Green in the Face

By Cara Jepsen

The scene outside the UIC Pavilion on the night of the Ralph Nader “super rally” is not unlike the one I encountered here a dozen years ago when the Grateful Dead were in town. White people with dreadlocks. Drumming. People walking zombielike in circles, asking for extra tickets. Others sitting on the ground in little groups. Only the devil sticks are missing.

When I get to the press booth–a small, carpeted box containing just five chairs–Phil Donahue is onstage, in front of some rent-a-plants and a Nader banner that does not mention his Green Party running mate, Native American activist and Harvard-educated economist Winona LaDuke (who couldn’t make it to the rally). Donahue, who still has an impressive head of white hair, nicely set off by a red tie, says, “Ralph and Winona are going to rock this nation!” The people on the floor cheer and wave little signs that say “Let Ralph Debate.”

The auditorium, with a capacity of 10,300, is full except for the nosebleed seats on either side of the stage and a couple of VIP rows on the main floor. Almost everyone is young and white. There are also a lot of old hippies and a smattering of people of color. They’ve paid $7 or $10 a head to get in. Nader has sold out similar rallies in Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis. The next stop is Madison Square Garden.

Near the back of the auditorium a row of booths–most representing small local Green groups–do brisk business selling buttons and T-shirts (“Bush and Gore Make Me Want to RALPH”). Others register voters, sell LaDuke’s books, or collect signatures for Peace Action, the Colombia Support Network, Critical Mass, and the Stop the Death Penalty/Free Mumia campaign. There are signs everywhere: “Where’s Pacifica Radio?,” “Bike Lanes for Boystown,” “Instant Runoff Voting,” “Big $ + Closed Debate = Stolen Democracy,” and “Winona ‘No Nukes’ LaDuke.”

For weeks I’ve been getting E-mail missives–sometimes hourly–from the local Green Party detailing its battle to get Nader on the state ballot. Arranging the rally was another coup for the coalition of local Greens.

The woman on my left asks if I have a list of speakers. I don’t, but I name the all-male lineup–Donahue, Studs Terkel, John Anderson, Eddie Vedder, Michael Moore, Nader. She looks at me blankly. Behind her are some TV cameras and their crews. They have chairs. To my right, a woman types on a laptop, her chair turned away from the proceedings. I’m sitting on the floor. The two best seats are occupied by a pair of young guys with short black hair and wrinkled white oxford shirts. They hang over the railing, chins in hands, a single tape recorder set between them. They remain this way throughout the evening. I decide they must be Medill students.

Studs Terkel ambles onstage. He too has good white hair and a red tie. He explains that the Republican Party was formed as a third party over 140 years ago. His question, “Who looks more like Lincoln? Nader or Gore or Bush?,” is met with much applause.

Donahue returns and extols the virtues of the volunteers who have managed to get Nader on the ballot in 44 states. He talks about an upcoming Green Party TV campaign. Then he introduces a little curly-haired man in a red tie, who bounces onto the stage. “You do know who we are, don’t you?” the man asks. Stunned silence. “We are the resistance!” he says, and everyone applauds and waves their signs.

Then the mood changes. The man is, it turns out, raising money. “Is there one person here who will help fuel Ralph Nader’s sprint to the finish for $1,000?” He looks out at the crowd expectantly. After a long pause, a man in the balcony stands and is applauded. Two others follow his lead. “You can put it on a credit card,” the man says. “Eleven people in Boston gave $1,000.” No one else gets up.

“What has Ralph Nader ever done for you for $500?” he asks. Silence. “How many lives have been saved by air bags and seat belts? How many pensions has he saved? How many people’s health insurance has he saved?” Applause. Some people stand, and a phalanx of volunteers moves through the aisles, waving cardboard boxes with slits in the top. The little man offers the Ralph Nader Reader–signed–for a $200 donation. The place starts to stink of a public radio fund-raiser, and I wonder if they have any tote bags.

A deep voice from offstage interrupts his spiel. “It’s Ralph. Please stop,” and the little man complies. Someone on stilts, dressed in a robot outfit made entirely of red plastic laundry detergent bottles moves awkwardly through the audience, followed by several zigzagging human ferns. The volunteers pass the boxes down the rows, like in church, and people put cash, credit card vouchers, and volunteer forms inside. Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blasts through the speakers. Next to me, the laptop reporter yells into her cell phone. “I just want to know how long it needs to be. What? I can’t hear you!”

The lights go down everywhere but inside the press box, and 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson–more white hair, another red tie–takes the podium. “I debated Ronald Reagan and rose to 15 percent in the polls,” he booms. “Then I was shut out of the final debate. The same thing happened to Ross Perot.” He talks about runoff voting, cumulative voting, and proportional representation, and then plugs the World Federalist Association, which he heads.

A tieless Michael Moore, with his trademark cap and tennis shoes, takes the mike. Everyone stands and cheers when he says, “When you escape from Flint, you always hope you’ll end up in Chicago.” He introduces Pearl Jam singer (and anti-Ticketmaster Don Quixote) Eddie Vedder as “someone who has stood up for what he believes in, regardless of the consequences.” The diminutive Vedder carries an acoustic guitar (no tie for him either), and next to Moore he looks like a toy. He takes a seat far stage right and mumbles his thanks to Ralph and the Green Party “for giving people something to believe in.” He plays two songs, the second of which is Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”–“played with permission of the author.” The young journalist next to me applauds at the end.

Vedder’s mother is introduced, having come “all the way from San Diego.” There’s a mass exodus to the bathroom.

Moore, whose decibel level makes me wonder where the Greens stand on noise pollution, points out that there are no differences between Gore and Bush on such issues as the death penalty, NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and universal health care. He urges people “not to vote for second best.” He’s inspiring when he calls the Democrats “prochoice Republicans” and reminds the throng that when Gore was in the Senate he voted to confirm “the most rabid antichoice Supreme Court justice there is,” Antonin Scalia.

Then Moore starts to dissect the conventional wisdom that Nader can’t win. “Who started it?” he asks. “You media people over there!” he yells, pointing to our brightly lit booth. Everyone scowls and boos, looking up at us. I hang my head. The laptop reporter still faces away, her tape recorder pressed to her ear.

“What if Rosa Parks at the front of the bus had said, ‘I can’t win’?” Moore continues. “What if she’d said, ‘It’s just me on the bus; I can’t win’?”

Moore finally gets around to introducing Nader (yet another red tie), who takes the stage to a standing ovation. Red, white, and blue confetti falls as he takes his place and two young, white security guys in suits plant themselves behind him, hands folded over the family jewels. The laptop reporter finally turns around and fumbles with a cord. I sneak a look at her lead: “Ralph Nader and his supporters aren’t going away quietly.” I wonder where it is they’re supposed to be headed.

Nader gives props to the previous speakers and complains about “one political party with two heads.” Then he begins his speech, touching on, among other things, corporate crime, law enforcement, environmental racism, payday loans, bank redlining, universal health insurance, avaricious HMO executives, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, corporate consolidation, civic education, lobbyists, PACs, Republocrats, the military budget, contract farming, the downtrodden of the world, the plight of the farmer, education, the death penalty, Governor Ryan’s moratorium on executions, drug companies, a long-ago appearance on a talk show with the Jackson 5, the evening news, corporate commercial culture, the CEOs of the 500 richest corporations, Los Angeles housing projects, harassment of the homeless, corporate-run prisons, the IMF, the World Bank, the drug companies, what’s wrong with the media, and “the creeping omnipotence of the WTO.”

The booth is stiflingly hot. The press pass around my neck–held there by an environmentally friendly piece of twine–begins to itch. Laptop reporter stands, looks at her watch, glances at Nader, folds her arms, and frowns.

Nader’s bodyguards scan the crowd as he speaks, and the one on the right sways just a bit. People start to leave. A thin teenager in a crew cut and T-shirt helps a stooped old man in a fedora down the aisle. Then the kid stops for a minute, listening.

Nader continues, hitting on serf farmers, industrial hemp, and trade union opportunities. “By now you should have an idea of what the Green Party platform is all about,” he says. Then he recaps everything he just said and calls for everyone in the audience to get 200-odd friends to vote for him, so he can win Illinois. Laptop finishes and sends her story.

Those that remain–about three-fourths the original crowd–applaud heartily when Nader finishes. Many head toward the vending areas on the way out, and I hide my press pass before joining them. As the place empties I notice that the floors are covered with a thick mat of Nader signs and flyers for progressive political causes. I hope it will all be recycled.

The next day the Tribune, which probably wouldn’t mind Nader siphoning some votes away from Gore, carries an above-the-fold photo and cover story on the event, calling it “part pep rally, part talk show, part revival and part rave.” The Sun-Times buries it on page 32, no picture. I log on and there are E-mails from the Greens: congratulations on the rally, a call for volunteers, excitement about the Tribune article, and announcements about lawn signs and upcoming meetings. There’s also a copy of a letter sent by two Green physicians to the Tribune, complaining bitterly about the media coverage of Nader. They probably won’t like this article either.