The Boston Phoenix
July 20 - 27, 2000


It's not easy being Green, continued

by Seth Gitell

TALKING ABOUT a revolution: the Bernstein Bookstore, with its leftist posters and placards, is weirdly out of place in downtown Lawrence.

Leavitt, who is 33, has been an activist virtually all his life. Born in Lawrence to a middle-class family, he moved to nearby North Andover with his parents when he was still young. During high school, he became a star basketball guard. He describes himself as the type of jock who'd go to the mat sticking up for the odd outcast.

After a brief stint after high school at St. Michael's College in Vermont, he moved back to Massachusetts and, after a year, made his way to UMass, where his nascent activism flourished. Activists such as Amy Carter (daughter of the former president) and Abbie Hoffman were trying to eject the Central Intelligence Agency from the campus. Inspired by their movement, Leavitt helped orchestrate a student strike that shut the Amherst campus down for a week. But that effort had as much to do with promotion as with progressive politics. "It was based on fabrication," Leavitt recalls. "We made people think there was a large organization behind the strike."

During this period, the young activist got to know Hoffman, the former Yippie who was nearing the end of his life. Hoffman had made a career out of high-profile antics and protests; once, he famously released hundreds of dollar bills on Wall Street. "I had read everything Abbie Hoffman had ever written, and I met him speaking at the Iron Horse Tavern in Amherst," Leavitt says. "Even in the midst of dealing with some serious issues, he found a way to stay human."

Leavitt's days at UMass ended abruptly -- and without a diploma -- when he was kicked out of school after his stunt at the straight-pride rally. He went to Europe, spent time living in squats, and worked on the effort to free Paul Hill, the man who inspired the film In the Name of the Father.

Leavitt returned to the states and in 1992 set up the Lawrence Grassroots Initiative, funded by member dues and foundation grants. He wanted the group to be "uncompromising." As he explains it: "I can't stand squishy politics. I can't stand people only willing to go halfway. That's why liberals fail."

Leavitt joined the Green movement in the early '90s, after attending a meeting in Holyoke. Right away, he was drawn more to the GPUSA than to the more electorally minded alternatives, although the Massachusetts Green Party is now affiliated with both the GPUSA and the ASGP. He likes the GPUSA's more grassroots style -- organized as a membership organization, for example, the GPUSA collects dues "based on ability to pay and the honor system," according to its party platform.

Leavitt contends that the ASGP's greater focus on electoral politics endangers the Green movement. "Electoral politics always corrupts people," he says. "The Green Party is naive to think it could be the exception." Granted, the attention lavished on the ASGP has been a boon to Leavitt's state group, which he says received e-mails from more than 1000 people interested in the party following the convention in Denver. State party membership has tripled over the past three months. But some of those people expressing newfound interest in the Green Party might be surprised to learn what Leavitt's group has to say. "We are anti-capitalist and anti-state ownership," he says. "We are for anarchist economics." Such economics means businesses that are "small-scale, worker-owned, democratically controlled, and ecologically sound."

Now, Leavitt sees the possibility of an activist spirit unheard-of in America since the late '60s and early '70s. "People are ready to do things they haven't done in my 12 to 13 years of organizing," he says.

But what is the goal of all this direct action? After all, America in 2000 is not Pinochet's Chile or Somoza's Nicaragua. "Our goal," Leavitt says, "is to really expose the Democrats and Republicans for what they are. If they don't allow the third-party candidates into the debates, it's going to take a police state to protect their view of the world."

LEAVITT IS just one of about 100 hard-core activists, many of them not affiliated with the Greens, who have been meeting at MIT and other locations around Greater Boston to make plans for the October 3 presidential debate. On a recent Thursday, one group is meeting at the Lucy Parsons Center, in the South End. Nearly 60 people have crammed into the tight space to debate tactics. It is so steamy that participants are fanning themselves with their IRAQ: UNDER SIEGE placards. Before a reporter can be admitted to the meeting, the group engages in a 30-minute Talmudic debate on the pros and cons of including the press. Leavitt argues that more press means more potential followers for the movement. Finally, they acquiesce.

During the meeting, there is much give-and-take on the relative merits of marching with organized labor, which may also demonstrate at the debate, as opposed to holding independent direct-action protests. "We've got to get people excited by this," Leavitt says. "That's what happened in Seattle. It's happening in Philadelphia and Los Angeles."

One bearded old-timer -- just returned from Mexico -- tries to buoy the spirits of the group. "We've got to get rid of world capitalism," he says, adding: "It's not going to be easy."

When the meeting lets out two hours later, not everyone is happy. One young, pierced animal-rights activist says he fears that direct action might get subsumed by the pro-Nader effort. "This is not a Green Party thing," he says of the upcoming protest, complaining that somebody shared an e-mail list for one of the organizational meetings with the Greens. "The Green Party doesn't own this." His comments reflect a common sentiment among this group: although many observers lump the Seattle-style protesters and the Green partisans together, people inside the movements are keenly aware of even the slightest distinctions. For those further to the left than the Green Party -- and there are many such people -- the protests around the political conventions and debates represent an opportunity to demonstrate against the system, not necessarily a time to help Ralph Nader. "Nader is a union buster and a millionaire," says another man at the meeting, who says he is affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (a/k/a the Wobblies).

That said, the GPUSA is trying to present a united front at the protests. Stacey Cordeiro, for example, spends most of her time in the field collecting signatures to get Nader on the Massachusetts ballot, but the Massachusetts Green Party co-chair says she shares Leavitt's "focus" on "trying to return some of the control of the economic system away from the corporations and back to the people."

Nevertheless, it's Leavitt's signature that will be on whatever happens outside the JFK Library October 3. And although Leavitt is somewhat critical of the ASGP establishment, he also has a better head for publicity than many of his fellow travelers on the far left. Like his hero, Hoffman, Leavitt has a knack for creative protest and attention-getting. And if we know anything about modern society in America, it's that the people who get the attention of television cameras are the people who define their movements. It will be up to clever foot soldiers like him to shape the legacy left by the pranksters of today.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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