A talk by Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour calling for a progressive movement in which people may not always agree with one another drew a standing ovation Sunday from most of her audience.
About 60 demonstrators, both critics and supporters, and roughly 10 law-enforcement officers gathered before the speech outside the Whitted Building in Hillsborough. Later inside, Sarsour told the audience that the protesters, including a couple carrying Trump MAGA signs, didn’t bother her.
“I don’t care about people outside. I don’t care about those people down the street,” she said. ”They’re gasping those last breaths of white supremacy, and that’s OK with me.”
Sarsour was co-chair and lead fundraiser of the first Women’s March on Washington in 2017.
She spent half of her hour-long talk on the march. By the time she finished and took a half-dozen questions, she had said racism and capitalism are the root causes of today’s problems and described death threats that have forced her to plan for a day she might not be there for her family.
On the women’s march
The women’s march started with a white woman’s Facebook post, Sarsour said. But it stumbled from the get go by calling it the Million Woman March, the name of an event that focused on African-American women in 1997, she said.
The mistake exposed a failure to involve women of color, something Sarsour said led to women like her seeking leadership roles in the march and unity principles that stressed all people being treated with justice and respect.
“The women of color who came to the march were really able to bring an intersectional lens,” Sarsour said.
For example, “we can’t talk about equal pay without looking at it through a racial-justice lens,” she explained. “White women don’t get paid the same as white men, but guess what? The black woman still doesn’t get paid as much as the white woman, and the immigrant woman still doesn’t get paid as much as the white and black woman.”
On President Trump
The women’s march was a response to President Trump’s election, an election that Sarsour said most liberal and progressive people thought they had in the bag — until they didn’t.
Sarsour, 39, wearing a yellow hijab, said she and others emphasized to white women that the struggle then and now was about more than one person.
“I’m glad that it took Donald Trump to remind you that we have misogyny and sexism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism ... which is what Donald Trump did during the election. You name it he did it,” Sarsour said. “We were basically telling our white sisters ... we’re happy that you’re mad now, but we wish you were mad before.”
“The things that we were fighting against are the things we have always been up against in this country,” she said. “I am trained in [Martin Luther] Kingian non-violence, and one of the principles is that you attack the forces of evil and not those doing evil.”
On death threats
Sarsour said she considers herself a patriot. “I don’t take for granted that my Palestinian parents came to this country so I could have a better life.”
But she said she also understands the history of her country, a history built on the extermination of native people and enslavement of African people, many of them Muslim. “I love my country enough that every day I get up and fight for my country to be better,” she said.
She said she has paid a price for her outspokenness, like the day two FBI agents came to her door and told her that her name and address had been found in their investigation of a mail bomber around the same time as the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh.
The Orange County Human Relations Commission invited Sarsour as part of its “Courageous Conversations” series, and the county paid her $5,000, plus travel expenses. Videotaping was prohibited during the talk, which was free to the community but required a ticket.
The speech drew a standing ovation from most of the 150-plus people in the room Sunday. One woman who did not stand was Deborah Friedman, who had hoped Sarsour would renounce her support for the Durham City Council’s recent statement opposing police training with Israel and other countries that engage in military-style policing.
Sarsour said afterward that she supports the statement, whose organizers link militarized policing with police treatment of black and Latino people in Durham.
Friedman and others also criticized Sarsour’s previous statements on Zionism, her alleged association with Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan and what they called her trivializing the Holocaust by referring to Japanese internment camps as concentration camps, which Sarsour did during her talk Sunday.
“I am a progressive, so I believe in a lot of what she says,” Friedman said. “But I think she has a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I feel like she is a divider.”
Others objected specifically to the county paying for Sarsour’s talk.
“If anybody wanted to see her they should pay $50 to see her,” said Faye Voncannon, one of the protesters outside. “One hundred fifty people would get her her $5,000. Orange County taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for this.”
Sarsour was unapologetic.
At the time of the internment of Japanese Americans many people probably knew it was wrong but said nothing, she said. Years of propaganda had made people distrustful and fearful of the Japanese, she said, the way President Trump and others speak of Muslims now.
“Hate and bigotry is not us having disagreements on foreign policy,” Sarsour said, her voice rising. “I am always going to be a critic of Israel as long as it violates the human rights of the Palestinian people. That’s it. Accept it. It doesn’t make me a hateful person. It doesn’t make me anti-Semitic.”
Such accusations, she said, are dividing the American progressive movement.
“As an American, guess who else I criticize?” she said. “I criticize the U.S. government I criticize the government of Saudi Arabia. I’ll criticize any damn government in this world who engages in human-rights violations.”