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Zooming Liberally: An interview with Aaron Regunberg



This is what every progressive minded person in our state should be thinking about right now – figuring out how to take action or support folks who are taking action on the budget.

Former State Representative and candidate for Lieutenant Governor Aaron Regunberg has been a progressive leader in Rhode Island for many years, working on issues like paid sick leave, universal healthcare and climate change while in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Now a student at Harvard Law, he has also been active with Never Again RI, calling for the closure of the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls where ICE detainees are being held.

In light of the recent pandemic, a lot of what Regunberg has been talking about for years has now been acutely highlighted, as preexisting inequalities have been intensified by COVID-19 in our communities.

This Thursday evening, 7pm on May 7th, Regunberg will be kicking off an experiment of sorts called Zooming Liberally, a conversation with Asher Schofield of Frog and Toad. This seemed like a good time to catch up with Regunberg, who is, in the interest of full disclosure, my former State Rep.

UpriseRI: First of all, how are you doing with the pandemic?

Regunberg: I feel very blessed and lucky to be one of the folks that’s not forced to throw my body at the virus, like so many workers are. My wife, Katie, still has her income. We’re hoping that the Massachusetts Public Defender’s office doesn’t do lay offs. We feel very lucky, obviously, but we’re going through the same sort of existential dread, terror and grief that everyone is in this moment, and also fear where this is going to go, and by “this” we don’t just mean the virus, but also the way that it has thrown gasoline on every preexisting oppression and system of suffering that folks have already been experiencing.

UpriseRI: That occurred to me too. Within the first week of the pandemic we could see that the people who most often get crapped on in our society are getting crapped on doubly and triply during this pandemic. I don’t know if our leaders in government truly understand that many of the policies they championed before the pandemic are the policies producing these terrible outcomes.

Regunberg: At the beginning of this thing, I feel like there were a lot of politicians and folks using the phrase, that, “this virus doesn’t discriminate based on race or class or who you are.” And not to cast aspersions – they’re doing that to try to bring people together or whatever – but that’s false, right? It’s just like any crisis, like the climate crisis, like the crisis of governance that is Donald Trump’s fascist regime – this is hurting the folks who have already been hurting or have already been most vulnerable based on our economic and white supremacist systems. To me, there’s sort of like two, red hot, urgent priorities along two time frames.

Regunberg: First, there’s the immediate, critical needs and the state response. We need to make sure that policy makers are not going to be choosing austerity in this moment and instead fight for the basic things like sick leave and hazard pay and all those things that we’ve been talking about for a while. The need has always been there, but now it’s particularly stark. And then there’s the medium term, whatever it might be, four or five months, where we need to ask, “How do we win the narrative of this?” Because we know the truth is that we can’t go back to normal. We know that a return to normal is what is literally sentencing more people to die – whether it’s to this virus or to hunger or disease or the other ways that folks are suffering.

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So how do we win that narrative? And we should be able to win it, right? Because there’s nothing that has ever happened that more starkly underlines everything the progressive movement has been saying on every issue – on environmental justice, on white supremacy, on workers’ rights, on housing – it goes on and on. So how do we make sure that we are winning that narrative and that the American people, the people of Rhode Island and policymakers, understand that we can’t be going back to normal?

UpriseRI: I worry about going back to normal. On a national level we’re talking about oil prices being at a record low because we don’t need as much oil. And I hear news reports talking about how we’re going to get the oil prices back up and how we’re going to stabilize oil markets and I’m like, this is an opportunity to start moving away from the oil markets entirely. But all we’re talking about is stabilizing and subsidizing these oil markets. I am just stunned becauseCOVID-19 isn’t even the real emergency that’s going to kill us all. Climate change is going to do that.

Regunberg: One of the things that’s most terrifying is seeing how poorly we are responding to this shock to the system and how foreboding that is for the exponentially larger and more numerous shocks that are coming. There’s some Facebook meme that shows a graph with the classic flatten the curve line. And then, after that curve, it just goes exponentially up with the climate crisis. This is that moment. We know that these shocks are times of both incredible peril and incredible potential. We know from Milton Friedman that these crises, these shocks, are the only time that big change is possible. And yes, we might not agree with his economic, but Friedman’s political ideas established a conservative political hegemony in a few decades. What happens after a crisis is based on the ideas that are lying around in these moments. So how do we make sure, right here in Rhode Island, that the ideas that are lying around are things like: People deserve a living wage. We need healthcare for everyone. We need affordable housing for everyone. We need to be thinking about environmental justice and the transition off of fossil fuels?

It’s really scary to think about what’s coming. The one piece of hope that I’ve had is that I’ve never seen, in my lifetime, this thing where almost every human in the world is in some way engaged in a collective solution. We’re all staying home. That’s kind of beyond even my imagination for what was possible. That’s real. That shows that we can do this, as far as the climate crisis goes. It also shows the limits of individual action. Everyone in the world right now is pretty much doing the best they can do as far as individual actions right now – not using air travel, not really driving as much – and we’re down like 5% in emissions. So it shows the fallacy of the right wing and fossil fuel funded narrative that it’s on individuals to fight climate change. No. We need structural, systemic change.

UpriseRI: As a state, we’re starting to think about reopening and we’re starting to think about what the General Assembly is going to be like when it opens and what issues they’re going to tackle. Right now, I think they’re not going to be tackling any of the social issue bills like the Parentage Act or the doula bill or any of these other important issues. It looks like they’re only going to be doing the budget and from what I read in the Providence Journal yesterday, there isn’t a lot of hope for Progressives in the way that the main movers and shakers of the General Assembly are talking about the budget. What do you think about that?

Regunberg: This is what every progressive minded person in our state should be thinking about right now – figuring out how to take action or support folks who are taking action on the budget. I think you’re right that the session, when they return, is just going to be the budget. There’s not going to be other bills. Having said that, we know that you need some hook into the finances in order to put something into the budget. That hook can be pretty tenuous. We’ve done minimum wage in the budget because that impacts state workers. So there’s a lot you can do in the context of the budget. The other thing about the budget is that it does provide this moment of potential leverage because it needs a two-thirds majority.

So if you can get 20, 25, 26 reps to come together and say we need X, Y, and Z or we’re not going to be there for the budget, you can get X, Y, and Z. The problem is that’s always just been a pipe dream, right? Because of all the different tools that leadership has to keep people’s votes. And I include myself in that. You know, paid sick days, that bill was held until after the budget to secure my vote. So if you want the thing that you’ve been fighting for passed, you need to vote for the budget. Maybe there’s an opportunity right now because there’s not going to be any other standalone bills, there’s a lot less for folks to lose by saying, “No, we’re actually going to work together, we’re not going to be picked off as individuals, we’re going to build that critical mass so that we can actually say, no, we’re not going to have deep austerity.”

We need billionaires to pay their fair share before we start cutting Medicaid, or whatever it might be. There are a lot of obstacles to collective action in the context of the legislature. But I would encourage every legislator who cares about these issues to really be thinking hard. This is the time for folks to be reaching out to each other, talking to each other, building a collective strategy figuring out the agenda.

That’s the work that the community has been doing, right? There are multiple lists from different coalitions on what our state needs right now, whether it’s housing groups coming together with a list of needs, or criminal justice or economic justice groups. There’s stuff out there. If I were in the legislature right now, I’d be working really hard to get down that core list of X, Y, and Z and start seeing how I can get other elected folks to come together and say we need this, and we have power in our votes, particularly in the context of a budget. So if any legislators are reading, I hope they will be thinking about how they can start that work, because it needs to start right away.

UpriseRI: It really does. And I really don’t want to see any rollbacks on what we have. Medicaid cuts were in the budget in years past. This year more Medicaid cuts were in the Governor’s budget, before the pandemic made that budget moot. These kinds of cuts are the preexisting conditions that have made this virus so bad for so many vulnerable populations.

Regunberg: Yeah, all these things have been done for a long time. It’s just crazy to think about how everyone’s struggling with this. But every other country in the world is getting this under control – the curve is starting to go down and it’s just insane that this country that we love, I love America, but how is it that just like healthcare, everyone else is figuring out how to take action and do the right thing and not let corruption and corporate greed just ruin any chance for common sense. Everyone else can do it. And once again, we are just giving up. The Trump administration is saying we’re at 3000 deaths a day and that’s just the plan! But it’s not just deaths, right? It’s 3000 deaths of working class people who can’t afford to stay home if they’re kicked off unemployment insurance. This is literal biological class warfare.

UpriseRI: It would be easy, if I owned like five McDonald’s, to sit at home and have my office people all work from home and simply call up the various store managers and tell them how to run the stores for me. I’d never have to be exposed to COVID-19. Meanwhile I’ll have frontline workers at these McDonald’s working in close quarters, dealing with customers and they and their families will be put at risk, and if they get sick I’ll just let the government pay their hospital bills, let the government can pay their unemployment. I’m going to still make all the money I need. So why would I care about my employees? Until these employers face the same risks as workers do, that’s not going to change.

Regunberg: We talked about reopening. I’m much less concerned about when we start transitioning to reopening if folks can stay on unemployment. But if reopening the economy translates to “There’s a job now, you’re off unemployment,” that means that reopening the economy is code for “We’re going to send a lot of people to their deaths.”

UpriseRI: We’re already doing that to the frontline healthcare workers though, right? Because what we said to them was you have to go to work. If you think the job is too dangerous or there’s not enough personal protective gear or the money isn’t right or you’ve got an elderly parent and you don’t want to risk infecting them, you still have to go to work because otherwise you don’t get any money from unemployment. It’s either face this disease or face economic ruin. Reopening means that’s going to be the choice, expanded for many more members of the working class.

UpriseRI: Can we talk about the Wyatt? Because in the last weeks we’ve had a few medically vulnerable people released by the courts, but the number of COVID-19 cases just jumped from nine to 13 detainees as of yesterday’s report, with three members of the Wyatt staff testing positive.

Regunberg: I’m really grateful for the legal work that Jared Goldstein and Debbie Gonzalez are doing right now. Supporting that work is an important thing to be doing right now because, you know, we had our big car rally at the Wyatt. We had some other actions, like jumping on the CFDFC board calls, and more. And Never Again and AMOR and folks are still working and planning. But the decision maker is the regional ICE director, who is not someone that we have a lot of real capacity to move.

We’ve called on Governor Raimondo to elevate this and do more. And I think there are ways she can be pressured, but the Wyatt is not directly under the state. It’s a challenge and it’s a travesty and a tragedy. It’s exactly what we have been saying, that once COVID-19 starts, it’s going to spread like wildfire. There’s just no way it doesn’t. And the fact that action was not taken at the outset, as the community has been demanding and folks inside have been demanding is murderous. We’ve talked about how this pandemic is just pouring gasoline on all the preexisting suffering and oppression and there’s nowhere that that’s clearer than in our prison system

UpriseRI: Let’s talk about Thursday night. What are you planning?

Regunberg: Last year we restarted this Drinking Liberally tradition and I was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. I think there’s real value in having opportunities for folks who share progressive values to get together. We get together in the context of rallies and activism and things like that, but there’s value in just getting together and connecting and building relationships. I’ve missed that since social distancing started. So the idea was, let’s see if we can keep that going with “Zooming Liberally.”

On Thursday we’re going to kick it off. It’s an opportunity for folks to get on a call together around relevant, important issue with someone in the community who’s been doing a lot of work and can speak to that. And then opening it up so people can ask questions about that issue. This Thursday I’ll be interviewing Asher Schofield from Frog and Toad. His small business has been getting a lot of attention for their Knock it Off shirts which has been a great cultural rallying point for Rhode Island, but what I’ve been most impressed by is how he’s been using that attention and platform to give a platform to other small business folks, including a lot of businesses owned by people of color. We know that community businesses are hurting right now. We know that they were not really included in the bailout. Instead, we’re giving trillions and trillions of dollars to major corporations and hedge fund raiders, who are going to use that as a credit card to consolidate the economy and buy up every business that can survive right now.

That’s a terrifying piece of this equation to me. So I think it’s good to support local community businesses. It’s particularly important right now. So we’ll just be having a conversation about that. And hopefully Asher will have some good ideas and suggestions for folks about how to best engage in that kind of support. Then, we can open it up to questions and have some conversations. We’ll see if folks are interested. If it’s a success Thursday we want to keep that up and talk to folks at SEIU next week talking about the crisis in our nursing homes and the fight for the folks doing that work.

UpriseRI: So it’ll be like a podcast on Zoom?

Regunberg: Basically, but the hope is that we can have it be interactive, where folks can actually ask questions and hear answers and see if there are ways where it makes sense to do some breakout rooms and discussion. So the hope is that it’s more than just a podcast and, and closer to the Drinking Liberally kind of thing. We’ll see how it goes.

UpriseRI: It’s an experiment.

Regunberg: We’re all experimenting right now.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.