Maxine Waters The Hip Hop Symposium Interview with Kam Williams
Considered by many to be one of the most powerful women in American politics today, Maxine Waters has gained a reputation as a fearless advocate for women, children, people of color and the poor. The outspoken Congresswoman was just re-elected to her ninth term in the House of Representatives by her constituents in the 35th District of California, comprised of communities located in South Central Los Angeles, Westchester, Playa Del Ray, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lawndale.
A former Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Maxine was born in St. Louis, Missouri, one of 13 children reared by a single mother. At the tender age of 13, she began working in factories and segregated restaurants. After moving to Los Angeles, she was employed in the garment industry and then by the telephone company.
But she later attended California State University in L.A., where she would earn a Bachelor of Arts degree before embarking on a career in public service which began as a teacher and a volunteer coordinator in the Head Start program. Throughout her 29 years of public service, Maxine Waters has been on the cutting edge, tackling difficult and often controversial issues. She has combined her strong legislative and public policy acumen and high visibility in Democratic Party activities with an unusual ability to do grassroots organizing.
Even prior to her election to the House of Representatives in 1990, Congresswoman Waters had already attracted national attention for her no-nonsense, no-holds-barred style of politics. During 14 years in the California State Assembly, she rose to the powerful position of Democratic Caucus Chair. She was responsible for some of the boldest legislation California has ever seen: the largest divestment of state pension funds from South Africa; landmark affirmative action legislation; the nation’s first statewide Child Abuse Prevention Training Program; the prohibition of police strip searches for nonviolent misdemeanors; and the introduction of the nation’s first plant closure law.
Congresswoman Waters is the founding member and chairperson of the ‘Out of Iraq’ Congressional Caucus, established to generate debate about the war in Iraq and the Administration’s justifications for the decision to go to war, and to urge the return of US service members to their families as soon as possible. She is married to Sidney Williams, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. She is the mother of two adult children, Edward and Karen, and has two grandchildren.
Praised by the younger generation for her support and interest in their concerns, she was the only politician participating in a recent Symposium entitled Hip-Hop in a Post 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina America, staged at Princeton University, which is where this interview was conducted.
Kam WIlliams (KW:) When I think of rap music, Congress is probably the last thing that comes to mind. Where do you think that you as a Congresswoman can work constructively with the hip-hop community?
Maxine Waters (MW:) I’m hoping to get the hip-hop community more involved with public policy makers, so that they could begin to influence the thinking of older and mainstream people. They can contribute tremendously in terms of dealing with the setting of public policy that really determines where this country is headed and how it’s going to get there. For instance, the FCC is having meetings all around the country. They were in L.A., and I was there taking them on about consolidation in the media, with the L.A. Times which is owned by the Tribune Company, along with WGN in Chicago, and 27 other TV stations, etcetera, etcetera. Now, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the hip-hop community had been there with me and others who were prepared to take on the FCC?
KW: Do you really think by patiently waiting for a turn to testify they would be respected at an FCC hearing like a ranking member of Congress?
MW: Not in the same fashion, because if you conform to the outline of the Establishment at these hearings, those people who get to sit at the front of the room to be heard are there because they’re an elected official or the head of this or that organization, or what have you. The hip-hop community has to walk into the room as one, fill up the whole room, and say “I was invited but I’m here. I intend to speak. Yaw’l gonna’ let me speak? I‘ve got something to say!” All I’m saying is you’ve got to change the way things are handled, or you’re not going to have an influence.
KW: When Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, referred to President as the devil, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel immediately defended Bush, despite his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War. Do you think that this sort of response might be why the hip-hop generation feels unrepresented by black politicians?
MW: After Hugo spoke at the U.N., what you basically saw were politicians rolling out to say “It’s not the right thing to say.” Or “How could he say such a terrible thing?” I know that a lot of people in the hip-hop community were upset and asking, “Why do those politicians do that?” But on the other hand, I didn’t see a group of people from the hip-hop activist community call a press conference or put together a rally, and say, “Here’s how we interpret what Chavez was doing.”
KW: I think many folks feel that Kanye West came closer to expressing their feelings about Bush than the Congressman.
MW: Maybe it was an in-artful description of how he felt about the President, but I think we missed an important moment. That was an opportunity that should have been seized upon for some serious discussion about what’s wrong with the public policies of this Administration.
KW: What do you think about the President’s rationalization of ignoring the Geneva Conventions as Constitutional under the Patriot Act?
MW: It’s undermining all of what we stand for. We can’t talk about the Constitution and not understand the danger to the democracy that is being presented at this time, given what they’re talking about, with the enemy combatants and the loss of habeas corpus. How can you know the Constitution, how can you be quiet, when democracy is crumbling before your very eyes, if you aren’t dealing with this issue? We need to deal with whatever’s going on now that’s changing the world and creating the kind of hatred that will not allow you to be an international person, because people don’t want to see you in other countries, understanding you as an occupier, and as an abuser.
KW: What do you think of all the tax dollars squandered on Iraq?
MW: We’ve spent $400 billion between Iraq and Afghanistan. That amounts to a couple of billion dollars a week. I stood on the floor of congress begging trying to get just one billion to fight HIV and AIDS to be able to fund all the outreach programs. But we’re at a time when very smart people have been allowing this dumb-ass President of the United States to do as he pleases.
KW: Are you sure you want to characterize him that way?
MW: Let the media take that and make something of it. But I’m not going to be like Kanye and the rest. I’m not backing off. I said it, and I mean it! The policies that have developed around Iraq and Afghanistan are ridiculous and outrageous and everybody should be protesting. The President has not only lied about why he’s there, but over 3,000 soldiers, men and women, are dead. For what? There were no weapons of mass destruction. You have over 20,000 young men and women seriously injured. Lost their legs, or their arms, eyes lost, brains shot out.
They’re over at Walter Reed Hospital trying to figure out how they’re simply going to be able to see another day.
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