by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“Radicals should not simply support the ‘best available’ candidates in elections, but present themselves for office,” says Eugene Puryear, the Washington, DC, activist profiled by in this issue by Dr. Coleman Adebayo. Puryear believes radicals engaged in electoral politics must “advocate and agitate as loudly and clearly as possible for our ‘side’ in the struggle, the side of the exploited and oppressed.”
Eugene Puryear: A Revolutionary Perspective on Why the Left Should Engage in Electoral Politics
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“Building political instruments that people most oppressed by this system can believe in is a precondition for actual change.”
Eugene Puryear, a 29 year-old African-American activist, was the vice presidential nominee of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) in the 2008 election. He recently ran for an At-Large seat in the DC Council with the D.C. Statehood Green Party. Puryear is the National Organizer of the anti-war ANSWER coalition and has helped organize large protests against the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Puryear and the ANSWER coalition were involved in the campaign to free the Jena 6. He also writes for the PSL's newspaper and journal.
Puryear studied history at Howard University. During his freshman year, Puryear was interviewed by the Washington Post and designated an "activist-in-training." He discussed the importance of organizing against gentrification, racism and the US occupation of Iraq. Eugene is one of the founders of #DC Ferguson, an anti-police terror organization. He has led numerous demonstrations throughout the country and provided a powerful voice in opposition to police murders of Black men and boys. Puryear is the author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.
Coleman-Adebayo: You recently ran for the Washington, D.C. City Council ‘s “At-Large” seat on the DC Statehood Green Party ticket. Why did you decide to run for this position?
Puryear: I ran for this position primarily because, from my perspective, one of the biggest weaknesses of progressive—and radical—movements that engage with electoral politics do so purely from the standpoint of looking for the “best available.” We don’t draw from our own base both amongst the masses of people or our own activists and organizers. Thus, we see people in these movements constantly unhappy with their choices, and with the narrative of many campaigns that claim to be progressive but fall short in terms of substantive proposals.
I wanted to, on the one hand, advocate for solutions to the problems of capitalist society that spoke to the scale of the issue, but also empower others by showing that you don’t have to be some sort of “specialist” to run and be taken seriously while pushing a radical agenda.
Coleman-Adebayo: If you had won, as a socialist, what would you have brought to the DC Council that traditional candidates have lacked?
Puryear: I would have brought a commitment to poor and working people exclusively. We have people who represent every monied interest imaginable, but no one on our City Council unequivocally fights for the rights of the exploited and oppressed. That recognizes in capitalism that there are various political “sides” as an extension of the broader struggle. My role on the Council would not simply be to try to pass innovative proposals or conduct rigorous oversight—which I would have done—but to first and foremost advocate and agitate as loudly and clearly as possible for our “side” in the struggle, the side of the exploited and oppressed.
“You don’t have to be some sort of ‘specialist’ to run and be taken seriously while pushing a radical agenda.”
So, perhaps one easy way to say it is that I would have brought class polarization. Hopefully, clarifying the “sides” in this battle in general and in how it plays out from the point of view of legislation which is almost always constructed to benefit the rich more than the poor.
Coleman-Adebayo: Do you think that running under the DC Statehood Green Party undermined your campaign?
Puryear: I do not. Running as a Democrat would mean becoming a part of a party and a system that is thoroughly committed to the capitalist structure of D.C. A party that has actually carried out policies that have resulted in brutal gentrification of Black working class communities. So while running as a Statehood Green—and for that matter being a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation—gives you some built in disadvantages well-known to third party campaigns, building political instruments that people most oppressed by this system can believe in is a precondition for actual change. The Democrats are an Imperialist party, they are not changing, not one person who has entered the Democratic Party to change it has even remotely succeeded. The only two real examples [who tried to change the Democratic Party] would be Harold Washington in Chicago, who had trouble getting a large section of his own party to support him before his tragic death, and Jesse Jackson’s ’84 and ’88 campaigns that despite being very significant failed to have any lasting impact on the rightward moving Democrats. So while people will go on-and-on about “inside/outside” strategies it should be entirely clear that without getting on with the business of building new political instruments that can serve the working class and oppressed peoples we will not make substantive or lasting change.
Coleman-Adebayo: What societal changes will have to occur before average citizens wean themselves off the two-party system?
Puryear: Very difficult to say. My general rule of thumb is that peoples own experience is the key factor. Has the Obama administration been an experience that starts to push people to look for other electoral alternatives? We won’t know until the 2016 election. I think we can say for sure that a huge number of people have weaned themselves off of the two-party system, they just have not engaged in anything else.
“Legislation is almost always constructed to benefit the rich more than the poor.”
Pew had a very interesting study called “the party of non-voters” pointing out that the people who vote the least are mainly poorer, younger, and more heavily non-white. So in other words, a large part of those many of us on the left spend our time engaging with or trying to empower and organize. So a bigger challenge in my view is how to engage this population in not just our organizing work but also our electoral challenges. How to make sure cynicism does not overcome hope as it concerns politics—electoral and otherwise.
Coleman-Adebayo: When did you become politically conscious? What was the event(s) that triggered your involvement in left politics?
Puryear: When I was a junior in high school I became involved in the anti-Iraq War movement. I had started to become politically conscious in general in middle school, quite a lot of radical politics trafficked in and around my house growing up so, in some ways, my involvement in left politics was simply the natural outgrowth of the values and behaviors I was taught growing up.
Coleman-Adebayo: In 2008, you were the Vice Presidential nominee of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL.) Many people on the left would argue against involvement in electoral politics. How did you counter these concerns?
Puryear: The capitalist class, the 1%, whatever term you use for the elites, use every method and mode they can find to oppress and exploit us. If we are serious about winning, we have to develop strategies both defensive and offensive that counter their moves. The capitalist state is just that, it cannot be transformed, we should have no illusions, but it is a platform and a lever that clearly can be and has been used to push forward radical, and indeed revolutionary movements. The historical record clearly stands much more on the side of revolutionaries that engage in some way with politics as opposed to those who shun parliamentary participation.
Coleman-Adebayo: How does the Left use electoral politics to advance its perspective?
Puryear: First, there is the platform, the ability to use elections and potentially the political office to reach large numbers of people you normally would not have. One article in a major local newspaper is read by more people than you would normally be able to explain your views to over the course of a week.
“The historical record clearly stands much more on the side of revolutionaries that engage in some way with politics as opposed to those who shun parliamentary participation.”
Secondly, it allows us to find the people who still believe in electoral transformation but want a politics that really fights for their interests. These people, many of whom are currently in the two-party structure, are the people we need to build up the sinews of our movement.
These are really just two examples in which there is a lot more to unpack but I think it cuts to the heart of what we gain by participating in the electoral realm.
Coleman-Adebayo: Was your family involved in politics? And what was their reaction to your involvement in left politics?
Puryear: Yes, my Father was the founder of the Non-Partisan Voters League in Tuskeegee, Alabama, and was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the so-called “Black Power” movement. Notably to the former; he is quoted twice in Kwame Ture and Charles Hamilton’s book Black Power.
The reaction has been more or less entirely positive. Being raised in a family with a very strong social consciousness, it would have been more controversial to not be involved in politics somewhere on the broader “left.”
Coleman-Adebayo: You graduated from Howard University from the Department of History. How did attending Howard University [an historically Black university] contribute or detract from your political development?
Puryear: I would say it contributed tremendously. As Kwame Ture says, “at Howard you can find everything and its opposite.” The ability to learn from great scholars, just generally be in a space steeped in so much tradition from the point-of-view of the Black Liberation Movement was so valuable. Further, to also be able to meet and experience so much of the Black diaspora really helped give my politics a certain grounding.
Coleman-Adebayo: What is the future of historically black colleges and how important is it to fight for their continued existence?
Puryear: The future right now is not bright. You have a concerted move by some to transform the mission of HBCU’s to make them less “racially specific.” Clearly in America where the tremendous impact of white supremacy is so significant HBCU’s first and foremost have tremendous cultural value. They provide a space for young Black people to essentially be who they want to be outside of the gaze of White America. You don’t need to worry about people calling you an “affirmative action” admission, or dealing with “ghetto parties” and all the other crass, juvenile, racism that exists on most “majority” campuses. Spaces where Black people can grow, create, share, and debate with each other free of the constraints I just mentioned is invaluable.
“Defending HBCU’s is part and parcel of defending the humanity of Black people as a people.”
I think this makes the fight for their existence paramount. Part of the so-called “post-racial” America has been an aggressive downgrading of the experience and oppression by Black America. We have forced it back into the public eye by launching a youth-led rebellion against racism following the death of Michael Brown. Defending HBCU’s is part and parcel of defending the humanity of Black people as a people, and our ability to create our institutions and spaces inside of this society that help us do that.
Coleman-Adebayo: Currently, you are the national organizer for the ANSWER Coalition. Discuss the mission and goals of the ANSWER Coalition.
Puryear: The goals and mission of the ANSWER Coalition are to build a movement against imperialist war at home and abroad. From our point of view the “foreign policy” of the United States is purely aimed at securing the interests of the rich and powerful which is redefined as the “national interest.” And further, that this is just another dimension of the war waged by the rich and powerful to suppress the poor and excluded at home. We want to build an anti-Imperialist movement that will make those connections and work to link those movements, organizations and individuals together to tackle the elite that benefit from war, poverty, and racism.
Coleman-Adebayo: As a young African-American man what are your hopes and visions for your generation, considering the challenges facing the community of mass incarceration and police killings of Black boys and men.
Puryear: My hope is that our generation will be a fighting generation. I hope we take up the mantle of Emiliano Zapata and decide that we would rather “die on our feet than live on our knees.”
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered South African vanadium mine workers. Marsha's successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com.and coordinates the DC-based Hands-Up Coalition.