Khalid Kamau, an Atlanta native, is one of a number of activists making the transition from street protest to political office: When he was sworn in as a city council member for the newly incorporated city of South Fulton, a suburban area outside of Atlanta, he wore a Black Lives Matter pin on his lapel and placed his hand on a copy of bell hooks’ Salvation.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America who campaigned for Bernie Sanders and organized with Atlanta’s BLM chapter, Kamau sees his political career as parallel to those of civil rights-era figures like John Lewis and Andy Young.
“My role is to explain what goes on behind the curtain,” he says, “so that people can make informed decisions about who they want their leaders to be.”
The City of South Fulton is a unique place to be a leader. Incorporated last year so residents could gain local control over their tax base, it was founded partially in response to a 2007 Georgia amendment mandating that all tax dollars collected inside a city’s limits would be spent inside that city—a law that left unincorporated areas with less money for city services, a division often felt along racial and class lines.
“There’s still a debate going on within activist movements about whether we can change the system from the inside,” Kamau says. “Whether being inside provides any leverage to transform this system.”
I met Khalid early one morning at a restaurant near his office. Dressed in a sweater over a shirt and tie, he admits he’s still settling into his new role as a public official. “I was just gonna throw on some sweats and meet you after the gym,” he tells me, “but I have a city council meeting later and I can’t walk in there in sweats.”
Khalid spoke to us about his activism, politics, and his plans for the new city.This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you first get involved in political activism?
When I was in 7th grade, we had a field sports day. To make it more educational, the faculty modeled it on the Olympics and used our homerooms to represent countries. All the countries represented were European—at a school that was 90% black. So I started a petition to get African countries represented. It was ignored, and I called the media. The next year we had African countries.
How did you get involved with Black Lives Matter?
In 2015, after the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mary Hooks, who works with SONG (Southerners On New Ground) put out a call through social media to form a chapter. I was shocked that Atlanta, this black mecca, didn’t have a Black Lives Matter chapter. So when it was formed, I said that I had to be there. I was part of several protests, but behind the scenes I was involved in setting up the BLM website and political education.
My biggest achievement was getting Congressman John Lewis and surviving members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Atlanta Student Movement to dialogue with BLM activists. Too often you hear older activists criticizing younger activists but there are many who are sitting with us and we’re learning from each other.
When did the idea of running for office first occur to you?
While reading Congressman Lewis’ book, Walking With The Wind. I always knew I wanted to have an impact, but I thought it would be as an activist or running a non-profit. I didn’t think I was public official material. I thought you had to have this spotless image, like Barack Obama. But as I read John Lewis’ autobiography I saw how he moved into politics, and it seemed like a natural evolution.
I started thinking about it seriously around the time I campaigned for Bernie Sanders. I became a delegate to the DNC in Philadelphia and led a walkout ahead of Hillary’s nomination and ended up addressing the crowd outside the hall. In that moment, my idea of what a politician was changed.
Was it difficult to transition from community organizing to political campaigning?
For me it was organic. I think that community organizers make the best politicians because the most effective politicians aren’t just fundraisers. You’re able to organize people after you’ve won to help push policy so you’re not just a lone voice in a legislature. You have a base of people behind you. Also, because organizers are usually underpaid, you have to wear multiple hats. And understanding how to do many things at once comes from being a community organizer in a resource-poor environment.
A lot of public protest is aimed at public policy and public officials. Now that you are a public official, how will your experience in protest inform how you serve the district?
I’m still an activist. All of the things I marched for are still central to the policies I want to promote. The tradition of civil rights leaders who built Atlanta, the Andy Youngs, the Ralph David Abernathys, the John Lewises, is that they came out of the streets wanting to create a better community for our people and they got elected and began doing that. I don’t see it as a conflict and I intend to hold the door open for other activists to come in and start creating the policies we’ve been advocating for.
You’re entering a system that is built on compromise. How do you think you’ll be able to make that adjustment?
We’re building a city from scratch. Something I tell people is: Everything you’ve been marching for, we get to build from the ground up. We get to write the law. It’s so much easier to make changes before a foundation is set. I think there will be moments where I have to compromise. But for me, one problem I have with the left is that we compromise too much.
If you look at the right, they are uncompromising. The GOP and the Tea Party are clear when they say “I don’t support abortion, I don’t support gay marriage, school lunch or welfare,” and no matter how many votes they lose they gain respect, because they stick to their guns. I believe when compromise happens it isn’t about your principles. You compromise on things that aren’t priorities.
A lot of people on the left feel the American political system is beyond saving. How do you respond to them?
What I say to them is that if they really believed that, they wouldn’t be protesting. You wouldn’t be marching on city hall demanding politicians make changes in policy if you didn’t think that it would work. I believe that what is wrong with America can be fixed by what is right with America.
Change is an ongoing process and we can’t take our eyes off the ball. We achieved huge victories in the ‘60s, and then we all went on vacation. Conservatives and fundamentalists have been working diligently since then building and developing the Paul Ryans and Trey Gowdys, winning local races and state houses. They did the work. And we on the left are gonna have to do that work, too.