You Know Who Rules?

The Sikh Activist Building an Interfaith Movement for Net Neutrality

Award-winning filmmaker and lawyer Valarie Kaur tells Broadly that "net neutrality is a key civil rights issue—and moral imperative."

Aysha Khan

Photo courtesy of Valerie Kaur

This article originally appeared on Broadly.

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

The past several months have seen a renewed barrage of threats against net neutrality. And one of the most passionate voices of protection has come from someone you might not expect: a Sikh interfaith activist known for advocating an ethic of "revolutionary love."

Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, lawyer, and civil rights activist working with Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. There, she co-founded "Faithful Internet" to rescue the future of faithful life and social justice by advocating for online freedom. It’s just one initiative that makes up the so-called religious left. For years, religious progressives have attempted to match the outsized political influence of the religious right movement. But this year, the religious left seriously mobilized against immoral White House policies.

Broadly spoke to Kaur about the importance of internet freedom and the future of religious progressivism

BROADLY: As we look back on 2017, what do you feel has been your biggest accomplishment?
VALERIE KAUR: I’m alive. We are alive. We are here and still breathing and pushing. This year brought such a cascade of devastation that I am simply grateful for our resilience.

I began the year with the question: The future is dark—is this the darkness of the tomb, or of the womb? There have been moments this year when I have tasted ash in my mouth. We have lost so much—our people killed in hate crimes, families ripped apart in detentions and deportations, refugees and immigrants banned, assaults on our civil liberties, attacks on the press, the erosion of decency and democracy, even the threat of nuclear war. At the same time, I’ve seen millions of people politically awakened in ways I’ve never seen, laboring with communities who are in the fire right now. We are marching, protesting, organizing—and we are creating pockets of revolutionary love in our schools, homes and the small venues of our lives. I am most proud of the contribution we made through the Revolutionary Love Project to birthing that new future.

Just last week, the FCC voted 3-2 to nullify 2015’s Open Internet Order, repealing its net neutrality laws. What was it like to watch Ajit Pai dismiss the concerns of bipartisan lawmakers and ordinary Americans alike?
It was one of the dark moments of my year, personally. I closed the door and wept. I had spent almost two years working full-time on net neutrality at Stanford Law School. We fought hard to make the Open Internet Order law in 2015. The regulations banned carriers from blocking and slowing down sites at will, or from charging sites extra fees to reach people faster. I wrote our victory announcement while nursing my three-month old son. I remember feeling like I could breathe a little easier, because no matter what happened, at least my son’s generation would have the tools to continue to keep fighting the good fight.

Fast forward to this month, and one hasty vote undid all net neutrality protections. On the one hand, it is one of many policies under assault in this administration. But on the other hand, net neutrality is the infrastructure that makes all of our movements possible. We cannot organize effectively for anything we care about without net neutrality—healthcare, climate justice, tax reform, you name it. The vote threatens to drain the lifeblood of our movements at a time we most need it.

Is this the end of the road for the open internet?
No, because we’re not going to stop pushing. Right now, we have 60 legislative days (about three to four months) to persuade Congress to use the Congressional Review Act to reverse the order. If that fails, we won’t give up. I have never seen such a broad coalition—start-ups, scholars, economists, artists, activists, educators, faith leaders, basically everyone except Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. If members of Congress want to serve the people, the solution is clear. But they need to hear from enough of us. And that means more people considering net neutrality their cause too. One million people have already called Congress. We invite people of faith and moral conscious to exercise their voice through our initiative Faithful Internet.

Why is preserving free and open internet particularly important to marginalized communities, including minority faith groups?
When I first began working on this issue, my friends wondered why I had taken on tech policy—wasn’t I a civil rights activist? But as a Sikh American, I had discovered that my entire life would not be possible without net neutrality. I could not make films, post speeches, publish writings, or organize without it—and that’s true for anyone from communities without access to power. Net neutrality is the principle that protects the Internet as a place where—no matter what the color of our skin, the size of our wallets, or the content of our beliefs—we have an equal chance of being heard. It’s essential for marginalized communities to exercise our voices, start businesses, create new art, innovate and organize. I now see net neutrality as a key civil rights issue—and moral imperative. If more people do too, we can win it back.

This year, the religious left was able to mobilize like never before. What do you think changed the game this year?
I believe that the battle raging in our nation right now is no longer between the left and right: It is between democracy and authoritarianism. The movement that resulted in this presidency represents sexism, racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry and authoritarian impulses—not traditional conservatism. So I think that faith leaders who might have been called the "religious left" are mobilizing so effectively precisely because they are offering a vision of a future that leaves no one behind. And we embody that future in our multi-faith and multi-racial coalitions. My own collaborators in the faith world represent this, including Rev. William Barber, Sister Simone Campbell, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Wajahat Ali, Brian McLaren, Rev. Jacqui Lewis and Sensei Angel Kyodo Williams, among many others.

Where do you see the religious left going in 2018? What will it need to keep up the momentum?
We will see mass mobilization—including marches, vigils and civil disobedience—by people of faith and moral conscious on a scale we haven’t seen since the civil rights era. We will also begin to see the results of the quieter ways people are laboring behind the scenes—new art, innovation, teachings and collaborations that will make their full impact years from now. Returning to the metaphor of labor, we can sustain momentum when we breath and push—and then breathe again. And that means creating more space to rest and protect joy along the way. Or we will burn out. Fortunately, faith and moral leaders can draw upon the spiritual and wisdom resources of our tradition in order to help us to breathe as a collective.

Where are you looking to focus your own attention in 2018?
I envision a world where love is a public ethic, a shared practice that shows up in all the arenas of our life. And that means we need to develop tools, stories, and thought leadership for people to practice love even in the face of fear, hate and injustice. In 2018, we are developing a book with Random House, a TV series with NBC, a spring conference with Middle Church, and a curriculum and tools with our research team—all on Revolutionary Love. Coming up in February, we are reclaiming Valentine’s Day and launching a Week of Revolutionary Love alongside our partner, CNN contributor Van Jones’ #LoveArmy. To go on this journey together, people sign the Declaration of Revolutionary Love.

I’m most looking forward to the joy and struggle of mothering—and all that my son has yet to teach me.

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