Jill Stein’s presidential run means nothing but trouble, according to most pundits and politicos. It’s a “fairy tale campaign,” goes the popular media narrative—an annoying speed bump in Hillary’s White House coronation, or perhaps a Ralph Nader-like spoiler that could spell President Trump.
“I hear this five times a day from the media,” Stein told a group of Green Party supporters last week during a stop in Chicago. “We’re told resistance is futile. Why don’t I just be quiet and go home? What could you be thinking? How do you dare challenge business as usual? To which I say, ‘And who are these political pundits and media talking heads telling people to be good little boys and girls and take our marching orders from the Democratic and Republican Parties?’ Forget the lesser evil; fight for the greater good like our lives depend on it.”
Green Party vice presidential candidate Ajamu Baraka agrees that he and Stein are willing to cause a stir in this election. “Hanging with Dr. Stein can sometimes get you in trouble,” Baraka said in front of the audience of hundreds packing Preston Bradley Hall in Uptown on September 8. “But we like that kind of trouble.”
The crowd roared at Baraka’s sly reference to an incident earlier in the week, when he and Stein joined a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Things had taken a violent turn a couple days prior as workers reportedly maced and used attack dogs against members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and climate activists who’d been attempting to block the construction of the 1,100-mile oil pipeline. As a show of solidarity with the protesters, Stein spray-painted i approve this message on a bulldozer. That act of defiance prompted a North Dakota county sheriff to announce he was filing charges against Stein for trespassing and vandalism.
Getting slapped with an arrest warrant for tagging an oil company’s equipment is possibly the most punk-rock move for a presidential candidate since Eugene Debs campaigned from prison a century ago—though not likely one to win many votes. (Can you imagine Hillary going all Banksy on Trump Tower?) But making calculated, low-risk decisions designed to appeal to the largest number of people in order to win the election isn’t the the Stein-Baraka camp’s goal.
“Some people asked why we were in North Dakota protesting,” Baraka said. “It’s because this isn’t just a political campaign, it’s about standing shoulder to shoulder with those standing up against oppression.”
As if to double down on that point, the campaign’s day in Chicago mostly eschewed the city’s concentrated epicenters of power and money for neighborhoods like Uptown and Austin. I half suspected the campaign intentionally turned off the air-conditioning in musty Preston Bradley Hall to make the venue feel even more spartan. Supporters used “Jill Stein 2016” signs as makeshift fans to cut through the humidity.
The heat was only slightly less oppressive earlier in the day, during the Stein campaign’s midafternoon “reality tour” of Austin—an unfortunate phrase used in a press release to describe a short walk through several blocks of the beleaguered neighborhood on the city’s west side. Reporters were asked to join Stein’s stroll, where the Highland Park native engaged in unscripted conversations with residents she encountered. Locals looked on bewildered at the sight of a grandmotherly white woman meandering through the residential streets of the predominantly African-American neighborhood near Columbus Park. “Come meet Jill Stein,” a staffer announced loudly, “candidate for president of the United States!”
A twentysomething man in a Minnesota Gophers jersey walking out of his apartment exchanged an awkward handshake with Stein and muttered something about “just heading to the store.” A few minutes later, a trio of teens strolled up and took selfies with Stein in the background. A man in a white T-shirt offered a warning: “It’s not safe out here, there’s people dying everyday,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t want to come outside and take my kids to school.”
“Well, that’s why we’re out here,” Stein responded. “Just like Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ and these communities are hurting. I’m here to be here and say the conversation needs to be here focused on this crisis, this crisis in the streets.”
A couple of local residents said they’d vote for Stein simply because she was willing to visit a neighborhood most politicians seem to studiously avoid. “You come out to the hood, you got my vote, Jill!” one resident shouted.
After 40 minutes or so, the group converged on a spot near the corner of Randolph and Central, in front of shuttered Emmet Elementary School. Stein’s campaign picked one of the 50 CPS schools closed in 2013 as the backdrop for a press conference meant to illustrate her point about how the powers that be had failed communities like Austin. Stein called for the resignation of Rahm Emanuel for his handling of the Laquan McDonald case and made a plea “for the end of the war on black and brown people.”
Most of the dozen or so members of the Chicago media that attended seemed less interested in talking about inadequately funded schools than the scandalous nature of the warrant for her arrest in North Dakota or the role she was playing in the horse race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “Is there any chance,” asked one broadcaster, “you could turn the blue state of Illinois green?”
It was a stupid question. The answer, of course, is no. Jill Stein won’t win Illinois or get within spitting distance of becoming our next president, even if—as Stein herself noted several times—she’s running against two of the least-popular candidates in history. America’s political power is simply too entrenched within the Democratic and Republican Parties, despite the upset both the Trump and Sanders campaigns dealt political elites during this election cycle—and that’s even in the most mundane of ways.
On my way home from the Green Party rally, I noticed 7-Eleven is once again conducting coffee-cup presidential polling, selling cups emblazoned with “The Republican” or “The Democrat.” (There’s also a cup for undecideds, the purple “Speak Up” cup.) It’s impossible to compete with that kind of gen-pop PR even if you’ve got all the spray paint in the world to make your mark.
But that doesn’t mean it’s foolish to try. When you equate politics with election results, as the mass media tends to do, it can be difficult to see the value in a third-party candidate. For the pundits, it’s not about advancing a set of ideas and principles with the goal of turning them into policy, but something like sports: one person wins, another loses—and if you can’t go big, go home. That makes sense if you’re interested in ratings; lawmaking is tedious, excruciating stuff, a competition is not.
Third parties don’t get that glory. But they’ve had an essential presence in American life, even if it hasn’t translated to the presence of actual bodies sitting in the seats of elected power. They’ve forced issues once seen as too radical or controversial for the major parties to address, such as the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. Debs, a presidential candidate even more unpopular with the media than Stein is today (an editorial in the New York Times once described him as “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race”), was instrumental in the labor movement on the part of the American left that helped spur such protections as child labor laws and the 40-hour workweek, yet he never earned more than 6 percent of the vote for president.
Sanders, a third-party candidate in Democratic sheep’s clothing, ultimately lost to Clinton but nudged the conversation on many political issues to the left. To a lesser degree, Stein is doing the same. Certainly, she’s an imperfect vessel with wrongheaded views about vaccinations and GMOs, and she struggles at times to articulate her positions (I shuddered when she kept referring to marginalized people and communities as being “thrown under the bus” by the government). But her principled stands on issues like climate change, foreign wars, education, mass incarceration, and racial justice deserve more than to be laughed off as the stuff of fairy tales.
“I believe if you can get some percentage and push the issues, the major parties will have to take a look at the platforms,” said Jonathan Todd, a lifelong Austin resident who shook hands and spoke with Stein after the press conference. “That’s the only way we can get change.” The status quo won’t much help Austin, a place so far unaffected by who sits in the White House.
“It’s the same thing every day,” said Todd as the media event wrapped up. “By five o’clock, they’ll be selling dope and shooting out here. Ain’t shit going to change, because there’s a big, big market in the misery of people.”
So why not a little trouble?