vp candidate, green party
An Interview with Ajamu Baraka
Disappointment and boredom have left many Americans with the suspicion that something essential to democracy is missing from the 2016 presidential contest as it is covered by corporate news media…and they are correct. The presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major parties are painfully uninspiring and their ideas promise nothing but different versions of ‘more of the same.’ Americans are hungrier than ever for leaders willing to confront entrenched power. Which is why I was delighted to interview Ajamu Baraka, the Vice presidential for the Green Party. One of the reasons for his success as a human rights campaigner is that he was willing to speak about power without evasion or oversimplification. Something you’ll recognize in his answers to my questions. The interview took place on Thursday, September 1st.
John Hickman: Alright, my first question begins with an observation. As I listened to the questions that Chris Cuomo asked you and Jill Stein during the August 17th CNN Town Hall, I began to wonder whether he and the other mainstream broadcast journalists are really aware that their power as gatekeepers in American politics is eroding. Now I wonder if it’s your sense that they know that they can no longer tell Americans who or what is worthy of consideration?
Ajamu Baraka: Well, you know, that’s an interesting observation. I think that there is some awareness that people in this country and really in other parts of the world have alternative means of receiving information other than, you know, their mainstream and/or corporate press. But we can’t dismiss the fact that these outlets still have enormous power in being able to shape awareness, shape consciousness to determine what kind of information, what kind of people get exposure to a mass audience. You know, many people who get their information from social media, you know, we sometimes know how to seek that information out. And so there’s already a certain kind of level of engagement before, you know, the millions of people who are naturally active pursuers of information, who’re more sort of passive receivers. Their main sources of information are still the mainstream press. So, they still play a very important gatekeeping function for the status quo and we have to acknowledge that. So that’s why it was so important that we, at least for a moment, was able to penetrate for those 90 minutes or so that mainstream element.
John Hickman: You know, as I listened as I watched that I was kind of struck by the fact that Cuomo, I think, would ask you questions about, I guess, horse race sorts of journalism. And I just, I sense the kind of failure to communicate, in a way. I mean he was asking questions that struck me as not terribly relevant to the campaign. Is that unfair?
Ajamu Baraka: Well, no. It was, I absolutely agree with that, I mean, as part of the entertainment component of journalism today, we, it’s difficult to get to the substance and the format was one in which he was supposed to be more of a facilitator and the then questions would come from the audience. But, you know he did spend a lot of time with his own questions and, you know, the responses were maybe a little long so we didn’t get that many questions in. But, you know, that is, I think that is reflective of that fuzzy line between entertainment and journalism that makes up the new journalistic orthodox.
John Hickman: I recall hearing, and hoping, that the election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 would usher in a new era in United States foreign policy. Guantanamo was going to be closed, the United States would launch no further optional wars.
Ajamu Baraka: Yes.
John Hickman: How would you assess the success of that particular project? Perhaps it was a hope.
Ajamu Baraka: It was a hope based on the dreams and aspirations of millions of people in this country and, really, around the world that his election was going to signal a departure of the kind of aggression and war mongering that characterized the Bush administration. But, of course, that didn’t happen. In fact, it was a continuation of the same policy. Then, in fact, some people might argue, and I argued, that it was an intensification of the implementation of the National Security Strategy, which was a strategy put in place at the end of the 1990s that is committed to maintaining U.S. global hegemony and that means that it would, they would aggressively attempt to isolate any regional challenges to U.S. power and that had been the framework that they have operated from. And so, you know, those of us who follow politics closely understood that Barack Obama had an agenda and that he wasn’t going to depart from that elite formulated agenda much. What the problem was, is that the American people didn’t know what that agenda was and had these beliefs that it was going to be some real fundamental change and when we began to try to expose the continuity in the elite agenda, of course in the beginning many of us were condemned, criticized for doing that as, you know, race traders or purists or dogmatists or ultra-leftists or whatever the term might be. But I think that now it’s quite clear of what the agenda was. It’s quite clear that there’s been continuity in U.S. policy and it’s quite clear that continuity will continue if Hillary Clinton is elected.
John Hickman: The name calling, it is, I guess, a surprisingly effective tool, right? To kind of shut down debate.
Ajamu Baraka: Well, it shuts down debate. It diverts people away from the real issues and part of, you know, what has been happening in our campaign in the last couple of weeks is that, you know, comments that I’ve made characterizing Barack Obama’s relationship to the structures and institutions of white power have become sort of a diversionary kind of conversation, you know, and the way it’s framed is like these comments I made were like comments I made to the world as opposed to comments that were being made, you know, among sort of a small and specialized audience, if you will so. But you know, these are the kind of things you have to deal with because the Green Party campaign is still perceived, even though we have, you know, we’re still struggling to get support. But because of the possibility of the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Trump tightening up in certain swing states, you know, support for the Green Party becomes significant. So, you know part of what the Clinton folks have been doing is to try to undercut our support. And one of the ways that they do this in traditional politics is basically to try to undermine you morally, you know, and that’s been the thrust of their attacks over the last couple of weeks.
John Hickman: While running for president, this is my third question, while running for president, Obama promised to recognize what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. President Obama, however, has not done so. The closest that he came was to deploy an Armenian phrase medz yeghern which means ‘great calamity,’ and many thought this was a kind of weak euphemism that was deployed to please the Turkish government. Would a Stein/Baraka administration approach that specific question differently?
Ajamu Baraka: I suspect so. That question has not been raised, so there’s no official position on that. But in terms of the kinds of principles that we embrace, I don’t think that we have any problem with that. We recognize the historic wrongs that people have suffered and I think we recognize that the contemporary definition of genocide probably applied in that situation. So, we understand the delicacy of the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey. But, we also understand and believe in the fact that we have to adhere to international standards of morality and international law. And, therefore, you know, I think we’ll to be prepared to make whatever comments we need to make to refrain what actually happened in history
John Hickman: Are there other important human rights tragedies that official Washington needs to speak honestly about that you would want to name?
Ajamu Baraka: Of course. Those tragedies that are being implemented, carried out by their allies and one of the most horrendous of those crimes is being carried out every day on the part of the Saudi government, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. A story that gets very little coverage in the U.S. press.
John Hickman: Yes, you have to really search for news about that. It’s really curious.
Ajamu Baraka: Exactly, yes, but you know it’s covered, you know, internationally. Even in Europe it’s covered more so than in the U.S. So, that is a crime of omission that has to be dealt with. But, you know, we know that’s part of the agenda. So, Yemen is one of the most pressing, I mean, the ongoing situation with the occupation and the West Bank and specifically with what is happening or what did not happen in Gaza as a consequence of the last invasion by Israeli forces in which people in Gaza are still basically sleeping in the same rubbles of their homes one or two years after the incursion. So, there are a number of these kinds of tragic situations, I mean, the ongoing war in Syria, the ongoing conflicts in and was anticipated somewhat in Sudan, but, of course, the terrorist activities in parts of West Africa and specifically in northern Nigeria with Boka Haram. I mean, there are a number of these terrible situations that are still ongoing and ongoing as a consequence of some of the bumbling that we’ve seen occur with U.S. policy over the last eight years.
John Hickman: I teach a seminar on War Crimes and Genocide and my students have been debating the merits of the doctrine that’s called Responsibility to Protect or R2P.
Ajamu Baraka: Yes, yes.
John Hickman: Could you envision that doctrine being used to justify military intervention by a Stein/Baraka administration?
Ajamu Baraka: I think we would approach that doctrine very carefully. Because in the construction of the Responsibility to Protect, I found it to be very problematic. Of course, the philosophical and political foundation of the right, the Responsibility to Protect is based on this notion of humanitarian intervention or humanitarian interventionism. I see that, and saw that, as just a rewriting of the notion that western powers, primarily, were the ones that were behind this construction, including human rights theoreticians, that western powers still assert the right to be able to intervene, where necessary, in order to protect human rights, they claim, as part of this sort of white savior complex that has to be dealt with. And so, the Responsibility to Protect I saw is no more than, and in the way it’s been used, is no more than a refinement of the racist concept of the white man’s burden. So, I reject that approach. I think that if there is going to be intervention to protect human rights, it has to be done within the context of the U.N. structures, as flawed as they are, and specifically the Security Council and within the context of recognizing international law, not made-up law that we see as the foundation for this Responsibility to Protect.
John Hickman: Okay.
Ajamu Baraka: So, I’m very cautious with that. In fact, you know, I, myself, personally, I reject that because of how it was constructed and how it’s been used in, as an instrument to maintain western hegemony.
John Hickman: Okay. You mentioned the Security Council, could you imagine a Stein/Baraka administration supporting some expansion of the number of primitive members or change in the number of primitive members? Perhaps Brazil’s admission, something like that?
Ajamu Baraka: I think that that has to be a serious conversation, not just expanding but that process has to be democratized. It is sort of anachronistic that you still have certain nations with veto power, permanent veto power, in the Security Council. If the U.N. is going to be truly a body that is committed to maintaining peace based on international law, in principle, we would have to have a different kind of Security Council. We’re seeing that the horse-trading that takes place in the Security Council has result in some terrible decisions. You know, the Resolution 1973 that authorized the no-fly zone in Libya being one of the most tragic of the contemporary decisions. Even though, you know, the Russians claim and the Chinese claim that they didn’t understand that was going to lead to the destruction of the Libyan state. I don’t necessarily believe that. And so, we see the consequence of that basically being the complete and utter destruction of that state and the kind of chaos that we see now as a result. So, those kinds of decisions and that structure really needs a serious review and it’s going to be critical at the next U.N. General Assembly also. And because there are still needs, a need for real reform of many of the structures of the U.N.
John Hickman: Next question. Speaking at the March 2016 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Convention, nominee Hillary Clinton accusing BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) activists of anti-Semitism and of seeking to silence debate on campus. Granted, she didn’t go as far as Ted Cruz who wanted to prosecute BDS activists, but her comments were widely, I think, received as chilling. How would BDS activists be treated under a Stein/Baraka administration?
Ajamu Baraka: You know, they would be, we would allow them to exercise their freedom of speech, to engage in conversations with people, to organize freely and to raise the kinds of critiques that they are in fact raising. I mean, you know, this notion that, you know, sanctions and divestment only can be used on the part the U.S. state when it is attempting to pursue its own particular national interest. But then when those kinds of tactics are being advocated for on the part of ordinary people, that is a political and a moral contradiction. So, we would not have any problem with that kind of rigorous debate taking place on campuses across the country.
John Hickman: Okay. A number of, next question, a number of states and municipalities have established professional relationships between their police forces and those of Israel. Here in Georgia we have the GILEE Program, the Georgia Law Enforcement Exchange in which Georgia police officers go to Israel and Israeli police officers come to Georgia and to, I guess, learn from one another. Do you think relationships like that are a good idea?
Ajamu Baraka: I think in this specific case, they are very questionable. Especially since we see the kinds of tactics that the Israelis have perfected for maintaining and controlling populations under occupation in Israel and the occupied territories. And we say, I say troubling because those same kinds of tactics are being used, and police forces across the country are being trained in, and those tactics are especially brutal. And, they are meant primarily to control and their repressive character is quite obvious. So, you see that being reflected in the, what many of us argue have been the heavy-handed responses to protests in various parts of the country, this highly militarized attempt to intimidate and to disperse with frontal attacks using tear gas, to attempt to corral demonstrators into these confined spaces and engage in these massive sweeps. These are some of the tactics that the Israelis have perfected and then being implemented with enthusiasm, it appears, in cities and towns across this country. So, that kind of, that would have to be looked at very critically. And I don’t think that the American people, I want to say, are made aware of this, wouldn’t necessarily support those kinds of responses. Those responses are countered by some people advocating a more humane and less depressive approach to policing and responding to legitimate and legal demonstrations, but those voices seem to be in the minority at this point.
John Hickman: The federal criminal indictment of Dylann Roof, accused of perpetrating the Charleston Massacre, includes counts of murder and attempted murder in the commission of a hate crime, but does not include a charge of terrorism. What do you make of that decision not to include a terrorism charge?
Ajamu Baraka: Well, it’s part of the state’s attempt to cover up the fact that they know they have a domestic terrorist issue in the U.S. And, that was reflected in the department of Homeland Security’s report that was released at the beginning of the Obama administration and then promptly suppressed. In that report, it was indicated that the number one threat in terms of domestic terrorism did not come from Islamic fundamentalists. It came from the White Nationalist extremist groups in this country and specifically Lone Wolves. So, this, the attack carried out by this Lone Wolf, who had ideological ties to the White Nationalist extremist communities. It was an embarrassment and the narrative was kicked into place that this individual, I mean, you know, the whole individualized narrative, that he was a loner and psychologically unstable, anything to avoid labelling him what he really was, which was a racist, domestic terrorist targeting a vulnerable minority population. So, that narrative was suppressed and Obama went to the funeral and basically helped to sort of obscure the situation by singing people to sleep and not really allowing us to raise the critical questions about why did that report get suppressed, why weren’t the people in that church then on guard, understanding the possibility of this individual who shows up at their church, maybe posing a threat. And all of that conversation was displaced, as a consequence of the racial performance of Barack Obama and the diversion that he was able to successfully implement.
John Hickman: And, I can’t summarize all of that. Is it fair to say that when the perpetrator is domestic and white, it’s, you know, we go to explanations, and that is, the media and the state go to explanations involving individual psychology. Whereas, if the individual is not white, we go to their ideological motivation.
Ajamu Baraka: That is exactly what I was referencing, that is, these domestic white terrorists. The conversation immediately goes to their psychological state of mind and it depoliticized. But if there is any connection between a perpetrator like the perpetrator in Orlando, then it’s an immediate connection to his so called radicalization by Isis. So, it’s politicized in that way because it fits the national narrative.
John Hickman: Okay, next question. A colleague of mine, Michael Bailey, I think a brilliant scholar of American politics, suggested that I ask the following: What is it that the Green Party knows about America and Americans that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party does not know? What is it that’s missing in our, in, I sense, our real national narrative that the Green Party supplies?
Ajamu Baraka: I think that because the Green Party has, is connected, more connected to social movements and connected to the fact that there is bubbling up around this country, a real sense of resistance that has not been articulated and concentrated yet, that we understand that around the curve will be this congealing of these forces into a real national movement. And, that national movement will probably have an electoral arm and that arm will probably end up being the Green Party because the Green Party has been around the longest and has the most experience in terms of being able to get itself in place to serve that role as the electoral arm of a new, galvanized and organized and coordinated national movement. So, that’s one. Secondly, part of this bubbling up that’s taking place around the country is being driven by young people, young people who are not as tied to the old explanations, who’re not tied to the national narrative, historical narrative of the Founding Fathers and has moved toward a more perfect union. They don’t need to be, they don’t need to, they don’t feel compelled to embrace this childish fairytale of American exceptionalism. They are open to conversations around Socialism, you know. And, they are having serious conversations around issues like white privilege and they are dealing with intersectionality and you know. So, we see around the curve and that’s why we understand that this campaign is part of a larger movement in formation, and that we are part of a protracted struggle for radical change here in this country. And so, with that in mind, that’s why this campaign is using this historical moment to engage people around this country in this kind of conversation to talk about and to re-envision, you know, what this society might be and what we need to do in order to make it a society that’s more inclusive and founded, more firmly on commitments to social justice. So, that’s what I think we bring to the table. We have a, you know, we have a stronger connection to what’s really unfolding in this country. Look, and I would argue that the Democrats and the elite in the Republican Parties are missing all of this. They don’t, that’s why the whole Trump phenomenon caught them off guard. They didn’t understand the kind of, this affection and alienation that many workers are experiencing here in this country. That’s why the Democrats are making the political errors that they are making now in marginalizing and basically disrespecting the Sanders supporters, you know, in their pursuit of trying to engineer a new political realignment, bringing in elements of the Republican right-wing into the Democratic Party. They are basically setting the stage for their own demise, if you will, with the Sanders and other progressive elements who at this point don’t believe they have a choice but to go along with the dictates of the elite of the party. But when they see that there is the possibility of a choice and that choice is outside of the Democratic Party, well they may not be willing to step outside yet. We’ve had conversation with a number of people, even elected officials, who, if they see this momentum, and see that the party is viable, we may see some real, significant movement. Let me just follow with one historic example. Many of us who have been around remember how the Democratic Party functionaries responded to the Jesse campaign in 1983-84. They tried to ignore it. They rejected it. Four years later, you couldn’t be a viable, black, Democratic functionary. And even others went out at least acknowledging the power of that run in ‘88 and getting on board. So, that’s just how quick things can change politically.
John Hickman: We see “Around the Curve” is, I think, potentially a very (laughter) powerful slogan. I like that. Yeah, okay, next question. Following from the…let me phrase it this way, what sorts of changes in public policy or structure of executive departments would we see in a Stein/Baraka administration? For example, would we still have a Department of Homeland Insecurity?
Ajamu Baraka: That is something that we would have to take a very serious look at. Because we know that over the last almost 16 years now, we’ve had the creation of this massive, security bureaucracy in Washington. People have made enormous amounts of money pursuing the politics of fear, this entire intelligence, military apparatus. So, we think that there is significant waste and duplication. And, we believe that we could literally save billions of dollars in restructuring this security apparatus and without jeopardizing and undermining the real security concerns that people have in this country. So, we would definitely take a serious look at this Department of Homeland Security and the other elements that are, private elements that are connected to this new military, intelligence complex that’s developed over the last 15-16 years.
John Hickman: Okay.
Ajamu Baraka: That’s one. We would definitely empower the Department of Energy, the Energy Administration to, because we, and restructure that, because we are committed, of course, to moving the U.S. economy away from its dependence on fossil fuel. And, we are committed to doing away with this fracking industry that is destroying the environment, threatening our water sources. So, those are two of the agencies we will take a serious look at. Third, we’ll have to take a serious look at the Department of Education and retool the admission, and the administrative rules that are being written in that department, so that we can figure out how to more effectively support educational activities on the local level. We would reverse the trajectory of curriculum centralization that’s taken place over the last couple of decades here in this country. Because, we believe that curriculum development, the process of developing curriculums has to, should be decentralized, should resolve, should reside in the, under the power of the communities because we are committed to the idea of community empowerment. So, and, the issue of funding has to be dealt with. So, you know, these are some of the serious examinations that would take place under a Stein/Baraka administration and some of the restructuring that might result as a consequence.
John Hickman: One, and by the way, I know a number of teachers who would be cheering if they could hear you say that. So, question, my last question. Is migration across international borders a human right? And, I ask that because, you know, Trump and company seem outraged by the presence of folks who don’t look like them in the United States.
Ajamu Baraka: There is international law, the Convention on the Rights of Migrants, that govern the movement of migrants. Migrants have the whole fundamental human rights that have to be respected regardless of what nation’s state that they might be in. Of course, states have a right to regulate the flow of people in, going in and out of their borders, no question about that. But, migrants have rights, those rights have to be respected. People have a right to move across borders. People have a right to apply for refugee status and to seek asylum. So, you know, we separate that, those rights from the rights of migrants and, we say also too, that this migrant issue has to be looked at holistically. We have to look at what are some of the influences that are pushing people out of their own countries. And, what are some of the influences that are attracting people to various countries, primarily in the west. And, that has to be part, that examination and that discussion has to be part of constructing holistic approaches to this issue of the migrant flows in various parts of the world.
John Hickman: Well, those are all of my questions and I really appreciate your willingness to take time and answer them. I think there’s, you know, I wish so much of this could be heard again on the broadcast, you know, mainstream broadcast media instead of what we are hearing.
Ajamu Baraka: (Laughter) Well, I agree with that. And so, these few moments that we get a chance to penetrate, we definitely try to raise some of these kinds of issues and bring that kind of perspective. You know, but, the interesting thing, John, is that it sounds so wild to some people because they just don’t get a chance to hear it, that kind of perspective. You know, and then with the mainstream media then, you know, going right to all this sensationalism of, you know, whether or not I called Barack Obama an Uncle Tom or whether or not Jill Stein believes in science. I mean, (laughter) that’s the kind of nonsense that we have to deal with.
John Hickman: Right.
Ajamu Baraka: I mean it’s all part of the construction of the loony left narrative
John Hickman: Right.
Ajamu Baraka: Yeah, but I appreciate it.
John Hickman: Yes, thank you very much.
Author’s Note: Darla Fox provided technical assistance for this interview.