Will the Hip Hop Generation Go Green?

Election '04
Following is an excerpt from Chapter 6: The Future of Political Parties from Farai Chideya's new book "Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters," (Soft Skull, 2004).

Third parties have generally failed to attract large numbers of voters of color, including the emerging hip hop generation political movement. The broad 18-to-35 year-old cohort of hip hop generation voters is looking for real representation. The third party movement is looking for new constituents and fresh ideas. Will these two movements connect?

Yes, say urban third party advocates, who are beginning to reach out to new constituencies like working-class African-Americans. In April 2004, a group of African-Americans hosted a forum called "Why We Joined the Green Party" in an Oakland church hall. The room was filled not just with African-Americans but local citizens of all races, some of them party members and activists, others distinctly skeptical.

Three party advocates, Donna Warren, Henry Clark, and Wilson Riles, told listeners why they'd joined the Greens. "I'm talking to my Black brothers and sisters. Go back to your communities and tell them the infrastructure is already in place if we want to have a voice," said Warren, a former Green Party candidate for California's lieutenant governor. "Join the Green Party. They will not do what the Democrats do to Black people. They [Democrats] want our votes but not our voice."

All three of the candidates tried to convince the audience that the Green Party's platform jibed with African-American interests. The Greens are the only party to support reparations for slavery, they said. The Greens favor education, not incarceration. And Riles spoke about changing California laws that have undermined public financing for schools and services, like Proposition 13. He favors reforming the law so that corporations, whose share of the tax burden has shrunk, pay their share. You'd think that reform of the criminal justice system would be an easy win for the Green Party with African-Americans. But this produced the biggest controversy of the night. During the question and answer period, a coiffed and poised woman raised her hand. LaDonna Williams said that she and her six children had "been through it, homelessness, you name it." She believed in instilling her children with a strong sense of discipline – and disagreed with the idea of eliminating California's "three strikes" law, which gives long sentences to anyone who commits three felonies. Oakland's seen more than its share of addiction and drug-related crime, especially related to crack cocaine. Even though Williams agreed that the sentences are unfair, she was afraid that reducing the "three strikes" penalties would remove a deterrent to drug use and crime. "I tell my kids they are accountable for their actions," she emphasized.

Warren replied that she understood drugs: her thirty one year-old son, a crack addict, had been murdered. "I want people to be accountable," Warren said, "but accountable to the truth. What keeps people away from drugs? Good schools, jobs, having an opportunity to succeed in this society. There's no options in our community," she said. Then she added, "I held my child accountable, but he got addicted to crack cocaine, and he's dead."

Finally another person in the audience stepped in. The tall young man had a tousled afro and a quiet but authoritative voice. "There isn't going to be a strategy for sentencing youth that prevents crime," he said. "We're focused on jail and that has never worked in America. If you look at the rest of the world, you see they know that." Instead, the government should focus on preventing crime by providing educational and job opportunities.

His name is Andrew Williams, and he told me he'd joined the Green Party right before the 2000 election, as he turned eighteen years old. "Bush was, well, Bush, and I wasn't feeling Gore," he said. Williams wanted to join a party he believed in, and he chose the Greens. Voting third-party doesn't run in his family, either. He laughed when I asked if his parents had prompted his choice. "No," he said, "I fight with my family about politics all the time."

I followed up with LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams (no relation) after the meeting. They're both black. They're both savvy and politically aware. And they each have very different takes on what American politics means to them.

For LaDonna Williams, deciding to vote in the 2004 election was not an easy choice. As a Jehovah's Witness, LaDonna's faith advocates against voting. "The answer to our problems lies with God," she says. And when God decides, "we're going to see world peace. ... But until then, you have to live life." For LaDonna, given the current political situation, that means choosing to vote. She is particularly troubled by America under the Bush Administration. "I think President Bush is doing such a horrendous job," she says. "He just outright lies and the people support it. And going to war. ... You want to protect our freedom of speech and the rights we have, but does that mean we violate everyone else's rights?"

"We talk about the weapons of mass destruction," LaDonna continues. "If you look over in Livermore [a nuclear weapons research facility in California], they've stored this radioactive stuff and they're trying to expand it more so they can build more bombs. We're the ones having the weapons of mass destruction here. It's so hypocritical."

LaDonna's politics are rooted in her love for her family. She wants a politics that reflects "family values," secures the finances of working Americans, has a strong and fair criminal justice program and delivers educational opportunity. She's hammered the importance of education home to her children, who range in age from twenty-five to just four. When her twenty-two year old was recruited to play baseball out of high school, she urged him to go to college. He's still hoping to play pro ball, but he's also finishing up a degree in environmental engineering.

So why did she show up at a Green Party meeting? "I'm not pleased with the Democratic Party," LaDonna says. "They really went out of their way to hush up Al Sharpton. With the debates, they really attempted to hush him up and Carol Moseley Braun. I think that was very disrespectful. If the Democratic Party is going to take it to the next level, they need to put a black person in a presidential or vice presidential position." But she doesn't believe just anyone should get the slot. She's holding out for a black leader with strong morals and good ideas. In the meantime, she likes Kerry, "more than [she liked] Dean, and definitely more than Bush." She still hasn't decided whom she'll vote for in 2004, but it probably won't be a Green Party candidate; she wasn't impressed with the answers she got on criminal justice at the community forum.

Andrew Williams, on the other hand, is committed to the Green Party as a vehicle for political change. It's just one part of his larger view of how to make change happen. When I reached him by telephone, he was in the middle of a "Stop Clear Channel" hip hop tour with musicians from an organization he founded, The Collectiv. The Oakland-based organization aims to connect like-minded musicians and activists, empowering the hip hop community through education and entrepreneurship. Their campaign against the entertainment industry giant, which owns over 1,200 radio stations plus music venues and television stations, centers on the way they've cut out local radio programming, blocked independent music promoters and even retaliated against top-selling bands by not playing their songs when the bands did promotions with other stations. Clear Channel has made news as part of the ongoing debate over the Federal Communications Commission and media ownership rules. And for organizations like Andrew's, focusing on the politics of music is a great way to get young voters engaged.

At the age of twenty-two, Andrew already has a finely-tuned political sensibility and a willingness to commit his own time and energy for social change. He is going to conduct a voter registration drive, but he admits he may not be that successful at convincing people to vote. "I have a hard time arguing with my friends when they say, dude, that's [voting is] a joke."

Yet Andrew is committed to voting as a way to "say your piece" and get a piece of the political action. He compares the way politicians target voters to the way advertisers and corporations target consumers. Companies spend a lot of money convincing people who already buy products to switch their brand loyalty. Politicians spend a lot of money convincing people who already vote to vote for them. As Andrew says bluntly, "If you didn't vote last time, they [politicians] don't give a fuck what you want."

Andrew votes Green because he sees both major parties as beholden to the same corporate interests. "There will always be a minority that have a vested interest and try to protect that interest," he says, "And there's always going to be a majority that fight against that interest." The problem is that that majority is fragmented, including many of the Americans who don't vote. For the record, Andrew is convinced that "most Democrats are Greens waiting for the Green Party to get to the point where they can make that decision [i.e., vote Green] and not make it feel reckless." He believes that by voting for a third-party now, he paves the way for more Americans to take them seriously. "God willing," he says, "I'm going to be living through a lot of elections. I don't want to make a decision [with my vote] that won't make long-term change." Still, he understands the position of older members of his family, who see a critical need to vote Democratic now, to, for example, ensure a more progressive Supreme Court. The most important thing is to make a choice on election day. "If nobody voted, it would be terrible," he says. "The cats who are doing what they're doing would be able to say, see, you wanted it that way. I need to say my piece. I need to be able to say fuck that: that's not what I wanted."

LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams reflect both the opportunities and hurdles for third parties wanting to reach new constituencies. LaDonna Williams is reflective of the social conservatism of many working-class African-Americans, which doesn't mesh easily with some more liberal third-party politics. The fact that she showed up to a community forum like this one – and spoke out about her needs and views – is a heartening reminder that Americans are still looking for new ways to participate in our democracy. And the fact that a member of the hip hop generation like Andrew Williams is committed to a third party highlights the changing face of politics – and the possibility that the growing hip hop generation activist movement and the third-party movement could join forces. All across America, individuals like LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams are exercising sheer raw will, transforming the nation's calcified political system into something that serves them and their communities better. If more people take a similar hands-on attitude towards politics, the question would not be whether our system will change for the better, but how soon.

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