Life or Death Politics: A Conversation with Howie Hawkins

The Green Party's presumptive presidential nominee on nukes, climate change, defunding the police, and showing up at the White House on a horse.

(thumbnail image made of public domain photos, created by me, sadly)

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Five days ago I talked to Howie Hawkins. Hawkins is a labor organizer, UPS worker, and lifelong activist who looks to have just sewn up the Green Party nomination for President of the United States. He’s also the presumptive nominee of the Socialist Party USA, and he’s making no bones about the fact that he’d like Bernie Sanders’ loyal voters to go third party this year.

Hawkins is always very keen to talk about the two issues that are very close to my heart (and should be close to everyone’s heart): nuclear war, and climate change. For that reason alone, it seems like a no-brainer that he should be on debate stages—or debate Zooms or whatever—as the election draws closer.

I’ve edited this conversation very lightly. But I’ve also annotated it with lots of links and a few bracketed remarks. I know it looks like I’m fact-checking Hawkins—and I sort of am—but that’s not why I did it this way. It was more to highlight underreported kernels of information. Plus, I think you’ll find that his off-the-cuff remarks stay well within the realm of the factual.

We touch on life-or death issues, and talk a lot about Joe Biden, plus third-party presidential politics, the future of the Green Party, and Hawkins’ not-so-secret plan to ride a horse to the White House and challenge Trump to a debate.

MIKE: To start with I want to talk about something that’s keeping me awake at night: the border conflict between India and China. These are nuclear powers clashing at their border, and there have been battle deaths. How do you contrast the way you look at a situation like this to the way candidates like Trump and Biden do?

HOWIE HAKINS: Well, that is news to me, but I’ll tell you one of the top three issues I've been campaigning on is nuclear disarmament. I mean, I've framed my campaign around three life or death issues: climate meltdown, inequality—working class life expectancy is in decline, and then the new nuclear arms race. And now we got the COVID crisis and police brutality. Now we're talking about five or life death issues, but what I haven't seen about the new nuclear arms race—and I think this is relevant—is that the U S modernizing its force—which started under Obama—has destabilized the nuclear situation the Russians have followed suit. China and India have had policies of minimum credible deterrence, but now they're worried about first strike capabilities of their adversaries. So this has triggered a whole new nuclear arms race.

This should be a top campaign issue and none of the major party presidential candidates that talked about it—except if you want to call Mike Gravel a major party candidate, he was talking about it until he dropped out, to his credit. We need to take tension-reducing initiatives. So we're talking about deep cuts and military spending. I'm talking about 75 percent—bringing troops home from these over 800 foreign military bases and the seven shooting wars we're engaged in. Pledging no first use of nuclear weapons, disarming to a minimum credible deterrent, and then going through the eight other nuclear powers and saying, We want to negotiate complete and mutual nuclear disarmament. We have 122 nations that [voted in favor of] the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons three years ago. And the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons got the Nobel Peace Prize for that achievement and very few people in this country, even know that—not a campaign issue. The corporate media doesn't talk about it.

[Note: I sure didn’t know this. Here’s the video of Beatrice Fihn finding out she won the Nobel Peace Prize for this]

And it's a life or death issue. The Union of Concerned Scientists says their Doomsday Clock is the closest they've ever had it to midnight. So I think this is a huge issue. So I think the US could—and Biden's not likely to do it—take these initiatives and say, let's get serious about nuclear disarmament, and beyond that, conventional disarmament. And let's start using our resources to solve problems like climate change and poverty around the world. But just with respect to a Chinese Indian conflict, we should have a strong diplomatic corps that can, you know, talk. Trump has gutted the State Department. So that's another big problem.

Can you talk a little more about how your plans contrast with Biden’s as far as diplomacy?

Well, first of all, he doesn't have any plans. Last time I looked on his website, nothing about this issue of nuclear weapons

[Note: I looked into this, and while nuclear weapons in other countries are mentioned on Biden’s website, the US nuclear arsenal isn’t at all, unless you count the following two things: There’s a list of “inescapable challenges” that includes it briefly—just “the risk of nuclear conflict.” And his bio includes a mention of “his decades-long leadership on nuclear arms control.” There’s no nuclear disarmament or nuclear arms control plan at all].

He was there as vice president when the [Obama] Administration decided they were going to embark on this—what they said was going to be 1 trillion but now it's going to be multi-trillion dollar—nuclear modernization program. He's been a Hawk his whole career. I mean, he was kind of a dove toward the end of the Vietnam war when everybody was. Other than that he's been a Hawk, so I don't think he's got a program for dealing with this. I think he buys into U S military doctrines, which are full spectrum dominance: all fields—including space!—and opposing the rise of another superpower. They see Russia and China as adversaries. Even if it's not military it's economic. We should have the attitude that it's good if those countries are developing, and we should be working with them on common problems like climate change.

I watched the state of the union address and when Trump had Juan Guaido up in the gallery and gave him props. I didn't see one damn Democrat, not give him a standing ovation along with the Republicans. I think there are a couple of Democrats who have said it's none of our business to tell Venezuela who their leaders should be, but most of them back the effort by the Trump administration to change the regime. So I really don't see any, any dissent from this global military empire that the US operates from the Biden wing of the Democratic party.

I think Bernie said the other day, he wants to cut the military budget by 10 percent. Barbara Lee and somebody else I’m forgetting [I think in fact this was just Barbara Lee] who just put in a bill to cut the military budget by 350 billion, which is nearly half. I haven't seen anything like that in 30, 40 years. I don't think it's going anywhere, but on the edge of the Democratic party, there's some dissent. Biden in the mainstream of the party, nothing there, they see, they support our military budget.

And your proposed cuts?

We're talking about 75 percent. And honestly, I just got that, because I know the US cut 75 percent in the first two years after World War II.

[Note: For what it’s worth, there’s a graph in this report from the Heritage Foundation of all places that makes it look plausible that the cut was actually much more than 75 percent].

So that's just to say it can be done.

What would you be cutting exactly?

We're doing some work trying to identify what to cut and then what to do with those savings. But it's complicated and it's taking a while. We're digging into it. You have the Pentagon budget, but then if you count all the military-related spending our budget's a little under 800 billion, but there are analyses both by the left and the libertarian right that put it at about one and a quarter trillion. For example, nuclear weapons are in the energy department. And then you got the intelligence services and the Department of Homeland Security, and of course the VA handles services to veterans, and then you can add in the portion of the debt attributable to military streaming and foreign wars. We're working through that, but 75 percent is it. The main thing for me is that it's reducing the tension in the world. Now, the rest of the world: we're not coming after you. We're going to defend ourselves, but we're going to have a new approach to international relations.

Can you talk a little about Joe Biden’s plan on climate change? I noticed he’s not into banning fracking, and he wants to get to net zero emissions by 2050.

I wrote an article last fall looking at all the democratic plans and comparing them with mine, and Biden had the worst. None of them were serious as far as I'm concerned, except Bernie Sanders. Bernie had a 16-point $3 trillion, ten-year program.
Mine, we call it the Green Economy Reconstruction Program, as part of our Green New Deal, which also includes an economic bill of rights. That was 27-and-a-half trillion over 10 years to get us to zero to negative greenhouse gas emissions and a hundred percent clean energy in a decade by 2030. Bernie did energy and transportation—which should be about half the carbon footprint—and left manufacturing, agriculture, and buildings until 2050.

I look at Biden's plans and I don't see how they'll get us there by 2050. He doesn't have much public investment. He has some public subsidies for the things he wants to do, including carbon sequestration, so we can keep fracking the hell out of the country and burning gas. He's got incentives for electric cars, but there's not really a strong program to replace combustion-engine vehicles with zero-pollution vehicles. And then he wants to build a lot of nukes!

I mean, and he was part of the Obama administration providing subsidies through a bunch of nukes in South Carolina and Georgia, all except two of which have been shut down because of cost overruns and construction delays. You're still pushing two in Vogtle, Georgia, but they're in trouble. That's a diversion of resources. The nuclear power industry is probably the most unsuccessful industrial endeavor in the history of the world. They can't insure it. The federal government has the Price-Anderson Act to partially cover in cases of catastrophic accident. [Note: Here’s an interesting and brief letter to the editor in The New York Times about this insurance issue.] Now even those that are operating, they want to shut down. In New York, Cuomo has got about $8 billion subsidy to four nukes that Exelon owns. They wanted to shut them down and Cuomo wanted to keep them running and say it was carbon-free energy.

So I think [Biden's] energy policy is terrible. If he uses the phrase “Green New Deal,” that was a signature issue of the green party for the 20-tens! [Note: yes, Biden does use the phrase “Green New Deal.”] I was the first candidate in the United States to run on a Green New Deal in 2010 when I ran against Cuomo. And that was at that time as much an economic recovery program through public investments in clean energy as it was a climate action program. And now with the coronavirus depression, we're in the same situation. We need those massive public investments to get the economy pulled out of this hole. Biden and Trump—the Democrats and Republicans—have this dogmatic faith that private enterprise alone is going to build an economic recovery.

I don't see it. Consumer demand is down. People are holding on to paper—their essentials. And investors see investments as too risky. So they're going to hold back. That's the recipe for a long-term depression. Yeah. So Biden on energy? I mean, he's been in office for 50 years. I can't think of one thing he's championed in the energy field, or anything else. Except for mass incarceration. The 1994 crime bill. The switch in the Democrats from being "New Deal Democrats" to corporate "New Democrats." He became a fiscal Hawk, and he was one of the first to use the phrase "We're social liberals and fiscal conservatives," but he wasn't so socially liberal on desegregation for example.

So yeah, his energy policy was the worst of all the Democrats.

You touched on Biden’s record on criminal justice. Do you support abolishing the police? [Note: It’s crucial to keep in mind that when Hawkins says the word “police” he emphasizes the first syllable. His southern accent is always noticeable, and a little hard-to-place. He’s from the Bay Area.]

I don't like to use that phrase. I think the police, about 5 percent of their arrests—less than 5 percent—have to do with violent crime, and less than 13 percent deal with serious property crimes.

[Note: I don’t know where Hawkins’ numbers are from, but they’re plausible. Here’s the FBI’s crime stats page. Violations aren’t sliced up according to whether or not the crime is violent, but it’s abundantly clear that most crime is nonviolent.]

So I think you need somebody who can deal with those situations and you can call them something besides police, but that's what they're going to be. But at least 80 percent of what they do should be covered by other people. If you have a homeless person, you don't go charge them with vagrancy; you should find them a home. If somebody's got a drug abuse problem, you don't send her to jail. You send them to medical treatment. Same with somebody having a mental crisis. They need a psychologist or somebody like that, not a guy with a sidearm and no expertise in that field.

So I'm for… they call it “defunding” the police, which is, in most cases, they mean reallocating, a major portion of police budgets to other social services. My problem with that is there's not enough money in the police budgets to solve those social problems. We need a major social investment. Particularly in our working class communities of color that have been discriminated against and exploited for generations. And so we not only need to reallocate police budgets, we need to have a major federal investment. That's the green new deal we're talking about. Urban league has talked about a Marshall Plan for the city since the sixties. That's the kind of federal investment we need.

Most of what [the police] do, they shouldn't be doing. Those are social problems. They're dealing with behavior that shouldn't be criminalized. Drug use should be a health problem, not a criminal problem. And that's the biggest single category of arrests in the country—16 percent of all arrests [13 percent in 2007 according to the FBI, so I rate this as plausible, even though I don’t know where it’s from].

What are you proposing that differs with what you see coming from the Democrats and Republicans?

You know the Justice in Policing Act from the Democrats? The Republicans are going to try to get in on that, and then locally, a lot of demands made on police departments to change practices and improve accountability, and review boards… You know, that still leaves the police policing themselves, and that's why they've been able to commit crimes and violence against people with impunity. What I think we need to be demanding is community control of the police. Those aren't citizens' review boards; those are police commissions that it could be publicly elected or even selected by randomly like juries. And they would have the power to hire and fire police chiefs, and clean house in these departments of the racist and the sadists—we know the right has been recruiting white supremacists into law enforcement. You gotta get them out. They should have the power to negotiate police contracts and get rid of these charters that insulate them from accountability. They could review police practices and budgets, and have the power to investigate and discipline police officers. So the police will work for the people, particularly in the communities that have been discriminated against and exploited.

Because frankly, the police departments we got are doing what they were designed to do. They were set up to keep downscale people down and out of the upscale communities, and that's what the politicians have done, and the people behind them, which tends to be in cities the real estate developer industry that has profited from housing segregation, which led to school segregation. I think community control needs to be put forward.

I live in a high-crime neighborhood. We had a kid shot in the face by the police that weren't wearing their cameras. A few years ago I think we were ranked third in terms of teenagers being shot and killed by each other [Couldn’t find this stat, but Syracuse has an awful lot of shootings]. We have a group here that marches everyday called Last Chance for Change against police brutality. A week ago, Thursday, while they were marching, there were seven shootings in the city. So, you know... People say “abolish the police,” well, are you going to go deal with those shootings, and catch the shooters?

[Note: I don’t know where his stats are from, but there were six shootings in Syracuse on a different night in the same week as the one he’s talking about. Seven in one day seems plausible.]

So I think you're going to need some people that do that. And that's what we call “police.” When people think of police, that's what they think they're doing. The problem is that's not what they're doing. In fact, they're terrible at it. I was looking at statistics the other day, in the case of violent crimes and serious property crimes, they only clear about 25 percent of them with arrest. [Note: Yep. 46.5 percent of violent crimes are reported, and 46 percent of those are solved].

So they're not good at finding out who's doing this. And that's why 60 percent of people that are victims of these crimes don't even report it to the police [Note: More like 53 percent]. So we need police that really serve and protect us. I was around in the sixties, in the San Francisco Bay area. And when the black Panther party put forward their referendum for community control of police in Berkeley, their poster said "pigs or policemen?" And in our environment we still say that. "We want good police. We want to get rid of the bad ones" and, "We want them to protect us and help us deal with serious crime." So, abolition of the police? Frankly, living in a neighborhood like that, it sounds a bit like it's coming from the professors who don't live here.

Jill Stein, the Green party nominee from last cycle, left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths—in the pundit class in particular. There was that inopportune photo with Putin, and what people perceived as giving too much time to anti-vaxers, her supposed role as a spoiler, and other things that turned a lot of people off. Do you plan to, um, contrast with her in any major ways?

No, I’ll defend her. She was smeared. I mean when Hillary Clinton went on that—what's his name? The guy that ran Obama's campaign, David Plouffe’s podcast and said she knew for certain that Jill was a Russian asset, that was a baseless smear.

The Putin picture, you know… I've been criticized. I advised her not to go. RT had their own agenda. [Stein] had things to say about demilitarization, and about the U.S. and Russia. Nobody knows about the speech she gave, just that picture. Actually in the discussion we had at the time, somebody said, "You know, he can take a picture and that'll be the story." And that's what it was.

And the vaccine stuff? She's a doctor. She supports vaccines. You know, and people have jumped on her because she said the FDA should do its job, which it should. We had a terrible experience with the swine flu thing that a [President] Ford pushed out back in the seventies. [Note: If you don’t know this story, you should read up on it]. And there's even a danger now, with Trump pushing the vaccine to go out without proper testing. So to call her an anti-vaxxer? That’s just not true.

She’s been a target. The Democrats—Plouffe and Clinton in that podcast, and the chattering classes? I think it's so silly for them to look at the Green Party is why they lost that 2016 election. They didn't get their own people out. The biggest group of people that voted for Obama and didn't vote for Clinton or people that stayed home. Jill Stein got a very small portion of those voters. Actually, Trump got an even smaller portion, but the Green Party was not their problem.

[Note: Do your own math on this one. This is much too subjective to fact-check. Here’s Nate Cohn’s opinion on the matter. If you’re reading this, I doubt you’ll see that as definitive.]

In fact, I wrote a column which made me the target of Noam Chomsky and a bunch of other intellectuals telling me I should stand down in the so-called battleground states. I explained to them for the Green Party, every state's a battleground. We're fighting the Democrats on our issues, whether it's fracking or affordable housing or military bloat, wars, and coups.

Every four years, people who are on the left fringe of the Democratic party are like, I'm not going for a Green candidate. If they want to be a party, then they need to build up power and run in down-ballot races. So I kind of wanted to hear your answer to that. And are you working towards something like that?

Yes, and I've been making that argument since the first national meeting to organize a Green Party in this country in August, 1984 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I mean, I came out of the sixties as somebody for a third party. They had Peace and Freedom in 68, which became part of People's Party in 72 and 76. and then we had the Citizens Party in 80 with Barry Commoner, the foremost environmental scientist. And the German Greens were—or at least Patrick Kelly was—calling that "America's Green Party." But I went to that meeting saying, “We can't build this out of a presidential campaign. We've got to organize local groups, a real base, get involved in local politics and build from the bottom up,” which we proceeded to do for the next dozen years. So by the time Ralph Nader, let us use his name in 1996. He didn't campaign actively, but we put them on the ballot in over 30 States, which laid the basis for his 2000 campaign where he did actively campaign, and put the Green Party on the national map. But we still need to--we talk about this, and we need to do a better job of it--run more local candidates.

But—and this is where the presidential race is relevant—in 40 of the 50 states, how the presidential candidate of a party does determines whether the party has a ballot line for the next election cycle, and having a ballot line makes it much easier to run for office. Much lower petitioning requirements. The United States is off the charts in terms of ballot access of any electrical democracy.

I'll give you a comparison because I got these numbers. You want to run as an independent for Congress? In most States, it takes thousands of signatures. In New York: 3,500. Illinois, it's over 15,000. Georgia, it's over 20,000.

You want to run for the House of Commons in the UK? 10 signatures. Australia? 50 signatures.

So if we want to run somebody for Congress [with a Green ballot line] it's about a hundred signatures of Greens. We got the list. We just go out and get them; that's 5 percent of the Greens enrolled in the district. But you want to run [a Green candidate] as an independent, because you don't have a ballot line? You need 3,500, and you only have a six week window to get them. It's very hard. So that's one reason to run for president. To get these ballot lines so we can run more local candidates. And one of the messages I'm telling to the Greens is we should be electing thousands of local candidates as we go into the 2020s in order to build the party from the bottom up into a major party.

What does the strategy look like for actually accomplishing that?

We have 129 electeds around the country. You know, that's probably more for a third party on the left, since the socialist party's heyday, you know? Which ended in the 30s. But on the other hand, it's a drop in the bucket. There's about 500,000 elected offices in this country. And many of them, sometimes they even go begging for any candidates, or a lot of them are unopposed. And because of gerrymandering, and one-party districts effectively, Democrats don't seriously challenge rural Republicans and Republicans don't seriously challenge urban Democrats. The Green Party can run a serious campaign in all those districts and be the second party right away. And the Greens run on issues. So they make it a debate. A lot of these local races are, you know, what high school you went to and who your buddies are in the Rotary Club.

Last question: Do you have any sort of secret weapon or anything like that for getting on the debate stages?

Well if there’s was a secret I wouldn’t tell you, but it’s not a secret. We haven't really initiated this yet, but I've been saying all along the commission on presidential debates—which sounds like a government agency, and in fact is a nonprofit controlled by the two major parties—is designed to keep everybody off stage but Democrats and Republicans. We sued them multiple election cycles and the courts will always say, look, it's a private corporation. There's nothing in the federal election commission regulations that we can look at. We can't do anything about it. In fact, there was a decision, I think last week, my last suit, that was ending what I've been saying. And I wanted—now that I'm closing in on the nomination, I think we're going to put an emphasis on it—to get the League of Women Voters involved. They got muscled aside and they were unhappy about it back in the eighties. They had this commission on presidential debates. They called the conditions that Dukakis and Bush were putting on them "unacceptable." They called the result that the commission on presidential debates split on "farcical."

And we want to remind them of that. You know, say “We got your back. Step up.” And try to get the national broadcasters: NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, whoever—or all of them—to have a debate, which we believe should be every candidate who is on enough ballots, the theoretically win the electoral college, which is going to mean the Greens, the Libertarians, Democrats, and Republicans. And I have some hope because we ran into that same problem here in New York in 2018. Cuomo wouldn't debate, and I actually ran into Cuomo in Central Park when MSNBC was having a sort of corporate-sponsored any poverty thing, and all the gubernatorial candidates were asked to speak. Of course, us third-party independents got, like three minutes for three of us on a side stage, and MSNBC didn't broadcast us—they switched to a couple of pregnant Olympians, while Cuomo got five minutes on center stage. I happened to run into him on my way out—and I've debated him twice before—so I said, “Governor! I'm looking forward to our next debate.”

And at first he had a furrowed brow. He said, “What debate?” like they hadn't told him.

And then I said, “Well we should have a whole series of debates.” And then he realized I was just talking.

And so then he kind of said snarkily as he turned away. “So what are you gonna do? Howie? Organize it yourself?”

So I went to the media with that, and I went to the League of Women Voters, and they—in New York—hosted a debate for all comers. Cuomo did not show, but the Republican did, and the three third party candidates did. And we had a debate.

And the media covered it?

The media covered it. They didn't broadcast it…

But if we could do it in New York, maybe we can do that nationally. It's not a secret plan. I want everybody to think about it, and start talking to the League of Women Voters. Reclaim your legitimate place. You're a nonpartisan civic organization. It's groups like you that should be sponsoring the presidential debates, not an organization that's controlled by the two parties, where they set it up so it's just for them, and the candidates get to veto any moderators that are chosen. I mean Trump was saying at one point last year, he's not going to the debate because he doesn't like who might be the moderators.

That’s kind of a secret weapon.

Well, Ralph Nader said I should get on a horse to get attention. And I was thinking, well, what can I do with a horse? Let alone if I could ride it. So then I thought maybe I should ride up to the White House on a horse, and say “Trump, you know, come out here, you chicken, and let's have a debate!”

Do it please. Oh please ride a horse to the White House and challenged Trump to a debate. I'm begging you.

Yeah, well, if I can find a horse that won't throw me. And somebody knows what to do with horses. I actually worked on a ranch back in 1971 for a whole summer and never got on a horse. There wasn’t a horse cause there was cattle and there were pickup trucks.

Seems like there would be a Green voter in Virginia who could make this happen.

I actually talked to a pony-raiser in Kansas who's a supporter. She said, get a horse and carriage. Then you won't get thrown.

So looking like kind of a pioneer or something? I like that.

It's something that I do want to do if I find the right time, and when we get attention. It’s definitely on my agenda if we just figure it out.

Note for people who read all the way to the bottom: Hi. If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please subscribe and spread the word. I’m hoping to post these four days a week instead of two, with a paid tier, and more in-depth reporting, etc. Earning more subscribers is the only way to make that possible. —Mike