Though an epicenter of displacement in San Francisco, the Mission District grips tenaciously to some of its old character and charm on the grand old boulevard of Mission Street. Dollar stores, discount clothing shops, and affordable tacquerias still occupy many storefronts, while Spanish chatter fills the sidewalks.
The pavement is especially packed and diverse on Tuesday night as a dense crowd wraps around the corner of Mission and 23rd streets. Graying activists in crunchy casual wear mingle with the grunge-meets-hipster look of the young San Francisco left, and the crowd is racially and ethnically mixed. A couple of activists are holding up Palestinian flags.
They are waiting to enter Gray Area, an arts and technology center founded by self-described “queer Mexican woman” Josette Melchor. It’s been housed in a converted 1940s movie theater since 2014, just as the tsunami of gentrification was sweeping in. The evening’s event is hosted by San Francisco’s Democratic Socialists, Latino Democratic Club, Berniecrats, and the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club.
It’s a ground-zero constituency for the evening’s star speaker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who blew past most expectations to win the Democratic primary for her New York City House congressional district in late June. Her victory is a near guarantee that next year she will become the youngest woman (by then at age 29) to enter Congress.
With her own rapid ascent, Ocasio-Cortez preaches urgency when it comes to taking action on the important issues. “When they told me that I had to wait my turn–nah,” she says of the Democratic Party establishment. “Because we have been waiting all of American history for justice, and we’re not going to wait anymore,” she says, for action on climate change, “voting rights,” and better education. “If it’s possible now, we are morally obliged to do it now,” she says, over whooping sounds and heavy applause.
Though she was in the heart of the tech sector—riven by controversies over its lack of gender and racial diversity, a business model that thrives on collecting personal data on its users, and an agnostic attitude when it comes to selling its products to companies and governments around the world—Ocasio-Cortez didn’t mention any of those issues, choosing to focus on the big picture.
Immediate action isn’t the same as immediate electoral victory. The “blue wave” that Democratic activists hope will sweep them into control of Congress in November is far from certain. And the far-left will be just one component of any wave. Democratic leaders have long held the far-left at a distance for fear of alienating middle-American moderates who ultimately decide the presidency and many other elections.
Seeing Obama’s legacy–on healthcare, the environment, immigration, consumer rights, internet policy–being erased by the Republican leadership, Democrats may want to just get anyone in office who can stop the bleeding. Ocasio-Cortez pushes a nearly opposite approach: Double down on the progressive agenda and expand the base of believers who will vote for it–even if that takes a while.
“We gotta be real clear about what our message is. We gotta be really clear what we’re about, because we’re gonna reclaim this party,” she says, for the working class, people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants. “They stay home because they don’t feel that we are fighting hard enough for them. So the answer to get those people to vote is to fight harder.”
As the rock star of Democratic Socialism, Ocasio-Cortez speaks for seemingly unthinkable reforms. Universal healthcare, though standard procedure in much of the world, has been a nearly a century-long losing proposition in the U.S., with even Obama’s timid step toward it now being wiped out under the Trump administration. Universal basic income is a trendy topic among wonks of varied political allegiance, but it remains anathema to those who cherish the bootstrap mythology of American enterprise. A government jobs guarantee sounds downright Soviet.
Pushing for all of this, all at once, might not be a winning strategy in the short term, Ocasio-Cortez cautions. But the millennial frames these big goals as a legacy for her grandkids.
“They feel it’s zero-sum, it’s win or lose,” she says of the Democratic establishment. “And if you lost, it wasn’t worth doing it at all.” But if the cause gains more adherents each election cycle, it’s succeeding, Ocasio-Cortez contends. “You lose by a little bit, you raise our organizing,” she says. “You lose by a little bit, that next cycle, it’s ours.”
“We need to have a multi-cycle, long-game approach,” she says.