WFPeople (Issue 1) Crossroads at Charlottesville
A guest post by Working Families Party. Interviews by Kristin Witting.
“I’ve lived through a lot of dark times, and you can let that destroy you or you can fight. We’re given this one life, and I want to leave the world a better place.” — Puja Datta
Puja Datta joined the WFP staff in May 2017 as a national membership organizer, launching new Working Families Party local branches. She was also a founder of Yes We Can Columbus, a grassroots political organization in Columbus, Ohio, that affiliated with WFP as our Columbus local branch later this year. Recently, Puja helped organize the Charlottesville to DC March to Confront White Supremacy and marched the entire 118 miles.
Kristin Witting: How did you choose this path? What were you doing before you came to WFP?
Puja Datta: I came from a private sector background working for a credit bureau. Some of our clients were big companies that wanted as few people as possible to receive unemployment and the credit bureau’s job was to reduce the number of people who qualified for unemployment. At first I wasn’t super politically engaged, but over time I became more aware of how damaging this work was to people.
After 10 years at the credit bureau I left and got a job as a union organizer last January. I wanted to work for the union for a long time but they came after me for my political views. I’m not the kind of person you can silence, I’m pretty loud and proud, so I wanted to have a job where I could be more free.
KW: How did you end up doing this work — what “radicalized” you?
PD: I grew up in an abusive home, and I moved out when I was 15. I couldn’t live with my parents, I couldn’t go to college because it was too expensive, and I didn’t know what to do other than survive. I got my first job at 15 and I’ve been working full time since I was 17 and finished high school. I’ve been living self-sufficiently ever since. I started working at a job that paid for school, and got my associate’s degree. But I’ve always struggled paycheck to paycheck and that’s what radicalized me. The entire experience was radicalizing.
I wasn’t politically engaged at first, but then when I saw how hard it was… I’m fortunate that I’m stubborn. It makes me upset that there’s no safety net for people in this country. Who is fighting for the middle class?
KW: And what motivates you to keep going when things are discouraging?
PD: I’ve lived through a lot of dark times, and you can let that destroy you or you can fight. We’re given this one life, and I want to leave the world a better place. It has nothing to do with Trump or the Republicans, it has to do with capitalism — Trump is just a by-product. And I’m a person of color, too, so I’m not just waking up now to the fact that racism exists.
KW: Why did you decide to start Yes We Can?
PD: I’m part of the leadership team, but I am just one of a huge number of people who started it. We’re a close-knit community of people and we were saying “What’s going on in this city is ridiculous and nobody is fighting — if we don’t fight then nobody will.” Until we came along, there was no strong challenger to the Democratic Party, and they attacked us pretty severely.
A lot of people we met while working on the Bernie campaign joined Yes We Can. It affiliated with WFP last year but Yes We Can has existed since 2015. I started as a volunteer but now my job is to build WFP branches like Yes We Can all over the country. I’ve started two so far in Washington, one in Seattle and one in the tri-cities area, which is east of Seattle. That area became famous because it’s where the material for the Fat Man bomb was developed. The Hanford Site has lots of radiation that they’ve been trying to deal with ever since. It’s a good opportunity for progressives there.
“It was surreal and bizarre to see white supremacists walking around in broad daylight…. [They] were carrying bats, some threw smoke bombs at us and yelled the foulest stuff you can imagine at us.” — Zach Weinstein
Zach Weinstein joined WFP as a political organizer in March 2017. Before working here he was with PIRG on the DC Fair Elections campaign, where he first collaborated with WFP. He started with us on our Resist Here Team, and is now leading our innovative long-form canvass program in two competitive legislative races in Northern Virginia.
KW: You were in Charlottesville on August 12. What were you doing and what was your experience?
ZW: I wanted to go to the action in Charlottesville on July 8 [to protest the neo-Nazi rally], but I couldn’t go then. So when I heard about the August 12 action, I wanted to be there and felt it was part of the Resist mission. So Maddy and I talked to Amanda and decided to go down to be helpful.
KW: What was your role there?
ZW: I was a de-escalator — my job was to stand between local Black Lives Matter chapter members and white supremacists and try to mediate conflicts. Most of what I did was act as a physical barrier between anti-racists and the white supremacists. I was assigned to be a de-escalator for a couple of activists and I was with them all day, up through the attack.
KW: What was that like?
ZW: The contingent I was with was away from a lot of the confrontation [in Emancipation Park]. We were at another park where we had a permit. We had intermittent interactions with the police and supremacists who were walking by. Our activists would engage with them and my job was to stand between them. It was surreal and bizarre to see white supremacists walking around in broad daylight.
There were several hundred white supremacists marching nearby, so we lined the street and chanted at them. There were more of us than them, and we formed a human chain on either side of the street. The white supremacists were carrying bats, some threw smoke bombs at us and yelled the foulest stuff you can imagine at us. But overall, we were able to keep folks safe at the time.
There was one really powerful moment I want to describe. At one point we heard that the white supremacists were advancing on a public housing community, where the residents are mostly people of color, so we decided to march there ourselves to defend it. This happened just before the car attack. There was a moment when the organizations in my contingent met another contingent of anti-racist organizations also heading to the housing community. There were about 500 of us and 500 of them and the two anti-fascist contingents combined, including people from Black Lives Matter, Democratic Socialists of America, racial justice activists, anti-fascist coalitions, and others. And when these two groups combined, there was this amazing feeling of energy — folks from Charlottesville, people standing on their cars, people just standing outside and watching stood up and cheered for us! It was already a high energy situation, but then people who had been standing by felt emboldened to raise their voices against the white supremacists. This combined group of anti-racists was very diverse in terms of politics, focus, messaging — but we were all there for the same reason that day and it was extremely powerful.
That moment really brought home to me that what scares the far Right is knowing how strong a multi-racial, passionate, and committed Left could be. They fear a world where people share space and power and where there’s equity. The things those diverse groups want to build is what most scares the white supremacists, who see it as a loss because they used to be the only ones to have a say.
WFPeople is a periodic guest post from the Working Families Party, highlighting stories at the intersection of our staff and our changing country.