The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000


It's not easy being Green, continued

by Seth Gitell

JONATHAN LEAVITT: "I can't stand squishy politics. I can't stand people only willing to go halfway. That's why liberals fail."

The protest plans are drawing criticism from more-moderate voices within the Green Party, the most prominent of which is Bowdoin College political scientist John Rensenbrink, one of the founders of the ASGP. "It's a kind of combative politics that doesn't help anybody," Rensenbrink says of the direct-action protests that Green-allied activists plan for the debates and the upcoming major-party conventions. "It's protest politics. It's shaking your fist at Big Daddy and thinking you're wonderful for doing it. To deliberately provoke is something that I feel at this point is somewhat counterproductive."

The Green effort in general is also drawing the ire of Paul Berman, a former '60s activist and the author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (W.W. Norton). Berman, who believes that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank cannot be likened to the villains of the '60s, warns that Seattle-style activism will only work to the advantage of George W. Bush and the Republicans. Berman is sensitive to charges that the '60s radicals hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and helped elect Richard Nixon. "In 1968, I was violently opposed to Hubert Humphrey and so were most of my friends in the student movement," he says. "And one of the results of our opposition was that the Vietnam War lasted longer than it would have otherwise lasted."

"It's easy to look at the two main candidates and think you're not represented," he adds, "and then it's easy to delude yourself that your view has been suppressed or ground up under the heel of a police state. But these are delusions."

THEY MAY be delusions to Berman, but they're powerful visions to the Lawrence activists, who are likely to make the bigger splash locally in October. The mind behind that Lawrence faction is Jonathan Leavitt, a GPUSA official who co-chairs the Massachusetts Green Party with Stacey Cordeiro, founder of the Jamaica Plain Greens. On a sweltering July day, Leavitt has generously offered to give me a tour of the Bernstein Bookstore. Decidedly informal given his rank within a national political organization, Leavitt sports a shaved head, sandals, cutoff shorts, and a T-shirt that reads HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE FOOTBALL. The last item reflects Leavitt's sense of humor: the Amherst-based liberal-arts college doesn't have a football team. It's a sense of humor that he's employed to achieve his political goals -- such as when he planted a juicy kiss on the (male) leader of a "straight pride" protest rally on the UMass Amherst campus while he was a student.

As we walk around the store, Leavitt rattles off a list of left-wing organizations and causes that operate out of the Essex Street location, including the Merrimack Valley Progressive, the Downtown Farmers Market, the Merrimack Valley Greens, and the Lawrence Grassroots Initiative, the not-for-profit group that Leavitt founded in 1992. African pop music comes out of speakers hooked up to a cassette player and turntable. Leavitt explains that the name of the store comes from one of the favorite sons of the Immigrant City -- composer Leonard Bernstein, who backed the Black Panthers, as famously immortalized in Tom Wolfe's essay "Radical Chic."

That said, this pocket of Lawrence is no bastion of leftist elitism. When two young Latina customers step in from the street, Leavitt is happy to explain the '80s-era poster headed THE WORLD ACCORDING TO RONALD REAGAN. "This guy Qaddafi was allegedly a terrorist. Daniel Ortega was a guy who overthrew a dictatorship and Reagan turned him into a monster," Leavitt says, pointing to the cartoon depictions of world leaders in the poster.

When the women leave, Leavitt walks up a flight of stairs to the one room that serves as the headquarters for the GPUSA. The small office is managed by the secretary of the GPUSA, Starlene Rankin, a Massachusetts resident who recently relocated from Iowa. The room, which the Green Party actually rents from Leavitt's Grassroots Initiative, houses a few desks and computers. In March, the office was broken into and all the computers were stolen (see "The Green Party Gets Burglarized," This Just In, News and Features, March 10). GPUSA officials believe the robbery was political -- like the 1980s break-ins at the offices of opponents of Reagan's Nicaragua policy. In other offices in the same building, no computers were touched.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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