By Robert Hennelly / AlterNet

    Cornel West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University. (Esther / CC BY-SA 2.0)

This piece originally ran on AlterNet.

Polls indicate that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got a four-point bounce from the heavily scripted Democratic Party Convention. But it is hard to know the depth and intensity of support from Sanders activists passionate enough to earn themselves a place at the convention. Those are the kinds of activists that could help Clinton the most come November. Yet, an informal survey of dozens of Bernie delegates indicates a lack on enthusiasm for the Clinton cause. No doubt, the decision by prominent Bernie booster Cornel West to go for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein won’t help.

However successful Clinton was in racking up impressive wins in the primary cycle, her actual vote totals were higher in 2008, when she faced off with then-senator Barack Obama.

As early as March, Super Tuesday results made it clear there was a potential enthusiasm gap when the vote totals from 15 states showed 3 million registered Democrats who had come out in 2008 had decided to stay home. In Texas, turnout dropped by 50 percent. In South Carolina, there was a 40-percent drop in the African-American turnout from the watershed 2008 primary.

Consider the key swing state of Ohio. In the 2016 primary election, Clinton only garnered close to 680,000 votes, compared to the nearly 1.1 million she polled in her victory in 2008.

In 2012, Cleveland, in Cuyahoga County, was one of three urban locales where a wave of young minority voters carried the day for Obama, delivering the three states he needed to win. (The others were Philadelphia, and Florida’s Broward County.)

The Ohio Battleground

So how are things these days in Cleveland, site of that pivotal Obama win in 2012? Downtown Cleveland is enjoying a robust revitalization, but there are also vast swaths of the rest of the community in which factory buildings lie vacant.

There are close to 6,000 zombie homes — homes their owners believe are in foreclosure, even though the bank that holds their mortgages never completed the legal process to foreclose — a physical legacy of the foreclosure crisis which is still felt here. Some 20,000 have already been torn down, and for the homeowners in the poorer part of town, property values have dropped by as much as 80 percent.

As the Republicans gathered in Cleveland to nominate Donald J. Trump as their presidential candidate, a public policy and social action forum dubbed IMPACT took place at Mount Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest African-American congregations. The forum featured Cornel West, the “provocative democratic intellectual,” as he bills himself, as its keynote speaker.

Mount Olivet’s traditions run deep. It was founded in the 1930s and served as the base of operations for Martin Luther King Jr., when he came to Cleveland.

West, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Princeton University, was one of Senator Bernie Sanders’ most ardent supporters among African-American leaders, and several congregants were anxious to know whether the influential public intellectual was going to support Hillary Clinton in the general election.

But West, who served on the Democratic Party platform committee as a Sanders pick, told his audience he was supporting the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, because of her policy positions, “calling for reparations, calling for the massive release of all prisoners who are there for soft drugs… [She is also calling for a] massive redistribution [of wealth], a green jobs program…siding with the Palestinians… [and is] concerned about the violation of international law by the United States.”

“I am going to fight against Trump,” West pledged, but “in this case I am opting for third-party Sister Jill Stein.”

For West, the welfare reform and crime bills President Bill Clinton signed into law helped set the stage for the mass incarceration of African Americans, and the loss of a generation of parents to the penal system.

“Now people say, ‘Brother West, she’s better than Trump.’ That’s true, but Trump is about as low a bar that anybody could ever have,” West told his audience.

“We are in a tough situation. Of course, you know this is a swing state, so you have to make judgments in very wise ways,” West said. “But you don’t want to lie to yourself. Hillary Clinton comes on and says, ‘I have been fighting for children all my life.’ Which children do you have in mind?”

People on welfare, West explained, are “primarily women and children.” The welfare bill Bill Clinton signed, which ended the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children and replaced it with block grants to the states, West said, “was a bill Ronald Reagan would have not signed.” He added, “It was only signed for political purposes.”

West took issue with assertions by Hillary Clinton campaign boosters who say she has “been fighting for black folks for 40 years.”

“Get off the symbolic crackpipe,” West urged the audience. “You don’t have the evidence for that. That’s like telling me you have been flying in a flying saucer last night — you were dreaming, hallucinating. Give me some witnesses.”

“Now, of course, Sister Hillary is very clever because what does she do, especially with black folk?” West continued. “[She says,] ‘I am the only one that represents the legacy of Barack Obama.’ Of course, Barack Obama is an historic figure. We can never take away the symbolic breakthrough of having a black man in the White House built by black slaves — never, never, not at all.”

“But they bailed out Wall Street without Main Street, that upset me. Drones dropped on innocent civilians. How many children so far?” West asked. “Press won’t tell you: 231 children.”

“A child in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan has exactly the same value as a child in a vanilla suburb or the chocolate ‘hood. [I know] because I have been to vacation bible school: ‘Jesus loved the little children/all of the little children of the world/red, yellow, black or white/they are precious in his sight.’ So don’t tell me that an American baby has more value than a baby in Pakistan when it is killed,” West said.

“If that makes you unpatriotic, then I am taking the cross over the flag. That’s how I roll,” he continued. “That’s how I was raised…when the flag undermines the cross, I choose the way of the cross. If you go the way of the cross, get ready for some serious crucification — the cost of discipleship what it is to be a Christian.”

West said he understood why so many African Americans admire the president, but urged them not to lose their critical discernment.

“It is the most wonderful thing that my child sees a black man in the White House. I understand that. I got kids too; I have grandkids they have been empowered by Michelle [Obama]. They have been empowered by Barack, in example, at the symbolic level. I don’t just live life just symbolically. I live it at the level of substance too. Black child poverty is higher now than it was in 2008. That ain’t symbolic. That is substantial.”

West was asked by a member of the audience for his election predictions.

“I think Trump will be a neofascist catastrophe and Clinton will be a neoliberal disaster,” he answered. “So we are between a rock and a hard place. We have to gird ourselves, fortify ourselves for serious struggle. They are both tied to Wall Street. They are both dangerous in that way.”

Citing conditions in her hometown of Cleveland, an audience member asked West about the impact of gentrification. People are losing their homes through tax foreclosures, she said, and nuisance abatement actions — “a little-known type of lawsuit that gives [a] city the power to shut down places it claims are being used for illegal purposes,” according to ProPublica.

“I view it as land grab and a power grab,” West said. “It’s upper-middle-classes that want to move back into the cities for closer access to their jobs and leave precious and poor working people dangling with very little for a place to go.” Because “working-class and poor people have less money to donate to campaigns and elections and so forth,” West said, community groups will have to step up their resistance. “In Harlem, we have been wrestling with this for decades,” he said. “Harlem is now 49 percent vanilla.”

After the speech, Jon Lentz and I sat down with West for a brief discussion. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

ROBERT HENNELLY: We know there are 6,000 zombie homes in Cleveland. Fifty percent of Cleveland’s children are living in poverty. In Philadelphia, there are 40,000 vacant lots and homes. In the last eight years, we’ve seen the largest loss of African-American household wealth in the history of the republic. Why is that not emerging as a central issue of the presidential campaign?

CORNEL WEST: Well, it’s just very difficult to shatter the neoliberal hegemony and the public conversation. The neoliberal ideology comes in a number of different colors. It could be Bill Clinton, it could be Barack Obama, it could be Hillary Clinton. And that neoliberal hegemony means that to trying to raise the issues of poverty — not just black poverty, but poverty across the board, to really zero in on Wall Street domination of Congress, to really zero in on corporate power, to really zero in on the military industrial complex — that’s a difficult thing. Neoliberal press, neoliberal politicians — it’s hard to get fellow citizens to look at the world through a very different lens as opposed to a neoliberal lens.

RH: It seems we’ve had this metaphor we’re stuck in for decades now of a war on poverty, and there seems to be more poverty. War on drugs, more drugs. War on terror, more terror.

CW: More terror, that’s true.

RH: You’re one of the few public intellectuals who are linking the economic expenditure for war with these other public ills. Why aren’t we discussing the collateral damage of this never-ending war?

CW: Of course, the first thing to keep in mind is that we don’t even expose precious fellow citizens [of members of the military] to the bodies of soldiers who are killed in Afghanistan and other places. So you already have a hiding and concealing of the realities of war. We’ve been at war for over 14 years, 15 years, in Afghanistan.

Then you’ve got 54 percent of the budget as a whole going to military expenditures, and a lot of that actually is not fully accounted for because there are certain unlimited expenditures when it comes to the Pentagon, but no serious discussion about that. There is a consensus, Democrats and Republicans, Obama and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell, on this dominance of military expenditure, and [that] makes it very difficult.

When King said the bombs that dropped in Vietnam also landed in ghettos — and by ghettos he didn’t just mean black ghettos—he meant brown barrios, he meant white brothers and sisters in Appalachia, indigenous brothers and sisters on the reservations. There’s just no money [for social investment].

So we’re in a logjam. That’s what neoliberalism does. It’s a logjam when you allow for corporate power on the one hand, military industrial complex on the other hand and then think to be progressive is only talk about social issues.

RH: One of the things you seem to be in touch with is that since 2008, for working people, the economic situation has continued to unravel.

CW: Absolutely.

RH: According to the National Association of Counties, out of 3,069 counties, only 7 percent have recovered by their measurement.

So in other words, we are not really seeing our social circumstance reflected in our media, which leaves us in isolation. What’s a consequence of that, politically and spiritually?

CW: Well, I think the first point to keep in mind is that through a neoliberal lens, recovery is measured by how well the stock market is doing, and how well corporate profits are doing. And they have been doing very well. I just [look at] the QE2 — the quantitative easing — coming out of the Federal Reserve…because that’s the benchmark.

It’s not what is the quality of life of everyday people, of working people. And as you rightly say, there has been no recovery there, not in the real economy. In the stock market, indeed. So you miss the social misery that’s out there, and of course, [the presidential candidacy of] Donald Trump is part of the backlash. He is part of the deeply right-wing populist backlash because so many of white working-class brothers and sisters, but especially the brothers, are hurting, and that hurt is real. But unfortunately it’s not geared toward accountability toward elites at the top; it’s scapegoating the most vulnerable on the bottom.

RH: If we pull back a bit, we know that our young people, 16- to 24-year-olds, have a crisis. In New York City, 30 percent of black men between the ages of 20-24 are not working and they’re not in school. Globally, the figure is 50 percent — 7 million in Mexico alone. At some point, don’t we have to call into question the social obligation of capital to employ this generation. And how do we do that?

CW: The good news is that there is a magnificent moral, spiritual and political awakening taking place among the younger generation in the midst of the American empire. The Bernie Sanders campaign was a great example of young folk comin’ alive, becoming involved.

What is it now, 58 percent of young people across race and class say socialism is preferable over capitalism? Why? Because what they have lived has been more and more the underside of capitalist order, which is one of massive unemployment, decrepit education, unbelievable student debt. But also, spiritually — it’s a dog-eat-dog world, obsessed with the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not get caught.” That way of being in the world is being called into question among the younger generation. And in that sense there’s tremendous signs of hope.

JON LENTZ: One more thing: There is discussion about the framing of the protest message of Black Lives Matter as opposed to All Lives Matter. Some folks raise the example of Martin Luther King Jr., and say, “Well, we don’t want to have these Black Lives Matter folks; they should frame their argument the way King did; his was the right way to approach these issues. Any thoughts on that?

CW: Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail more than 40 times because he loved black people. He didn’t go to jail because white lives matter. Now in jail, on the way to jail, after he got out of jail, he still loved white brothers and sisters, but he didn’t go to jail for white brothers and sisters. He went to jail for black people.

So that I think our white brothers and sisters in the Republican Party need to recognize that when I and others say Black Lives Matter, when [I say] my mama matters, I’m not saying their mother doesn’t matter. But I’m saying we’ve lived in a society for so long where my mother didn’t matter, where black people have not mattered. That’s Martin Luther King’s message. His love message is one that starts at home, but it spills over to precious white, precious brown, precious yellow and precious other colors because we are all human beings in that sense.

JL: Is there anything the Black Lives Matter movement can learn from Martin Luther King’s example that they are not doing?

CW: We all could learn from Martin in terms of having more love, courage, vision and sense of service, absolutely.

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