that this president is putting profit before people, is that this is about the bottom line. And to me it’s the ultimate, ultimate way to destroy our democracy. If we don’t stop the corruption, and we don’t allow this access to the corridor of power in this way. Again, you know the sacrifice that he had to take in wanting to become president is that he had to walk away from it. He had to uphold the constitution and every single day that he’s been in office, he has not done so.
John Nichols: And the oldest of 14 kids, child of immigrants, Muslim-American, Palestinian, American woman from Wayne County is taking on the president, United States, and our constitution gives you equal standing to, to step up. I think that’s a pretty good American story.
Rashida Tlaib: It is.
John Nichols: It’s not a bad tale. Now before we go, I wanna just ask you, you come out of the best music city in America, without a question, there’s no doubt. I know politics well enough to know that I would not dare ask you who the best Detroit artist is, but what’s rockin’ you, what are you listening to?
Rashida Tlaib: Oh, I don’t know. There’s been a number of artists, I mean it’s funny, I’m not one of those people to even remember who’s singing it, but it resonates with me. But I’m old school, and I grew up in the ’80s and if you ever talk to my two boys they know all of the ’80s music, it’s great because my son one time asked me, “What’s that?” I said “That’s Prince!” And he’s like, “Who’s that?” and I was like, “Yeah, Mommy grew up listening to Prince.” But I remember growing up with those artists, you know, Lionel Richie and these incredible artists in the ’80s. That’s the thing about some of us from Mo-Town, we kind of attach these artists that we grew up with, and we can’t let go of them.
John Nichols: Yeah, Smokey Robinson is still out there.
Rashida Tlaib: Yeah, he is.
John Nichols: Thank you, Rashida Tlaib
Rashida Tlaib: Thank you so much.
John Nichols: You’ve been a wonderful, wonderful person to give us his time on these busy days.
Rashida Tlaib: Thank you so much.