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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Overgrow the Government

"Grandpa" Al Lewis Runs for Governor of New York

by Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens

"We don't inherit the world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our kids." With those words in late August, Grandpa Al Lewis accepted the Green Party nomination for Governor of New York.

After five weeks of intense activity the Green Party is on the ballot in the state of New York! Two hundred and forty Greens submitted petitions, amounting to some 33,010 signatures, to the Board of Elections in Albany-6,000 more than we were able to accumulate for Ralph Nader two years ago. And we got them in a week early.

When the marshals and sheriffs would leave, we'd break the lock and move the furniture back inside.

Our candidates all come from the rank-and-file of ecological and social justice movements-no honchos need apply. Johann Moore for Attorney General; Howie Hawkins for Comptroller; Dr. Alice Green for Lt. Governor; Joel Kovel for US Senate; and ... drumroll please ... Al Lewis-that's right, "Grandpa Munster" himself-for Governor.

I first met Grandpa in 1970 in New Haven, at the Free Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins protests. Bobby and Erica, leaders of the Black Panther Party, were on trial for their lives and 20,000 demonstrators waged a tow-day rally and, at night, pitched battle against the police and unsheathed bayonets of the National Guard. I was 21 and one of three SUNY Stony Brook reps on the coordinating committee organizing what would become, following the murder of four students at Kent State a few days later, the largest student strike in US history. We were writing up our three national demands when I saw Al in the doorway at Yale. He wasn't a speaker there, just one of the crowd. Al just winked as he walked past.

I've seen Al at many demos since. Black Panther support demos. Free Mumia Abu-Jamal demos. Anti-war marches. Always, just one of us peons. Just there. Putting his body where his mouth was. Like the rest of us.

The man has put in his dues for 88 years; he is still as sharp as a nail in the coffin of capitalism. Al Lewis was born in 1910 in NY State and raised by his mom, an immigrant sweatshop worker, in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Grandpa has never forgotten his roots. "Brownsville was the largest Jewish ghetto in America," he recalls. "We all were very poor. But we stood together when people were evicted. When the marshals and sheriffs would leave, we'd break the lock and move the furniture back inside. Back then, we didn't let people live in the street."

Within the Greens, his nomination has stirred up a bit of controversy, some of it from a small number of upstate members who claim that Al is "too Jewish" for them to organize their neighborhoods around his candidacy. Other Greens had made similar complaints, those racial, over our interest in nominating Mumia Abu-Jamal for US Senate. Indeed, racism and anti-Semitism still run rampant in our society, and the Green Party of New York is no exception. Instead of seeing such candidates as an opportunity to challenge racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, some Greens see that as a diversion keeping us from raising environmental issues that could unite people from the start, and later, as people get involved, could we begin to challenge more complex issues. How the Greens address such questions as "How do people change?" will determine the face of the new movements we're helping to galvanize.

Another concern has to do with liberals who "want to be taken seriously" and who think that Al's candidacy will make people treat us like a joke. Indeed, Al's TV roles—Car 54 Where Are You?, and The Munsters—made his a familiar face. But that same concern has not been evident among people of color. In fact, one experience dramatically refutes the liberals' view of what constitutes politics, and puts it all into a different context: During petitioning, a 40-year old Black man came up to sign. Then he walked, over to Al. "You know, Grandpa," he said, "when I was a kid you were the only one who made me laugh." Different social conditions generate different responses. Indeed, this campaign is turning out to be far more personal and, yes, serious than most of us could ever have predicted.

Unlike Ralph Nader, who ran his own agenda in his campaign for President in 1996 ...Grandpa, a constant badgerer, often calls to familiarize himself with the Green Party's position...

As Al tells it, his first political work was for the Sacco and Vanzetti defense committee. (Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were working class Italian immigrants-anarchists in their political beliefs-who were framed up on murder charges, inspiring a worldwide movement, general strikes and pitched battles with the police by tens of thousands across the US. They were executed by the state of Massachusetts on August 23, 1927.) He also worked in the 1930s to free the Scottsboro Boys-a racist frame-up in which nine Black men were sentenced to be executed for rape even though one of the women allegedly raped courageously testified-amidst lynchings and general mayhem-that nothing had happened and that the story was completely fabricated. Lewis-who received his Ph.D. in Child Psychology from Columbia University in 1941, revels in that working class legacy. "If anything, I consider myself an anarchist," he said recently on his weekly radio show on WBAI in New York City. Today, he is battling to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, political prisoner on death row in Pennsylvania, and Leonard Peltier, American Indian, in prison for more than 23 years for a crime even the government now admits he didn't do.

Long before the Green Party asked him to run, Lewis began participating in weekly vigils against the antiquated Rockefeller drug laws-a legacy of Nelson Rockefeller's attempt to "get tough on crime" during his 1972 campaign for President. Under those laws, thousands of people were sentenced to 20- to 30-year prison terms for possession or sale of small amounts of illegal drugs. (In New York, murderers and rapists are generally freed after serving 7 to 10 years. But not drug users!) Lewis has also spoken out against the privatization of hospitals and waste transfer stations, the bulldozing of community gardens, and continued burning of coal for heat in many New York schools, which contributes to high levels of asthma and other illnesses in poor communities. And, of course, Lewis is one of the foremost advocates of free universal health care as well as rent control. Countering statements that Lewis is "too old for the job," Craig Seeman, Lewis' campaign manager, said that, in fact, "Grandpa's age is our strength, not a drawback. Greens don't believe in throwing people away. Recycle him! Running Grandpa for Governor is our way of payback, of showing respect. We are part of that long working class tradition, fighting for social justice."

And Grandpa returns that respect, in spades. Unlike Ralph Nader, who ran his own agenda in his campaign for President in 1996 and would never even notify Greens when he was in town, Grandpa, a constant badgerer, often calls me (and others) at one in the morning wanting information on a particular issue, to familiarize himself with the Green Party's position on this or that so he can accurately refer to them in his frequent press interviews!

The same is true of our other statewide candidates. Johann Moore, Green Party candidate for Attorney General, is the first openly gay male to ever run for statewide office in New York. Living in Brooklyn for the past seven years, Moore is an organizer of the medical marijuana buyers' club which provides marijuana for medicinal purposes to people who are sick and dying. He is also a founder of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in North Carolina, and of Cures Not Wars, a drug policy reform organization The platform includes demanding that GE clean its PCBs out of the Hudson, that Kodak stop polluting the air and Great Lakes near Rochester, and that NY City water be returned to its pristine condition by stopping development in the NYC watershed.

Howie Hawkins, a founder of the Green Party, USA and candidate for Comptroller, seconds that emotion. "Some people don't like that. They think all you need to do is vote every few years and things will magically change. They structure themselves solely around electoral politics. The Greens say "NO" to that. It takes a lot more than that to beat back the capitalist assault on our social welfare programs, environment, jobs, communities, our very lives. It takes activists. The people we run for office must come out of our movements and articulate the demands of those movements."

Hawkins has put in many long and thought-filled hours trying to figure out how ecological and social justice activists could work together and organize themselves. As director of CommonWorks Federation, he has helped pull together a network of cooperative community development organizations in Syracuse. Hawkins has also been a major force in the Green movement for 20 years. Originally an organizer with the Clamshell Alliance, which fought against the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire, Hawkins brings imaginative policies to the race for Comptroller. "Where should NY State invest its $105 billion in pension funds?" he asks. "We can use that money as leverage to punish corporations poisoning our waters and air, and reward those doing good environmental and social projects.

Dr. Alice Green, Lt. Governor candidate, and Dr. Joel Kovel, US Senate candidate, also come out of sometimes not-so-massive movements for radical change. Based in Albany, Dr. Green is the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Justice, and was Legislative Director for the NY Civil Liberties Union. In 1985 Gov. Cuomo appointed her to the Citizens Policy and Complaint Review Council of the NY State Commission on Correction, and as Deputy Commissioner of the NY State Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives.

Dr. Green is a fighter against Capital Punishment and prison construction. Unlike other third parties, she has made opposition to New York's death penalty and the criminalization of Black and Latino youth a major theme in the campaign.

Joel Kovel also zeroes in on the way our society views its children. "Every party gives lip service to taking care of children," Kovel, a former medical doctor and psychiatrist, commented. "But the parties in power stand condemned as hypocrites by the dreadful conditions of children in this, the wealthiest country on earth. The US has the worst rate of infant mortality in the industrial world, and is among the worst in guaranteeing nutritious food for its children. Illiteracy is growing, schools are being cut, and job opportunities are virtually non-existent-unless one views McDonald's and Burger King as our hope for the future."

Kovel, a harsh critic of President Clinton's repeal of the federal safety net for poor children and women, also spoke out against Clinton's bombing of a medicine manufacturing plant in Sudan and the supposed terrorist camp in Afghanistan. "You don't respond to terrorism with terrorism," he said. "It's time for this country to outgrow its penchant for militaristic violence, especially in this kind of tit for tat response. This is precisely the wrong way of dealing with the vicious bombings in Kenya," in which hundreds of civilians were killed.

As Green Party candidate for US Senate, Kovel is attempting to project onto a national scale the concerns that impact on us locally: federal ban on genetic engineering; strict timetables for meeting international goals on carbon dioxide emissions with severe penalties for violators; free universal health care; full range of reproductive choices for women, including the right to abortion; the freeing of political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal; support for organic agriculture and family farms; clean water and air; solar and other alternative and sustainable energy; opposition to the National Violence Initiative Project and the Human Genome Diversity Project, which he sees as new forms of colonization; and real campaign finance reform. "The Green Party of New York has developed a detailed 60-page platform that addresses hundreds of issues and what we can do about them. The point is, we've got to act, now!"

Indeed, our lives are increasingly coming down to the capitalist system vs. the immune system. The Green Party of New York invites you to stand with us on the side of the immune system.

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