Green Is the New Black

Shortly before Christmas, 2003 I attended my first meeting of the Chicago Area Greens, a loose confederation of Green Party locals that had been trying to come together for a number of years to act in a more coordinated manner. The first thing I was introduced to was the great schism that had been plaguing the party for years.

Unbeknownst to most people, there are two American Green Parties, the Green Party of the USA, which is the original organization that has been around since the mid 1980s, and the Green Party of the US, which more or less came into being following Ralph Nader’s successful 2000 Presidential campaign. The GPUSA is mainly composed of long time environmentalists, former Socialists and Communists and other remnants of the New Left, the more doctrinaire adherents to the original European Green philosophy, articulated by Fritjof Capra and Charlene Spretnak in their seminal work, Green Politics. The GPUS is a more contemporary, Americanized version,  maintaining a constituency of disaffected Republicans and Democrats, and a younger generation of the eco-conscious seeking representation outside the two-party system.

The main schism, however, was based in electoral strategy. While the GPUSA adhered to a strict interpretation of the 10 Key Values, which included an emphasis on decentralization and local office, the GPUS was interested in fielding candidates for state and national office. In Illinois the old group wanted to plant trees, while the new group wanted the Governor’s Mansion.

What bonded them together, and what originally drew me to them as a political philosophy, was their vision (or need) for a better world, articulated in the Green’s 10 Key Values of Grassroots Democracy, Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Nonviolence, Decentralization, Community Based Economics, Feminism, Respect for Diversity, Personal & Global Responsibility, and Sustainability (typical of Americanization, the GPUS cut these in half and offered 5 key values).

The Green approach, while appearing naive and idealistic to their opponents in the Mainstream Left, at first gave me hope that a “kinder, gentler” politics was possible. While the major parties talked almost exclusively about war, terrorism, and economic growth, the Greens were the only voice in opposition to those and other sacred cows, challenging the Pentagon, corporate power, the War on Drugs, and the class bias inherent in American culture. More importantly, the Greens stood for something, something better.

I entered the Chicago Area Greens with a head full of need and an ass full of steam. I explained I was ready and willing to devote considerable time and effort to the cause. I wanted to apply my understanding of advertising, marketing, and public relations to their campaigns, and I wanted to help “clean up their image” and “make the party look respectable.”

That had the immediate effect of polarizing the group. Half were grateful for more foot soldiers and a fresh, contemporary perspective. Half regarded me with suspicion, and whispers began that I might be a “plant” from the Democratic Party. To them, my “clean cut look” and my “aggressive corporate approach” was anathema to the endless dithering and debate that I would soon come to see characterized the American Left.   

Another key factor in their distrust of me percolated up quickly. Virtually everyone I met in the Chicago Greens were working class folk just eking out an existence on the ideological fringe of society. Despite my odyssey into the world of crack cocaine, I still walked and talked like an upper middle class kid who was used to getting what he wanted. Like the resentment it bred in prison, the class schism was the real schism that split the party.

Despite limited opposition to my joining, I was welcomed and quickly put to work in media and communications. The party was gearing up for the 2004 election season, and in early February many of us attended the Illinois Green Party’s State nominating convention in Springfield. There I was named State Media Director and was also appointed to be the Chicago Area Greens representative to the local anti-war coalition, the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism. I soon learned the coalition was about to begin planning a big march and rally for the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

The first open organizational meeting for the one-year anniversary march was held in January of  2004 in a packed conference room in downtown Chicago. This was the first time I had ever been part of a citywide mobilization for anything, and it was also the first time that the entire anti-war Left of Chicago was in the same room. It would be the last time. Instead of coming together under a unified purpose, the meeting devolved into ideological squabbling and speechmaking. It was one of the saddest and most disheartening things I had ever witnessed, while refrains of Guy Herron’s “divide and rule” cycled through my mind.

What I did not understand at the time is that there are two main factions of the anti-war movement, one ostensibly led by the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition, the other led by the United for Peace and Justice coalition. The main ideological divide between them is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

ANSWER and the companion group, International Action Center, were mostly made up of communists, socialists, and anarchists.[2] They demanded that the Israeli occupation be included in the messaging platform. They argued that our foreign policy with Israel was the key driving factor in Muslim anger towards the United States. The ANSWER crowd’s stridently anti-imperialist mantra was “US Out of Everywhere!” Their ultimate goal was the defeat of the Empire.

The United for Peace and Justice faction was made up of a constituency of anti-war democrats, trade unions, churches, and community peace groups.[3] They have a strong allegiance to the Democratic party, hence, their primarily goal was not the defeat of the Empire, but a rather modest withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. They seemed to be using the anti-war movement as a vehicle for ousting George W. Bush in the upcoming election. The UFPJ faction seemed OK with the US role as global cop, was stridently pro-Israel, and wanted nothing to do with the so-called “radical fringe.”

It was as if the two factions never had any intention of working together, and were incapable of seeing any mutual affinity. The only purpose of the meeting seemed to be to cement their divide. Consequently, the UFPJ faction decided to plan a separate march and rally for the same day. I soon learned that this schism was nationwide, and the same thing happened in virtually every city.

The anti-war movement was born divided. It is emblematic of the fractious and self-destructive nature of American identity politics. There isn’t a single thing the Left can agree on except their loathing of the Right. Meanwhile, the Right sits around laughing at them.

There is something unique, though, about the Left in Chicago. The divisions that plague them  there are still part of an ongoing, systemic backlash to the radicalism of the 1960s. The 1968 riots irrevocably changed the city’s political and cultural landscape. Despite the Daley Democratic Machine and Illinois’ status as a perennially “Blue” state, the Left no longer has any real presence there. The New Left was literally beaten out of town while the remainder were taken out by a few well-placed bullets.  

Working under the auspices of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to divide, disrupt and discredit the New Left, Mayor Daley the Older’s infamous “Red Squad” was known for their brutality towards hippies, radicals, and Black Panthers. The combination of the Chicago 7 trial and the murder of Fred Hampton sent a clear message: radical activity in Chicago is finished. The city very quickly became an inhospitable place for anyone agitating for change. These were the dark days Tom Goforth recounted to me.

As a result of this political war, over the next decade more than a million white Chicagoans would depart for the suburbs, devastating the city’s tax base while giving African Americans the majority population. What followed throughout the late 1970s and 1980s was a process of division and assimilation in the Black community. In stepped the Daley Machine to co-opt whomever it could. This is how erstwhile revolutionaries like former Black Panther Minister of Defense Bobby Rush tossed aside Chairman Mao to become a member of the Chicago City Council and then the US Congress.

In Chicago, the political power of the Black community is expressed primarily through local ministers, who are the most visible and respected members of their communities. Over time they have been bought up into Daley the Younger’s machine and now serve the purpose of churning out voters. The Ministers are worth whatever the cost since they also act as a buffer between the city officialdom and the rage of their Black citizenry, who are routinely exploited, immiserated, and brutalized by the city and its police force.

In the 1980s many of the disaffected lefties got together behind Harold Washington, a former US Congressman who broke the stranglehold of the Daley Machine when he became Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. The racially motivated backlash against Washington became known as the “Council Wars,” when the white members of the City Council refused to enact Washington’s legislative agenda and began waving guns around in the Council chambers. When Washington died suddenly on Thanksgiving of 1987 there was a bitter power struggle, and the Washington faction found themselves on the outs. Within a year Daley the Younger assumed the mantle of city leadership which he saw as his birthright. So began the first of his five terms as Mayor.

Daley the Younger’s rule as Mayor is best described as Augustine. He inherited a crime infested city falling to pieces, and turned it around into a beautiful, shining, cosmopolitan playground, mostly by planting trees, cajoling private investment, extirpating the poor, and turning the city into a police state. He retained power not only through his political largesse, but also through the merciless suppression of his enemies, whatever form they may take. He is the consummate Chicago patrician, eschewing the effete and refined cosmopolitanism of New Chicago for the clipped Pinter-like staccato of his Bridgeport Irish-Catholic origins. For that “regular guyness,” the people love him.

After ‘68, Chicago ceased being a center of national politics. There was not another major party convention held in the city again until 1996, when the Democrats returned, hosting their Convention in the brand new United Center under NBA title banners won by Michael Jordan. It was a new city in a new era, and Daley the Younger made sure there was nary a peep from the streets. Bill Clinton, a strong Daley ally, would go on to a second term as President, flowing a steady stream of public and private capital into Chicago as the city entered a gargantuan 10-year building boom.

Chicago remains extremely hostile to any kind of political protest activity. Any action, whether it involves two or two hundred thousand, requires a permit, and denying permits is the key method of controlling public dissent. Without a permit, dissent is essentially criminalized. That's mighty convenient, isn’t it?

Upon the rare instance when a permit is granted, the city meets the protest action with overwhelming police force. When the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue, a small satellite group of the WTO, held their 2002 meeting in Chicago, the city went into security overload. Invoking the “anarchist violence” of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, Daley the Younger rolled out excessive police presence for what amounted to a minor confab, and the media seized upon his fearmongering to ram it down the public’s throat. The net result was that around 500 rag tag puppet-toting protestors showed up to march inside a gigantic cordon of more than 5,000 heavily armed riot police. The farcical imbalance made national news. Both the city and the protestors looked ridiculous, but Daley the Younger remained unapologetic.[4]   

As fate would have it, the Green Party chose to remain in the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism, and I found myself forcibly aligned with the radical half of the movement. I soon learned the coalition, and the anti-war movement as a whole, functioned more as a kind of catch-all vehicle for the plethora of contemporary lefty grievances. Activists of all stripes were encouraged to show up promoting their various causes.

I never understood this thinking. I always considered it counterintuitive to our common goal, which in this case was to express public dissatisfaction for US war policies. This cacophonous  strategy resulted in a deafening and distorted expression of dissatisfaction in everything: End War. Save the Planet. Books not Bombs. Gay Marriage Now. Daley is Hitler. Bush is Satan. Free Palestine. Free Tibet. Free Mumia Abu Jamal. Free Willy. Free Love. Legalize Marijuana. End the Drug War. Health Care for All. Stop the WTO. Stop the World Bank. Stop the New World Order. Stop the Presses. End the Pentagon. End the CIA. End the Occupation. Oh, and 9/11 Was An Inside Job, doncha know doncha know?

The entire organizing process was managed by an arcane and overly-complicated “Robert’s Rules”[5] like process that was easily taken over by a simple majority. It was clear certain sub-factions had been at this a long time and were quite deft in manipulating the process. In our case, a coalition of members from the International Socialist Organization had formed a near impenetrable bloc and pushed their agenda on the entire coalition. Those who dissented were accused of “red-baiting.” Those who had learned to concentrate power became the de facto "leaders" of what was supposed to be a leaderless, committee-run coalition. They alone would negotiate the details of the march with the City, for whom they had no love, thus ensuring a persistent state of enmity.

The one-year anniversary march fell on Saturday, March 20th, 2004. It was a beautiful and beguiling day, and the police had absolutely no intention of letting the march disrupt shopping activity along Michigan Avenue. The march was exiled to a deserted strip of Clark Street a few blocks west in the River North area, far enough away to not provoke curiosity in the unassuming public. The CPD surrounded the marchers with so many phalanxes of riot cops and mounted police that bystanders could not even see the march much less join it.

From the beginning the police determined when the march would move, and how it would move.  The riot cops were juiced and looked like they’d take any excuse to begin walloping skulls. At one point they almost did after the police line abruptly stopped moving forward and the crowd surged into them, unable to stop the momentum of 30,000 people behind them.

The banner line of the march was made up of a row of disabled people in wheelchairs that stretched from curb to curb. Interspersed among them were the main organizers of the march and our celebrity for the day, another of those erstwhile Chicago revolutionaries, The Reverend Jesse Jackson. I was among this banner line group and when the police looked like they were going to attack us we coalesced around Jackson and started chanting, “Give us space! Give us space!” Slowly, reluctantly the cops withdrew, and were soon redeployed to Federal Plaza to constrain the rally that was to take place following the march.

At the rally I was totally surprised when Jackson and his bodyguard pulled me onstage with them. I’d like to think it was done as a gesture of thanks for standing up to the cops, but for all I know, I might have just been a convenient and unwitting human shield. Before us stretched an undulating sea of faces and colorful banners, pulsating with the undercurrents of dissent, buffeted by the gathering winds of change. For an instant my soul surged with hope. There you are, I said. Where the hell have you all been hiding?

(Photos: Dan Simborg) 


I could not, however, avoid coming to the conclusion that the entire event was a huge waste of time and energy, and ultimately was an exercise in futility.  I made a point to sit down and calculate how much collective time went into this one ineffective day of protest that virtually no one but the participants knew about. All the meetings and conference calls, all the fliers and press releases, all the arguing, flame wars, and sheer expenditure of emotional energy. If that black hole of internecine bullshit wasn’t part of some plan to divide us, it had to be our single greatest gift to the opposition. We were undoubtedly our own worst enemy.

When I shared this opinion with others in the coalition, I was universally rebuked. A march and rally is a great way to energize the base, they would lecture me, sternly. It’s a great way to blow off steam. Sure, the march could have been bigger. All that means is that we need to make sure we get more in the next one.

The next one. You heard that mentioned quite a bit, in the way that Hippies used to talk about Dead shows. 

I suspended final judgment until such a time as I knew what a truly massive march was like, and what it could accomplish. We all were ostensibly fighting on the same side, yet I found it ironic that I was more annoyed with my political colleagues than I was with my political foes. But whatever our differences, it was undeniable that we were all trying to make the world a better place. I often overlooked that fundamental truth in the beginning, but could no longer ignore it when our common cause, and our common mark as radicals and outcasts, was burned into my memory forever through the sociopathic brutality of the Chicago Police.

~~~~

Endnotes:

  1. This was actually said by Cindy Sheehan after she was “arrested” on October 26, 2005 in front of the White House during a civil disobedience action. Unlike most of us who are dragged along the ground and tossed into an awaiting paddy wagon, Sheehan was gingerly picked up and carried fireman’s style by two police officers as she waved and guffawed for the media.
  2. This was the general breakdown in Chicago, but it varied from city to city across the country.
  3. ibid
  4. “The Chicago protest at a glance” by Jill Blackman, Chicago Tribune, November 7, 2002.
  5. The Official Robert’s Rules of Order Website.

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Exile Nation copyright © 2010 Charles Shaw. All rights reserved.

Charles Shaw's work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative PressReview, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guerrilla News Network,Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen's Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.

Charlesis the Director of the Exile Nation Unheard Voices documentary project, the Editor of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, and the Editor of the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitible Trust. He was Editorial Director of Conscious Enlightenment Publishing (Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Whole Life Times, and Seattle's Conscious Choice), the founder and publisher of Newtopia, head writer for the nationally syndicated radio show Reality Checks, Senior Staff Writer for The Next American City, and a Contributing Editor for Worldchanging.

A long-time activist and former official for the Green Party of the US, heis a native of Chicago who lives on the West Coast…for now.