Take Another Look at Rosa Clemente
by Ashahed M. Muhammad / September 19th, 2008
A longtime community organizer, activist, journalist and a member of the Hip Hop nation, Rosa Clemente was picked by Green Party Presidential Candidate Cynthia McKinney as her V-P. You probably haven’t heard Rosa Clemente on FoxNews or CNN, but that doesn’t mean she does not have a lot to say!
Ashahed M. Muhammad: We’ve always known you as a political activist, but how did you feel when you were asked by Cynthia McKinney to take it to the next level, to join her ticket as her VP?
Rosa Clemente: I was honored but overwhelmed. When she called me I thought she wanted me to consult on the campaign, not be her VP, not saying that I am not ready. I wasn’t overwhelmed with the task, I was more overwhelmed with… this is a historical moment for the hip-hop generation and it’s not an ego thing, it’s just the truth and that means a lot. That means that things that I’ve always valued, especially in hip-hop activism and organizing and our generations and accountability, I think that we let too many cats that look like us, be in these offices and have no accountability to what is happening on the ground.
AMM: You bring a whole different perspective as you talk about being a veteran organizer even at a young age and now you are into the political system. Many young people have become disgruntled with the general political system and its process, may even see you and Cynthia’s run as symbolic. Can you explain why you think this is important for you to be on this ticket with Cynthia McKinney?
RC: Yes, I think symbols are great and again it’s history and it is a symbolic thing too but you know like if I am going to be involved in using the electorate or using the vote, I am going to try and follow what my hero, Malcolm X talked about in his speech, “The Ballot of the Bullet.” It’s really how are we going to come together to formulate public policies, policies about self-determination for a people. I think young people want to do that. They know that what the Democrats are bringing or what the Republicans are bringing are destroying. I think many of the people that get talked to, are middle class, not young Black and Latino people who are in college; who have gone through college, who live a kind of suburbia life but nobody is really talking to the average brothers and sisters on the street, the real working class, the real people that work two jobs and still fall under the poverty line. Military people who are discussed with the war and those people exist and I think the Green Party reflects that.
AMM: Presumably you were looking to support somebody for President right?
RC: Well I’m a Green Party member. I’ve been an activist, but I’ve known about the Green Party since I was up in Albany, New York. The Albany Greens have been around for a minute. I’m a registered Green Party member. I lived in Maryland and I couldn’t vote because they weren’t on the ticket. I think it has shocked a lot of people like… ok what is that about? But I’ve always known about the Green Party.
AMM: Now, switching gears to on the political scene, there is a movement for Puerto Rico to become it’s own independent nation. Many Puerto Rican nationalists don’t want Puerto Rico to become another state or part of the United States, give us your perspective on that.
RC: Well first and foremost, I am Puerto Rican and that’s my people; that is where I come from. When I went to school that was one of the first classes I took where I began to learn the history of Puerto Rico and America’s colonization of the island. Now there has always been an independence movement and in fact we did win independence. The United States just came and took away that right of independence and for 50 years had us under governors and this crazy system that ended up making the majority of the people on the island dependent on the American government. In 2008 we said to Puerto Ricans, that you are American citizens. Puerto Ricans, since 1917, have been American citizens, a lot of people may not know that, but we are Americans, we were born American citizens.
RC: If I live in New York, I can vote in the national presidential election, if I live on the Island of Puerto Rico, I can’t. So the fact that we have a system that allows almost 1.7 million people to be disenfranchised every four years is a problem. It’s a complete disenfranchisement of an entire group of American citizens. Puerto Rico is one of the last few colonies of America that the United Nations every year puts through decolonization committee hearings, because it is a colony of the United States.
We hear about neo-colonialism in Africa, but you know in Puerto Rico we are at the colonial state still. I think Puerto Ricans—in this larger group of so-called Latinos—we have a vastly different experience than our other brothers and sisters who for the most part were either brought here on a boats during slavery or immigrated here. I don’t think the Democratic Party has ever been serious about what’s going on in Puerto Rico. In fact, when the FBI three years ago killed Commandante Filiberto Ojeda Rios, former Machatero movement leader—he was a 74-year-old man that the Feds shot in his house and let him bleed to death. Why would they kill a 74-year-old Machatero? Because they know that the fervor on the Island for independence is great. When we won the Vieques victory in May 2003 and we kicked the United States Navy off, the United States loses something. You lost one of the biggest command posts you got right there in the Caribbean. So they have to keep Puerto Rico so they can initiate almost every war. Not because they want the people to be Americans, they want our island to be the strategic command zone in the Caribbean, and even now with the rhetoric around (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez, they need a base in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico is that base. You don’t hear anything about that in this mainstream election, you don’t even hear about it in most progressive Left circles. It is not a conversation, but that’s my country and I understand it intimately. That is where my family still lives and I see how they are struggling with unemployment, increasing police brutality. The fact is that Black Puerto Ricans suffer at every level. We have hoods in Puerto Rico where the police come and beat and kill young Black Puerto Rican men just like in Brooklyn or Chicago or anywhere in the United States.
AMM: Talk to us about that. That is a very important issue, the parallel existence of the Puerto Rican people. There is much that brings our peoples’ destinies together.
RC: I think in this country the way identity is played out or the way language is used is tricky. The English language is tricky. Puerto Ricans are (considered) a race—and I am a hard core Puerto Rican to the death—but we Puerto Ricans are not a race. Dominicans are not a race. Jamaicans are not a race. When we talk about ‘What is Black?’ that’s a very different conversation you have in the United States than you have in Puerto Rico or Peru or in Jamaica or Haiti.
Once I learned who I was and that being Puerto Rican is definitely a cultural-national identity but that obviously I am this skin color, my father has an Afro and my grandmother was Black for a reason. Africans were brought over and dispersed in the Caribbean. Many Africans who were taken from the continent were dispersed in the Caribbean or Central and South America. Many of them didn’t come to the United States. So we are African descendant people and how racism played out in Latin America has always been class stratification. With all that being said I consider myself a Black person, I consider myself an African descendant. I have a different experience than maybe an African-American or Jamaican but I have an overall general experience of us being oppressed and that oppression being racial. Institutional racism and structural racism and it plays out in our communities, no matter if you are Puerto Rican, Dominican or Haitian and I think one of the best tools the enemy always uses is to divide and conquer. We are still under that. We know that we are being divided and conquered but we still fall into a trap and we are doing that for many reasons. I don’t think that we really have strong leadership in this country that is Black or Latino—if you want to say that term—that is saying ‘enough is enough!’ We have more in common than we are different. How are we going to solve these collective problems for the young people who are going to inherit this?
AMM: What will it take, more and more beatings will it get to a point where people just get sick of getting beaten, sick of too many ‘Shawn Bells’ too many ‘Jena 6′ situations, too many ‘Megan Williams’ episodes. Is it going to get that point, what will it take?
RC: I don’t know what it’s going to take. Look at the war, look at the gas prices, look at people not only losing their homes when we talk about sub prime mortgage crisis, we also have to think about all the affordable housing that is being taken away, the rent destabilization in every city—gentrification.
I can’t predict it. Anything can happen to make anything spark. You know how it’s often the person that is real quiet and gets bullied and bullied for years and then one day it’s like ‘that’s it!’ So I can’t predict that, but what I do know is that people are looking for something so outside of the two major parties. The lesser of two evils is a conversation that we can’t tolerate anymore especially as it relates to young people of all races.
We are inheriting a world where most of the outer world hates us. Where 50% of Black and Latino men are unemployed. You have to get into debt to go to college. We have no health care, our food is poisonous, our environment is being destroyed and maybe that’s why what it will be like (when) our American Indian brothers and sisters say ‘Mother Earth is just going to give up.’ I know that the Green Party is for me. I’m not going down without a fight and I am not trying to get in a ring with an enemy that—I don’t even want to fight the Democrats or the Republicans I don’t want to one day open their eyes and (then they) embrace us. I want to do what Dr. John Henrik Clarke taught us, that by using their tools, you can never build your own house. I’m not going to be a Democratic junkie, most of African-American, Latinos in the Democratic Party are junkies that can’t get off of it. It is like an addiction and every time they let us down. You let us down John Conyers! Nancy Pelosi let women down! It’s just like they let us down not in 100 days, in less than 30 days! And look at Obama already gone right to the Right—FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) and the rhetoric on Hugo Chavez, never saying he’s Black always this personal responsibility of Black people, never talking about structural racism. I think there is a majority of young people that are not feeling that and they want to see something different, something innovative. I could be a person. I could say it’s not worth it, but I’m not that person. I could say that the Green Party is majority White yet—so are the Democrats, but at least in the Green Party we are talking about dealing with a multi-racial organization that at least has valued social justice, democracy and livable wages. So I’d rather go in this ring and fight.
AMM: Last we want to address the Hip-Hop community, the cultural reality. If we can send something to everybody who reads this newspaper, everybody who embraces hip-hop what would you say about this election and the candidacy of Cynthia McKinney?
RC: I think that hip-hop was created in the poorest congressional district in America, the south Bronx, where I was born and grew up. These were young people who had nothing and have created not only a multi-billion dollar industry but have created an international way that we can all speak to each other. I think the fact that we have that and that hip-hop can be found in Palestine, in Ghana, in Venezuela in Cuba, in Brooklyn and American Indian reservations, speaks to the power of it, it also makes me understand why we are always being attacked and why they are always attacking the hip-hop community and not differentiate in between (individual) rappers and the entire culture. 35 years ago every person who hated hip-hop was talking about how hip-hop would never last, hip-hop is going to die and asking, ‘what is that music about?’ saying hip-hop is never going to be in a museum, it’s never going to be in a book, there’s going to be no hip-hop professors. Look at us now. The Smithsonian has a whole (hip hop) exhibit. Over 200 books on hip-hop being written. We have White people talking about racial injustice within hip-hop.
We have hip-hoppers being one of the only few people of color on the ground during Hurricane Katrina reporting the truth. So they said hip-hop was going to die in 1978 and it’s 2008.