Redefining Democracy in California: An Interview With Luis Rodriguez

2014 528 hudson fwLuis J. Rodriguez at the National Book Critics Circle Awards for the publishing year 2011. (Photo: David Shankbone / Flickr)

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California, the nation’s most populous state, faces a primary election on June 3. This year’s ballot initiatives are not as hot-button as 2012’s, but remain crucial. They include funding for multifamily housing to veterans, raising the cap on damages for medical malpractice lawsuits, and a measure that requires health insurance companies to justify their rates to the public.

Meanwhile, a greater number of candidates are running for governor. Among them are doctoral student Akinyemi Agbede for the Democratic Party (challenging the current governor, Jerry Brown); California State Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of San Bernardino County and former US Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari for the Republican Party; and activist Cindy Sheehan for the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Meanwhile, Brown is running for his fourth term as California governor. Brown, 75, is already California’s longest-serving governor. His public approval rating remains pretty high, at nearly 60 percent.

California has recovered well from its 2008 to 2012 budget crisis. But the state still has a long list of crucial issues to deal with – drought, the impact of climate change, growing economic inequality, an intense battle over inequality and tech-driven gentrification in San Francisco, poverty, fracking and a massive prison system that is eclipsed only by that of Texas. Last year, around 30,000 prisoners across California went on hunger strike against solitary confinement and other harsh conditions within the state’s prisons. Some of these policies, such as fracking, were supported heavily by Democratic politicians like Jerry Brown. In fact, many of the problems California faces – from inequality to mass incarceration to climate change – stem from policies cultivated by Democrats, who are often beholden to the same elite interests.

Writer, author, artist, community organizer and activist Luis Rodriguez is mounting his own insurrection against California’s status quo. I spoke with him about his life as a former gang member, his experiences as a writer and activist, his gubernatorial campaign and his radical vision for California.


Adam Hudson: Why are you running for governor of California? What prompted this decision?

Luis Rodriguez: Because we need real choices, more voices.

Like most Californians I’m tired of the millions of dollars needed to run a campaign, let alone be heard. Governor Brown himself has amassed close to $20 million. There is now a multi-billion dollar industry around elections. Companies and major media outlets are profiting, but the rest of us just get plenty of talk, none of the walk.

1) End poverty; 2) provide clean, green and efficient energy and healthy environment; 3) overhaul the bloated and failing state prison system (the largest in the world after the US federal prison system); 4) institute single-payer quality health care from the cradle to the grave; 5) provide free – non-debt – quality education from pre-school through university; 6) create access to art, music, dance, theater, books, writing, festivals, murals and more in every neighborhood.

We need to address and resolve the issues that matter, which the Democrats or Republicans will never take on fully, such as unemployment, economic distress, the unsustainable environment.

As African-American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

I’ve seen the lives of my family and neighbors go downhill. I’ve seen the planet I love get poisoned and scarred through corporate misuse of our vital resources. I’ve seen people sick and killed from diseases linked to capitalist production and profiting, like Type II Diabetes and cancers. And I’ve seen our political power eroded and our civil liberties crushed.

Over the past 40 years as a revolutionary thinker, leader and writer, I’ve used many forums, tools and actions over the years – including the media, nonprofit, community-based groups as well as grassroots, independent movements – to provide knowledge, strategies and practical steps towards a world that is healthy, thriving and free for everyone.

By the way, at age 22, I ran for Los Angeles school board, and in 2012, I was vice-presidential candidate with Rocky Anderson for president under the Justice Party.

Why not run for governor?

Discuss your platform. What are the most pressing issues facing California and how would you address them? What’s your vision for California?

My campaign is about new ideas, new imaginations, an encompassing and inclusive governance. Here are the main issues as I see them: 1) end poverty; 2) provide clean, green and efficient energy and healthy environment; 3) overhaul the bloated and failing state prison system (the largest in the world after the US federal prison system); 4) institute single-payer quality health care from the cradle to the grave; 5) provide free – non-debt – quality education from pre-school through university; 6) create access to art, music, dance, theater, books, writing, festivals, murals and more in every neighborhood.

My candidacy is the intersection of the three pillars of a flourishing society: the environment, the economy and social justice.

As for solutions, I summarize my plan as aligning resources to needs. Governor Brown has proposed a $10 billion prison budget. I would stop warehousing people (and generating better criminals at taxpayers’ expense) and provide rehabilitation, restorative justice practices, alternative sentencing, mental and drug treatment, healing circles, the arts, training and jobs. As proven around the country and world, this is far cheaper and more effective.

I would charge a severance tax for oil companies who “sever” oil from the land, with possible billions in state coffers (California is the only place on the planet that does not do this), while at the same time using solar, water and wind energy technologies to get us away from fossil fuels altogether.

The root cause of poverty and crime is capitalism itself.

I would end hydro-fracturing (“fracking”) of shale deposits to extract natural gas and oil, which uses millions of gallons of water, mixed with benzene and other toxic chemicals, that in turn poisons the air and water supply. I would get people to work on clean and green jobs – or provide a livable income (to start, I’d implement a $15 an hour minimum wage). This includes fixing and upgrading the irrigation systems in California’s Central Valley to stop waste (50 percent of all irrigation systems are outmoded; agribusiness here already uses 80 percent of our total water). I would tap more meaningfully the $38 billion generated from our commercial ports, the busiest in the nation.

I would also legalize marijuana and properly regulate and tax its production and use for more state funding. And I would stop the $68 billion (which could end up more like $200 billion over time) high-speed rail project from LA to San Francisco to be used by only 200,000 – mostly business – commuters.

There is money in California. And we don’t need to issue bonds, borrow from high-interest financial institutions or make cuts in food, work or housing programs to “balance the budget” as Governor Brown has done by unbalancing our lives.

When the state works for the poor, the working class, the neglected and pushed out, it works for all of us. My main principle is the healthy and whole development of anyone is dependent on the healthy and whole development of everyone.

Talk about your background. You spent much of your younger years as a gang member. Then you became a prolific writer, poet, journalist and activist. How did you get out of the life of crime and gangs? Did that experience shape your outlook on the world? If so, how?

I was born on the border – El Paso, Texas to be precise – even though my family lived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. When I was 2, we moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles and later to the East LA area. At 11, I joined a gang in one of the poorest communities of the time. At 12, I began drug use, including heroin. Since 13, I’d been detained for stealing and fighting, and held in local jails, juvenile hall and two adult facilities facing charges for attempted murder and assaulting a police officer. (At 16, I was stuck in murderer’s row of the Hall of Justice jail during the so-called East LA riot, but in the end charges were never filed.) I had been shot at on more than a half dozen occasions, including by machine-gun fire and at point blank range, yet never hit. Still, 25 people I knew were killed by the time I was 18.

However, it all ended in a whimper. I was saved from a long prison term when community members wrote letters on my behalf. I also began heroin withdrawals and at 19, left gangs, crime and drugs for good. I had mentors from the radical wing of the Chicano movement, who also introduced me to revolutionaries in the African-American and labor movements. I began a life of study and organizing.

One of these mentors got me back into high school after I had dropped out, and had me painting murals when I was caught spray-painting graffiti in the community center where he worked.

To help stay out of trouble after leaving “the crazy life,” I worked several years in industry and construction, including in a steel mill, a paper mill, a lead foundry and a chemical refinery. At age 26, I became a journalist and writer – I’ve been doing this for almost 35 years.

All these experiences, including intense Marxist study – and Native American/Mexican spirituality in my later years – inform and guide what I do today.

Please talk about your journalistic work. I know you covered the Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, US labor battles, gangs, poverty and other issues.

In the early 1980s as a daily newspaper reporter, I covered crimes, murders and disasters in San Bernardino, which had the second highest murder rate in the country at the time. Unfortunately, after two years, the right-wing editor blacklisted me from mainstream media after I tried to expose the police murder of an unarmed homeless man. Still I wrote for alternative publications, magazines and in radio, taking me across the country covering labor battles, police abuse, immigrant rights issues and more. I also freelanced pieces on indigenous and campesino uprisings in Mexico, the Contra War in Nicaragua and Honduras and gang wars in Central America.

During that time I was bombed twice and soldiers put guns to my head.

In addition, I became a writer and public affairs associate for the largest union representation elections in US history – some 60,000 employees of the University of California system – and other union battles when I worked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO.

Over the years my reportage and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, US News & World Report, San Jose Mercury, The Nation, Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, Christian Science Monitor, LA Weekly, Fox News Latino, California Public Radio, and Chicago’s WMAQ-AM/All News Radio, among others. I once had columns for The Progressive magazine and The Huffington Post.

I’ve also edited the People’s Tribune out of Chicago, Xispas online magazine, ChismeArte literary and art magazine in East LA and have been founder/editor of Tia Chucha Press for 25 years.

And I’ve published 15 books in poetry, children’s books, a novel, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. My best-selling book, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), has been called one of the most checked out books in libraries – and one of the most stolen. The American Library Association also designated the book as one of the 100 most censored in the country.

Discuss the work you’ve done in prisons, with gangs, and on issues relating to crime and poverty. What is the root of poverty and crime? How should those problems be addressed?

Over the past 40 years I’ve worked to turn troubled youth around and for urban peace throughout the United States (mostly Los Angeles and Chicago) and in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Venezuela, Peru, Italy and England. This work includes 35 years doing talks, workshops and readings in prisons and juvenile facilities of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and more.

I’ve also visited stark and inhumane prisons and juvenile facilities in Mexico and Central and South America. And I once spent three days talking to prisoners of Her Majesty’s Juvenile Offenders’ Institution in southern England.

Although the state is rich in resources, it has a worse poverty rate than Mississippi’s.

In addition, I helped author a community-based gang intervention model, along with 40 peace advocates, gang interventionists and researchers, approved by the City of Los Angeles in 2008. I also helped with a US Congressional bill based on this multi-prong, comprehensive approach, sponsored by US Congressman Tony Cardenas [D-California].

The root cause of poverty and crime is capitalism itself. We need a society based on cooperation, caring and creativity – not profits, war and social control. For troubled men and women, we need to give people a “chance to live,” as Clarence Darrow once said. To start, we need a government that works for us – not the 1%.

And what’s wrong with California’s current political establishment?

There are many problems with Governor Brown’s policies, but one statistic should help put these in context: There are now almost 9 million poor people in California, with around 3 million impoverished since Brown has been governor.

Although the state is rich in resources, it has a worse poverty rate than Mississippi’s.

I’ve gone up and down the state almost 10 times since last October. I’ve visited and talked to many pissed-off Californians in hardscrabble cities like Fresno, Salinas, Merced, Stockton and Richmond. I’ve known of elderly people being pushed into the streets with Ellis Act evictions in highly gentrified San Francisco; I’ve talked to family members and neighbors of 13-year-old Andy Lopez of Santa Rosa, unjustly killed by a sheriff’s deputy; I’ve stood next to college student Aloni Bonilla in a press conference to announce a lawsuit against a California Highway Patrol officer who beat her while she was handcuffed; I’ve supported hundreds of poor black and brown students being pushed out of a building housing the Inspire Research Academy in Watts to accommodate the offices of their own councilman; I’ve joined in protests against Exide Technologies in Vernon, which is believed to be responsible for 25 percent of cancer cases among 110,000 East LA/Southeast LA residents due to air and water poisoning from this battery recycling plant; I read poetry during an open-mic reading in the garage of a resident of scandal-ridden Bell because there are few to none cultural spaces in working class communities . . . I can go on and on.

Both Republicans and Democrats have to answer to this – and Governor Brown trying to balance the budget on the backs of poor and working families should not be left off the hook.

California is a Democratic Party stronghold. Governor Jerry Brown is a Democrat. The state legislature is strongly Democratic. Both California senators – Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer – are Democrats. Yet, you’re running as an independent and are endorsed by the Green Party. The electoral system is not very kind to third-party or independent candidates. Why run independently? What’s wrong with the Democratic Party and two-party system? Do you worry about being a spoiler for the Democrats?

Last question first: You can’t spoil what is already rotten to the core. My candidacy is about a new way of thinking, relating, organizing and winning. I’m not here just to represent the poor and working class. I’m doing this campaign with them – if I should ever get to Sacramento, I will have our leaders, women, LGBT organizers, communities of color, labor, immigrants, environmentalists, youth and more at the table.

No decisions or policies affecting the lives of Californians should be made without their input, expertise and solutions. This is something the Democrats will never do. They still have top-down leadership, fueled by corporate funds.

The Democrats have been largely running this state, and look how bad things have gotten. The answer is not to go Republican – they do worse damage. (Brown is made to look good around the budget because Schwarzenegger was so bad.)

The time is ripe to end the stranglehold of the Democrats on established labor, African-American, Latino, Asian, Gay and women organizations and leaders.

Running independently makes sense. Some 20 percent of the state’s electorate is “no party preference.” Millions more don’t even bother to register or vote. Even the Green Party and other third parties have to be reoriented, more open and broader thinking, as we move forward. An aim of mine is to infuse the Green Party with greater purpose and new leadership. The internal bickering, disconnections and “purity” politics of many third parties have to end.

The time is ripe to end the stranglehold of the Democrats on established labor, African-American, Latino, Asian, Gay and women organizations and leaders. I’m about seizing the moment.

People with your kind of progressive and radical politics are normally very cynical about electoral politics. They see electoral politics as inherently corrupt and believe building and supporting social movements are more effective at achieving progressive change. You seem to recognize the system’s inherent corruption. So why run for governor at all?

I intend to extend the conversation about what is democracy. When it takes millions of dollars to even “play” (if you’re not paying for ads and airtime, many media outlets won’t include you), this is not democracy. When only two corporate parties dominate, this is not democracy. When politicians make deals – and often tear up the social contract to serve the people – this is not democracy. I know why we have low voter turnouts: Voting has become meaningless.

Nonetheless, we cannot abandon the electoral process to the rich and powerful. A war is fought on many fronts – not just the newest proclaimed “cool” action. We need them all. Don’t give up one quarter of political or cultural space.

I plan to engage the voter by talking about root issues, real solutions, placing the power in the hands of all Californians.

I’m unveiling the undemocratic nature of elections in California and at the same time working like hell to make the electoral process vital by running a transparent, grassroots and uncompromised race.

All this requires strategy, unity, engendering new leaders. A goal of this campaign is to create networks and schools for revolutionary change – to keep campaigning, but as a movement; to reinvigorate and broaden the Green Party, work with other progressive and growing third parties – I’m also active in the Justice Party – but also with progressive Democrats, independents, others.

Therefore, I’m unveiling the undemocratic nature of elections in California and at the same time working like hell to make the electoral process vital by running a transparent, grassroots and uncompromised race.

The way it should be.