Exile Nation: "The Summer of Resistance?"
The Summer of Resistance?
From the beginning of my involvement with the Green Party I had been slowly building a relationship with the national party headquartered in Washington D.C. I was really much more interested in working on national messaging campaigns and party organization than I was in local or state activity, so I asked the Illinois State Party to be appointed to the National Media Committee and spent much of the spring writing endless press releases and preparing for the GPUS’ national nominating convention which would take place in Milwaukee in June.
It had already been a big year for the Green Party. The December 2003 runoff election in the San Francisco Mayor’s race between Democrat Gavin Newsom and Green Matt Gonzalez achieved national exposure when Gonzalez, who, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was already the highest-elected Green in the nation, for a moment appeared likely to win and become the first Green Party mayor of any major American city. Although Newsom eventually defeated Gonzalez by 14,000 votes (54% to 47%), for him to accomplish this come-from-behind victory required the relentless stumping of Democrat heavyweights Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, and Jesse Jackson, to name a few.
In February of 2004, 27-year-old newly elected Green Party mayor Jason West of New Paltz, NY, a tiny college town in the Hudson River Valley, became only the second municipality to begin marrying same-sex couples. The first was San Francisco, under newly-elected Mayor Gavin Newsom. Within the Green Party it was openly acknowledged that Newsom cribbed this from Gonzalez’ platform in a brazen attempt to curry favor with Gonzalez’ voting base. Regardless of the intention, for one month the country erupted with equal marriage fever, and Jason West landed in People Magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” issue, probably the most favorable mainstream press the Green Party had ever received, much to their chagrin.
When the Illinois Green Party brought Jason to Chicago in May of 2004 to speak, we assumed he would pack the house and bring out every gay rights advocate from Milwaukee to Detroit. Instead, what we discovered was that nearly every group was “unable to attend” because Jason was a Green, and the gay rights crowd in Chicago ate from the trough of the Democratic Machine.
Chicago may be moderately progressive and gay friendly, but its politicians, and most likely the bulk of voters, were not ready for gay marriage. Despite dedicating their lives to their cause, and in some cases even naming their groups things like “Equal Marriage Now!,” most mainstream gay rights groups were so afraid of offending their Party masters that they quietly thanked us for thinking of them, and then stayed home.
This, of course, was not the first, or even the largest, dispute between the Greens and the Democrats. Their enmity was forged in the stolen election of 2000 when Green Party candidate Ralph Nader garnered nearly 3 million votes from Americans who were sick of the two-party system and the perceived lack of substantive difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Democrats shrieked that those 3 million votes belonged to them! Had Nader not run, Gore would surely have won by that exact margin!
To call their reasoning specious is to be kind. Even if every one of the 3 million Nader voters were disaffected Democrats, which they were not, there was a reason they voted for Nader. Most of it had to do with the fact that neither major party addressed the issues on which Nader campaigned: globalization, corporate control, the war on drugs, etc. People wanted change, and their votes reflected that. Beyond that, there was still the matter of the Supreme Court selecting the winner, a stark reality no one in the Democratic Party was willing to face.
The Democrats began the 2004 election season with a blanket denunciation of another Nader candidacy. This was the birth of the “Nader cost us 2000” myth, which was a calculated attempt to take advantage of the rancor Americans felt towards George W. Bush by laying blame at the feet of third parties. They hoped this would besmirch their reputations forever and destroy their membership base.
By the time the summer campaign season kicked into high gear an entire movement had grown up to kick Bush out of office, known aptly as the Anybody But Bush movement or “ABB.” It was not hard to understand the need or desire to oust the Moron from Midland. It was the “Anybody” part that gave some people trouble. For diehard Greens and Independents, exchanging Kerry for Bush was seen as nothing more than continuity of policy.
Peter Camejo was a prominent Green, long time activist, and member of the Socialist Worker’s Party who ran for President on their ticket in 1976. He was the Green Party candidate for Governor of California in 2002 and in the recall election in 2003, where he came in fourth in an absurdly large field of 135 candidates. He called himself a “Watermelon Green: green on the outside, red on the inside.”
In early 2004, in anticipation of the sideshow that a Green candidacy would create, Camejo published The Avocado Declaration, a statement of principles for the Green Party as it entered this fractious election season:
The Green Party is at a crossroads. The 2004 elections place before us a clear and unavoidable choice. On one side, we can continue on the path of political independence, building a party of, by and for the people by running our own campaign for President of the United States. The other choice is the well-trodden path of lesser-evil politics, sacrificing our own voice and independence to support whoever the Democrats nominate in order, we are told, to defeat Bush.
The difference is not over whether to "defeat Bush" -- understanding that to mean the program of corporate globalization and the wars and trampling of the Constitution that come with it -- but rather how to do it. We do not believe it is possible to defeat the "greater" evil by supporting a shamefaced version of the same evil. We believe it is precisely by openly and sharply confronting the two major parties that the policies of the corporate interests these parties represent can be set back and defeated.
Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign exposed a crisis of confidence in the two-party system. His 2.7 million votes marked the first time in modern history that millions voted for a more progressive and independent alternative. Now, after three years of capitulation by the Democratic Party to George Bush they are launching a pre-emptive strike against a 2004 Ralph Nader campaign or any Green Party challenge. Were the Greens right to run in 2000? Should we do the same in 2004? The Avocado Declaration based on an analysis of our two-party duopoly, and its history declares we were right and we must run.
Nader could have mounted a protest campaign a la Eugene McCarthy had he only won the backing of his base and his party. His plan was to build a large coalition of third parties and independents to suck away 10 million or more "anti-war" votes. Instead, hundreds of prominent Nader supporters from the 2000 campaign abandoned him, opting to write open letters urging him not to run. In many ways, the “Open Letter to Ralph Nader” became the literary meme of the year, as virtually every progressive leader with an opinion decided to air it publicly in that format. The most galling group were Greens for Kerry, who set about infiltrating Green Party locals around the country to malign any attempts to back Nader or field their own candidate.
Lingering disputes from the 2000 campaign caused Nader to break with the Green Party and run as an Independent but seek the Green’s endorsement. David Cobb, a Texas lawyer who served as counsel to the Green Party of the US, announced he was going to seek the party’s nomination. In the months leading up to the convention the party was split over whether to endorse Nader’s candidacy and throw their voting base his way, or support a Green candidate.
Heading into Milwaukee I had no idea who I was going to support. It seemed like the bulk of the Green voters as well as the three most prominent Greens, Matt Gonzalez, Jason West and Peter Camejo, were behind Nader.
Nader chose Camejo to be his running mate the week before the convention in an overture that was not lost on the Greens. David Cobb chose Maine activist and talk radio host Pat LaMarche. On the side of the Cobb/LaMarche ticket was Bay Area activist and founder of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin. Benjamin ran for California Senator on the Green Ticket in 2000, and was a backer of the 2000 Nader campaign, but she was one of the many progressive leaders who decided to back John Kerry, and her means of ensuring that was to use her considerable influence within the party to campaign for David Cobb.
As expected, the Convention was incendiary. It quickly appeared that the two largest Green Party states, California and New York, supported Nader. This meant that the majority of registered Green voters were backing Nader. The Party, however, wanted to apportion delegates differently. Instead of “one person, one vote” they wanted to give states equal weight. It immediately began a massive schism.
Peter Camejo gave the most rousing speech of the convention in support of Ralph Nader, imploring all Greens to keep in mind the vision of The Avocado Declaration. In a surprising show of party unity, he vowed to support Cobb if he were to be nominated. Medea Benjamin then made the case for the ABB crowd. In her address, she exhorted that George W. Bush and his Neoconservative administration were too dangerous to permit a third party candidate to “spoil” the election. At one point Nader called into the convention and thanked the Greens publicly for considering his endorsement.
When Cobb took the stage, his love for the party was evident even as his address took on the flair of a Baptist minister stirring the congregation. He took great pride in the years he spent building the Green Party. He talked about his humble roots in a Texas Gulf fishing family, and how he became a lawyer to fight for progressive causes. He spoke of his love and respect for Ralph Nader.
But echoing Benjamin, he too caterwauled that George W. Bush and his Neoconservative administration was too great a threat to the peace and stability of the world. He had concluded that the Green Party needed its own candidate, and while he would not endorse the Democratic candidate, he would instead not challenge Democrats in swing states and run a “party-building” campaign.
In the end the party voted to nominate Cobb, with a full third of the delegates voting “No Nominee” which was the method by which delegates could vote for Nader. In response, Nader’s faithful abandoned the Green Party and committed their valuable organizing energies to his Independent campaign.
At the convention I was nominated and voted onto the party’s Editorial Board and elected Co-Chairman of the Peace Action Committee, the party’s direct action organizing apparatus. This was a big responsibility. Neither of the major parties had an anti-war delegation, or voice, so in effect, we felt that we had to be that voice for the nation. Whatever formal opposition we put together would represent the only organized party resistance to the war. Perhaps it was grandiose, but it’s politics, and we were the perennial underdog always seeking our golden moment to rise to the occasion.
My first task was to coordinate a national Green Party presence at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Boston, and the Republican National Convention in New York City. It meant that I was going to be on the road for most of the summer. Because of this new responsibility, and how intimately I would now be working on behalf of the party, I thought it best, and felt compelled, to back Cobb instead of Nader, even though I much preferred Nader’s candidacy. I literally lost friends over this decision, and it would come back to haunt me over and over for the next year.
The media in attendance at the convention were only interested in one thing: whether the Greens would endorse Nader and thus pump a huge shot of viability directly into the veins of an independent coalition of anti-war voters. Once the Nader threat was considered neutralized, and the Greens were considered divided, the media responded with their usual alacrity and condescension. Whatever coverage we did garner focused on superficialities: that our convention goers did not wear ball gowns, that there were no balloons or champagne, that the odor of marijuana and patchouli permeated the hotel complex. Marginalized again, the Greens set about picking up the pieces from Milwaukee and carrying on with their mission, ever mindful of the fact that for a few days they were the focus of the world, and had a chance to make a historical statement. Instead, in the view of virtually everyone outside the party, they capitulated to the fearmongers, and sold out to their enemies.
When I got home from the Convention I told Edie everything that had happened, how accepted and at home I felt with the Greens, how much responsibility I had been given, and how I felt my life was about to change. She listened patiently as I blathered on about myself and my plans for the summer. When I finished, she looked at me, and a profound sadness hung on her face.
“It seems like you found your people,” she said. “That’s really all I ever wanted.”
A tear fell from her face and splashed on her clasped hands. Edie was a proud, stoic woman. It was rare that she would show her pain. I knew this was big. I knew exactly what was coming.
“You seem to be on your feet now. You’ve got work that means something to you. Your magazine is doing so well, and you’ve been good (meaning clean). I think it might be time for you to think about maybe getting your own place.”
Foolishly, I said, “but what about us?”
With grace and composure, Edie smiled. “You know there hasn’t been any ‘us’ in a long time. To be perfectly honest with you, Charles, the only reason we’ve been together so long is that I was afraid of what would happen to you if you tried to go out on your own again. It’s taken this long for you to get it together enough to be able to take care of yourself. I care about you too much to just abandon you, but there have been so many times that I have wanted to, and I think that we just need a break.”
I told her I knew it was time for me to finally step out on my own, but that I was scared. I was a thirty-four-year-old man and I hadn’t the slightest clue how to take care of myself. I was a textbook co-dependent. I had relied on the people in my life to support me and manage my affairs for so long that I had totally disempowered myself. I spent so many years living in crisis mode, simply reacting to mounting situations and never having time to learn or plan, that I'd started to build up a massive fear complex about my ability to manage my own affairs.
Because my credit had been destroyed, I was unable to rent or lease apartments or cars or get utilities or a phone. I was still dependent on a co-signer for all of these things. This, on top of the mountain of debt I inherited, on top of the mountain of debt I drove up myself, on top of my limited ability, due to my record, to find steady employment and thus regular income sufficient for all these needs, a sort of paralysis set in, and it quickly led to a resignation of sorts. I foisted this argument back on Edie, but she was too astute to fall for it anymore.
“You’re going to have to learn how to do the things you fear right now. The only way through this is for you to face it and find a way to make it work. You know I’ll always be here to help, and I’ll always love you and be your friend, but I can’t keep doing it for you, Charles. It’s time to take care of yourself.”
She paused, and I saw her sadness morph into fear.
“I’m not so sure its safe for you here anymore...after what happened. I live in terror of what might happen next.”
That night our dog Milhouse slept between us, as we had conveniently grown accustomed to over time, since he provided the perfect barrier to intimacy. I held on to him like I had never done before. The thought of not having this beautiful dog around me every day was excruciating. This little guy had taught me how to feel love again, how to care for something, how to let that deep burning blinding love back into a scarred and armored heart. He was the only one I let in, no human yet had penetrated that space, not even Edie, as much as I loved her. Letting him go felt like the hardest thing I had ever been asked to do.
I moved out within a few weeks and into an apartment on the West Side near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Western Avenue. To pay the bills I walked dogs and taught acting classes at a talent agency in the suburbs. The couple who owned the dog-walking business were around my age, and I told them about my drug convictions because every dog walker in Chicago has to be bonded. They were cool about it, and gave me the job, for which I was incredibly grateful. I managed to score the acting gig through my oldest friend, Steve Karras, who had taught there before me. Thankfully they didn’t run a background check. Through that agency I managed to score a beautiful place that was already furnished when a co-worker needed a roommate and didn’t want anyone else on the lease. Edie laughed at how easy it was for me find a place and get set up on my own. I considered it nothing short of a miracle.
Despite all that was going on in the activist world, the bulk of my energy for the last two years had been devoted to building Newtopia. In many ways, Newtopia is a far better record of my life and my journey through the world of radical politics and alternative media than any memoir I can bang out now. More than anything, it shows the evolution of my political consciousness, which is not entirely flattering since my learning curve was frighteningly steep; there was so much I had yet to learn, but more importantly, to unlearn. As a result, I now view most of my writing from that period with a harshly critical, yet appreciative eye. What I am most proud of is the spirit of exploration and experimentation that we fostered, the free nature of expression we developed, and the strong community that we built almost exclusively in cyberspace.
By summer 2004, we had an international readership averaging a healthy 20,000 or so readers every month. On any given day I could correspond with editors and contributors in every major American city plus Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Nigeria, India, Israel, France, Greece, and Japan. We had a steady stream of submissions, and were building relationships with new writers every month. We added city-specific bureaus in Chicago, Mumbai, London, Los Angeles, Lagos, and New York for independent reporting. We added an exclusive series on the Creative Economy by Tom Tresser, and the brilliant Intifada Diaries, a first-hand account of the occupation of Palestine by Henry Carse, with artwork by Marcus Reichert. We added a poetry collective, and regular art, film and literary sections. Slowly, the writers who had started with us found their voices and we began to have a kind of “ideological consistency” even though we didn’t have an ideology to point to beyond the original definitions for “newtopia” I had written.
All of this was done by volunteers who believed in the project.
And then, everything changed.
I had been receiving emails from a Kansas City man named Bill Douglas who was the founder of the 9/11 Visibility Project. He had been pitching me a feature on the 9/11 Truth movement. I was resistant. I didn’t quite know what to make of the claims I had been hearing. More importantly, the movement itself scared me. I was already terrified enough that most people thought I was crazy, the last thing I needed was to cement that opinion by publishing harebrained theories about 9/11. In hindsight, clearly my real fear was what I would find once I started looking.
Bill Douglas was politely relentless. He was always calm and pleasant whenever we corresponded, or spoke on the phone. Instead of giving me what I expected, which was some histrionic rant and accusations of Illuminati infiltration, he seemed to take the rejections as an opportunity to educate me. If I pull back and look at this relationship from a larger meta-level, I realize that Bill was one of the most important messengers I have ever met. It was more his method than his message that sold me. I was not surprised to learn he was a renowned Tai Chi instructor since calm centeredness radiated from the core of his being. He eventually convinced me to let him run an Op/Ed which he titled, “The Explosion of the 9/11 Truth Movement - The US Media’s Dirty Little Secret.”
Without debating the merits of Bill’s argument, suffice it to say I felt comfortable enough with what he wrote to publish it. It was well-researched and the tone was not at all shrill or insane like so many other early 9/11 Truth articles and videos I had seen. Bill’s piece asked pertinent questions which to this day remain unanswered, and pointed out disturbing facts that were not included in the official 9/11 report. By the standards of today’s 9/11 Truther, the piece is primitive, since there was not nearly as much known back then as there is today, and the movement hadn’t yet really come alive. But at the time, it was the biggest story we had ever published. It set a record that held for the remainder of the life of the magazine.
300,000 people read Bill’s Op/Ed, and our average monthly traffic doubled after that issue. In many ways both positive and negative, it vaulted Newtopia into an entirely new category. So many more people knew about us because of that one story, and we also suffered our fair share of guilt by association since we had come out of the closet on a taboo topic (even though we offered no opinion of our own). This opened the doors to criticism from every nutcase from here to Poughkeepsie, half calling me crazy for even thinking the official story was false, the other half calling me a “gatekeeper” for not going deep enough. The venom and vitriol I received merely for publishing an opinion piece that asked questions about the attacks was dismaying, but expected. It was the first time I understood the depth of opinions on the subject, and instead of running me off, it made me consider my obligation as an alternative journalist more deeply, to give voice to the voiceless.
Having the courage to step out like that went a long way towards rebuilding my confidence and calming the raging cognitive dissonance I had been suffering since the 9/11 attacks. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t believe the truth, it was simply that I was too afraid to learn it. Once I started, there was no turning back, I would be forever changed, as would the world around me. I could never go back to those days when I looked at my country through a halcyon haze of myth and propaganda and believed that we were the brightest beacon of hope and opportunity on God’s Sweet Earth. Once I stepped foot into that realm, it meant that I would have to begin the process of questioning everything I had ever been taught or told or led to believe. It would essentially mean starting over again. But wasn’t that what I was doing already?
I had set into motion the process of deconstructing the mythologies that had governed my life. The attacks themselves were the first blow to these constructed realities, as they shattered the Myth of Security, while the assault by the Chicago police, and the subsequent murder of May Molina, did much to erode whatever was left, along with any lingering nodes of trust in the system I may have retained.
Now that I had begun to look into the 9/11 attacks, I had no idea the endless rabbit hole I was staring down. Before I could fling myself into it, however, I had to cross through Boston and New York, and the hills of Maine, and through another series of painful myths I still clung to. They too would end up pulverized and lying in my lap before long.
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 Unheard Voices 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 Sainsbury/Tedworth Charitible Trusts. 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.