Vote Your Values: An Interview with Rosa Clemente


Rosa Clemente is one of the most prominent activists of our generation. She is a nationally renowned speaker, writer, and journalist – one of the most important independent journalists covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – and in 2001 was a youth representative at the United Nations World Conference against Xenophobia, Racism, and Related Intolerance. She continues to organize conferences focused on the empowerment of young people of color, working in colleges, community centers, and prisons. In 2008, she accepted the Green Party nomination for vice-president on the Cynthia McKinney presidential ticket. This is an interview conducted by Adele Nieves in mid-October.

 


AN: Tell me how the Green Party is different from the Republicans and Democrats?


RC: Our core principles: democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom, and economic sustainability. Right there, our priorities are different in principle. Concretely, our party does not take any corporate or lobbyist PAC money. The Green Party was founded 30 years ago with the intention to break up the two-party system, and promote visionary environmental strategies and social justice.

 

 

What are the pros and cons of not taking corporate money?

 

I don’t ever see a con in not taking money from corporations. There is not supposed to be a corporate aspect to the government; government is supposed to serve the people. Corporations, especially in these days and times – maybe since forever – are not there to serve the people.

 

 

When you accepted the VP slot on the Green Party ticket, you stated in part "this campaign is the opportunity the Hip-Hop generation has been working for,” this is the time to address the issues affecting our communities. How will the Green Party address some of these issues?

 

I was a co-founder of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which was held in New Jersey in 2004, where we formulated a political agenda that was adopted by over 3,000 people of the hip-hop generation before the 2004 election. Some of us realized the potential of electoral political organizing in order to effect public policy. That’s why I personally did it. It’s not the number of elected politicians that matters; it doesn’t matter if they’re all from the hip-hop generation if they don’t have the principles or don’t follow through on a social justice agenda.

 

When I was nominated, it was a big moment for the hip-hop generation in electoral politics. Now many who are part of the hip-hop generation and participate in electoral politics see Obama’s candidacy as that moment. Others of our generation who are more independent thinking, more radical, that want a social justice agenda, saw my pick as that historical moment. It’s something that I, along with other people, have been working on for five or six years. I think people expected the hip-hop generation to be more critical about the current presidential campaign, but that didn’t happen.

 

 

You said “radical.” That word is often demonized. Why do you think that is?

 

I don’t know. For some people “Afro-Latino” is a dirty word (laughs). Definitions are imposed on us. Radical could be left or right, like the radical right government in office right now.

 

Many people are hungry for a third party (or more) in our elections, but are fearful of voting for one because they are convinced their vote won’t count, or will help the Republican Party. While disillusioned with the Democratic Party, they vote the lesser of two evils. What will it take to persuade voters to support a strong third party?

 

First, I don’t consider it progressive if you blindly accept the Democratic Party. I’m personally not trying to persuade anybody. If you want to be a Republican or a Democrat, that’s fine. I’m trying to get at the 49% who don’t vote; the millions of African American and Latino young people who are not registered to vote. I’m trying to get to the young people who aren’t caught up in the Obama hype. I’m trying to persuade working-class white people who are not caught up in the Republican hype, and have disengaged from the system. So I’m not trying to persuade somebody to vote differently.

 

As far as the “lesser of two evils,” I think that says it right there. I don’t understand why we have to have an evil, period. Both parties are corporate parties. In every policy that one puts forth, one might be less devastating, but eventually it will hurt you. That’s what we’ve seen with Democrats and Republicans. I don’t think my generation can afford the lesser of any evil at this point.

 

 

Part of your platform focuses on the prison-industrial complex. Can you explain what that means – many people don’t understand that term – and describe its economic and social impact? How you propose changing the current system?

 

It’s based off President Eisenhower’s use of the term “military industrial complex.” It is the idea of corporations and the state – particularly corporations – controlling how prisons are run and operated. It also includes any aspect of policing. The phrase was coined in the early 1990s when organizers like myself began seeing the connection between private corporations owning and operating prisons and the goods and services produced by prison labor in these prisons. Then Bill Clinton passed the Juvenile Justice Crime Bill, which made young people eligible to be sentenced as adults, expanded mandatory minimum drug laws, allowed 16 year-olds to be on death row, and got rid of the right of the writ of habeas corpus for many people in prison to be able to challenge their sentences. This has created a system where at any given time over 3 in 10 African American men and 1 out of every 8 Latino men are either in prison, on probation, or on parole. In this past year, we surpassed 2 million Americans incarcerated. 1 out of 100 Americans are either in prison, on parole, or on probation. I’ve been intimately involved in that struggle – fighting against the death penalty, stopping mandatory minimum sentencing, and not imprisoning people for non-violent felonies, particularly drug charges.

 

This is related to NAFTA and CAFTA – it’s all interconnected. Once the borders were opened up for “free trade,” when manufacturing industries started leaving in greater numbers during the 1980s and 1990s and corporations started shipping jobs overseas, communities became blighted. There were no jobs. So, as a Senator from New York said, if we build the prisons, they will come. Particularly in upstate New York and parts of rural Ohio, prisons provide some of the biggest job opportunities for communities where people lost manufacturing jobs with good benefits and good wages. Now they are working on incarcerating other human beings. Economically, that impacts the communities from which the incarcerated young men and women come from. For example, many in prison come from urban areas, and the Census doesn’t count them where they actually live, but instead counts them where they are incarcerated. That helps those rural communities where prisons are built get more money and funding.

 

Socially, the impact is devastating for probably the next two generations, at least. Young people of color, young men and increasingly girls, are harassed and brutalized every day. When they go to the bus stop, there are police. When they go to school, there are police, and when they leave school, there are police. When they get back on the subway there are police, and when they get home, there are police. For me and my generation, this is the most devastating thing that has happened to us.

 

Neither party has even bothered to reference the prison industrial complex, or made the correlation between the people who are incarcerated and these larger issues. Young people of color, particularly working class young people, get caught up in the prison industrial complex, and when they come out they can’t get jobs that allow them to live. It was like this even before capitalism began falling down around us.

 

As for how I would propose changing it, I would completely dismantle it. Rehabilitation is necessary in some cases, but in some cases I think the police need to be restrained. In some communities, young people can go and have fun and not be arrested, but black and Latino kids in their communities – doing the same things that white kids in the suburbs are doing – shouldn’t get arrested. Neither should the white kids. There’s no tolerance, particularly for young men of color, in this country. I think white police officers, at the end of the day, see black men clearly as the enemy. Police are trained to see a black man as their enemy, not as someone they are there to serve and protect.

 

 

Where can people dealing with these situations go? What resources are available to them?

 

One organization is Critical Resistance, which works to stop the prison industrial complex. They just celebrated their 10th year anniversary. Also, there’s the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL). What happened in New Orleans has given people and organizers there the chance to build a good justice system, and the JJPL is at the forefront of this work. The Sentencing Project in D.C., is very supportive of families who lose loved ones for years over very small amounts of drugs. Also, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who helped work on staying the execution of Troy Davis. It helped that he got a judge who actually looked at the evidence – he didn’t do it – but also that there were thousands of people who called and sent letters. They’ve done some amazing work around that issue.

 

 

As you know, the government has increasingly targeted immigrants, with devastating results for individuals and families. Round-ups, imprisonments and deportations are widespread, and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has conducted illegal raids with impunity. Can you critique the proposals of the Democratic and Republican candidates on immigration, and explain how the Green Party would address immigration?

 

Well, when the Green Party developed its platform this year, there was a struggle, and luckily the Latino caucus won the struggle to remove language promoting guest worker visas, and instead supports amnesty. With guest workers, at least under the Democratic proposal, certain people from border countries could come here for six to nine months, work, and then go home. Then they could renew their guest worker visa, and would have the same labor rights as any other “American” citizen working in this country. But that’s really just indentured servitude. It’s like “come work for us for a while, pay off, then come back for a little while, and pay off a little more.” You can come for a short period of time, but then you have to leave, and you may never be able to achieve the goal of becoming an American citizen, a goal probably shared by most people who would take a guest worker visa.

 

But there should be a complete moratorium on all raids, ICE should be dismantled, and then there should be a process by which people can receive amnesty in this country. Cynthia has noted that many people have been forced to come here; there are so many who did not want to come here. The fee to apply for legal entry is now almost doubled what it was last year just to begin the process for citizenship. No one talks about the thousands and thousands of dollars people have to spend in order to become citizens. That’s why Cynthia has called for a moratorium on raids, rejected a guest-worker program, called for a repeal of NAFTA and all “free trade” agreements, and called for amnesty. That’s very different from what the Democrats want, and the Republicans want deportation along with “reform.” I don’t think reform is going to help. Other third parties want some kind of reformist policy, like half amnesty and half “get out of the country.” That’s not acceptable to me as a Latina; I would never be part of any organization that didn’t support full amnesty.

 

 

Can you talk about the foreclosure crisis? How do we fix it, and what can we do to make sure people are secure in their homes? Also, regarding the larger economic crisis, what is your assessment of the problem, and how should it be addressed?

 

Cynthia has laid out a ten-point economic plan on our website, and one of the points is that there should be a moratorium on all foreclosures. People need to be allowed to stay in their homes.

 

Congress just passed this bailout of over 800 billion dollars of our tax money for these banks and corporations. There’s nothing in that bill about foreclosures; instead they will renegotiate a loan. But how can you renegotiate a loan for people losing jobs while prices are going up? A lot of these loans were predatory, targeting people of color, working class and middle class people, who at the end of the day would never have enough to be able to pay these off.

 

But there’s also a crisis of affordable housing. While this subprime mortgage lending has been going on, we’ve also seen many laws passed repealing rent stabilization laws. So people are not only losing their homes, but also can’t afford to rent an apartment. That’s the crisis that I foresee right now, and I’m afraid it’s not being talked about, it’s being left behind. Rampant gentrification is going to create mad urban blight, buildings will be left to sit empty, jobs will be lost, and people are losing their homes. That’s the tsunami of tsunamis that’s about to hit.

 

Cynthia has also addressed repealing the Bush tax cuts, repealing NAFTA and CAFTA, funding higher education and providing health care for every American by repealing this bailout law. Just because the law passed doesn’t mean we can’t take it back. That’s critical for whoever the next president is; this $840 billion needs to be retracted. It is insanity what they’re doing. I don’t think we’ll know until after George Bush and his little criminal syndicate leaves office what else is impending.

 

It’s hard to compartmentalize one thing at this point, because it’s all connected, including the war.

 

 

 

As an activist involved with hip-hop, can you describe the revolutionary potential for hip-hop culture to infuse the political culture?

 

I don’t know what the potential is anymore. I’m running, and a lot of other hip-hop activists in this country are seeking to have a more radical, progressive agenda. Then there are other hip-hop activists and leaders who have chosen to blindly support the Democratic Party, or be funded by non-profits that don’t allow them to organize around the needs of their community. So there’s a split among hip-hop activists. It may be ideological, but I think it has more to do with what our leadership will look like and which leaders should be representing our community. I think hip-hop leadership must be radical, it must be about social justice. It can’t be about liking Barack Obama and connecting him to the issues of the hip-hop generation. He’s never even acknowledged us and the things we need.

 

It’s an interesting time. While I am a hip-hop activist, it doesn’t mean that the hip-hop community has supported me. Individuals have, along with one or two artists and groups, but I think we were under the impression that if the hip-hop agenda was put forth, the hip-hop community would come to that. But the reality is that hip-hop has stayed in the middle, and has not been forced to make a choice on an electoral level until now. They could choose to elect the first black man as president of the United States, or they could choose to solidify and strengthen a third party that adheres to their principles and values and potentially put a black woman in office.

 

I’m not sure how the culture will stay revolutionary if it doesn’t break away from the two-party system that for the last 40 years has done nothing substantial to uplift the majority of our people. I also don’t know about a culture that is led by mostly men. That hasn’t changed, even though there have been women conferencing and talking about it. A culture that is inherently male dominated is not a culture that many of us will continue to participate in.

 

I know that after the election I will be holding whatever president is up there, including my own, accountable. And I’ll be out there organizing. Either hip-hop is going to move where the majority of people are moving, or it will get left behind and young people are gonna create something else.

 

 

You are two women of color, running on the top of the ticket of one of the largest independent parties in the United States. Do you see your and Cynthia’s candidacy as historic? What message do you hope your candidacy presents to young women – and men – of all races?

 

It is historic, it will be written about in some books, it will be debated, and that is always important. If more young women knew about us, it would be such a radically different thing for young women, particularly young women of color, to see two women of color running. And most of them won’t see us running, for various reasons. But that Cynthia was willing to leave a party where she was a congresswoman for that long, that she left her comfort zone, shows her principles and values. For me, and for women of my generation, it will show that I stood up and made a choice. I wouldn’t go along with everybody just to get along, that I wasn’t interested in achieving some status in hip-hop culture as much as I was in doing wherever I had to in order for us to move forward. When Cynthia asked me, I was like “this is the only way that hip-hop politics will even be put on the table,” even though it would cause mad beef among people in the hip-hop community who think that the way to make history is to vote for Barack Obama. I truly believe that neither one of those parties will ever do anything that will impact the everyday lives of the majority of the American people. I wasn’t going to be a Democrat. I wasn’t one four years ago, and I wasn’t in 2000. I’ve always had that independent mind frame.

 

But there are a lot of people thinking like me and Cynthia. They are tired, really, really tired of the two-party system. And that’s what the message is – we stood up, and it doesn’t matter if we win, because we will be there after the election, and be around in ensuing elections because it’s critically important at this point for women and women of color to be up there making public policy. We would make policy that truly helps people.

 

 

You both are breaking the mold; and that beginning phase of breaking through is the hardest part.

 

I’m a historian, and a scholar and an activist. I’m not an activist that lacks an understanding of the history of social justice movements. You have to know your history; you have to know the trajectory. So when you read about Marcus Garvey, his wife Amy Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer…people praise them now, but people hated them in their time. Same with Malcolm X – now, he’s such an accepted, kind of sanitized revolutionary, when up until he died, many hated him. Like Cynthia says, it’s a good position to be in, to break that mold.

 

I see hip-hop activism in two ways: I see a very radical, progressive side of it, and I see a majority of it that’s been co-opted. But I already knew that, you know? That co-option was hard to accept, as was the continuing male domination of hip-hop, but I don’t have a problem going into new spaces and trying something new as long as I stick to my principles and ethics. Whatever movement I choose to be a part of, I’m always going to come to it with my political ideology – social justice, freedom, police are not good, living wage, all these things – I’m not going to change that.

 

Cynthia leaving the Democratic Party broke the mold. She could have been nice and happy, and eventually probably led the Congressional Black Caucus if she’d just shut up and laid back for a little while. We’re in the history of our people, and I don’t believe anyone is really respected as a hardcore radical progressive until they’re like 20 years past that breaking moment, or gone. That’s what I’ve read in every biography, history, and what my mentors have taught me.

 

After the election, I probably won’t be in certain hip-hop circles. I don’t care anymore. It’s so much bigger than that at this point. It’s so much bigger than a few of us achieving some elite status among subcultures.

 

 

The common perception of Washington D.C. is that it is hopelessly corrupt, and no matter what one’s stated goals when running for office, the office ends up running them. How do you keep from being corrupted? What are the strategies you incorporate, or would incorporate, to maintain your integrity?

 

Washington is corrupt. I lived there last year. But if Cynthia and I got in, it would radically change. There would be no Department of Defense, there’d be no 56% of our money spent on the military, there might not even be a White House. I’m not in this to replicate the two parties, and I’m not going to be an elected leader that replicates the majority of African American and Latino elected leaders in this country who are bought and sold every day. But there have always been people who have been independent in Congress – Paul Wellstone, Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia when she was in there, Shirley Chisholm; there’s always been that thread, right? And if we didn’t maintain that, people should hold us accountable.

 

People have to realize that it’s not just about who gets into office for the president – who’s your local city council person, and what are you doing to hold them accountable? It’s not just about voting, either. What are you doing to organize in your community? Voting is not the hardest thing for someone to do. It’s definitely a two-way street. People can stand by their principles and values; we can name thousands: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Leonard Jeffries, and thousands of Blacks and Latinos who are completely radical people. And those who maintain their principles, values, and ethics can also have a livelihood; young people need to know that, too. But they’re gonna know that now, because the days of Goldman Sachs and Wall Street are over (laughs). You can’t even go there anymore to make some quick money.

 

 

Say I’m a 14-year old kid with little interest in politics – I don’t even know what habeas corpus means – and I meet you on the street. What would you say to me to get me involved?

 

Well, young kids may not know that language, but in this day and age they are making clear political choices. Young kids in an urban community know who the police are, they know who doesn’t have health care at home, and they know that some of them can’t eat every day. So they may not be articulate about politics, but they know what is fundamentally right and wrong, fair and unfair. That goes for white kids, kids of color, kids in suburbia, wealthy kids…there’s fundamental fairness, especially in their schools. I’m sure half of them get drug tested, or they can’t wear what they want to wear, so they’re already aware of intervention in their lives.

 

You just have to talk to them, and ask “what issues are important to you?” I think a 14 year-old today has been exposed to the same things a 21 year-old has seen. It’s not like 15 years ago, where there were certain filters keeping information from them – they get information everywhere, and they are formulating opinions. You have to talk to them, in their language, about the issues that affect them and what is going on in their communities. They’re capable.

 

 

Adele Nieves is a journalist and activist, a member of the Critical Moment collective in Detroit, and a member of SPEAK! The Women of Color Media Justice Collective.

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