Austin, Texas is brimming over with Oscar winners, tech moguls and social media influencers, but no one drew more heat with her speaker address than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
A serpentine line of conference goers stretched around the length of Austin’s convention center — the longest and most hectic so far this year, a SXSW spokesperson told Variety — to catch Ocasio-Cortez’s session, a conversation moderated by The Intercept writer Briahna Gray.
While she’s spent the past few weeks grilling former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and promoting her own documentary and Sundance entry “Knock Down the House,” this Saturday was centered on her unlikely rise in the Democratic party and what it means for the future of the country.
“Part of what happened last year was a crack in the system,” she explained, of her election to the U.S. House of Representatives for New York’s 14th district. The politician has often said that election winners do not look like her, a woman of color from a working-class Puerto Rican family in the Bronx.
“Suddenly, a lot of other people said, ‘Wait a second, maybe I can do this too,'” said Ocasio-Cortez.
The freshmen representative is known for an explosive brand of left-facing ideology, whose loud and bold criticisms of Washington institutions (including her own party) were largely credited with helping her gain traction in the race and gain celebrity status. Her worldview has drawn her critics and fans alike.
“History is often revisionist. Martin Luther King is cast as this angelic person that never made anyone mad and just asked for civi rights and got it. Unions were always seen as this great powerful thing that no one ever died for, [to get] a 40 hour work week and a weekend,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
While she has often been a critic of the right, Ocasio-Cortez bemoaned what she called the “slow erosion” of American moderates, who masquerade snobbery as cynicism.
“We use cynicism as an intellectually superior attitude and we view ambition as youthful naiveté. ‘Meh’ is worshipped now, for what?” she asked. The representative pointed to a recent Republican-attached amendment to a gun safety bill that requires gun vendors to report undocumented buyers to ICE.
“I’ve gotten a lot of heat recently in the party because I was really furious about this republican amendment,” she said. “The reason I was so upset is because we have an agency [ICE] that is separating children from their parents and putting them in cages and injecting them with antipsychotic drugs … since when did it become the moderate position in America to keep caging children?”
Admittedly, the particular auditorium had more fans than critics. During a Q&A, two young women in Girl Scouts of America vests approached the microphone and introduced themselves as the Radical Monarchs of Austin (an organization that helps create opportunities for young girls of color). They asked Ocasio-Cortez what advice she had for breaking into politics.
“Stop trying to navigate systems of power and start building your own power,” she said, to thunderous applause. She shared an anecdote with the girls about how important she felt it was to wear hoop earrings (a staple in fashion canons of the east coast and the south) to her swearing in ceremony for the house.
“There are so many subconscious forces that make us try to act like somebody else … but when you’re woman of color, there are so many things about you that is non conforming,” she said.
The final audience question sent people to their feet clapping, as it was asked by Bill Nye — TV host of “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and decorated scientist. He explained that he was a white guy (zing) who belonged to two unions, and someone who felt great fear emanating from people he knew in both political parties and in different economic sectors.
“People like my ancestors are afraid are having to pay for everything for people who come into this country,” he said, referring to the raging issue of immigration and the ongoing calamity of Trump’s efforts to build a border wall.
Nye then referenced marginalized women in minimum wage jobs (from an early anecdote told during the session about diner waitresses in Alabama), saying they might be “afraid to try to ask for what is reasonable.”
Ocasio-Cortez said her plan for working with people of opposing political views and her the constituents that voted against her would be one and the same — courage.
“Courage is self-propagating. Courage begets courage … if you’re sick and tired of being an anxious nation, we have to reject fear outright,” she said.
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