Not even five minutes into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sold-out appearance in the Mission Tuesday night, a chorus of chanting cut across the 670-strong audience at the Gray Area Theater:
“From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go.”
The interruption was a response to a comment Ocasio-Cortez made in July when asked by a conservative talk-show host about her position on Israel.
To the disappointment of some on the left, she prevaricated and affirmed her support of a two-state solution, seeming to backtrack on the more explicit criticisms of Israel’s military that she made before crushing establishment Democratic powerhouse Rep. Joe Crowley in June’s Queens Democratic primary — and putting herself in position to become the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez took the interruption like a pro. She thanked the audience members who interrupted her speech for their advocacy for the marginalized and added, “Whenever we converge, it’s a time to educate.”
The former grassroots activist — who says her goal is to reclaim the party for working-class people and people of color — is fast becoming a Democratic star. But the interruption was a telling moment: Ocasio-Cortez’s attempts to mainstream left-wing policies will, inevitably, lead to conflicts among outsiders uncomfortable with insider status — and insider politics.
As such, following Ocasio-Cortez’s 20-minute speech, Alisha Foster, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, said she would have liked for the candidate to have been more “explicitly socialist.”
“It felt like a watered-down message. She was jumping around and discussing tactics for getting elected, but she avoided the big issue, which is capitalism.”
Nevertheless, Ocasio-Cortez told the audience that what she is doing is about “movement.” She told people not to think of politics as a zero-sum game, in which winners take all, but about moving things forward incrementally, campaign by campaign. “We need to think about the long-term. That’s our job.”
The audience cheered, but not as loudly as when she first stepped on stage. The long line outside the venue and the buzz built up her introductory speakers suggested a roaring headlining act. But it never came. Ocasio-Cortez’s peripatetic speech, detailing her instantaneous rise to stardom and the need to transform the Democratic Party, left the energy of the crowd diffused.
On June 26, Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in an overwhelmingly Democratic New York City district — meaning her eventual election to Congress is nigh certain. Her catapult into the spotlight has enabled her to embark on a cross-country tour, stumping for progressive Democratic candidates in places like St. Louis, Wichita and Detroit.
She wasn’t stumping for anyone in San Francisco Tuesday, although the sold-out gathering at Gray Area was her second fundraiser of the evening, and ultimately generated $15,000 dollars. The first was a private fundraiser where donations ran up to $2,700 a pop.
Supervisor Jane Kim introduced Ocasio-Cortez and remained positioned behind her on the stage for the duration of her speech. Ocasio-Cortez said she is “connecting the dots” between the Bronx, Detroit and Baltimore, and she wants to expand the electorate by appealing to the needs of people traditionally alienated by the electoral system.
Audience member Harvey Williams was ready to give Ocasio-Cortez the benefit of the doubt: “I think she understands the issues, but politics is politics. It’s inevitable that she will have to make sacrifices in the two-party system.”
Inevitable, perhaps, but Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t talking sacrifices Tuesday night. “We need to be really clear about what we’re about,” she said, “because we need to reclaim this party.”
For 22-year-old Avery Yu, healthcare for all, housing as a human right and abolishing ICE are the position statements that moved her to shell out her hard-earned dollars and brave a movie premiere-like line. “All those things seemed like pipe dreams for me,” she said.
As of last night, they did not.