Saturday, August 23, 2008

Omar Lopez & 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.

By Kari Lydersen
Chicago Reader, August 14, 2008

Omar Lopez - photo by Jim Newberry

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

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

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

"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

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-deter?mina?tion 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 chal?lenged him for alderman and committeeman of the 26th Ward, but
he withdrew from the race early on. He tried for committeeman 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 deten?tion centers, increasing border security and
surveillance with the help of the Depart?ment 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?"

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