- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
In 2018, Gabriel Acevero was elected to the Maryland General Assembly on a promise to fight for a Green New Deal and economic equality. Now, four years later, Acevero has been reelected to represent the 39th House district, which covers a racially diverse region of Montgomery County, the most populous county in the state.
Acevero, a self-described “impatient optimist” who hails from San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, returns to his district after another contested election against the establishment-backed candidate.
Fresh off a recent delegation to Brazil with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which he’s a member, Acevero sat down with Jacobin contributor Peter Lucas to discuss his journey as a socialist in office.
How did growing up in Trinidad and Tobago shape your politics?
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago helped shape not only my politics and ideology, but also the way that I organize. I grew up in a pan-Africanist and civically engaged household where politics was spoken in every room, which teaches you at a young age how to talk to different people about different issues. I was brought up reading prominent leftist leaders like C. L. R. James, Claudia Jones, and Kwame Ture. Learning of that history and the contributions of those individuals to a global solidarity movement for liberation as a young child was very formative. I’m proud to carry on Trinidad and Tobago’s rich history of socialism in America today.
You recently went on a DSA delegation to Brazil. What was that like?
Our delegation was sent to build on the relationships DSA has with left and center-left parties in Brazil, and learn from their struggle. These meetings took place in the lead up to São Paulo’s May Day celebrations, where I attended a rally with Brazil’s largest labor union, Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT). The delegation, which was particularly interested in socialist electoral power, learned not just from [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and the Workers’ Party (PT), but also from the leaders of the late Marrielle Franco’s party, the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). We also spoke at length about the importance of transnational solidarity.
Democracy in Brazil is young and tenuous in nature, which is made clear both by its colonial past and financialized present. Our visit also included meetings with social movements like the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) and the youth wing of the Workers’ Party (Juventude PT). Our delegation toured the Memorial of Resistance where the US-backed military dictatorship had once imprisoned and tortured democratic activists. We saw in real terms how brutal the Right and its backers are willing to be to suppress working people and democratic governance — a very clear and present danger with [Jair] Bolsonaro flirting with reestablishing military rule. It was impossible not to draw parallels to our experiences in the US.
What does it mean to you to be a socialist in office?
To me, being a democratic socialist is about fighting for an economy that works for the many and not the few; fighting with workers for a more democratic workplace, economy, and society. Being a democratic socialist in office is also about using my platform to constantly remind people what is possible. If we’re able to build strong coalitions that are willing to fight for the entire working class, we can win a livable planet and dignity for the working class.
As a democratic socialist, I also realize it’s not just me in office. The movement that I come from and that helped elect me is in office too. When I wrote the Healthy Maryland Act, which would establish a single-payer Medicare for All system in the state, that’s not just the work of me as an individual, but of all the different progressive groups and unions who have been fighting for universal health care with me.
A key flank of the modern American democratic socialist movement is fighting for racial justice, which is something you did most notably with Anton’s Law. Can you tell us about that law, how it came to be, what it was like organizing for it, and how it fits into a broader vision of racial justice?
From Ferguson to the favelas of Brazil, we’re seeing extrajudicial killings with impunity, brokered by individuals in positions of power who are either afraid to confront the organizations that have been impediments to the change that we’re seeking, or are working for them. Anti-blackness is global, and so our fight for racial justice in the United States has to be a part of a global effort to dismantle the systems that dehumanize, over-police, and criminalize black people.
I have fought for many years for police transparency and accountability in Maryland. Prior to running for office, I organized around legislation when Freddie Gray was killed. Since then, we have seen so many more similar instances, whether it’s Korryn Gaines or Anton Black, so we continue to organize around the legislation that our communities need.
Since being elected in 2018, my focus has been how do we ensure that policing in Maryland is not only different, but we’re providing a road map for the rest of the country on what needs to be done. When Anton Black was killed I worked with the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, as well as a number of other racial justice organizations, to put together Anton’s Law — which was fiercely opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police — and several other pieces of legislation that address the lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight that for too long have characterized policing in America.
Something that distinguishes a democratic socialist from a liberal approach to racial justice is the understanding that these issues are not siloed, but they’re all interconnected. How do you see the fights for other things like health care, infrastructure, jobs, unions, etcetera as intertwined with the fight for racial justice?
As Audre Lorde put it, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” As an Afro-Latino queer immigrant from a working-class family, I have no shortage of experience facing issues that so many Americans are confronted with today, and that informs how I fight, especially for communities like mine that have long been ignored.
All of these struggles — racial and gender oppression, economic hardship, climate change — are inextricably linked. The same family struggling with medical debt is affected by underfunded public transportation and education. The same person going through our broken immigration system has to contend with working for less than a living wage.
Any coalition that’s working toward liberation needs to understand that none of us are free until all of us are free, and we have a responsibility to be fighting for each other, particularly those who exist at the margins of our society.
One of those other inextricably linked issues is climate change. Can you tell us about the Green New Deal legislation you’re working on?
Maryland, like much of the country, suffers under a private utility monopoly which uses its power to exploit building loopholes, fleece consumers with raising rates, and pollute our communities. Given the limitations of the Inflation Reduction Act on environmental action at the federal level, it’s up to the states to take the lead on climate organizing.
Maryland has an opportunity to lead the way on decarbonization. I’ll be introducing legislation in the upcoming session, borne from a coalition of unions, environmental groups, and local community organizations, to do so through investments in building public power, in sectors where private, anti-union companies won’t. We have a duty to the planet and its peoples to move toward a decarbonized economy through a Green New Deal. We must end our reliance on coal and phase out the six plants where our state receives the bulk of energy, and use this opportunity to develop a robust jobs programs building public power and ending private energy monopolies in our state.
You’ve worked a little bit with the People’s Policy Project, and put forth several bills in the legislature. What’s your thinking behind focusing on policy?
As democratic socialists it is important for us when in elected office to put forth reforms that are truly transformational, whether it’s a Green New Deal or curbing incarceration. We have to take votes, pass bills, and pen policy papers that reflect our values and what we say on the campaign trail in order to show the public that we’re capable of governing. The Left is often mischaracterized as pie-in-the-sky dreamers or overly ambitious visionaries, but that line of attack will become more fraught in the face of successful socialist legislation.
But it doesn’t end there. How are we going to pass this type of legislation?
Organizing is how we win the world that we know is possible, and without it, that policy doesn’t materialize. The state legislature, like any other legislative body or position of power, runs on political will. For the establishment that will comes from the ruling class and corporations, but for the Left the will of the people must always be present. In practice that looks like continuous political education, organizing around policies that are widely and deeply felt in our communities, and holding elected officials’ feet to the fire.
Have you been able to do any political education through your office and your platform as an elected official with your constituents?
We’re constantly engaged in political education because we believe that it’s necessary for a functioning democracy. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It is something that requires the engagement of the people, literally having its roots in “power of the people.” So we have to ensure that we’re using our platform to work with and educate the people on how their government works, what we’re doing, and how we can pass policy.
Whether it’s passing Anton’s Law or proposing a Green New Deal, it’s very important to me that my constituents are aware of what it is that I’m doing. That political education also doesn’t stop at the border of my district. I am not trying to just change the material conditions of my constituents, but of all of Maryland.
Both times you’ve run for office, the Democratic Party establishment has run a concerted opposition campaign. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve never been a darling of the establishment because I’ve always pushed those in power to do more and I’ve spoken out when they haven’t. Both times I have run for office, I’ve done so against a slate of establishment-backed candidates, and I did so on an unapologetically progressive platform that is not always popular with corporate America. We often hear about how deeply politicians care about the working class and low-income people, but then when it comes to policy, they are nowhere to be found.
Who I am and the movement I represent is a threat to the status quo. I am an unbought and unbossed voice for the working class in Annapolis. That invites a lot of fear in folks who are happy with the status quo, and I welcome that.
You mentioned forcing other legislators to take positions publicly that they normally wouldn’t. Why do you think that’s a useful tactic?
As a student of history we’ve always seen that the advancements we’ve gained have been the result of direct action, public pressure, and collective organizing. Those tactics are the difference between getting legislation that is incremental and not necessarily far-reaching and getting legislation that is transformative. The Democratic establishment tends to engage in the politics of the former, which I do not subscribe to. It is this politics of incrementalism and neoliberal policies that has led to the laundry list of issues that we face today.
My community does not have time for politics of incrementalism. You can see that frustration in the eyes of the working-class person saddled with medical debt because we refuse to pass Medicare for All, or the worker who is late to their shift because the public transportation they rely on is underfunded. We see this approach and the disastrous policies it’s yielded in so many different ways, and I’m just not interested in subscribing to that. The change that we need is only possible when we apply pressure through organizing, and we are bold enough to hold those in power accountable.
Can you just speak a little bit more about what your experience has been as a sole socialist legislator?
As a democratic socialist, I see progress a little differently than some of my colleagues. Some define progress as where we were and where we are right now. I define progress as where we are right now and where we ought to be. And so, the question that I ask constantly is: Are we where we ought to be on racial justice? Are we where we ought to be on environmental policy? Are we where we ought to be on LGBTQ equality? If the answer is no, then my focus has always been: How do we go further? How do we ensure that we’re strengthening legislation and putting pressure on the establishment to take the necessary action that they’ve either been too afraid or unwilling to take?
What’s the horizon that you envision as a democratic socialist legislator?
My vision of society aligns with that of fellow democratic socialist Dr Martin Luther King Jr who described the “beloved community” and what that looks like. For me, a beloved community looks like one where health care is free for all at the point of service. A beloved community is one without poverty of any form. A beloved community is one where we care for all people. A beloved community is one where future generations have clean air, clean water, and a livable planet. And a beloved community is one where the people, not oligarchs, hold the economic and political power. That is what a beloved community, a democratic socialist future looks like.