words by Senah Yeboah-Sampong
The 2016 U.S presidential race, thus far, has shed light upon a restless, impatient electorate hungry for progressive politics from our major-party candidates –– with many still dissatisfied with the Democratic elect. Green Party Presidential nominee Dr. Jill Stein of Massachusetts has fed on this desire for a more progressive choice from beyond the two-party binary since her 2012 campaign, which earned her .36% of the popular vote. Right now, polls have Stein pulling somewhere between 3 and 5 percent nationally.
Determining what progress could and should look like highlighted a clash of personalities throughout the Republican and Democratic primaries. Ironically, former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton snagged the Democratic nod from Senator Bernie Sanders, who ignited a record-breaking grassroots campaign with his relatively left-leaning platform. The promise of Sanders’ mass mobilization and the Democratic National Committee's attempt to obstruct his campaign even prompted Stein to reach out to him about a possible collaboration after he conceded to (and eventually endorsed) Clinton.
Both Stein and Sanders support a $15 minimum wage and unionized labor, tuition-free higher education, single-payer universal healthcare, and a desire to see the unregulated power of corporate America put in check. But their capacity and willingness to publicly address America’s social climate around race contrast sharply.
As Green party supporters submitted petitions to put their candidate on the ballot this November, Stein visited North Minneapolis to participate in Neighborhoods Organizing For Change’s (NOC) second Black America forum last Tuesday to discuss how she would confront issues facing Black communities.
This past February, NOC had hosted Sanders in the first of these forums while he was still competing with Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Just like in February, the non-partisan event included a six-person panel of black residents who pressed Stein for clarity on issues that included policing, public education and environmental justice.
“They both had visions and dreams and wanted to make sure folks understood. I felt like both candidates related to the crowd,” said Wintana Melekin, NOC’s director of Political and Civic Engagement, about the relative performances of Stein and Sanders. ”But the crowd brought a very sophisticated political analysis, and their questions were very keen.”
Before a crowd of roughly two-hundred in the Capri Theater, NOC’s executive director Anthony Newby introduced Stein and opened on the topic of reparations –– essentially strategic, deliberate and explicit reinvestment in Black communities to redress entrenched systemic racism.
“There are often strategies of reinvestment in our communities that are talked about in terms of a rising tide lifts all boats, and we all do better when we all do better. In practice, it leaves out our community when we talk about things like public housing projects in this country.What makes the Green party's position, your position, unique on this issue? Are you okay saying the word reparations, and what does it mean to you?”
Newby’s question clearly preempted any diplomatic evasion on the topic, as in, and with reference to the last forum and how Sanders himself handled the topic. The question also brought the nature and scope of a more open dialogue on race-related issues in this election to the forefront. Stein’s response, to me, was just as direct as Newby’s question, if somewhat bittersweet, drawing cheers from the audience.
“I think I am the only presidential candidate out there that is advocating for reparations,” Stein said. “The criminal institution of slavery gave way to lynchings, then to Jim Crow, then to redlining and the prevention of the accumulation of wealth and resources, as the labor and wealth and creativity of the African American community continued to be extracted.”
Stein called the crisis in policing symptomatic of both white supremacy and institutional racism built into our nation’s culture, economy and educational system. She said civilian review boards could oversee police departments, and a truth and reconciliation commission would facilitate discussions that could begin deconstructing racism’s impact on the way laws are enforced. The crowd often responded to comments like these –– words other candidates seem unwilling or unable to utter –– with applause and murmurs of agreement. Stein also admitted that she is still learning about alternatives to the current law enforcement paradigm as it stands.
“The whole issue of historic racism and institutional racism and white supremacy is tricky in general. It's hard to talk about it without making somebody feel like they or their ancestors are evil, if that makes any sense,” said Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon on Thursday.
Gordon –– the City Council’s sole Green Party member –– worked with the Council to repeal the city’s lurking and spitting ordinance last summer, a local law maligned by racial justice advocates that brought some of these tensions to light. “That's been part of the trick to get the city of Minneapolis, as a government or an enterprise and even as a broader community to look at it, is to try and look at this a history we share and didn't necessarily have any control over because we weren't even there,” he said.
It was as she transitioned into this topic of confronting racially-biased policing that Stein began maneuvering, if not outrightly pandering to the audience. Unlike Sanders in the previous forum, she did not open with a speech and seemed to work some of that pathos into and around her answers to questions. After demonstrating an understanding of the “what” and “why” of reparations, Stein drew cheers from the crowd after proclaiming that marijuana would be legalized under a Stein administration. It's a significant statement in a city where Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at staggeringly high rates compared to White people, despite similar usage.
Newby then asked, “if your goal is to be president...to translate what I heard as exuberance, as wild energy around the message, what is the plan to convert that message into real political power?” Stein sidestepped the question and discussed the potential power of the electorate to vote her into office. She suggested that she could take the popular vote, assuming all eligible voters among those hurt by the student debt crisis –– debt that Stein has promised to write off if elected –– would mobilize to support her.
This was where I expected strategic voting –– where citizens vote for one of the two major party candidates to prevent a victory on the other side, versus voting for their sincere choice –– to enter the conversation. The idea that former Republican President George W. Bush took the 2000 election because supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did not vote for Democratic nominee Al Gore has persisted for years since. As part of the question of whether to vote on personal values or political pragmatism, strategic voting has been a recurring topic in this election cycle.
Perhaps, since Stein speaks like a candidate running with the intent to win, despite the tremendous odds against the Greens and fellow outsider Libertarian candidate and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Stein made no mention of capturing an incremental segment of the popular vote that would build momentum for future elections. However, even a push for that milestone would mark a sea change in national politics. The fact is that any party whose presidential candidate pulls five percent of the popular vote is eligible for federal funding in proportion to how many votes beyond that threshold they receive. This funding conceivably provides the resources for said party’s candidate to get their name on the ballots of all fifty states. In 2012, Stein was only on thirty-six states’ ballots, but this year her campaign expects to be on all but three. Yet, this practical benchmark went unstated in the forum.
Moving to the panelists’ questions, Stein responded to concerns regarding employment and wage increases, environmental racism and higher education. In many cases, she addressed the issue without providing specifics regarding their implementation.
And while Stein clearly understood the historical and conceptual framework of the Black community, there were levels of nuance which forced her to redirect just to keep the conversation moving. This was clear when panelist Sara Osman brought up the topic of Islamophobia, which has fueled much of Trump’s rhetoric, support and backlash. Osman spoke to the the impact on black Muslims and the Twin Cities’ Somali community –– the largest in the country –– through a program funded by the Department of Homeland Security, and touching on the shooting of two Muslim men on the University of Minnesota campus earlier this year.
“How will you address the racial profiling and mass incarceration tactics already being used in the war on terror, and how will you address the specific CVE program that labels black Muslim youth as terror suspects?" Osman asked.
Stein denounced the prejudicial and overzealous profiling of Black Muslims. But rather than asking for more information on the Counter Violent Extremism program (CVE), Stein spoke to the War on Terror itself, moving the issue away from the domestic and the local to the international, and from the present moment into the historical continuum.
Osman and I both felt that her question was never answered when I spoke with her on Wednesday. But she was still glad that Black youth of voting age have the opportunity to see and be seen by the candidates, and are able to interrogate their politics.
“I feel like the candidate tied in a lot of information surrounding immigration with the question of Islamophobia when that wasn't where the question was headed,” said Osman. “It was a lot of loop-around, so I don't personally feel that she adequately answered the question at all.”
That’s the thing about public forums of this sort; there is nowhere to hide and only so much room to run. And while rhetoric from presidential candidates is important, the organizers of the event made clear that bold speech must be accompanied by a robust ground game.
“When it comes to national politics, I think that people become bold, but they're still limited,” said Melekin. “It's not just about saying bold things. It's also about organizing on the ground every day and building a space, and building power.”
As much as we might worry over politics on the national level, strategic voting matters more on the state and local levels, where legislations tends to have the most immediate impact. With potential ballot items on public education funding, police insurance, and a $15 an hour minimum wage increase, we have to remember that on a national level, voting does far less to shape our immediate reality than doing so locally.
If that day-to-day grassroots grind is key, Melekin also feels that the support of leaders with radical visions for policy reform are another essential element in making change. As such, the Black America forums have served to bring some of those visions to our Black community in the Twin Cities, subject to some of the worst economic and educational inequality in the US.
Even with the overwhelming likelihood of a major party candidate taking the Presidency in November, no one I spoke to suggested that it made sense for anyone to support a candidate whose message, actions, or potential policy doesn’t resonate with them. It would go against the idea that we as the electorate have any real freedom to choose.
Osman said she has been in conversation with people on both sides of the strategic voting issue, who wish to keep Trump out of office. “Voting for the lesser of two evils is something that I'm not personally comfortable with,” Osman said. “If you're just going to vote for someone because you think they’re the best you've got, that says something about the situation we're in.”
Certainly, the nature and tone of NOC’s Black America Forums have already sent the message, that Democrats can no longer take the power of the Black electorate –– their most loyal constituency projected to be 20 percent of their 2016 presidential votes –– for granted. Regardless, Black voters will continue seeking the change promised elsewhere, with an eye on building local political power, and on 2020.