Cynthia McKinney

"If we don't make some power moves now and in 2008, we aren't going anywhere as a generation," said Rosa Clemente when speaking about the hip-hop community in a 2004 interview. Four years later, Clemente -- a Bronx-born journalist, community organizer and activist was running for vice president alongside then Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney.

During her six terms as Democratic representative for Georgia, McKinney gained a reputation for being the most controversial member of Congress as she single-mindedly (and often single-handedly) pursued issues like black voter disenfranchisement, U.S. corporate pillaging in Central Africa, vanished Pentagon funds, and -- the ultimate trespass -- the Bush administration's inaction in the face of warnings prior to 9/11. As she left the House in 2006, her farewell gesture was to introduce the first articles of impeachment against then President Bush. McKinney has maintained ties with the hip-hop activist community for many years and introduced a bill demanding that secret files pertaining to government surveillance of late rapper Tupac Shakur be made public.

The rise of the McKinney/Clemente ticket was rather dramatic: Two women of color -- one African-American, the other Puerto Rican-American -- nominated by a heavily white-dominated party with which neither had been associated. Some Greens felt that a candidate with a longer track record in the party would have been a more solid choice; but McKinney's unofficial ties with the party, in fact, stretch back to the 2000 elections when she was first courted by Green Party members. The campaign Web page was started by Greens, who wanted to convince McKinney to do exactly that. After touring more than 20 states by car to promote her campaign, McKinney won nearly every Green Party primary election (most of them with a broad margin), making her a shoo-in at the Green National Convention in Chicago, where she received 324 votes out of 542. On election day in November 2008, she garnered 161,603 votes -- shy of the 5 percent needed for the federal funding of the Green Party.

Since the election, McKinney has stayed on message, most notably by joining forces with the Free Gaza Movement -- a coalition of human rights activists and pro-Palestinian groups formed to challenge the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by sailing humanitarian aid ships to Gaza. But, post-nomination and pre-election season, I made my way to Midtown Atlanta where, nestled in a mass of nondescript businesses, the White Diamond beauty salon-cum-art gallery is located. There, Cynthia McKinney was spending the day in an extended styling and photo session, and would, I was told, be available to answer questions during breaks in the schedule. When McKinney emerged, her hair was a vibrant reddish brown and she wore a grass green tunic with matching earrings. As the Green Queen sat down, I launched my first set of questions -- her responses, presciently relevant.


Liberator Magazine: By which paths did you end up running for the office of President of the United States?

Cynthia McKinney: My family has always been politically involved. My father was a participant in the Civil Rights Movement and it was impossible for me not to be aware of politics, not to understand the notion of justice, the realities of injustice and the optimism of being able to change one's situation. I saw struggle, pain, victory, disappointment and betrayal from a very close vantage point. When my father was a member of the Georgia legislature, he was having a little beef with one of his colleagues. In the heat of the moment he said, "I will run my daughter against you." I had just gotten married, had moved to Jamaica and was down there living the life and trying to be a wife. I didn't know that my father had put me on the ballot as a candidate against his colleague, but I didn't do too badly.

LM: When was this?

CM: In 1986. Two years later, I was separated and went back to Georgia. I ran for the same seat again and won. I had never intended to be involved in politics at the electoral level, so I decided that I would just stay those four years in the Georgia legislature and that my contribution would be to make sure that Georgia abided by the Voting Rights Act in its upcoming reapportionment and redistricting process. I became quite notorious because of my aggressive position that my state must abide by Federal law and make equal treatment available for black voters. Then in 1991, when George H.W. Bush decided to bomb Iraq, I stayed up all night and watched the bombs being dropped on Baghdad, and I wrote a speech. The next day, as I delivered it, my colleagues got up and walked out on me. The photograph that was in the newspaper shows just an empty chamber.

LM: What did you say in that address?

CM: I said that none of the seven reasons Bush had given for why the United States should go to war were enough to convince me. I refuted them one by one. Then I said that George Bush ought to be ashamed of himself, and that was when my colleagues began to leave the chamber. At that point, I realized that I wasn't really talking to them.

McKinney soon discovered that notoriety can be useful in politics. When she decided to run her own campaign for U.S. Congress in 1992 with no money, she found that the bad press she had received actually attracted people "who wanted Georgia to have a fair political system, and who, like me, did not appreciate the fact that the United States had gone to war."

As a result, McKinney was sworn into the House of Representatives in 1993, as the first black woman to represent Georgia. She was re-elected three times. Then, in 2002, she lost to fellow Democrat Denise Majette, a first-time runner. McKinney's defeat is often put down to voters being upset by her demands for an investigation into the Bush administration's failure to act on pre-9/11 warnings. These demands, first expressed in March 2002, made her fair game for the media. The Washington Post described them as tapping into "a web of conspiracy theories." A Bush spokesman declared that the American people "dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views," and that the "fact that she questions the president's legitimacy shows a partisan mind-set beyond all reason." A host on national radio said her comments "bordered on being insane," while an Orlando Sentinel columnist called her a "dangerous fool whose voice needs to be stifled" (The White House, of course, admitted to having received advance warnings of terrorist attacks in May 2002, less than two months after McKinney called for an investigation).

Yet, bad press, partially responsible for bringing her to Washington in the first place, was not the main reason for McKinney's electoral failure in 2002. As the 2006 documentary film "American Blackout" documents in considerable detail, McKinney's loss to Majette was, at least to a large extent, the result of a concerted and aggressive campaign to convince Republican voters to cross-vote. In the film, the orchestrator of the campaign, Mark Davis of a Duluth, Ga. firm called Data Productions explains the rationale behind the campaign in plain terms: "If we can't put in a Republican, then the next-best thing is to put in a moderate." Campaign material designed by Davis and distributed in Republican neighborhoods showed McKinney's face being rubbed out by an eraser, next to the text: "You can get rid of Cynthia McKinney ... Ask for a Democrat ballot [and] vote for anyone but Cynthia McKinney."

The campaign was successful: Tens of thousands of Republicans voted for Majette and McKinney was ousted. "It's some of the best politics I've ever participated in," beams Davis in front of the camera. McKinney made a comeback in the subsequent elections but was again voted out in 2006 after a repeat of the 2002 campaign. In the meantime, however, members of the Green Party had begun taking an interest in the contentious congresswoman from Georgia. To McKinney, it was interesting because "no-one had ever seen a Green Party candidate on the ballot in Georgia."

LM: What was your impression of the Green Party up to that point?

CM: They were great activists, [and] that was basically all I knew about them. But I got to know them and became quite impressed.

LM: With what? Their energy? Their politics?

CM: With their politics. Environmental justice issues were important to me. The zip code of my home just happened to be the most toxic zip code in the metropolitan Atlanta area, which was also the blackest. I wanted the House to authorize a study to establish exactly who was doing this polluting, what kinds of permits the state was allowing, and why only in that particular area. That bill didn't pass, but I presume that the Green Party members figured that I was one of them. And as it turns out, I was one of them. Even though I didn't know anything about the Green Party, I was Green.

LM: Looking back, then, what made you stay in your former party for such a long time?

CM: The reason I stayed in the Democratic Party was that there is no alternative in the state of Georgia, because they've made it so hard to get on the ballot. I'm a registered Green in California, where voters have more choice. And because voters have more choice in California, the Green Party is on the ballot and does well in California. I think Green Party values resonate with the public, but the public just don't know about the Green Party. So the short answer is, there was no choice. In Georgia, if you were going to run for office and win, you had to be either Democrat or Republican.

LM: So, what happened? Now you're running knowing that you will not win.

CM: I have to reject your premise that I will not win. As a minor party, we must define for ourselves what our goals are. We are launching a 5 percent campaign, because if the Green Party is able to cross the 5-percent threshold it gets the legal characterization of a national major party, and gets subsidized by the government in the same way as the Democratic and Republican parties are. So, 5 percent is a victory.

It is important that the Green Party become a national major party in this country because, with what this [current] Democrat-controlled Congress is doing, I think it's clear: We have no opposition party in the United States. The Democratic Party railed against things like the Bush tax cuts that favored the wealthy, but they have done nothing about that now that they are the majority. They railed about funding for the war and now they are sneaking funding for the war through, thinking that the eyes of the American people are closed.

In November 2006, the American people went to the polls thinking that they were going to get peace -- and they got more war. I was the only incumbent Democrat in Congress to lose. Why? Because I would have voted against funding for the war. My replacement in the House of Representatives voted to fund the war. Because of what happened in 2002, they knew how to get rid of me. I was an easy target and they did it again. The bill passed exactly with the required number of votes. If I had been in the House, funding for the war legislation would have failed. One vote, my one vote, would have stopped it.

LM: Don't you feel that it's a big thing to ask people to vote for someone who is not going to be elected president? Isn't it asking a lot from people who have just one vote to give?

CM: I think it's asking a lot of people when you ask them to vote for candidates and parties who don't reflect their values. As a person looking at the track record of the Democratic party, I have to ask, ‘Does this party reflect my values?’ Since the Democrats gained the majority in Congress, they have not addressed a livable wage; they have not repealed the Patriot Act, the Secret Evidence Act, or the Military Commissions Act. They have not repealed the Bush tax cuts.

In time, the Green Queen vanished and reappeared in a striped suit. New make-up session, more shooting. McKinney seemed to enjoy every bit of it and never stopped smiling and laughing -- not until I asked the perennial third-party candidate question, also known as the "spoiler question." I blurted it out in a brusque form during a moment when the photographer fiddled with the lighting:

“Why are you helping McCain win?”

For the first time, I saw McKinney's demeanor darkening.

“I thought you came over here to do something different,” she chided me. “I thought you wanted to understand things. In the 2000 presidential elections, there were 1 million black people who went to the polls and whose votes were not counted. They voted their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations ― they voted their values. And guess what happened? The Democratic party, to whom 900,000 of those votes were given, did not fight for the counting of those votes.” McKinney quoted Sen. Barbara Boxer, who, on Al Gore's request, refrained from intervening for a recount in 2000, but by 2004 had regrets and said: “It really wasn't about Al Gore, it was about the voters.”

“The guy didn't even fight for the votes,” McKinney continued, “and then they want to blame Nader? Anyone who would talk about my candidacy helping McCain denigrates the whole notion of justice in this country.” She also claimed that the spoiler accusation is an arrow aimed selectively at some third-party candidates. "They don't call Michael Bloomberg or Bob Barr spoilers. Bloomberg was a 'fresh breeze' and now they call him ‘the king maker.’”

Although the spoiler question had certainly been raised in discussions about Bloomberg (who never announced a candidacy) and Barr, a quick glance at the Newsweek-o-meter seems to bear out her point. In a November 2007 Newsweek profile of Bloomberg (titled, simply, “The Revolutionary”), “spoiler” appears exactly once, in the following sentence: “[Bloomberg] would not be a vanity candidate, nor does he want to be a spoiler.” Meanwhile, the subtitle of an interview with McKinney posted on Newsweek's Web page asks “Will a third-party candidate be a ‘spoiler’?” One-third of the interview revolves around the perceived futility of her campaign. The most awkward part of the interview being over, I used the next break to steer away from the capricious waters of realpolitik. Why not talk about music instead?

LM: Do you have any memories of the time when you first encountered hip-hop? Do you remember how you reacted to the music?

CM: Oh, gosh ... I remember there was Grandmaster Flash and everyone liked him. When you're young, you know, you react to the music. Then, as I got older and became a mother, I reacted differently. I had to react in some way to that transmogrified version of hip-hop. What happened was that my son's favorite artist was Tupac, and so rather than condemn Tupac, I decided to listen to him. And when I listened, I was blown away by the lyrics. In "Brenda's Got a Baby," he talks about teenage pregnancy, he talks about rape, he talks about all the things that nobody is supposed to talk about. "Changes" -- every line in that song is politically significant. I spent hours playing and replaying and replaying, to get every word of every line. That's why I offered legislation to make public the government's records pertaining to its surveillance of Tupac. It's important to understand that the hip-hop community is surveilled in very much the same way as members of the Black Panther Party were surveilled.

LM: Is that because it is sensed that the hip-hop community is up to something politically radical?

CM: Well, they sense that they it could be, or it could become.

LM: Being from Atlanta, what does the heritage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., mean to you?

CM: As you visit the city of Atlanta and make your way to the King memorial, you will see homeless men and women, who are getting more numerous every day in every city across our country. That is exactly what Dr. King was talking about. He said that this country had given the Negro a bounced check. And I state today that the check still can't be cashed. The United States has the money but it won't put it in the account on which the check is drawn. That goes to the core of why I am running. The racial disparities in this country on some indices are worse today than they were at the time of the murder of Dr. King. That's not progress. As a result of banking practices targeting black and brown people and charging them more to achieve the American dream of home-ownership, we have now experienced the largest transfer of wealth out of black hands since slavery: 92 billion dollars. At the present rate, it would take 581 years to close the wealth gap in this country. I can't wait 581 years! But you know what? Public policy can change it in a generation.

LM: After all you have seen -- in terms of manipulation of elections and how things work in Congress -- you still have faith in this system as a vehicle for change?

CM: I do. The fact that I've been treated so harshly by the system for doing nothing more than trying to correct the wrongs I saw, for trying to cash that check -- if I have to pay the kind of price that I've paid in order to do that, it means that there's value in that position. So much value that millions of dollars have been spent to keep me out of the process. So, it is clearly worthwhile to participate, even when they steal elections as they've done in 2000 and 2004. It exposes to the American people and to the global community that justice has not arrived in the United States.

This is the kind of talk that makes some of the middle class Atlantans I meet refer to McKinney as "that madwoman" (or according to Newsweek's circumlocution: "Best known for her impolitic statements"). But it is also the kind of talk that has, in a short time, built her massive support in the Green Party and made her a presidential candidate. But did her message reach beyond the perimeter of diehard Greens? Were those 5 percent even within sight? McKinney has displayed an ability to wage successful campaigns in extremely adverse circumstances before, and with Clemente as her running mate, she seemed primed to tap into constituencies never before touched by a Green hand. The party was also hoping to lure anti-war voters who might have otherwise casted their ballots for President Obama (then labeled “McCain-Lite” in a Green Party press release). Still, for a third-party candidate to make serious inroads, something more must be achieved: He or she must break through the wall of media indifference, that operates according to the logic that since you won't win, you mustn't be heard (which makes sure you won't win).

“Cynthia has so much to teach us, but maybe she could do more if she wasn't in politics,” posited Cherise Beasley, the stylist and salon owner.

Who are “us?” I asked.

“Us, black people,” she answered. “It never seemed like we could get anything out of politics, but now with [Pres. Obama it looks like maybe, maybe we have a chance.”

So, what should McKinney be doing instead of politics?

“Maybe she could have her own talk show,” Beasley suggested. “She would be able to reach out and make people aware.” Then, she added: “Or maybe she could still be a politician if she wasn't attacked all the time and people would write about what she's trying to say.”

That, indeed, seems to be the rub.

{ exclusive feature}
by Felix Holmgren

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).