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Dr. Jill Stein on social justice and the environmental movement / by Liz Pelly

“An end to poverty, homelessness, climate silence, Wall Street rule, the NDAA, drone warfare, and wars for oil," were among the promises made by Jill Stein’s 2012 Green Party campaign for U.S. Presidency, a campaign that ultimately gained her 0.36% of the popular vote overall, but made an impact nonetheless. The campaign gave Stein, a long-time environmental organizer, access to mainstream media outlets for the first time, and allowed her to travel the U.S. observing “grassroots uprising all over the country,” she says. “For me, as a person, it was completely inspirational and transformational.”

Most people in the U.S. and beyond were introduced to Stein’s work for the first time in 2012, whether for her campaign, or for the more radical headlines she made that year: Like when she was arrested outside the presidential debates at Hofstra, for attempting to gain entry despite not being invited to participate. Or shortly after, when Stein was arrested in east Texas for attempting to bring food and Halloween candy to protesters occupying trees in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Stein was a practicing physician for years before leaving the field to pursue activism full time. (“When people ask me ‘what kind of medicine are you practicing?’ I usually say, ‘I’m practicing political medicine because it’s the mother of all illnesses,’” she told Bill Moyers last year.) In addition to her 2012 presidential campaign, she was also a candidate for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002. In 2013, Stein’s main focus was working with the Green Shadow Cabinet, a non-party-affiliated civic project that brings together about 100 prominent scientists, community organizers, and thinkers to "provide an ongoing opposition and alternative voice to the dysfunctional government in Washington D.C.," according to their website. More recently, her full attention has been focused on the Global Climate Convergence, a 10-day direct action campaign with decentralized actions around the country between Earth Day and May Day.

This weekend, she’ll discuss her recent work with the Global Climate Convergence at Northeastern as part of “Climate Justice Teach-In: Race, Class, and the Anti-Ecological Logic of Capitalism,” a free one-day conference exploring the intersection of climate change and social justice. In advance of the conference and convergence, we called Dr. Stein to talk about her recent work, the state of youth activism in the US, why she mixes grassroots activism with conventional politics, and more.

This weekend you will participate in a teach on “the role of the capitalist political and economic system in the climate crisis” as well as “reasons climate activists be concerned with a broad-based view of social justice, and social justice activists should be concerned with climate change.” Why is now a particularly good time to be having these conversations?

This is the perfect time. It’s sort of a wake up moment. Our economy is crashing in on people in the same way our climate is melting down. There’s a convergence of these calamities. A lot of people are waking up because they don’t have jobs, or because they have lousy wages, or because there are really on prospects for good jobs, or because students are in debt. People have been systematically thrown under the bus by a political and economic system that is all about benefiting the very powerful wealthy few who run our government as we know it.

There is a pervasive meltdown that is happening and people are waking up and asking questions. People are ready to be mobilized. There is a rebellion going on right now, which is in full swing. It’s taking place across the world, from democracy revolutions to austerity uprising to the Occupy protests, the student revolt, the workers standing up for living wages and the rights to unionize, the Idle No More campaign, the eviction blockades, the list goes on. There’s an incredible movement for democracy and justice sweeping across the planet right now.

How does the topic of this conference relate to the work you have been doing with the Global Climate Convergence, which aims to link Earth Day and May Day together? What are the connections between Earth Day and May Day?

The Earth Day to May Day Wave of Action technically begins on Earth Day, but in a sense it is already under way. The people organizing this conference thought it would be a good kick-off for the Earth Day to May Day organizing in the Boston area. This conference is very much like a little advanced wave in the bigger Wave of Action. It’s a chance to sit down and do some planning.

I think the name of the game right now really is about getting together and building this stronger, broader movement for justice and economic and political transformation. It’s all about getting together across these different [issues] that have typically always divided organizing into issue-by-issue movements. That has its benefits but the downside is that it’s a game of divide and conquer. This conference will be bridging many of those divides, and that is exactly what the convergence will be aiming to do. The full name of the Convergence is the Global Climate Convergence for People, Planet, and Peace over Profit. For many ways it could be a sub-title for this conference. Many of the people who are producing this conference are involved in the convergence as well.

In some ways it’s just another way of expressing what the eco-socialist conferences have been about, and what “System Change Not Climate Change” it about, which is another organization. We’re all basically working together to bring our movements together across these traditional divides in order to harness this powerful growing force, that could be really transformative, the minute we manage to get together. After all, we are the 99 percent and that’s about 99 times bigger and stronger than the 1 percent. But it will take our concerted effort to assert democracy in the face of the oligarchy that currently runs the show and calls the shots. In the Global Climate Convergence we are trying to create that structure in which we can be organized both as a community but also on a national and eventually international level.

Earth Day to May Day is a way to jumpstart this process, to make clear that Earth Day and May Day are a spectrum of justice and we are connecting the dots across this continuum. At the end of the day, we cannot protect the planet unless we are also protecting people. We can’t have healthy or survivable situations for people, unless we’re also protecting the planet. This idea that we have to choose between saving jobs or the environment, that it’s people and the economy or the environment and the climate – these are really false divides. It’s a public relations campaign of the one percent to try to divide us. In reality, there are far more jobs in the clean renewable energy economy that maintain our environment and resources for human use. There is no inherent opposition here. This sense of opposition is created by the fossil fuel industry and the banking industry, forces that are working to try to keep these camps divided. Because the minute we get together we are absolutely unstoppable.

I notice you are still using phrases like “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent,” which is clearly Occupy-inspired language. Why does the Occupy Movement continue to inspire you? Do you think it’s had a ripple effect on youth activism in 2014?

Absolutely. It may have been evicted from our public squares, and it may have been beat up by the militarized police and the FBI and the other national security agencies that were spying on it and plotting against it but it is very much alive and thriving. It’s more in pockets, it’s in specific issues, and it’s more under the radar but it’s very much alive. Occupy has certainly altered the mindset of America, and the world, not just activists. It really put on the table a whole different sense of democracy and equality and economic justice. These things were swept under the rug until Occupy managed to break the silence and lift up our suppressed voices once again.

In many ways, Occupy amplified justice movements that had been behind the scenes for the last several decades, and its great to see them out in the open again. They don’t have the attention of the media anymore, but that’s expected. We have to create our own media. Occupy is a very strong and living force for justice and democracy in America, and it continues to inspire activism across the spectrum, including the Global Climate Convergence, which is very much networked with the various living institutions of Occupy.

Your perspective on activism and social change is interesting to me because you are someone who clearly sees grassroots activity as necessary, and who clearly sees governmental institutions as corrupt. But at the same time, you’ve also engaged with those systems by running for president. What motivates you to want to run office, and be involved with conventional politics? Do you think real change can ever happen via the government, or does real change have to happen amongst individuals in their communities?

I think that’s a really important subject and people are really hungry to get their hands around it and wrestle with it. In my experience, the real driver of social change is social movements. And that’s my sense of history as well. When you’ve had major social upheaval – the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, assertion of economic rights, labor movements – it’s required a social movement out in the street, and that’s the primary engine. But in order to actually move things forward, you want to have a political movement as well that reflects that social movement.

Politics in this country have been so utterly corrupted that nobody wants anything to do with it, and for good reasons. I didn’t want anything to do with it either! I came to political activism really late in life. And I sort of backed into it by accident when I was very frustrated with organizing work, and kept seeing how the legislature and our elected officials were sabotaging the work of social movements.

I got involved in my first race out of outrage, in order to fight back. It’s just another venue for fighting. And it can be a very powerful venue for fighting. As long as we stay out of their circle of power, they can write us off. But the minute we start to intrude on their circle of power, they get very nervous, and that is a good thing. We should make them very nervous. We should in fact, evict them from those circles of power. But it’s hard to do that in a system that is rigged. And it is rigged. But it’s not completely rigged. There are a lot of media and communications that pay attention to [mainstream politics], which helps us build a stronger social movement. It’s possible to reach people through those channels that you just cannot reach through social movement channels.

So I see the two as assisting each other. I agree completely that no one in their right mind should touch conventional politics with a 10-foot pole. It is very toxic, dangerous, and predatory. But it’s really important to distinguish that from a people’s politics. And that’s what we need to create. If we are going to fight fire with fire we also need political tools. But they have to be People’s tools. I never knew they existed until I was recruited by the Green Party back in 2002 to run for political office. They basically said, “Just do what you’re already doing, and we’ll call it a political campaign.” And I said, “well that’s pretty irresistible.” That’s how I got into it. And I discovered there are a lot of people working to find a political voice with integrity, that’s not hijacked by money like the establishment parties are.

I very much value the skepticism and cynicism of Occupy and a lot of social movements of traditional politics. I agree completely. But what I think many people are discovering is there are politics we can own. The Green Party is very much like Occupy. They use many of the same procedures and techniques. It has a little bit more structure to it. It spent years actually developing its structure through a process not unlike a General Assembly. So in many ways I see it as congruent with Occupy. And I think there are many people in social movements now who are realizing we have to use every tool at our disposal, because the hammer is coming down so hard on our lives, our jobs. We really need to fight like our lives depend on it. It needs to be an all-engaging fight. From that point of view, I think there is tremendous power in this synergy between social movements and real politics of integrity. Together they are transformational.

Did you find your presidential campaign to be inspiring or soul crushing? Or both?

It was totally inspirational. I had the great pleasure of just getting to visit these grassroots uprising all over the country. It gave me a sort of bird’s eye view of what’s going on. It was so empowering to see the rebellion that’s in full swing all over the country. It is enough to change the course of history. And it gave me so much energy to just carry on the fight, and make it as big as it actually is. It filled me with a realization that we really do have the power. It’s all about us getting organized to use that power. So, for me, as a person, it was completely inspirational and transformational.

The other stuff, the stuff that corporate politics does to you, that was not new to me, and I wasn’t expecting any favors from that world. I was challenging that world. I was laughing in the face of their pretenses.

Is the Green Shadow Cabinet what you do full-time now? Their website says you’re the President. Do you have a full-time job?

The Green Shadow Cabinet I was doing full time. But then the Green Global Convergence came along, which really requires intensive organizing. We have about 80 events taking place right now around the country, and over 100 people who are actively organizing. This became an incredible opportunity to help advance this coalition building, this sense that we are one justice movement.

It’s been so much fun to work with the Climate Convergence. I’d say I’m doing it even more intensively than the presidential campaign. It’s more encompassing because it’s grassroots and it doesn’t have a lot of funding. There are a few of us who have jumped in entirely who are staffing this thing to provide support to the organizers.

Aside from some individual events, we have some national solidarity within these 10 days. Some are still in flux, but one is Friday April 25, a “Light The Skies Night for People Planet and Peace Over Profit”. We’re encouraging everyone to get outside with lights, candles, flashlights, whatever, and light up the sky, and light up your imagination, and light up the future with this wonderful convergence. There is a network of light brigades involved, folks who have done a lot of the iconic signage, like the folks who projected “Rights Are For People” over the Supreme Court. They project these beautiful brilliant lights with simple messages. There are like 40 of these light brigade chapters around the world out there supporting all of these different justice movements.

In the spirit of this teach-in and activism on campuses: what are your hopes for the future of youth activism? What are some exciting things you have seen lately with regards to youth and student activism? What would you like to see student activists doing differently?

Student activism was one of the most exciting things to me that I saw in my bird’s eye view of the country, during my presidential campaign. The passion and the insight and the energy of student activism is incredibly powerful, and really the biggest engine of transformational change throughout history. And this is where it’s going to come from again. The way that the system is crashing right now falls hardest on the heads of young people: unemployment, jobs, debt, the cost of higher education, the dismantling of our public education system, and the climate crisis. All of these things fall hardest on young people. It’s just staggering to me that young people have been as patient with this as they have been. But patience is wearing thin, and we’re seeing young people begin to mobilize in colleges and outside of colleges, in high school. There are so many young people now who are not going to college because it’s too expensive and they can’t afford to take on debt. Young people in general I think are in an incredibly challenging position but are rising to that challenge in a way that is just monumental.

You see things like Free Cooper Union, where students actually occupied for quite some time. You see things like the students who occupied Governor Rick Scott’s office in Florida for a month, the Dreamer’s Movement. Also Santa Monica College, I had the pleasure of being there when students were fighting tuition hikes in 2012. I spent time around the student movement in Western Massachusetts recently, at a climate rally, and found that people were hungry to talk also about debt and jobs and war. I am impressed over and over that young people are seeing the big picture, they really see the totality of what they have to change.

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