[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


Green Party gets serious continued

by Seth Gitell

Not all the delegates, however, were pleased. Members of the Massachusetts delegation were particularly irate with the way the convention was organized; by coincidence, they're also the delegates most opposed to the direction in which the ASGP has taken the Green movement. Massachusetts is the home of the Greens/Green Party USA, a national group based in Lawrence that was founded in 1991 and eschews the more traditional approach being taken by the ASGP. Jonathan Leavitt, 33, is the co-chair of the Massachusetts Green Party -- a group affiliated with both national Green organizations -- and an official in the Greens/Green Party USA. Leavitt, shaved head and all, dressed down for the convention and objected to its being set at a major hotel.

"This is a lot different than what Greens usually do at these kinds of events," said Leavitt. "When we have gatherings we have them at organic fields, at farms, local halls." He also objected to the appearance of people who looked just like classic political operatives within the ranks of the Green Party. "There's a certain ethic that goes with the uniform. I've never trusted people in suits and ties, and I don't think I'm going to now," said Leavitt, who successfully sponsored a resolution calling on both wings of the Green Party to begin negotiations aimed at ironing out differences. "I think a lot of those people think of themselves as movers and shakers." Leavitt criticized the lack of real platform discussion during the convention, and complained that it was planned by a small group of people who are "conservative within the Green Party." "They're going to hear about it. It's never going to happen again," he vowed.

Finally, Leavitt took issue with the most successful Green Party in the world -- the Germans -- for selling out. And he warned that the same thing is happening here.

"I think Joscha Fischer is an insult to Green values. He exemplifies what compromises people make to remain in power," he said, a circle of Green Party USA members beating on various kinds of drums around him. "You've got people who see an opportunity and take it."

Perhaps trying to deflect some of this tension, Green Party officials paired Nader, himself not an official member of the party, with a person much beloved by the Green rank and file: Winona "No Nukes" LaDuke. The vice-presidential nominee roused the delegates at the Friday-night opening reception, which was held before most national press had arrived. A native Ojibwe activist who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, LaDuke began her speech in her native tongue: "I greet you in my language," she said. "That's my response to English-only." LaDuke then addressed the crowd on her themes of "diversity" and "reconciliation."

First, she blasted the devastation of the Great Plains -- a subject that resonates in Denver, which is surrounded by the parched desert-like country -- and the buffalo that used to live there. "It's time for America to stop killing buffalo," LaDuke said. "We need the courage to talk about the buffalo commons." LaDuke also criticized the Vatican for backing an American move to use a Native American sacred site for an astronomical observatory. "The Vatican maintains that if there are actually aliens out there, they want to be the first to know. It is incredibly difficult to have a sacred site desecrated by the Vatican," she said.

Turning her sights on American law-enforcement policy, LaDuke exclaimed, "We need to end the COINTEL period. We need to let Mumia out of jail." (COINTELPRO was the CIA's illegal program of domestic spying on radicals during the 1960s. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a death-row prisoner in Pennsylvania.) She likened the plight of Native Americans to that of the Jews, who received reparations for slave labor, and argued that the American government should back similar funding for Native Americans. "I know these are difficult issues to talk about. I know they make some of you uncomfortable," LaDuke concluded, to chants of "Go, Green, Go."

Interestingly, when LaDuke spoke on Saturday at a press conference with Nader, she gave a watered-down version of her Friday-night talk. Gone were the shots at the Vatican and the call for reparations. Instead, in much more subdued tones, she talked about the need to "raise the minimum wage in this country to a living wage" and to bring an end to "an energy policy based on corporate welfare."

By Sunday -- the day the Nader-LaDuke team was officially nominated -- Nader's running mate had disappeared. Hightower gave a rousing speech calling for Nader's nomination. The Green Party showed a five-minute movie featuring clips of Nader's crusade against General Motors and appearances on The Phil Donahue Show and The Mike Douglas Show during the 1970s. The movie had all the pizzazz of the DNC's famous "Man from Hope" biography of Bill Clinton. When Nader finished his dense two-hour speech -- "Castro without the charisma," quipped one wag -- he was led off the stage by a sharply dressed entourage. There was even a handler wearing a dark official-looking windbreaker with SECURITY OFFICER marked on the back.

With its polished political operatives, snappy movies, and impeccably timed release of blue, white, and green balloons upon the conclusion of Nader's speech, the Green Party convention was a hit. And the party took a significant step toward becoming a viable threat to the two major parties. But to be successful this year, it will need great discipline to keep both of its candidates on track with messages that will speak to the left as well as to America's growing mass of disenchanted voters from the middle.

Although getting into the national debates will be difficult, it may be even harder for Green Party leaders to keep their candidates on message given LaDuke's instincts and the dissent within the Green Party. The wild card is the Green-allied protesters who plan to target both major parties' national conventions next month, as well as the national debates. The Massachusetts Green Party's Leavitt has vowed that national debate organizers will need helicopters to get Bush and Gore into the October 3 debate at the John F. Kennedy Library. How televised footage of these mêlées plays in Peoria could either help or hurt the Green Party come November.

For all the polish on display in Denver, one thing is unsettling about the nomination of Nader -- the party's reticence about his background beyond the boilerplate details about his education and consumer activism. Like Michael Dukakis, Ralph Nader is the son of immigrants. He grew up outside Hartford with Lebanese-born parents, and is the first Arab-American presidential candidate in American history. To most Americans, these details resonate; isn't this the quintessential American story? That there was no mention of these facts -- and no family photos from Nader's youth -- seems to reflect the European-left origins of the American Greens.

Riding in the elevator after Nader's valedictory were his mother, Rose, carrying a large sunflower, and his sisters. Any other political party would have made much of Nader's personal story and trumpeted his family support. That the Green Party didn't suggests both the promise and peril of this important new political movement.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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