Renowned Afro-Latinx activist and scholar Rosa Clemente sits down with Abby Martin to discuss her experiences running for Vice President, organizing under Obama versus under Trump, advice for new activists, identity politics and more.
In the face of a resurgent far-right movement, backed by unleashed reactionary state forces, Clemente gives valuable insight into the challenges, strategies and tactics for a new era of organizing.
Rosa Clemente & Abby Martin – No Savior in 2020
Abby Martin: Rosa Clemente is a leading scholar on Afro-Latinx identity and the anti-racist struggles of the 60s and 70s. Also an activist and political organizer, she’s led political tours, built radical organizations, and much more. Among many accolades, she was selected for Ebony Magazine’s list of top 100 most inspiring African-Americans and was the 2008 Green Party candidate for vice president. I sat down with Rosa at the People’s Congress of Resistance in Washington, D.C. to talk about third party politics and organizing in the Trump era.Rosa, you worked as an aid in the Democratic Party for years, up until 2000 if I’m not mistaken. What made you leave the Democratic party and embrace more revolutionary politics?
Rosa Clemente: I was part of that radical black/Latino left of colleges that was every day having a protest or rally demanding something, so I knew the flaws of the Democratic party. I was never like … I would obviously vote or was voting as a Democrat, but then I saw Ralph Nader speak in upstate New York. At that time, he was with the Green Party. I was like, “Oh. How don’t I know that there’s another party? How am I in any way involved in electoral politics and don’t know that there’s more than two parties?”Really, the turning point for me was in 2005 when I went down to report on what was happening right after Hurricane Katrina and the levy breach in New Orleans. The minute I saw what was going on, I was obviously mad at George Bush and the response from the government, but began to talk to a lot of people and how they felt the Democratic Party, just in general, had been letting them down. It kind of gave me a focus of looking at the Democratic Party from a very critical lens. In 2006, I registered and became a Green Party member.
AM: In 2008, you ran as the vice presidential candidate, Cynthia McKinney as the presidential candidate. Two women of color, the first time in history. I voted for you. I was so proud to do so. I told everyone to do so.
RC: Thank you.
AM: What was the biggest takeaway or lesson learned from that whole experience, and what backlash, if any, did you get from the Democrats, Greens, Progressives for infringing on Obama’s presidency as the first person of color?
RC: I always tell people I believe if two men of color had been the nominees, there would have been more support for those men of color. Patriarchy, misogyny, sexism was rampant for many circles. Me and Cynthia didn’t work for almost two years after we ran. Nobody would really hire us. Of course, we were told, especially by a lot of black and Latinos that were heavily involved with the Democratic Party, that we were basically traitors and we were making the worst mistakes of our lives. I was told by some of my mentors that I was destroying any ability to have any type of career afterwards.Also as a historian, I’m a trained historian in black studies and Africana studies, I knew the significance of Barack Obama. I just wanted people to also respect the significance of two women of color, Afro-Latina, a Puerto Rican and an African American, and what that meant. I knew the significance of when Obama won, and I myself that night took a moment to watch him and Michelle and Sasha, Malia go and know this is a historical moment, but history doesn’t make movements like that. The people made the movement. That was a moment and it wasn’t a movement. Barack Obama was never a movement. I felt like that from that time. I think history has proved a lot of what me and Cynthia did to be the right thing.Lastly, there was a lot of racism in the Green party from a lot of white men in that party. The Colorado State Green Party took us off the ballot. I think people out there don’t understand the significance of what it means to take your own candidates off the ballot because you think they’re too radical.
AM: We saw two mass movements arise under the Obama administration despite … People can criticize the progressive movement for failing the anti-war movement, for dying, but really you cannot discount Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street.
AM: What does that mean? Looking back on his legacy, what significance did it have and what space did you think it carved for those sort of grassroots mobilizations?
RC: I’m sure by day two or three, the police had infiltrated Wall Street, as well as began to do the tactics of the Counter Intelligence Program, which is create destruction and discord. Then with Black Lives Matter, what predates Black Lives Matter though is important. You have young people that are undocumented that are seeing that the Barack Obama administration and the Democrats, along with Cecilia Munoz, who was the director of domestic policy, ratcheting up deportations. You began to see young people saying, “Undocumented, unafraid.” That was before even the DREAM Act was in the zeitgeist.Then what we see under a black president is a rise of Black Lives Matter. I often think of it too historically, would Black Lives Matter have risen if it hadn’t been a black president? I think so, but I think the impact wouldn’t have been as great because at this point, those black young people, whether they’re the Ferguson frontline resistors or those that were part of Black Lives Matter after it became not just a hashtag, had seen Troy Davis executed and had seen Trayvon Martin’s killer walk free. They were also those that voted for Obama the first time they could vote. They were deeply upset and disappointed, I think, at him, like, “You’re the black president and this is happening. There are things you can actually do and you’re not choosing to do them.”Then what we saw in Ferguson was queer folks, but it was also really what we call street organizations, the young brothers and sisters that people call gangs, we call them sets, that said, “Nah. Michael Brown’s death won’t be in vain. If we have to throw rocks like our Palestinian brothers and sisters are doing at military tanks, we’re going to do that.” I think it was a culmination of all of it, but particularly the disappointment that African American and Latino young people specifically felt who had helped President Obama become the president.
AM: Even this year, Rosa, with the two most hated, detestable candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a reality star game show host narcissist, misogynist, racist, and you can go on all day about Hillary-
AM: Jill Stein barely broke that million vote. I don’t understand it. I really, really thought that this time … I was like, “Clearly, with these two hated candidates, Jill Stein’s at least going to get three million, maybe 5% of the vote.” I was pretty surprised. Then you see the non-votes. Almost twice as many people in these swing states went out, voted for everything and left president blank.
AM: That’s incredible.
AM: Then there’s the shaming of people, still blaming people who voted for Jill Stein, of course, on Trump, which is insane, but why do you think there was such a poor turnout for Greens?
RC: We had too many Green Party people that were trying to sway Bernie Sanders to come the way. What the Green Party should have been doing is going to half of the population that doesn’t vote in any election. Don’t try to change a Democrat. Don’t try to go after a Trump supporter. Don’t even go after Bernie Sanders. Why don’t you go after the 50 so percent of people that are not voting in this country? We know where they’re at. We have the statistics to … We could look at all the data to say, “This is where we need to be.”I think the Green Party made a mistake by almost chasing after Bernie and Hillary and Trump, even though this was the year that we got the most mainstream media coverage. To have Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka on a CNN stage and see no results from that means that then the party has to be very either introspective or that people of color, especially young people, may have to form their own new political party if they want to be part of electoral politics. Even with all that said, we’re not going after the people who are not voting. Instead, many people, as you say, shame them as opposed to saying, “Why are you not voting? What would make you vote? What does leadership in your community look like?”I don’t know if the Green Party’s going to be able to recover from the narrative that takes us back to 2000, that it was Ralph Nader’s fault, and now the idea that less than 1% of people that voted for Jill Stein is the reason that Trump won as opposed to always being very clear that the narrative is Trump won because 52% of white women in this country voted for white supremacy instead of themselves. They voted for patriarchy instead of their own liberation. How do we have those real and deep and honest conversations with people that are not existential conversations and really academic conversations, but true grassroots conversations?
AM: I guess just talk more about the trappings of Bernie Sanders as a whole and the whole Democratic Socialism movement.
RC: I think, in general, Americans are always looking for someone to save them. They’re either looking for someone to save them or an authority figure to tell them what to do. When it comes to Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialism in America, I have to ask any Socialist like, “Did he run as a Socialist, or did he run as a Democrat?” He’s made his choice. I’m not saying … In fact, Bernie Sanders was in Albany during a campaign stop and he actually met with Black Lives Matter Upstate, which I help found, and met with the family of victim of police murder by the name of Dante Ivy. We were there for a good 40 minutes, and talking to him, of course I see he is not like the rest of these people, but he has his blind spot. He thinks the Democratic Party can be pushed. It’s never going to be pushed to that.I just don’t understand how they don’t see what the majority of us are seeing and why Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have taken the step forward to say, “Wait a minute. I’m going to run as a third party candidate.” He wasn’t going to run as a Green. Then run as a Socialist or figure out how we do that line or how it is that you’re independent. I think the Draft Bernie people, the folks that think he’s going to run again, I don’t think he is, but are looking for literally someone to save them at this moment of crisis. Electoral politics never saved anyone. I always look at Africans who were enslaved in this country. Not one of them voted to be free. They organized to be free, knowing that their freedom might not come, but their children’s freedom was definitely coming.I think sometimes in our movements’ faces, whether they’re progressive, left, radical, socialist, new African, Puerto Rican, independent, that we often don’t look at the psychology and the psychosis that a lot of people are going through that essentially is saying, “Either save me or tell me what to do, because I got two jobs, I got to pay my rent. I don’t have healthcare. I’m formerly incarcerated. I don’t have my prescription benefits.” College debt, that’s a privilege for some of us to have college debt when people can’t pay their rent. That’s what happens sometimes. I think that’s where we’re at right now in this country, like in a mass social control kind of way.
AM: Is there viability right now to build a new third party?
RC: I would have said a couple years ago maybe, but I think now the electoral political system is so … Corrupt is not even the right word. It’s so driven by money, obviously. Citizens United, I think, dealt a huge blow to what that looks like. To form a third party that can get on the ballot … The reason the Green Party is still critically important as well is because Greens know how to get on a ballot. I don’t think people understand the mechanisms of what it means to run and get on a ballot. I think there’s an assumption Rosa is running, I’m on a ballot. No.Then people don’t realize that often times, the Democrats and Republicans will come together to keep off any third party. In sense, they could keep switching power on and off. Four years, eight years. “Here. Your turn.” Ballot access. The fact that to run a New York City council race in the 80s would have cost $10, $15,000. You can’t even run for New York City council if you don’t have $250,000 already probably pledge. Look at our senators. We’re talking senate races that are now going in tens of millions of dollars. Who can do that? The only way you raise that money is what? Through corporations. I don’t know, at this point, if, on the federal level, we’re going to ever see a third party candidate. I do believe on the local level. That’s a whole different ball game, if it’s a smaller city and a smaller municipality.I don’t know if we should now be putting all our efforts into that. That’s lastly one thing that I’m very concerned about. I don’t like going into spaces where people are talking about who’s running in 2018 or 2020. It’s like what’s happening right now and what work can we do to basically have communities that are localized, self-determining, and can defend themselves from what we know is about to happen with the Trump administration, which, on its face, is going to be most likely massive amounts of roundups. If we can’t stop roundups and people from being deported, I don’t know if we can get to the point of starting a third party in this country, other third parties.
AM: Great point. Let’s just analyze what we’re looking at right now. We have the J20 arrests of over 200 people facing life in prison for being in the vicinity of a broken window. We have the Trump regime ramming so much down our throats. It’s so hard to figure out where to focus our energy. Then you have the Democratic Party, of course, co-opting the resistance, even Hillary Clinton using Heather Heyer’s name to try to get money.
RC: She also threw Black Lives Matter-
AM: It’s disgusting.
RC … under the bus in her book.
AM: What did she say?
RC: In her book, she said that Black Lives Matter would be great if they had a policy platform. I’m like, “So you didn’t read the movement for Black Lives policy platform that took a year to be created from over 40 groups that are mostly young people of color, queer-led groups, that gave you every solution to every problem on a website and have been for the last year, infusing what is called the Movement for Black Lives Platform into all the work.” It doesn’t help also that Bernie Sanders and all his people are talking about identity politics as something that our identities are something that we shouldn’t be talking about, when Trump won on identity politics. He ran on a white identity politic and won, but then we’re being told as people of color not to bring all of who we are into the space.
AM: It’s a disgusting contradiction.
RC: I’ll say specifically that type of mainstream media and some liberals and so-called progressives have also normalized it, like, “Let’s give him a chance.” I think Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi just meeting with him last week and then walking out and saying, “We got a deal on DACA,” and then six hours later, he tweeted, he’s like, “What deal are they talking about?” Why are they walking in a room with him? Why are you even giving … It was almost like at the State of the Union. There were two Congress people that didn’t go, Luis Gutierrez and Maxine Waters. My whole thing was, why was any Democrat sitting at any State of the Union? Because you believe in the institution to the point that you want to save it, but maybe it’s no longer savable. What you’re essentially doing is you help normalize this behavior, which could actually lead to another Trump presidency.
AM: I think it might because that’s how tone deaf these people are.
RC: Because his base, no joke, they’re going to ride, like we say in hip-hop, they are riding and dying with Donald Trump. What we’ve seen is the Democratic Party failing, maybe even some third parties that should be doing better failing, so we might see less people of color, less marginalized people that would be usually inclined to be independent or Democratic maybe voting in this next election. Then obviously, we always have the Republican Party spot on with voter suppression.
AM: Not only this vitriolic repression, undocumented people, trans people, everyone’s under attack, minority or queer. I feel like we’re seeing a two-fold effect. Organizing is getting stronger, but then maybe the people on the front lines who are at risk maybe are pulling back. How do we deal with this apparent contradiction, and what will organizing look like, do you think it will look like, under Trump?
RC: I think that’s a question that … That I don’t have the answer to, because what’s also happening is what Jeff Sessions is doing with the Department of Justice. I think that’s the quiet, maybe not quiet for us, but that’s really what we should be talking about. You have Jeff Sessions basically saying he wants a new War On Drugs. There will be no crimes prosecuted, no police misconduct, not that the Department of Justice really ever comes back with anything to say that police officers have violated rights.You have someone like Betsy DeVos that is now saying that we have to think about the rapists on campus and that they’re not thrown under a bus, where you’ve had a 10-year movement of young women on campus and their male allies not only being brave enough to tell their stories, but suing the federal government under Title IX violations.While the Trump clown factory is what we see every day, then what’s happening to departments? You don’t have time to think about how do we have an underground system that’s not going to rely on Twitter, Facebook to tell our stories when the government decides whatever, an algorithm changes, and you don’t know what’s happening. We could look at mainstream media and even some progressive media that are obsessed to the point of Trumpism that they don’t tell any other stories of resistance. When you don’t even see that within the progressive media and the obsession with Russia, it’s just like I don’t know what organizing looks like right now on a mass level.I know that what I’m seeing on a local level is literally people just trying right now to survive. I spoke about that earlier. We’re like in survival mode and our thriving mode. Usually out of these moments comes a new group of people, usually young people. What I think we’re going to see is my daughter’s generation, my daughter’s 12, and I would say to like the 21, 22 year olds, are going to be faced with such a crisis and they’re going to have to figure out a new way of how we do the work and what organizing looks like and what movement building looks like.
AM: You’re a firm believer in building those organizations that can serve as a political home, not just the protest politics, not just fighting in the streets. There has to be something larger. Expand more on that.
RC: Political education is key. I think we have a lot of people that are organizers and activists that are still not have political education. What I mean by that is it’s as simple as dedicating yourself to making sure you’re watching the most progressive media, going to those spaces where there’s the Empire Files or–and I mix what I like–or Black Agenda Report to actually see the nuances and real, still deep, investigative narrative storytelling of the people, the others that are the most marginalized. I think it’s like that.I also think it’s about reading history and understanding that we’ve been here before. America is founded on the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, the exploitation of immigrant people. We’ve had bans before, mass deportations before, and people say, “That will never happen again.” It’s literally happening now. I think history is super instructive. I don’t think history as much repeats itself as it stays on a continuum. I think it’s important that if you’re new into this movement work that you sit down and study, that you talk to elders who’ve done the work, but also the elders who will admit the mistakes that they did so those are not repeated.
AM: Rosa, what is your message to young people under 20 or just getting involved in political activism? What’s your message to them?
RC: Toni Morrison did a speech a couple years ago at UMass Amherst. She said, “Never see yourself do the white gaze.” That stuck with me because I think especially for young people of color, sometimes what young people of color are seeking is the same system that is seeking to destroy them, to edify them, to say, “You’re doing a good job. You’re good. I like what you’re saying.” Usually when that happens, you’re not doing a good job. You can’t lastly expect that all your work is always visible and awarded or rewarded. Carter G. Woodson, the father of African American history, never got one award in his life. He was never on a magazine cover. You have to be okay with being on the margins. I feel like I was born on the margins and I’m always going to be there. Young people who are doing movement work are going to have to get through that too. You might be born on the margins. You’re never going to be normal. You’ll probably die on the margins, but those of us that do that work, history will always tell the truth and we’ll always reward that work.
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