After the Storm editor, Amanda Liaw sits down with activist Abel Amene to discuss a local version of Medicare for All in DC, as well as their vision for the future. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Amanda: Hello, Abel! In your own words, can you tell us who you are?
Abel: I’m Abel Amene, an organizer with DSA and a former Steering Committee (SC) member. I’ve been living in the DC area for about two decades now. I was born and raised in Ethiopia and came here when I was a teenager.
Amanda: How did you get involved with the DSA, and what do you organize around?
Abel: I first became involved in DSA in October 2020. I was interested in Medicare for All (M4A), specifically, so I became involved through that working group (WG). This was in the midst of the pandemic after Bernie had already left the race. The elections were about to happen, and when I became active, Biden had already been elected, but there was a lot of impetus to push for Medicare for All.
But since then, I’ve become a co-chair of the M4A Working Group and was elected to the Steering Committee and served for a year. I also became involved with the Political Engagement Committee (PEC) — once I became an SC member, I was appointed to the PEC and served for six months or so, then later became Chair of the PEC. I helped lead the process to endorse Zachary Parker, Gabe Acevero, Brandy Brooks, and Max Socol.
I’ve always wanted to get us into legislative work because even though we do a lot of electoral work, we want to start writing bills and pushing for bills and getting the things we want to accomplish done after the election, so that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on.
Amanda: Can you describe your recent efforts around the Council legislation that, if passed, will allow green card holders to vote in local elections?
Abel: I first became involved with legislative work [when] I was Co-Chair of the M4A WG — the first bill I advocated for was a resolution. I had pushed a resolution in front of the DC Council that would endorse M4A and urge Congress to pass Bernie’s bill. I helped draft that “Sense of the Council” resolution. It had passed by 12–1, so everyone on the Council voted for it, except for the former Mayor and Chair of the Health Committee, Vincent Gray. Through that process, I learned a lot about the DC Council.
Brianne Nadeau introduced this Local Residents Voting Rights bill, and she wasn’t alone, so I think — it’s been a year now — June 2021 was when she introduced it. At the time, she sent out a tweet, and, as soon as I saw it, I knew this bill was important, at least to me, because it would give me voting rights, at least in local elections. Another thing that was exciting was she had already lined up the majority of the Council as sponsors and, if you dig deeper, she also might have the votes in the Judiciary Committee, [which is] one of the most conservative committees on the Council.
This bill was first introduced back when the Mayor was a Ward 4 Councilmember in 2013, and it’s been introduced several times since, right? A different version was introduced in 2017, and it’s had majority support on the Council, but it has never been able to get out of Committee. But when I saw this bill [Nadeau introduced], it had all these co-sponsors, including Anita Bonds, and that makes the majority on the Judiciary Committee, which is why I got excited about it and told some other organizers I know.
Alongside others, I really started to investigate this bill and decided this would be something I would focus on and get it to pass. It’s been a long journey, but I think we’re getting close to realizing that, hopefully, by the end of this year, we’ll have voting rights for all green card holders living in DC, and that’s important. Every time, it has just gotten so close, and organizations have been pushing for this for a very long time, like the DC Latino Caucus — they’ve been pushing for this for nearly a decade now, and I’m only coming to this on its most recent reintroduction. But I think now — and I won’t take too much credit — we’ve gotten it to a point where it’s actually possible, and we can see this being passed by the end of the year (note: the bill has been unanimously approved by the Council since this interview and is expected to be signed by the mayor on November 21).
There are concerns because of Congress. It’s always a concern with DC not being a state because Republicans could take over Congress and try to challenge this bill. DC often ends up on the trading block when moderate members of the Democratic party want something to trade. DC’s always the one who pays the price, and we know that from many amendments that bar DC from certain things and take away federal funds if we don’t, and this could be one of them. That’s why we’re racing to pass this bill before the end of the year, before Democrats [are kicked out of office].
Amanda: What are some wins you’ve seen or contributed to in the last couple of years?
Abel: This is partly in DSA and partly outside of it — getting so many people eviction relief. I don’t know how, but my phone number got passed around among the Ethiopian community here in DC, and people started calling me outside of what DSA set up as part of Stomp Out Slumlords. I also started to connect with the Woodner Tenants Union and helped them, and seeing that was really amazing. I personally helped at least 15 families with getting thousands of dollars of rental relief. So, that’s hugely rewarding, just to see how thankful they are. That’s really cool.
I was involved pretty early in the Zachary campaign and getting him endorsed and getting that campaign started. That was very rewarding as well. And he won. That’s amazing.
We’ve done a lot of Internationalism work as well. A couple of years ago — there was quite a bit of energy on working around BDS and Palestine solidarity, and I think I did help start that campaign within our chapter with Alex M., and that has been rewarding, getting the Internationalism committee revitalized. It was quite robust before the pandemic, and I think we’ve been able to revive it. I wasn’t there when the Cuba campaign got started, but I think my work on M4A contributed to that, and we’re working a lot more on Internationalism issues and cross-collaborating across working groups.
It’s great we’re starting to really avoid siloing, and it’s good that more and more members like myself are in multiple working groups and creating this kind of synergy between different groups, so that’s great to see.
And passing that resolution about M4A was very satisfying, but we also had a campaign to register seniors and people who didn’t have access to vaccines — I helped spearhead that. That was also where I made a lot of connections by being on the ground and helping people, going door-to-door, and getting people what they needed. All those things have been rewarding, and they’re all little things here and there. I’m hoping this bill will be a big victory, getting myself and thousands of others voting rights.
Amanda: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your leadership, community and/or movement work?
Abel: I think the most challenging thing is, I can only describe it as, thinking that trying one strategy precludes us from trying another strategy. I know we have to do priorities and focus on certain things, that we can’t waste our energy on spreading too many things, but there are certain strategies that could be tried simultaneously, and we do not have to choose between them. A challenge has been, I think, people and comrades and members feeling that if we do this, we cannot do this other thing.
One of the biggest challenges for me was when M4A first applied for priority status. Even though there was the ability for a priority campaign back then, there was a concerted effort not to do that, and it was unnecessary. We could’ve had M4A being a priority during the COVID pandemic for at least a few months, and, I don’t know, that comes from a mentality of thinking — you know what, the strategy that I’m trying is the one that’s going to work. I don’t know that when I’m trying strategies.
Amanda: How would you describe your approach to organizing?
Abel: My approach is to never dismiss any idea, I would say. There have been things I’ve seen where my first reaction was, that’s not gonna work, but still, you know what, let’s try it. And it has yielded results that are quite amazing. So, my theory is to allow as many voices as possible to suggest ideas and to try as many things as possible. But to also focus on the things that are working and to keep developing them.
If someone says, why don’t we send a message to this Councilmember, in my head, I’m [thinking], that’s not gonna work, but go for it, see what happens. We’ve gotten meetings from people we didn’t expect because someone happened to suggest, let’s just try it, and somebody did.
Utilizing lobbying at very targeted moments and with targeted people has helped us. Let’s say there’s a particular Councilmember we want to get the attention of — 10 emails from someone they might know, like ANCs, are much more effective than emails from 100 people that they can filter out, like those copy-paste emails.
Also, aiming high. Sometimes, you don’t think they’re with us on this, but then it works.
Amanda: How or where do you find/create balance in your life and in your organizing?
Abel: I think I do take breaks, but [balance] is hard to find because it’s so connected to my life now that it’s difficult to find the gray area in between. … Stepping back and prioritizing myself and self-care is really important, yes. But, a lot of times, the work is so rewarding.
I often help people fill out ERAP applications, still, and I help people with unemployment — mostly Ethiopians — but that’s separate from my DSA work. I try to diversify the work I do so that not one part of it affects me. I don’t want to focus too much on one particular thing because that also has a draining effect, because even one failure in that area has a huge demoralizing effect. So, that’s part of my strategy, that there’s always something better and good that I’m working on at the same time. But that also takes [more] time.
Amanda: Where would you encourage DSA-curious or otherwise politically conscious folks to get started?
Abel: If someone is interested, one of the things to do is just constantly keep the Council hearings on their calendar. I have it set in my calendar, and I listen to every single one of them. That gives you a baseline understanding of how it works because it is very bureaucratic, but at the end of the day, it’s all about how you are in demanding representation. Constantly being in [Councilmembers’] inboxes will get you to where they actually start listening. Offering testimony — I see if there are any bills coming up that interest me, and I testify.
One, in particular, was the bill that was almost about to pass that would give all DC residents $100 on a Metro card every month. That would be a radical bill, and it’s about to pass. It’s amazing. It’s all about just realizing that we are their constituents and we deserve representation and to demand it. They’re oftentimes being approached by — for lack of a better phrase — special interests, and they are being lobbied constantly. They rarely hear from their constituents on bills. So, when we speak up, we do have an impact, we just have to use that.
After that, it’s just [about] building relationships within their staff and offering advice, offering amendments and thoughts on bills that eventually will build relationships for us. A part of that is, I think, our electoral strategy and working with our electeds. The next step for us as DSA should be to start drafting bills with our electeds, like Zachary Parker, once he takes office, and really building a socialist DC for ourselves. And it’s going to be through a city effort, through the DC Council.
Amanda: How would you describe the future(s) you’re moving toward? Or what is your favorite media about the future?
Abel: I think the future I’m moving towards is, I guess, trying to get DC to focus on issues of immigrants. All of these things — M4A, for example — those that lack health care are more often low-income, immigrant families in DC. That’s probably the biggest demographic that lacks healthcare. Voting rights, all these things, are really just working towards getting immigrant communities and people like Ethiopians and immigrants from all over to be a focus of what this District does. Just making sure we’re getting them representation is a step towards that, but eventually getting them in the door and getting them to be able to demand what they want and get it because they’re deserving of it as full-fledged members of our community. I think that’s the horizon, that’s where I’m working towards.
You walk around the city and walk into a 7-Eleven, walk into an Uber … what do you see? An Ethiopian. Some of them are citizens, but many of them are not. Many of them came as refugees and eventually became residents of this city, but are they fully seen? I don’t know. I don’t think so. What does an Uber driver need? He needs health insurance to get health care. 7-Eleven or McDonald’s, are they providing health care? No. Why not? Because this person doesn’t have a voice, so they don’t need to care. Both of these things — M4A and voting rights — are kind of hiding that major contradiction.
There’s a book I read — it was actually from a DSA reading group — called White By Law, and it’s mostly about how citizenship is tied to whiteness, in the history of what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be white, and the heavy correlation between them in the USA, specifically.