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Pod Save The People

Draw Strength from your Weaknesses

This episode, DeRay is joined by activist and writer Feminista Jones to discuss organizing, Black Feminism, and the power of the internet. Then, New Mexico’s Attorney General, Hector Balderas, talks to DeRay about what it’s like to be one of the only Democratic Attorney Generals in a border state.

Show Notes: 

Transcription below:

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DeRay: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. This week, we’re doing something a little different. Instead of the news with me, Clint, Brittany, and Sam, we’re sharing two interviews. The first is from Feminista Jones. She’s a writer and activist.

Feminista: The power of people sharing their own stories is really like one of the greatest things we’re witnessing right now. And for people to act like that isn’t a form of activism is ridiculous, particularly when you are marginalized person. You being bold and saying, “This is my story and this is why I matter,” and you join in with hundreds of thousands of other people doing the same, that is a form of collective activism.

DeRay: And the second interview is with New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas.

Hector: It’s is a very, very powerful position depending on how you use the law. And so it is really the way I describe it: the shield and the sword of the rule of law for the citizens of each state.

DeRay: Next week, we’ll be back to the normal flow with the news and we’ll have a really exciting surprise guest for you.

I also just wanted to check in and reflect on how the show has developed and grown over the past couple of years. We’ve done over a hundred episodes, which is wild, and I wanted to shout out Sam, Brittany, and Clint, the news crew who helped us learn more about the things we didn’t know but needed to know.

We won two Webbies this past year, went to New York, Philly, LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle for the live shows and we couldn’t do any of it without you. So thanks for listening. Let’s go. 

And now my interview with writer and activist from Feminista Jones. Feminista Jones, thank you so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.

Feminista: Thank you so much for having me.

DeRay: We first met online because you’re one of the early supporters of the protest. You supported the protest way before it was cool to support the protest. You had a big platform. And I know I said this in my book and I’ve said it to you before, but I want to say here is that if you had not sponsored and coordinated the national Moment of Silence in August of 2014 the way you did, then it’s unlikely I would have gone to any protest.

I went to the National Moment of Silence in Minneapolis. I’ll never forget it; it was one of the first things that I did so thank you.

Feminista: Oh, thank you for saying that and I’m glad that you were able to connect in that way. And so many people have said similar things, you know, and they’re all doing really amazing work, still five years later. So I’m glad that we could do something like that. 

DeRay: We’re here today to talk about your latest book, “Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Street.”  Why a book and why a book in this moment? You obviously have a big platform online: I support the Patreon, you write a lot on Patreon, you’ve published things before: why this book? Why now? 

Feminista: I just thought it was really important that we capture what’s happening right now. I mean, for those of us who love history, we know that it’s often told from, you know, the perspective of folks who maybe have no direct connection to it. And I wanted to make sure that the work that black women specifically have been doing in their presence on these digital platforms was captured, you know while it’s still happening. So we can never say that we weren’t here and people can’t say, “well, I wonder what they were doing back then and that time where social media was huge and feminism was having this new kind of iteration. What were the black women doing?” Well, I wanted to write the book that this is exactly what we were doing. 

DeRay: And there’s some people who are going to hear this and say, “Why black feminism?” like how do you explain that to people who don’t understand, are new to the idea of feminism that centers black women?

Feminista: You know one of the reasons I started the book out basically with chapters called black feminism 101 and 102 was because I wanted to give people, you know, something that they can digest that made sense and was accessible. And so I do give a brief background on, you know, the history of black feminism in the United States – and later in the book I talk about it more globally. But I thought it was really important to understand that yes, feminism is for all women, right? However when you have things like race and class and country of origin or religion and disability and size, like all these different things will affect the way you experience your own womanhood and how you navigate society.

So it was really important for me to emphasize that black feminism specifically has really centered race in our discussions about women’s empowerment and women’s liberation. And for those who are new to this idea of black feminism, I wanted to use the book to give people some names and some events that took place, give them some writing that they can look into and just educate themselves a bit more.

DeRay: And a lot of people are going to be listening who are not black women, what can allies do to support the work of feminism, black feminism specifically?

Feminista: What I want people who are not black women to know is that I think every day we wake up is a fight in some ways and it shouldn’t have to be.

The personal is political and our identity is forever politicized from our hair and being discriminated at work for our hair, to our size, to our skin color, how we’re portrayed in the mainstream, all of those things seep into your subconscious. And you’ve develop these ideas about black women and whether you can shake them or not is up to you. And what I’m hoping is that more people start paying attention to those of us who are living our liberation as much as we can, living unapologetically as they say, and start learning things. So you read a book like “Reclaiming Our Space” and you see names like Angela Davis who is not the activists but rather the food blogger who’s kind of changing things; you read about CaShawn Thompson who created Black Girl Magic; you start reading about these people that maybe you never heard of and start realizing, you know what black women have been doing this for so long. It’s about time we start paying attention.

And not just paying attention, but supporting them tangibly. You know what I mean? There’s so many women, they’re out there, they’re struggling, but they’re the ones who are making moves in their communities. We have to start really supporting them. So when you want to show up for black women, it’s not just “Oh listen to black women, they know everything,” because we really don’t and that’s a lot of pressure. And stop putting us at the forefront because when the bullets fly, we will be the first to catch them. 

We need you to start paying people for their work, hiring black women to do things, supporting their art and their creative endeavors, when they’re running for office and their platform is in line with yours, give them your money, buy their products, support their businesses. Like that’s all we’re trying to do and so you want to be a so-called “ally”, we need you to just show up in those ways that will improve our lives. 

DeRay: And what do you hope people are going to take away from the book in terms of being able to act and think differently or talk differently? What’s the conversation you want the book to spark? 

Feminista: The conversation I want people to begin having if they haven’t already is there’s all different types of tools that we can use to change the world. And I speak largely because that’s really what I’m about. I’m about changing the world and making it a better place for everyone and there’s different ways we can do that. A hundred years ago people were writing letters and sending telegraphs and things like that. Then television and radio came along, and then films, and we’ve used art in different ways. And when the internet came, it just gave us a new tool for our activism and for us to be able to reach other people. 

And so when we talk about activism, people will think: folks on the front lines and carrying placards and being attacked by police, for example, but activism also exists in educating people about their history and really helping contextualize what’s going on right now. And I think digital platforms have really allowed us to do that in a way that is changing the world.

So, you know, we’re thinking about how people can go online and have conversations about a movie that came out that they feel does not accurately represent their own identity and then those conversations spark and they get larger and people from other countries will read it and be like, “Wow, I never thought about that.”

So I think that the book itself kind of talks about how that happens. But it also encourages people to have more conversations about “let’s think differently about people’s lives.” Let’s think about people we’ve never heard of or lives that we’ve never experienced, paths that we’ve never walked, and let’s try to be more empathetic. And I think I want empathy to start coming out of these conversations.

DeRay: And a lot of people who are like “empathy is hard,” that in some ways it seems like the digital space and might not be the best place for or is not even the place where empathy can really show up. And you know, there are other people who push back on sort of your notion that digital can change the world, right?

They would say that these are slacktivists and internet activists and people just talking about things online. What’s your response to those people? 

Feminista: I find that offensive because I’m older. I just turned 40 and I’ve been an activist since I was 19 and I didn’t even have a cell phone. We didn’t have any Facebook or anything like that and we were still able to do things. I definitely am somebody who is about action. I became a social worker for a reason. 

At the same time, I think that people being online has opened up a world of possibilities for folks who can’t be on the streets, right? What if you are disabled? What if you have mental health struggles that prevent you from being in large crowds? What if you are undocumented and at risk for deportation? What if you have two strikes?

There’s so many things that are happening that prevent people from actually being in the mix of things that being online is super important and accessible. The power of people sharing their own stories is really one of the greatest things we’re witnessing right now. And for people to act like that isn’t a form of activism is ridiculous, particularly when you are marginalized person. You being bold and saying, “This is my story and this is why I matter,” and you join in with hundreds of thousands of other people doing the same, that is a form of collective activism that we’ve really never seen before. So, you know for people to call it slacktivism, I mean I get it, there are some people who I believe are fraudulent and there are some people out there who I don’t think are doing the best for the people. But honestly, I believe the best in people and I think that most of us out here are really just trying to make the world a better place however we can do it. 

Deray: What do you think the state of organizing is right now? And I ask because some days, I’m like, yeah, we’re gonna win everything, we can do it! And some days I’m like, what is happening? 

Feminista: That’s a really great question because I found myself feeling like I’m transitioning into a different space. And in my last position before I retired from social work, I was working on strategic plan for the revitalization of a whole neighborhood and I felt like that was really important activism and work.

I was working on something that would help 6,000 people improve their lives over the next 10 years and I think we need to see more of those kinds of things. Before that, I was running a program that was focusing on policy and talking to legislators about poverty and hunger. Like we really have to start getting more on the macro-level things. 

I think that on-the-ground work is important, as you have reminded people, protest gets people’s attention. It makes them stop and pause and listen to what’s being said, but after we say what we need to say, we need to get out there and do. And so what I want to see more of is more people on boards for nonprofit organizations.

I don’t know if we need to keep creating new ones, but let’s get on those boards. Let’s sit at the table and help shape them. Having been in social work for over 15 years, I know that it’s brown at the bottom and white at the top and we need to change that. We need to start putting more people of color in leadership positions of these kinds of organizations, these social justice organizations. And not just people of color but people of color who have had these lived experiences.

If you’re running an anti-homelessness organization, it’s probably helpful to have somebody who’s experienced homelessness up in your top ranks, for example. I want to see young people studying community organizing, you know, you can get a masters degree in community organizing.

I want to see more people going to school and saying, “I’m going to be committed to social justice.” I’ve been going to different colleges and universities and now they have degrees in community and social justice work. I want to see more of that. I want people to have the passion but put it into practice and have the credentials and education to support real, tangible change.

Let’s get in on the institutional levels, get into the policy, sit at those tables where the decisions are being made that are going to affect millions. That’s what I want to see more of. 

DeRay: Now I wanted to ask a question because I’m curious and I didn’t know until you brought it up in the book and I’ve heard you talk about it before, but I haven’t even asked you myself: can you talk about Amy Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s wife?

I literally didn’t know anything about her until you referenced her. I want to know how you came across that story. Why do you think her story matters in this moment? Why did you include it in the conversation? 

Feminista: You know, I grew up with parents who were very proud to be black and you know, my mom especially introduced me to a lot of people. And I think that that’s really what sparked my interest in black history.

Whether it’s Black American, Caribbean, African, wherever, I became a pan-Africanist, like a genuine pan-Africanist, and I think from a more academic perspective. It was important to me also as I was beginning to identify as a feminist to look at women, right? I heard it said that if you read an anonymous quote, it’s probably a woman who said it. And so I started thinking about all of the times that women have been silenced throughout history. 

I wanted to look at Marcus Garvey and I wanted to look at his wife because, for someone to have that kind of power and to be so influential in our history, I want to know who the woman is that chose to be his life partner. I think of Betty Shabazz, I think of Coretta Scott King, I think of all these dynamic women, Michelle Obama. 

And when I started looking I was like, wait a minute. This woman was a scholar in her own, right? And I started digging through things that she’d written and I came across this essay from 1925 about, you know, women in leadership. I’m reading this and this woman almost a hundred years ago is calling out the ways in which white women are put on pedestals above black women and how black men are not understanding, you know, the need for black women’s equality and liberation. And she speaking directly to black women and saying, listen, you don’t have to deal with this. You are powerful in your own right. And if our men don’t get it together, we got to do it by ourselves. 

This is the wife of Marcus Garvey basically saying the black men don’t have our backs. And so I think it was really important, especially in the book, to point that out, because when I say, you know, she was an early black feminist, a lot of folks are like no, no she was no feminist. You know, I’m like, “No, you guys got to read more,” you know, so I thought the book would be a great opportunity to bring her into our modern times. 

DeRay: I love that you found some writing about it. That’s so wild, like I knew nothing about her. 

Feminista: I’m a dork. So I Google Scholar a lot and I went to college before we had Google, so I spent a lot of time in the libraries and card catalogs. So that kind of research is always at the forefront. 

When I share things online, and I’m not saying I’m always a hundred percent right, but 99% of the time if I’m sharing something, I’ve got the data or some kind of primary source to back it up because I think that’s important when you are someone who educates, whether you’re intentional or just a byproduct of where you are, you got to support what you’re saying. You got to back it up. So I’m always digging, digging, digging for data and just over the years, I mean, I have a degree in sociology,  I’ve just been stacking stuff in my head. I can spit off those kinds of things.

So I think that’s what we call knowledge of self and being able to carry that and retain that is super important. 

DeRay: One thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about is the role of institutions and social chains like societal institutions. Like I know that in the source a lot of churches and schools, which is where organizing happened. And the protests started 2014, it wasn’t churches and schools, it was people who just came outside. And I want to know what you think about the role of some of those older institutions in making change, like I’d love to know your perspective on the church for instance. And what role do you think the institutions play in helping feminism flourish, if at all?

Feminista: I think that’s a great question. As somebody who has been labeled a “Twitter feminist,” whatever that means, I recognized both sides of things. One, there is the academic side. There is the theoretical stuff, like if you’re looking at black liberation theory and black liberation theology, you’ve got to study the folks who were writing about this stuff throughout the years. If you’re studying feminism, black feminism, you have to go to the scholars because they were able to put together these concepts: the Combahee River Collective and Patricia Hill Collins and folks like that, Kimberle Crenshaw, they are giving us a framework, right, and I think that that’s super important. 

But on the other side is the lived experience, and we can’t negate that. And so we have a lot of younger people coming into feminism, younger women especially who may not have had access to the academics, to the institutionalized ideas of feminism, who were just like well, yes, I am a feminist. And what I say to them is, I love it. You are living in this truth. This is your existence. But I also want you to go back and read what has been written, what has been studied, the data, get all of that information as well.

And I think the same thing happens with the church. The church as an institution was a place of protest and resistance. It was one of the only places we could go to gather to actually be in each other’s spaces. At the same time, the church has long been oppressive of some of the more marginalized people within us, you know, namely queer people, LGBTQ, trans people, all of that, and women right? And feeling like I don’t have access to leadership or power in this space.

And so what I think we’re seeing with this next generation is folks are moving away from anything that feels restrictive. They’re like listen, I grew up, I was taught that Jesus is the way, but I don’t know if I can sit in church every Sunday and listen to someone telling me that I’m going to hell because of who I am. And I think what we’re seeing now is the church is almost reactionary, they’re waiting for things. 

And I’ll tell you, for the National Moment of Silence, I reached out to a number of organizations including faith-based ones and none of them responded. And yet when the event happened, they were all there and present, you know? So, it’s kind of like almost a reactionary thing: let’s see what’s happening and if it’s good enough, we’ll jump in on it.

In the book, I do talk about how I left the Christian church, right? But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the importance of us having these kinds of institutionalized gathering spaces. I just need them to be more progressive. And I think if we engage younger people who really are trying to live free and prosper, then maybe we can change some of those spaces and make them more inclusive for those who want to maintain their faith.

DeRay: What’s in your mind as we think about 2020? Or what are you paying attention to? Or what issues matter to you as we are trying to narrow it down to who you might support?

Feminista: You know, I have to be very honest and say that I think it’s a circus. I think that we are kind of reaching fever pitch. I think my main concern is that we get this despot out of office.

I think it’s really fascinating to see how it worked. As I’m thinking ahead to 2020, I’m thinking that anybody who represents the Democratic party, which is the only strong opposition to Trump, has to be somebody whose talking points, their platform, has to speak to the needs of the people who are going to vote. And that’s the bottom line and we know that black women vote. We know that young people are voting, millennials, younger Millennials. We know that laborers are going to be voting. We know that there’s a lot of people who want their needs met, and so if you’re really not hitting those points, you’re not going to get far. 

I think what I’ve heard from Elizabeth Warren is promising. I think she’s learned a lot paying attention over the last few years. I think it’s really interesting how white male candidates are being centered and have no real platform. I think that’s really fascinating. 

Deray: Now one of the questions that I ask everybody is, what do you say to the people whose hope is challenged in this moment, the people who have voted, protested, emailed, called, and all the things, and the world hasn’t changed in the way they wanted it to?

Feminista: I think that every iteration of this movement – and I say this movement has been going on for centuries – there have been people who have lost hope. But if it wasn’t for those that kept the hope alive and kept pushing, I don’t think any of us would be where we are. 

So I think it’s important to look at ourselves as part of a spectrum, and if we think of the liberation spectrum, we are now at a moment where we are called to do we can to forward this movement. And we think about the work that our ancestors have put in and this is not just related to race and gender, this is queer activism. This is disability activism, immigration activism. 

These things have been going on for a very long time and right now in this moment, we have an opportunity to expand the work and push it forward. And even more aggressively now that we have these digital communities and these tools at our hands. So I would say yes, it can feel so completely overwhelming, especially when you’re online every day and you’re just constantly inundated with it, you know 24/7. 

We never experienced anything like this before, so you have to practice self-care, but a lot of times you have to log off. But when you come back on, understand that you’re choosing to continue working in that space, and maybe take some time off for yourself and connect with the people in your community, find the love, find your tribe, find the people that will affirm and support you, but just know that you are doing something super important and ancestors are smiling down on you right now, as you will be smiling down on those in the future.

DeRay: The other question I ask everybody is what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that’s stuck with you?

Feminista: The piece of advice that I’ve gotten has been to live with honor. Honor is super important to me and over the years I’ve learned what it’s like to compromise my own honor and integrity and it doesn’t feel good.

And so you don’t have to be a perfect person, but when you live authentically and you strive to live with honor, which means you respect and love yourself and others, and you act with integrity, that’s super important. And you can always look back and have a clear conscience that you know what? I may have gotten it wrong, but I didn’t compromise my integrity and I apologize and I move forward, but I’m going to continue to strive to live with honor. 

When you value yourself and your integrity, you won’t compromise that and I think that’s super important. So I just want to be authentic, you know, even when I’m wrong. I just want to be me and that’s super important.

DeRay: Thank you.

Feminista: Thank you. I appreciate it. 

DeRay: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People coming. 

Sam: Hey, it’s Sam. And today I want to talk to you about Campaign Zero’s new police scorecard project to evaluate policing in California’s 100 largest cities and beyond. We looked at things such as use of force and police shootings, police accountability, arrests, and other indicators of policing and built a comprehensive evaluation of each of those 100 largest cities in California.

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Brittany: The New Yorker represents some of the best writing in America today. Beyond publishing some of the best writers in the world, the New Yorker holds people in power accountable through rigorous reporting and compelling storytelling, and y’all know we’re all about the accountability. Both online and in print, the New Yorker covers a full range of topics, including politics, news, international affairs, climate change, popular culture, and, my favorite, food.

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DeRay: I recently enjoyed reading Amelia Clark’s piece, “Daenerys Tells All,” where she talks about the final episode of Game of Thrones, meeting Beyonce, and the sad fate of Daenerys Targaryen. I also thought one of Ed Caesar’s recent pieces was fascinating. It’s called “The Undercover Fascist.” A young Englishmen got mixed up in a white supremacist movement, then he learned of a plot to kill a politician. 

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DeRay: And now my interview with New Mexico’s Attorney General Hector Balderas. Attorney General Hector Balderas, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.

Balderas: It’s great to be with you.

DeRay: Now, a lot of people hear the title “Attorney General” and have no clue what that actually means. How do you explain your role to people?

Balderas: Well, the easiest way I can describe it is that we really are the people’s attorney. Many agencies across the country have different powers, but in addition to being the state’s top law enforcement official in the state of New Mexico, we also can be the state’s top public-interest attorney and defender of the Constitution and individual rights. So it’s a very very powerful position depending on how you use the law, and it is really the way I described it: the shield and the sword of the rule of law for the citizens of each state in our United States of America.

Everybody should get to know your Attorney General in your respective State. Even DC has an Attorney General, great guy. They can be very helpful for the families and citizens in this country. 

DeRay: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you is that you are the AG on a border state and we hear about the border often because of the president. What is it like to be the AG of a state where the federal government has politicized the border so much?

Balderas: You know when I first ran for office, I was preparing for an office where my number one priority was going to be to protect children and families at the state and local level. Since President Trump took office, many AG’s across the country have had to build divisions just to defend the state and federal Constitution for all Americans across the country. And so it’s really been unfortunately a growth market in litigating against the president on behalf of great Americans across this country. That’s a result of the checks and balances and our different interpretation of what justice is in America. 

DeRay: What are some of the issues that you have to litigate with the federal government re: the border?

Balderas: Well, I mean some of them, for example, the environment. We’ve had to sue the president multiple times for rollbacks in environmental protections. We’ve had to sue the president for discriminatory practices in the census, picking out individuals and asking whether or not they are lawful in this country could be a violation all the way going up to the Supreme Court.

But some of the more prominent ones are we sued the president for the travel ban, we sued the president for misusing federal funds to try to attempt to build this wall on the border. So we’re really been at the forefront of trying to protect American interests and national security which is unconventional because most people think that those federal oversight powers reside in the Congress or simply with federal courts, and that’s simply not the case. Some of the state AG’s across this country been trailblazers in this fight.

DeRay: Can you help us understand what the border is? If somebody hasn’t been to the Border, like I haven’t been to the Border, if you hear Trump talk about it, then you would swear that people are just perusing the border every two seconds, coming into the country, that it’s dangerous, and it’s a lot of gangs. What is the way to correct that narrative about what the border’s actually like? 

Balderas: Well let me give you first an example of the absurdity of what he’s describing and then we can get into me describing what it really is like. You know, I’m a Southwest part of the country guy right now, I’ve been here most of my life. But what it really is like, you know, New Mexico, Texas, California, Arizona are some of the most well-established, have made phenomenal contributions. I come from a state where not only did we invent the atomic bomb, we have some of the highest concentration of PHDs.

We had the rich multicultural populations of Native American populations, and so our history out in the wild, wild west is rich and we have families here who have been here for over a thousand years. So when the president talks about this caravan that’s going to come invade the Southwest border, I find it laughable because some of my families have been here hundreds of years and trust me, they’re not going to give up their land or their individual identity. They don’t need a president to defend some of these great communities that have been on the border for years. 

The second dichotomy is law enforcement officers. We have some of the safest communities in the nation. And so we kind of think it’s laughable. It’s kind of like it’s an alternative universe when the president describes this great, rich part of the country, because it’s a fascinating place, and then I’ll leave you with this. I think the border region, if we would just look at it like an asset, this could be one of the most prominent wealthy areas in the world for production, for trade, for culture. If we looked at it like we were competing against China and Russia, this could be one of the most valuable assets in America. 

DeRay: Is there anything that your office can do to help immigrants or is that other offices within New Mexico, and I know you talked about the lawsuits. Is that the primary way that you can help people immigrating to the country? 

Balderas: Well, in terms of public safety we’ve been at the forefront of trying to prosecute human trafficking and child trafficking. There are crimes that are legitimate around the border area. We’re concerned about weapons being transported between nations.

We’re worried about drug cartels, and the most important, that we are very engaged in law enforcement are family exploitation, child exploitation. As far as the policy, we’ve been trying to encourage the border patrol and other federal agencies to have more humane practices that support families. We’re against child separation, and we also want child abuse and domestic violence abuse victims to be able to come forward and work with us so that we can bring those abusers to justice. So we’re directly involved, but in terms of immigration policy, we try to be more persuasive with policy. 

DeRay: And what about militias? One of the things that we also hear when people talk about the wall is the danger of civilian militias on the border who are trying to police and that seems like a bad idea. Are militias actually happening or is this another thing that we just hear in the national media that’s not real? 

Balderas: No, this is where civil rights of every American is a priority for us and I’m very concerned that there’s been a decline not only in the protection, whether it’s Voting Rights Act or hate crimes being targeted, but stoking the fears that we’re being invaded by mobs of invaders really has motivated militias to come from all over parts of the country just to camp out. Most recently we were involved in a coordinated effort, we had felons that were pretending to be law enforcement, pretending to be acting militias, carrying weapons. And the FBI recently made an arrest of the head of a militia organization. Many of these individual learning from New Mexico. So you can imagine it’s kind of scary.

I would never be encouraging armed Americans to surround the White House to be more active and engage in their constitutional rights. I mean, there’s problems that can go wrong when you arm citizens and they dress up as military or law enforcement personnel. It stokes racist fears, it stokes exploitation, and most importantly it stokes violence.

And so law enforcement has been involved trying to ask the border patrol not to encourage these militias which are actually not legal. We have a militia in New Mexico, it’s called the National Guard, and the National Guard can be called up by the governor. You know, we’re a great nation following the rule of law, but if you have a president that’s encouraging violation of the fabric of this country, it can get dangerous down here. So yes, we have militias and law enforcement is concerned about this growing trend. 

DeRay: What are the militias trying to do? Like when people stop the militias and ask what are you guys doing?What do they say?

Balderas: Well, they’re saying that they’re trying to help the overwhelmed border patrol and that all they’re doing is detaining lawbreakers who cross the border and that they’re waiting for border patrol to then come do their job. 

DeRay: And you’re working with 19 other states to block federal funds from going towards the border wall. Is that symbolic? Do you think that this will actually be one of the things that stops Trump? What’s the  strategy here for people that don’t understand?

Balderas: That’s a great question. You know, a lot of people think that in our litigation you have to have an opinion whether you’re for the wall or against the wall. I’m not opposed to his ability or his choice to want to put up the wall. That’s his prerogative. What we’re challenging as a theory on this litigation is that the president is acting like he’s a king. And so the Congress appropriated certain funds that were supposed to go to some of our military bases in New Mexico and respective states. What I’m suing Trump and 19 other AG’s is that there are checks and balances.

This guy is not a king of the United States. He’s not allowed to just take money that’s appropriated for military bases and funding, that’s supposed to go to our national defense and use it for another project like the border wall. That is not constitutional. It violates the appropriations clause and, most importantly, as the commander-in-chief he needs to be following the rule of law.

So it is a strict constitutional theory that the reason he’s not a king is because he doesn’t have unfettered spending to just take it from one agency to another, and that’s what he’s essentially trying to do. He’s taking Department of Defense dollars and giving it to another agency so that he can build a wall and then falsifying this expectation that there’s a state of emergency for him to do it. 

DeRay: What about the environmental consequences of the wall? 

Balderas: Well, you know, our wall is partially on state land, federal land, and private land. And so there has to be a substantial amount of work just clearing permits. But we also have some of the most diverse wildlife habitats in the world, and so I’m concerned that making sure you change that landscape without the environmental test work and review is just an unnecessary consequence. Many of this type of construction projects do require an environmental review and that’s something we’ll probably see some ongoing litigation. I know that California is very concerned. But this is something that could disrupt the ecosystem at the Texas border as well. 

DeRay: I wanted to shift topics a little bit and talk about New Mexico being the first state to sue opioid distributors. Why was that decision made? And how would you describe the impact of opioids in New Mexico? 

Balderas: You know, I think that the first goal of the litigation was to really put the crisis in a proper perspective. So, you know when we had Katrina, when we’ve had other natural disasters, we’ve had a mobilization of resources, and yet we have Americans dying in the street. We have children getting addicted at an alarming rate and the loss of lives in this country is so large that it’s actually driving down our life expectancy. This is the first time in my generation where the life expectancy of Americans are going down due to prescription drugs and opiates and yet the president hasn’t declared an emergency in deployed resources to respond to this grave disaster. So our litigation was about first trying to change the business model and so we didn’t just want to sue doctors. We wanted to sue everybody up the supply chain. We want everybody who is responsible to be part of the solution. Basically a simple way to put the vision of the lawsuit is that, if you’re going to sell a pill in the state of New Mexico, I want you to not only share in the profits, but if you’re going to sell pills in New Mexico, I want you to invest in treatment, law enforcement, and education before New Mexican start dying and become addicted. It’s an aggressive form of litigation, but it’s holding everybody accountable up the supply chain.

DeRay: Are there other things that can happen inside the state that your office can do with regard to people who become addicted or is this the best way that your office can probably fight?

Balderas: This is probably the best way that we’re making a national impact. We are working with many offices across the country. Obviously, I do believe in prevention in our organic approach. Every day, we try to save lives and so we are part of teams of other providers where we go out and we try to do drug buy backs or take backs. We try to do educational programming. We’re part of a grant where we go into rural communities and talk about interventions. And so yeah, we’re also trying to save lives daily. But you know, we also have to stop the larger abuses at the top, in the corporate level.

DeRay: Is it a real thing that opioids are crossing the border? Is this also a border issue or is it not a border issue? 

Balderas: There definitely are illegal drugs and then there are knock off drugs that are being distributed as basically fake pharmaceutical drugs. And so there’s a real risk there, but we also always ask for investment for drug interdiction and to try to stop that flow. We have a conglomerate of agencies. These are crimes that are basically multi-dimensional, they cross borders, and so guns, drugs are definitely a significant problem. But unfortunately now someone can get addicted in any community in America, so we have to attack it in different ways. 

DeRay: I also want to talk about the tobacco settlement that you all laid. Can you explain why that lawsuit was important? And what do you hope the outcomes will be?

Balderas: This was another example, the opiate litigation looks a lot like the old tobacco litigation. At some point, there were many many Americans and young people that were getting addicted because tobacco companies were lying as to the addictive nature of cigarettes and it was a group of AGS several decades ago that started litigation, and what occurred was that after they settled that litigation a substantial time ago, that litigation is brought in nearly 300 million dollars into New Mexico. So on average New Mexico generates about 40 million dollars a year and then we invest that into tobacco prevention programs. And because of this litigation, tobacco use among young people has actually gone down.

But every year the AG office is in this country have to re-litigate the amount of revenue that they’re entitled to, but this was a group of trailblazing Attorneys General about 20 years ago that sued tobacco, but every year we require an investment from the tobacco industry and we re-invest it into public health programs.

DeRAy: Another thing I want to talk about is that I saw that you recently had a back and forth with the sheriffs about some of the gun control legislation. 

Balderas: That is correct. You know, we are trying to increase safety in our community. And so, you know, I’m a second amendment guy. I have a concealed carry license. I’m not trying to take anyone’s guns away from them. However, I do believe there needs to be greater accountability in the system and the governor recently passed a requirement that there be background checks for the sale of dangerous weapons, and for some reason the sheriff’s association got politically involved and started voicing concerns that only bad people will have guns. I had to speak out because, while it’s important to make sure that people have free speech and they can voice their opinion anyway they want, I had to hold them somewhat accountable as to what the new law would really require, and all it requires is that there be a background check and that the gun owners be responsible as they sell their weapons and that they make sure they don’t sell that weapon to a felon or somebody with mental health issues.

It’s no different than if you and I are going to sell a car to each other. You know, we have to make sure there’s a bill of sale and that when one of us buys that car and we want to go register it that we have to have insurance. You wouldn’t want me to sell you a stolen car. And so we definitely did get in a healthy debate, me and the sheriffs in New Mexico, but I thought it turned out to be a positive result.

DeRay: And are you supporting anybody yet for 2020?

Balderas: You know, not yet. I’ve been following, you know, I’m excited about the amount of interest from many diverse candidates, but no, I’ve not committed to anybody. I know a few of them running and I’ve worked with them very closely, but I probably will wait and watch and see and maybe let some of the voters in the early states make that choice.

DeRay: So why you haven’t committed yet, you are an expert on a set of issues certainly around the Border. What are the things that voters should be paying attention to, like what are the questions that we should be asking or the things that you’re looking for when you’re thinking about who to support?

Balderas: You know, I would answer it more just as a guy who grew up in poverty and went to college and I think we need real reforms in how we invest in families. My job unfortunately has me coming in at the back end of a set of system failure. So when we get involved, unfortunately domestic violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse, communities have already let these families down by the time the AG’s office comes in and tries to pick up the pieces. For me, it’s too late. And so I’m looking for generational leaders who are really talking about fixing the social system in how we raise families, and I don’t know that children quite yet have dominated the presidential election. I think it’s going to be where we’re at. So right now, if you look at children in America, you can break them up into three categories. The first is the third of the children in America are being loved, supported, fed, and educated. The second third potentially fall into a class of children that are facing traumas, they’re facing hardship, and I was in that category for quite some time with my early childhood. And then there’s a third that are being criminalized by the time that the system lets them down. They become hardened criminals. They become statistics, they become opioid abusers, that then become burglars in their community.

So I’m really looking for a president that can attack the family unit and some of the system failures beyond the sound bites. So I definitely want free college, I want a better healthcare system, but I also am looking for presidential candidate that really has solutions.

DeRay: You are one of only a handful of democratic AG’s on the border. What do you need either from local governments, the state, or the federal government to be able to do your work well. If you could ask for more of something, what would it be? 

Balderas: Well, I mean for me, two areas. I really need to get the federal government off the block as it relates to comprehensive immigration reform. Man, if we cannot fix that, these other issues are going to keep spilling into our jurisdiction. And so when you have asylum seekers, when you have children getting trafficked to the border, we should be crossing the border and selling goods and services. If we are the greatest nation in this world and have the greatest economy, we should have a fair, humane set of rules that allows us to be great Americans. And so Democrat or Republican, I need the Congress to really fix immigration once and for all. I’m hoping the presidential campaigns will bring about better change in this immigration crisis. 

And then secondly for us as a border state, we get a lot of federal investments. I said earlier we invented the atomic bomb. We’re a small state, we’re the fifth largest land mass state in the nation, but we have some of the oldest communities. Santa Fe is the capital of New Mexico, but has been around hundreds and hundreds of years. So we really just want further investment in education and public safety. We have some of the highest concentration of veterans that signed up for all our military conflict so we’re humble rural Americans, but we’re always there when we need to fight wars and all we ask for is just an investment in education and in public safety. 

DeRay: Now one of the questions that I ask everybody is what do you say to people who might be losing hope in this moment? There a lot of people who voted, who stood in the streets, who called or emailed, who’ve done all the things and the world isn’t changing the way they wanted to. What would you say to those people?

Balderas: Well, I mean not give you a cliche but you know the greatest inspiration and strength that I’ve drawn from are some of my weaknesses. And so the minute that you can put aside the shame and the hopelessness just for a little while to understand that in some of our weaknesses some of our struggles, we have developed some of the most amazing skill sets and sets of experience. And I’m convinced that I went to law school, got out of poverty and became an attorney general because I could really survive chaos, survive trauma, and really empathize with communities that are struggling. And I think that’s the one way that I connect my job everyday to some of the people that get to vote for me.

And so I think in investigating, working with victims across the border, and working with a wide spectrum of individuals that have overcome those type of challenges, I think it’s when we all realize that in our struggles we have some type of strength or talent that we can draw upon and really begin to leverage that and so that’s what I would tell someone who feels hopeless, is that even they are valuable, even they have some strengths that hopefully will be fruitful. We need them. We need them to survive and we need them to draw upon those struggles so that they can contribute to this great community. 

DeRay: And the last question is what’s the piece of advice that you’ve gotten stuck with you over the years?

Balderas: You know, I was a quiet law student. I was a quiet athlete and I think never let them see you coming. So whatever you’re engaged in, whatever your fight is about, do more listening than speaking and then you’ll know when to strike. And so never let them see you coming is what I tell my staff we need to do when we fight powerful interests. One piece of advice that an elected official gave me that I’ve never forgotten, and it’s a version of what I just said, which is “Never miss a good opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” That’s always stuck with me and in governing it’s served me well. 

DeRay: Thanks so much for joining us and look forward to following what you’re doing down there in New Mexico.

Balderas: Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

DeRay: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else and we’ll see you next week.