The Browning of the Greens | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Browning of the Greens 

Despite conflict between environmentalists and the immigrants' rights movement, congressional candidate Omar Lopez thinks the Greens could supplant the Democrats as Latinos' party of choice.

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The most impressive thing about the Green Party's national nominating convention, held at Symphony Center July 10-13, might've been how multiracial it was. In the crowd, black nationalists and young activists of all colors mingled with white hippies. Fiery former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, who's African-American, was named the Greens' presidential candidate, and Rosa Clemente, a Latina hip-hop activist and journalist from New York, was slated for vice president.

But when keynote speaker Omar Lopez took the podium, it became clear that there's more to the browning of the Green Party than just putting nonwhite candidates up for office. There's a move, especially in Chicago, to incorporate immigration rights as a central issue for progressive Greens, whose focus on environmentalism has sometimes pitted them directly against immigrants.

Lopez, a Mexican-American and longtime immigrants' rights organizer, is running for the Fourth District congressional seat against incumbent representative Luis Gutierrez, who has represented the mostly Latino district for almost 16 years and is known for his own advocacy of immigrants' rights. A leader of the March 10 Movement, Lopez was part of the coalition that staged the massive downtown immigrants' rights marches in 2006 and smaller May Day marches in 2007 and 2008. He's run unsuccessfully for political office twice as a Democrat—both times against Gutierrez.

Lopez and his supporters say Gutierrez isn't doing enough for the cause, and they're calling on Latinos to make the Green Party their route to change. (It might be easier to do that now than ever before: Since Green gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney got more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2006 election, the party now qualifies as "established" through 2010 under Illinois election law. That means that, like Republican and Democratic candidates, Green candidates need only 5,000 valid signatures on their nominating petitions, as opposed to the 25,000 a candidate from a "new" party has to gather. It also allows the party to slate candidates for office in the general election.)

The Greens have been active in Pilsen for the last eight years. A handful of them cofounded the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), which spurred city and state agencies to order the H. Kramer smelting plant to clean up its operations and has spearheaded several nonbinding ballot initiatives demanding that the Fisk coal-burning power plant in Pilsen reduce its emissions. But despite long hours of knocking on doors, the party's been slow to gain widespread support in the neighborhood, a longtime power base for the Daley-allied Hispanic Democratic Organization.

With Lopez's candidacy, local Green activists—the majority of them still white—hope to build meaningful relationships with immigrants and the immigrants' rights movement. The alliance is equally important to Latino activists.

"We knew we had to have a candidate come out of the March 10 Movement," says Lopez. "The slogan of the marches was 'Today we march, tomorrow we vote.' It would be an empty slogan if we didn't have a candidate."

On the national level, the environmental movement has been largely divorced from or even hostile to immigrants' rights movements. Advocates of drastically reduced immigration targets, ranging from "zero population growth" to "replacement level" immigration levels, include Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson (a former Wisconsin senator), Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, Sea Shepherds and Greenpeace activist Paul Watson, and Randy Hayes, former leader of the Rainforest Action Network.

Since the mid-1980s anti-immigrant forces have repeatedly launched attempts to gain control of the national board of the Sierra Club, and in the early 90s the California Sierra Club joined with explicitly anti-immigrant groups to form the Coalition to Stabilize Population. In 1998 a petition drive by members forced a vote which could have forced the board to adopt a stringent immigration-control position. The measure failed, and the board maintained neutrality on the issue. But in 2004 a slate of five outspokenly anti-immigrant candidates, including former Colorado governor Dick Lamm, launched what was described as a "hostile takeover attempt" of the 15-member national board, which already included five members with anti-immigration views. White power groups even lobbied their members to join the Sierra Club so they could vote in the election—Morris Dees of the watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center called it "the greening of hate."

But local Greens say they have long seen a nexus between immigrants' rights issues and the environmental, racial, and economic justice policies of their party. At the nominating convention the Greens adopted a new immigration-related platform that includes permanent border passes for Mexican and Canadian citizens, an end to immigration-related racial profiling and English-only laws, and immigration laws that "promote fairness, nondiscrimination and family reunification."

"Immigration hasn't been a central issue in past campaigns, but that's changing this year," said Jerry Mead-Lucero, a Green activist who met his wife, Claudia Mead-Lucero, through the March 10 Movement. "Our platform on immigration is much better than the Democrats'. It's tying in to positions on globalization and free trade. Any free trade pact should have free passage over borders, like in the EU."

And with the quickly growing Latino immigrant population nationwide and its widespread disillusionment with the Republican and Democratic parties' failure to pass immigration reform, immigrant communities are fertile ground for new party members.

"This will be a reflection of what the Green Party can offer minorities," says Lopez. "The Green Party is not well known by Latinos yet, but this is an opportunity for the party."

Lopez, 63, is himself an immigrant: he came to Humboldt Park with his parents from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in 1958. He became politicized in the wake of riots that swept the Puerto Rican community when a police officer shot a youth after the Puerto Rican Parade in June 1966. His first and second wives were Puerto Rican (he's now divorced), and he's been an activist in the Puerto Rican community for years.

In the late 60s he served as minister of information for the Young Lords, an organization formed by local Puerto Rican street gang members to address community issues. Based in Lincoln Park, then a rough Puerto Rican neighborhood, it was similar in genesis and philosophy to the better-known Black Panthers, with gang member and activist Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez its highest-profile figure.

"The mission was basically self-determination for Puerto Rico and for the neighborhood," Jimenez says. "Community empowerment and the whole question of Puerto Rico being a direct colony of the U.S."

In 1969 the Young Lords joined the Black Panthers and the Young Patriots, an Uptown-based group of white working-class young people with Appalachian roots, to form the Rainbow Coalition. "We were all organizations fighting against displacement," Jimenez says. "Prior to that no one had really fought back against the Daley machine." They worked with Mexican, Chicano, Chinese, and other ethnic activists in a larger multiracial organizing movement in Chicago, and chapters in other cities spun off from the Chicago organization.

They used a formula similar to the Panthers, "a survival-pending-revolution model of organizing," says James Tracy, author of a forthcoming book on the Rainbow Coalition. Also like the Panthers, the group sometimes invited suspicion because of its gang ties: "A certain element was definitely not interested in dropping the drugs and the violence," he says. But "they had extensive social services, breakfast programs, literacy programs, Puerto Rican history classes. They were communicating and meeting basic needs of their community while agitating against urban renewal plans."

Lopez was also a founding member of the mostly Puerto Rican Latin American Defense Organization, which advocated for tenants' rights and other issues in Humboldt Park. In the 70s he taught in the public schools, joining the fight for bilingual education. From there he moved into a post as a bilingual-education specialist for the Board of Education, where he worked from 1977 to 1983.

In 1982 he was named assistant general supervisor for the Park District under Daley loyalist Ed Kelly, a position Lopez says he gained through his advocacy for more soccer fields. In this role he helped secure the Pilsen Park District building that now houses the National Museum of Mexican Art. In 1986, after the amnesty immigration law was passed by the Reagan administration, Lopez left the Park District to help undocumented immigrants get their papers and served as president of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. Since the mid-90s he's been director of CALOR, a nonprofit organization serving Latinos with HIV/AIDS.

Lopez first threw his hat in the ring against Gutierrez in 1986, when he challenged him for alderman and committeman of the 26th Ward, but he withdrew from the race early on. He tried for committeman again in 1988 but lost by a wide margin. He knows most people probably expect a similar result in November.

"People say I'm crazy," he says. "Gutierrez is very powerful. He'll probably harness most of the money, but I'll run a very grassroots campaign with the community groups, soccer leagues, churches."

Pilsen Green Party activist and 2006 state senate candidate Dorian Breuer notes that Green Party candidates consider themselves flush if they're outspent by their opponents only by a measure of ten to one. Jorge Mujica, another March 10 Movement organizer, says one of the campaign's resources will be undocumented residents, who can't vote "but can hand out flyers and knock on doors."

In some ways the race between Gutierrez and Lopez will epitomize a bitter split in the immigrants' rights movement. Gutierrez is cosponsor of one 2007 immigration reform proposal, the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy), which remains stalled in a House committee more than a year after the failure of the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill in the Senate. One immigrants' rights faction, including the powerful local group Centro Sin Fronteras, endorses STRIVE as a needed vehicle for family reunification and a means of securing legal residency for many undocumented immigrants. But another, including the March 10 Movement, has decried the bill, which among other things calls for building new immigration detention centers, increasing border security and surveillance with the help of the Department of Defense, and instituting a guest worker program with stringent requirements including a $500 application fee.

"People see [Gutierrez] as a champion of immigrants, but the proposals he's put forth are far from that," said Lopez. "I don't see immigration as a problem of national security where you need to militarize the border. I see it as a labor issue. As long as you criminalize immigrants and ignore their economic contribution, you're shooting yourself in the foot."

Gutierrez declined to comment for this story.

Mujica thinks the Fourth District race will also pit the Mexican community against the Puerto Rican community. The obviously gerrymandered Fourth District is shaped like a horseshoe, with a largely Puerto Rican north-side chunk encompassing Humboldt Park and Logan Square connected by a thin strip hugging I-294 down to mostly Mexican suburbs and neighborhoods including Stone Park, Cicero, Little Village, Pilsen, and Back of the Yards.

But Lopez—who might have more Puerto Rican support than your average Mexican-American candidate—sees it as a split between Latinos who have benefited or hope to benefit from the Latino arm of Daley's Democratic machine and those who want to strike out on their own. At the nominating convention Lopez didn't mince words in describing the former: "We are going to stumble on many Latinos who will reject the Green Party because they joined the Democratic Party in search of privileges, a job, to be elected to a political position, even to get some consulting and patronage contracts," he said. These "mercenary political activists close the door for others who are sincerely wanting to participate in the electoral process."

Cha Cha Jimenez sees it in similar terms.

"If I was in Chicago I'd probably work 24 hours a day for [Lopez's] campaign," he said. "Not to say I don't like Gutierrez—he's done a lot for our community. But are we here to empower Mayor Daley or empower the people?"v

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