Ajamu Baraka is tired of the “lesser of two evils” argument frequently invoked during this presidential election to encourage support for Hillary Clinton as the only true alternative to Donald Trump. The Green Party vice presidential nominee sees the Democratic presidential nominee not as an antidote to Trumpism, but as a partial cause of it—a warmongering, corporate, right-winger who serves the “liberal bourgeoisie” instead of ordinary working people. He saves his harshest words, however, for Barack Obama, whom he calls a “political hack” and a “moral disaster.”
Bold statements like these have generated a few diffuse headlines, but media attention for Baraka and his running mate, Jill Stein, has been nearly nonexistent in a raucous campaign season in which the two major-party candidates—especially Trump—have sucked all the air out of the proverbial room. As a result, Baraka remains a mystery to most mainstream voters.
For the last several decades, the 63-year-old Chicago native has worked as a human rights activist and a grassroots organizer, mostly in Atlanta. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he’s an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank.
Baraka sat down with the Reader at the Green Party’s local headquarters in Wicker Park to talk about how his Chicago upbringing shaped his politics and why he thinks voting for Democrats like Emanuel, Obama, and Clinton is a terrible idea.
Tell me about growing up on the south side.
The part that was probably most significant for me was when I lived on 43rd and Berkeley. We were living in a building that was basically a tent in a slum. We had to live in fear of fires because the buildings were so close together, and they used to jerry-rig the gas lines. So that was really sort of a devastating experience for me.
How did those experiences in Chicago shape your politics?
I had a chance to get to understand racial discrimination, but also the complications of class. That helped to create the kind of political perspective that was a foundation for me, and helped me realize that while racial discrimination and oppression is really important, it didn’t tell the whole story. One had to have a class perspective as well.
What do you think of the way Trump has used Chicago to talk about race and violence?
Well, it’s typical. Issues of race, of connecting race to violence, is something many of these opportunistic politicians have used for quite some time, because it resonates. What is sad, though, is that you know it not only resonates with white voters, but also with black voters too. And what we see as part of that conversation, coming from both the right and left, is a suggestion that the only way the issue of violence can be dealt with is if there was some intervention on the part of the state.
I’m not sure what the interventions are supposed to do. Do we want to militarize the communities? Bring in the National Guard? Maybe search house to house and take all the guns out? So it’s a very dangerous conversation, you see, around this issue of violence.
It’s also interesting because Trump’s solution to fixing Chicago is “law and order” and implementing stop and frisk. But Rahm’s solution isn’t that different—he’s hiring 1,000 more cops.
Exactly. I mean, honestly, I didn’t know that stop and frisk stopped in Chicago. When I was growing up that was like normal procedure. You stand on the corner when you’re a young, black man, and the police would pull up and say, “Assume the position,” and you’d go and get on the wall.
Democrats calling for a thousand new police—that’s an incredible investment. As opposed to dealing with some of the real issues that undermine this violence, like the closure of schools. You can come up with all kinds of money for repression, but you claim there’s not money there for funding for the public education process? It’s backwards, but it also exposes the corruption of both of these parties, and in particular the Democrats.
What are your thoughts on the Emanuel administration as a whole?
I don’t get excited about this administration, because I grew up under Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. To me, it’s a continuation of the same politics as usual in Chicago. Rahm is winning elections, hook and crook, and this is what you get when you allow for these crooked, crooked Democratic politicians to basically control things. If people are concerned about the Democratic establishment, you have to organize yourself and throw them out.
“Neoliberal” is a word you and other critics on the left increasingly use to describe Rahm, Hillary, and the corporate Democratic establishment. Do you think a term like this is helpful in describing what you see as the problem?
I do, because when we examine and expose the class politics of the Democrats, it can only assist us in building an opposition. We talk about the 1 percent all the time, and billionaires. We’ve got to help people understand: Both the Republicans and the Democrats are supporters of the 1 percent. They’re just two wings of the same bird.
But what I find really interesting in 2016 is that those members of the ruling elite that support the Republicans have abandoned the Republicans and are now coalescing with the Democrats. You’re seeing a new political realignment taking place. When Donald Trump says he’s going to transform the Republican party into a workers’ party [laughs], that’s a real concern for many of these elites, you know? And so they’re finding themselves uncomfortable with remaining in the Republican party.
So where does that then leave the rest of us? The line seems to be that we have no other choice but to align ourselves with this new right in the Democratic Party. You see these arguments that we need to defeat Trump, we get Hillary elected, and then we can push Hillary to the left—that’s absolute BS. Ask yourself a very simple question: How much pushing did you do under Barack Obama? The Hillary Clinton administration would be no more than an extension of the Barack Obama administration—the same kind of neoliberal, trickle-down economics, the same politics. And what is it you do? You went to sleep for eight years.
I expect the same thing under a Clinton administration. And I don’t believe that progressive politics can survive another eight years of demobilization, disengagement, and disempowerment.
How would you describe Obama’s presidency and what he’s done for progressive politics?
I think he’s been a political and moral disaster. Here was a young man who had the opportunity to be a great president. The country was looking for real change, they’re looking for some liberal reforms that could’ve been enacted. But Barack Obama turned out to be just another political hack. And he spent more time and energy protecting the interests of the liberal bourgeoisie than enacting, or attempting to enact, progressive policies that would address the real needs of working- and middle-class people in this country—his expansion of militarism, his policies of invading Iraq, his inability to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, giving a green light and supporting the attack on Libya, telling the intelligence agencies to basically destabilize Syria.
And it’s unfortunate, because it didn’t have to be like this. They had a opportunity to take this country in a new direction, but they’re more beholden to the interests of the 1 percent—the fantasy of everlasting U.S. global hegemony—and as a consequence, they have blundered their way into a situation where there is a real legitimacy crisis in this country. And you open up the door to more dangerous elements in the form of Trumpism.
I’m sure this is the question that you usually get—about taking votes away from Hillary, and what would happen if Trump wins by a small margin, and the Green Party gets 5 percent of the vote. I mean, there’s the whole Ralph Nader comparison. How do you deal with that question?
I say that if you are afraid of Donald Trump, if you are afraid of democracy, if you are looking for the protective comfort of the Democratic Party, then support the Democrats. But if you believe in democracy, if you believe in possibility of a new future in this country, if you believe that people have the ability to transform themselves and their conditions, if you are for a new kind of society, and a more peaceful foreign policy, if you believe in the possibility of racial justice, if you believe in the possibility of us living in harmony among ourselves and globally, then you have the responsibility to express that belief in your vote.
So I say, don’t succumb to that kind of unprincipled position that you have to support the lesser of two evils. You’re still supporting evil. v