Saturday, September 24, 2016

Interview with Jill Stein, Green Party Presidential Candidate

Dr. Jill Stein before our interview in Chicago
Dr. Jill Stein is the Green Party presidential candidate for 2016. Her campaign has seen a surge of support since the defeat of Bernie Sanders by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary, yet she remains shut out of the presidential debates and largely ignored by the media.

On September 9, I sat down with her for a private interview in Chicago the day after her high-energy rally at the landmark Preston Bradley Center. The event was a homecoming of sorts, since she was born in Chicago and grew up in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park.

What follows is a brief introduction to her career in medicine and politics, followed by the full text of our in-depth interview.

A Life in Science

Dr. Stein graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1973 with a triple degree in psychology, sociology, and anthropology. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1979, she served as Instructor in Medicine at the institution from 1982 to 2005.

In addition to her teaching career, she spent twenty-five years as a practicing physician at Harvard Community Health Plan, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Simmons College Health Center.

She is co-founder and past Executive Director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, a non-profit organization working on environmental, economic, and democratic issues.

She has served on the board of organizations including Physicians for Social Responsibility, Clean Water Action, and Alternatives for Community and the Environment. She has also worked with a wide array of medical and environmental groups such as Physicians for a National Health Program, Clean Water Action, and Global Climate Convergence.

She has co-authored reports that identified community drivers of chronic disease and offered environment-friendly policies to promote health while boosting employment. One of these reports – “In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development” (2000) – has served as the core text for medical center education conferences nationwide.

Accepting scientific consensus on the danger of climate change, her core concerns include promoting renewable energy, moving away from fossil fuels, and a instituting a national ban on fracking.

She recently told NBC News, “What we are calling for is an emergency transition to green energy, food and transportation, a wartime-level mobilization that will turn the tide of climate change and make the wars for oil obsolete.”

A Second Career in Politics

In 2012, Dr. Stein became the most successful female presidential candidate in history when she received nearly half of a million votes in the general election. Her vice presidential candidate was Cheri Honkala, a dedicated human rights activist of mixed Finnish and Cheyenne ancestry.

Before running for president, she twice won elections for the Lexington Town Meeting, the governing body of her home in Massachusetts. She has since run four unsuccessful campaigns for statewide office.

Her move from medicine to political activism began in 1998, when she worked to close the most-polluting coal plants in Massachusetts after her experience as a doctor led her to investigate connections between health issues, environmental factors, and the corporations whose pollution was causing the greatest detrimental effects on community health.

She moved from the Democratic Party to the Green Party after her successful advocacy for the Clean Elections Law resulted in the campaign finance reform legislation being passed by voter referendum – a popular victory that was then repealed by a Democrat-controlled state legislature. She has remained dedicated to fighting the power of money in public elections.

Ajamu Baraka speaks at the Chicago rally on September 8
In 2016, Stein's running mate is Ajamu Baraka, the only African-American on the ticket of any main party in this presidential election. Born on the South Side of Chicago, he has taught political science at Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and elsewhere.

Mr. Baraka was the founding Executive Director of the U.S. Human Rights Network and served on the boards of Amnesty International, the National Center for Human Rights Education, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is now Associate Fellow for Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

A full transcription of my interview with Dr. Stein is below, with my questions in bold.

A Family of Refugees

KS – You’re descended on both sides of your family from immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Russia. When you were a child, was there still living memory of those experiences in your family?

JS – Yes. Not much. My grandparents had come over as very young children.

I had a great-grandmother who was part of that refugee process, but I was so young when she was around. I didn’t learn that from her, but I certainly learned from my grandparents the sense of… It wasn’t specifics, but it was more a mindset of feeling frightened, and feeling like they were a community under attack.

I grew up seeing that from them, but not feeling it myself, at all. It was kind of a curiosity to me that I didn’t quite understand at that time. I grew up feeling incredibly safe and incredibly well cared for.

To some extent, my awakening happened as much around the civil rights movement and understanding that struggle for justice before I understood what the Jewish struggle for justice was.

KS – Did you have any family members still in Europe during the Holocaust?

JS – Not that I’m aware of, but that was certainly a big issue for my family and for my parents, in the sense that we are all responsible for each other. That was kind of my parents’ watchword, that we cannot allow injustices to take place and do nothing about it.

I think that was how they came to terms with the sense of the Holocaust. That was their hope for the future, that we would develop such a sense of responsibility for each other.

And that wasn’t just Jews. It was we, as human beings, would stand up for all oppressed people.

KS – My dad’s experience in death camps during the war – being in them and then rescuing his entire family from multiple camps as a child – led him to dedicate his whole life as a philosopher to working on human rights issues. How did your family history influence your own work on these issues?

JS – Wow. Tell me again. That was your dad?

KS – Yes, as a kid. He was born in 1933. They were actually anti-German camps in Yugoslavia against people who come down in the 1700s to settle colonies that were basically Hungarian, but ethnically German. Marshall Tito’s Communist Partisans came through and killed the men and put the women and children in camps.

JS – Oh, incredible.

Karl E. H. Seigfried and Jill Stein during the interview
Photo by Meleiza Figueroa
KS – As a kid, he escaped and eventually learned the route up to the British zone in Austria before going back to rescue other family members and lead them across Eastern Europe by foot.

JS – Amazing. Wow. That’s incredible.

My family experience was remote enough – it was my grandparents who were brought over fleeing pogroms in Russia – so that family experience was so far away, and it was a generation that I didn’t really know.

I knew my grandparents, but they came here as little children, so they only had the vaguest recollection of what was going on and why they fled. Their struggle was more about how did you work your way up in a new country as an immigrant not speaking the language. It was more that struggle to survive in a new society and to assimilate, which was really their goal.

I attended a religious school, and I was actually the most religious person in my family. As a kid, I loved ritual, and I sang in the children’s choir and just thought the whole thing with the candles and the music was just so magical. I brought Jewish tradition into my family – brought the candle-lighting, and the challa bread, and the Sabbath ceremony – which lasted for a few years.

The little tales of the Old Testament, as a kid going to religious school, meant a lot to me and helped frame my sense of social justice.

In a very broad way, that was the sense of the community that I grew up with in Highland Park, a very Jewish town that was also trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. It was a community that was assimilating and actually becoming quite wealthy but sort of schizophrenic, because it was focused on its own security at the same time that it was focused on how do we prevent future Holocausts. We have to have a sense of caring for each other as a community.

There was a very strong progressive contingent in that community at that time. Some of us who began becoming anti-war activists who were active in the civil rights movement, who went to the projects in Chicago, to Cabrini Green to tutor kids who didn’t have the education that we had.

It was built into my sense of community and my upbringing that it’s important for us to be responsible for each other. I didn’t think about that as an issue. It just was natural what we’re supposed to be doing as people on the planet.

Values and Beliefs

KS – When you were growing up as a member of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, was the synagogue directly involved in social issues?

JS – If they were, I didn’t know it. When I was involved with them, it actually preceded my activism in high school. I was confirmed at the age of fifteen or something like that, and you really did not... As I became more socially and politically aware, I grew away from my religious traditions.

KS – How do Old Testament values still resonate with your work today? What are Old Testament values?

JS – I can tell you what they are to me, which is pretty basic, pretty simple.

It’s to do justice, to love mercy, to be holy unto your god. Justice and compassion are core existential values. It is the commandment to do unto others, the Golden Rule. It’s the tales of Solomon, and the baby, and the two moms, and how one strives for justice and to solve disputes in a just way. Perhaps the Jewish Talmud traditions, which are all about debate and dialogue.

Maybe it’s also the sense of a Jewish society, which was always a diaspora. After the temple was destroyed in Israel, it was diaspora. It was independent communities that were not taking orders from a king and sort of had democratic traditions.

I think those were just parts of the culture that became imbued into my thinking.

Jill Stein addresses the Chicago audience
KS – You told Forbes that you still feel culturally Jewish, but you’re no longer “actively a practicing Jew,” and your family is “predominantly agnostic.” How would you describe your relationship to belief and spirituality at this point in your life?

JS – I’m very grounded in spiritual values and have great appreciation for religions and religious ritual. I practice physical yoga, used to do a lot of meditation.

I think it’s fair to characterize my vision of the world and social responsibility in metaphysical terms that you could call spiritual – my sense of what is our existential purpose here. I feel a very strong identification with forces of compassion and social responsibility.

I don’t have a label that I put on this, but it is very much a part of my daily life, and how I see things, and my tolerance for adversity and for struggle. I see this as part of our condition, and how we make choices as human beings to affirm our existence, and to choose a world of justice and compassion, and our power to create that world.

Sanders and Stein

KS – One of the revelations from the WikiLeaks release of Democratic National Committee emails was that DNC Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall suggested making political capital of Bernie Sanders’ Jewish background and supposed lack of faith. Given the similarity of your background to that of Senator Sanders, how do you respond to such campaign tactics?

JS – They’re reprehensible, and they are symptomatic of a very abusive and corrupt campaign coming out of the Democratic National Committee, coming out of the Clinton campaign. This is politics as usual, and that’s how it’s played, and it was absolutely no surprise to see the sabotage that’s going on behind closed doors against Bernie’s campaign.

That’s why a campaign that really had more traction than any other was pushed back by these sort of backstabbing maneuvers, and they did it in all kinds of ways – related to his religion, smearing him as a campaign that was a mess, planting adverse stories in the media about violence at the Nevada convention.

This is something that, shall we say, is not hidden and has been part of establishment politics for quite a long time.

KS – For many years, there has been an insistence by Democrats on social media that any criticism of President Obama’s policies is racist. Now, any criticism of Secretary Clinton’s policies is called sexist. My stock response is to ask whether any criticism of Sanders and Stein is therefore anti-Semitic. I immediately get blocked.

JS – Ha!

KS – Do you feel that anti-Semitism has been a factor in media coverage of Senator Sanders and yourself?

JS – That’s an interesting question. It’s hard to sort out, because there are many reasons that media has to shut us out. And certainly, Bernie was far less shut out than my campaign.

A New York Times analysis – maybe four or five months ago – was that he had received about half as much in free media as Hillary Clinton, who at the time had a billion, and he had about half a billion.

I think, in my case, it’s not just being Jewish, but particularly it’s because I represent a political opposition, and we live in two-party tyranny – which is not democracy – that survives only because it can silence opposition while it throws people under the bus.

KS – We’re supposedly in a post-racial society. Are we in a post-anti-Semitic society?

JS – You know, you don’t see as much anti-Semitic hate crime. Certainly, we see loads of anti-Latino, African-American, Muslim hate crimes. I’m not aware of many [anti-Semitic] hate crimes in this country.

Certainly there are in Europe, with the radical right-wing extremism – which we could be heading towards. I think there’s no reason… one shouldn’t be too confident that anti-Semitism is over and done with in this country, by any means.

I think that underscores all the more reason why we have to really stand up for a human rights agenda for everyone.

Pro-Science

Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka listen to a firebrand speech
by Sarah Chambers of the Chicago Teachers Union
KS – Given your education, medical practice, teaching, non-profit work, board service, reports published, support for renewable energy, and so on, why do you think the media is pushing the narrative that you’re anti-science?

JS – I think they are grasping at straws. This is like the swift-boat nonsense or the birther campaign. This is an effort to take my campaign off-message and get me in a defensive position arguing that, which is pathetic, ridiculous, irrelevant, and baseless.

To call for getting money out of our regulatory institutions is not pandering, and this has been something I’ve been a part of as a physician working with Physicians for Social Responsibility to try to clean up our regulatory institutions, because we’ve been locked in battle with them around regulating mercury in fish, around regulating pesticides, around cleaning up our incinerators and our coal plants.

I’ve been involved in regulatory battles for a long time – not just around the mercury in vaccines, which I think is where people are coming from in trying to find some connection here.

But that battle to get mercury out of vaccines was successful. That doesn’t mean we’re rejecting vaccines as a public health institution, but rather saying we can insure greater confidence in our regulatory institutions if we shut down the revolving door and stop the money.

Our campaign is the pro-science campaign. We’re talking about going forward with studies that need to be done, and that includes of Wi-Fi. I’m not making an issue out of Wi-Fi. It’s pretty low on the priority scale here, but for people who are concerned about protecting children’s health, that should be looked into. In fact, Europe has seen fit to protect young children from routine exposures in schools, largely. This is not anti-Wi-Fi. It’s not anti-science. This is pro-health.

Our regulatory institutions need to ask these questions about all new potential threats. They should do them in the interest of science and not allow profits to trump science, which is why we have a lead problem today, why we have lead in our pipes, in our soil, in our buildings – because, for decades, profit trumped people in our regulatory institutions.

Getting Arrested

KS – In 2012, you and Green Party vice presidential candidate Cheri Honkala were arrested while protesting housing foreclosures in Philadelphia. You were both arrested again while attempting to enter the presidential debate at Hofstra University. In Texas, you were arrested a third time for attempting to deliver food and supplies to protestors of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Just this week, North Dakota authorities issued an arrest warrant after you and Mr. Baraka were charged with criminal trespassing and mischief when you joined protesters from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe attempting to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Why are authorities so determined to arrest you for participating in protests, yet they let major party candidates slide on crimes such as repeated violation of federal campaign laws?


JS – Yes, exactly! And to hold Hillary Clinton accountable for breaking laws on national security around the use of her private server. Essentially, what the FBI said there was that she was too big to jail, that no attorney would go after her. That’s why they said they weren’t going to prosecute her – because she was too big to jail.

Or in the Clinton Foundation, the favors that were done for donors, like the Russian corporation that now owns twenty percent of U.S. uranium. There are real things that have happened with real consequences. The sale of weapons to human rights abusers like the prince of Bahrain or the Saudis. There are real issues here.

Donald Trump’s abuse of the students who he basically cheated out of their tuition at Trump University. There are real things out there that law enforcement should be going after.

Obviously, they don’t like it when people with a political voice are standing up on behalf of human rights struggles, like what’s going on at the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Sacred Land

Jill Stein gives the final speech of the Chicago rally
KS – In North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Tribe have stated that construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline has already destroyed ancestral burial grounds and stone prayer rings. How can members of minority religious traditions successfully resist the might of powerful corporate interests?

JS – It’s not over, by any means. There are more religious sites that could still be desecrated, and the water is not yet jeopardized – but their water supply will be jeopardized.

All they’ve done is prepare an access road. That’s all they’ve done so far. They haven’t yet begun to dig the trenches, they haven’t laid the pipeline, etc. So most damage can be prevented.

This is a human rights emergency for Native Americans, but it’s a real teaching moment because that human rights emergency is converging now with a climate emergency and a water emergency, as well as a democracy emergency.

Innocent protestors are being attacked by vicious attack dogs and being sprayed with pepper spray in the face simply for asserting our rights of protest and for redress of grievances. And as the National Guard is being brought out now in North Dakota and drones have now been weaponized, a law was just passed in North Dakota, the first state in the country that allows weaponized drones.

This is a terrifying and drastic development. It’s really important that we stand up now in solidarity across the country for indigenous human rights and for our climate and our water supplies. It’s very exciting that a day of solidarity has been declared on September 13, and we’re beginning to see solidarity protests already. There was a big one last night.

The banks that are funding this are being unveiled as the ones who are providing the funding, so there’s going to be, I think, a massive movement here that’s going to be like the KXL [Keystone XL Pipeline] resistance. It’s now going to be amplified and intensified to stop this – basically, this end run around KXL.

Minority Religions

KS – You have long fought for environmental action and policy that protects the planet. At your rally last night, the row of Heathens that I brought all looked at each other when you talked about Mother Earth and told a legend of indigenous American peoples coming together to lead us all in a time of great crisis.

JS – Yes! Ha!

KS – Aside from standing with the Sioux, how have you engaged with practitioners of Earth-centered and non-Abrahamic religious traditions? Non-Abrahamic meaning not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Have you engaged other groups?

JS – Not in a formal way, but I’m certainly very familiar with these ideas.

When I hear Native Americans talk about their legends, they just ring true to me. Maybe it’s growing up in a culture that had great respect for Indians, and the beauty and the majesty of their traditions, and their courage and their nobility in standing up to the onslaught of Western civilization.

While indigenous people have been victimized, and had their land stolen, and all the rest – in a strange way, they’ve also become icons of our culture. To hear their religious stories, they just feel so natural to me. Like they’re part of… They’re a heritage now that has been adopted by us all.

I think that sense of Earth religion has permeated the environmental movement. It’s permeated the justice movement. It’s certainly there in the Black Nationalist traditions, as well. I think it’s really important to be embracing of all these traditions and to find our common ground and our common humanism.

One of their myths is so compelling to me, about how the Rainbow Warriors will come together at a time when Mother Earth is imperiled, and that we will save the planet and humanity by finding our common humanity.

I feel like that is the challenge of our age right now. It’s to find our common humanity and overcome the sense of fear, otherness, and divisions by embracing each other as members of the same human family.

We may tell different stories, but that’s okay. Different stories are enriching the traditions of us all.

Ásatrú and Heathenry

Thor's hammer & uniform photo by soldier Daniel Head
Click here for more on Heathens in the military
KS – Over the past seven years, practitioners of Ásatrú and Heathenry – modern iterations of pre-Christian northern European polytheism – have struggled to have their faith added to the U.S. Army’s religious preference list. Without such recognition, it is difficult for Heathen soldiers to exercise basic religious rights granted to members of other religions: time off to attend worship, keeping religious items or books, and so on.

For seven years, Army chaplains have given Heathen soldiers the runaround and refused to approve multiple requests – even as they declared humanism a religion. So even people who are anti-religion now get the religious rights that members of this minority religion are denied. What message would you send to the chaplains on their denial of equal rights to members of this minority faith who serve their country at home and abroad?

JS – At the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, I heard from many indigenous members who were talking about the military service in their families and about how proud they were of all the wars that their families had fought in – and it’s true. Native Americans, immigrants, people of all different faiths and backgrounds – in particular, in this case, indigenous people – who do not subscribe to the certified list of religions.

It’s really unfair, unjust, and undemocratic in this democracy that they are defending for their human rights not to be respected. I would strongly urge that all religions – whether they are Judeo-Christian or not – all religions should be given the seal of approval there, in order to sustain those people who have put their lives on the line for our country.

They deserve the benefits of real democracy, and real democracy means we do not discriminate according to religion, creed, race, ethnic background, or gender. Period.

Facing Racism

KS – You have spoken against structural racism in the judicial-prison system, stated that the “war on drugs” has disproportionately targeted people of color, and called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to “to acknowledge the enormous debt owed to the African American community.” How would you actually make good on your call for “reparations for the sins of slavery”? How can it happen?

JS – At this point, what I’m calling for is passing the legislation in Congress sponsored by John Conyers that would establish a commission to study the various forms of reparations to decide how it should be done – because it’s not straightforward. It’s going to take discussion, and it should go hand in hand with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that people can actually…

So many people are just oblivious to what this historic burden of what slavery and racism is. It’s not something that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. This is a cumulative and staggering burden. We need to be able to tell our stories to understand this.

In the same way that some of the recent videotaped murders in Louisiana and in Minnesota, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, these were stories that were on videotape that just stopped the hearts of America, these gut-wrenching stories that really brought home to people what police brutality is, in all of its overwhelming detail.

Stories are really powerful. They stop us, and they force us to listen and rethink. There is just a world of these stories that need to be told that are not a part of our history, that are not a part of our culture. It’s really buried.

The dominant Caucasian culture is really quite protected against this history of privilege and devastating racism. We need to package this in stories and music and in art to enable us to come together and affirm our common humanity – through, basically, the arts – to do that.

Dr. Stein has left the building.
KS – Awesome. Thank you.

JS – Thank you! That’s great work that you’re doing, very exciting. It’s an honor to be on the team with you. I really appreciate it.

All photographs in this article taken by and © 2016 by Karl E. H. Seigfried unless noted otherwise.

2 comments:

Martin said...

I was curious to see if you have had the opportunity to pose these questions to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for President? I am a practicing Asatru Heathen disabled veteran, and this is something I know a great many Soldiers would like to know.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

I haven't spoken with any of the other presidential candidates, since I've been swamped preparing for and conducting my interviews with the director and Wotan of the new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There's always something happening!

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