BOSTON — The air inside St. Paul’s Church next to Boston Common was sultry on Monday, laden with east coast humidity and heat from national progressive politics. United States Rep. Dennis Kucinich from Ohio and several featured speakers including Reverend Jesse Jackson, James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute, Margaret Prescod of Pacifica’s KPFK and co-coordinator of the Global Women’s Strike and actors Mimi Kennedy and James Cromwell kicked off four days of political dialogue.
The presidential aspirations for one Dennis Kucinich have ended—he endorsed John Kerry last Thursday night in Detroit—but the campaign lives on. Kucinich joins dozens of national figures this week in a series of “social forums” discussing almost everything: bringing the troops home, restoring Jean Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti, creating a universal healthcare plan, endorsing gay marriage, supporting Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The agenda goes all the way to defining, in the words of Zogby, “what America will become.” This new organization is called PDA, or Progressive Democrats of America, and most of the issues raised by the progressives in Monday’s two-hour opening forum aren’t in the Democratic Party platform.
This was the first of nine such events during this convention week for Kucinich and the 300 supporter-entourage he has brought with him to Boston. The list of scheduled speakers for the week reads like a national progressive who’s who all-star team: Prof. Angela Davis, former California State Sen. and ‘60s icon Tom Hayden, U.S. Rep. John Conyers from Michigan, Sen. Dick Durban from Illinois, Actor Sean Penn, Global Exchange Executive Director Medea Benjamin, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., new-age author Marianne Williamson, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and former LBJ press secretary and television personality Bill Moyers. It has become an ambitious project, to say the least.
The packed church was warmed up even more as Kucinich true-believers offered standing ovations for each speaker. Martin Martinez of the Boston AIDS Coalition raised the roof first when he said, “I represent the grassroots folks who are working on dual fronts, the homophobia of some in the Latino community and racism within the Gay community.” KPFK’s Prescod was next, receiving her applause when she spoke of the abduction “with the support of the US” of Jean Bertrand Aristide, former President of Haiti. “Those of us in the Caribbean feel very threatened about what happened in Haiti ... an elected leader was kidnapped,” she said.
The actors were up next. Mimi Kennedy of the Dharma and Greg show stood in for Congressmember John Conyers “who moments ago was called to New York by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.” Kennedy used the time to talk about “non-violence in a nuclear age.” James Cromwell, Secretary-Treasurer of the Screen Actors Guild, said he was involved with “radical politics back in the ‘60s, but I became disillusioned until (Dennis) Kucinich.” He told the group that in 1964 he and others created the Southern Theatre Project and produced shows like Waiting for Godot for “people who had no radio, no TV, and had never been to the movie theater or a playhouse before.” Cromwell said that access to information was the great dividing line in America today. “We are divided along the lines of people who have access to information and those that do not…without the ability to be seen and heard there can be no equality.” The Arab-American Institute’s Zogby, also a pollster, was equally pointed: “Will they (Republicans) define America or will we (Democrats)?”
When Kucinich came to the podium he and the crowd were already in a frenzied state. It didn’t take long for him to get the crowd standing again. “This is a country that fled an empire, but we didn’t flee an empire to become an empire,” he said. He also talked about civil liberties, and how he is tired of all the spot searches by police around Boston during the convention. He can’t even enter his hotel without having to show his plastic key, he said.
The progressive choir was back on its feet again when Kucinich jabbed the air with his finger saying, “What better place to talk about the Patriot Act than in Boston.” Another standing ovation. Dennis then laid down the gauntlet:“It is so essential that we stand up. We are not going peacefully into the night…when the Patriot Act was passed it was passed in the middle of the night and most members of Congress did not know what was in it.”
The atmosphere was almost bedlam when who should appear, unannounced, through a side door in the front of the church, but the Rev. Jesse Jackson, executive director of Operation Push in Chicago. Now there was bedlam.
As Jackson took the stage to the first of several ovations, he first praised Dennis Kucinich and his campaign for the issues they keep alive and then got right to work critiquing the Bush administration. “I’ve been searching in my mind,” said Jackson, “for what John Kerry and George Bush have in common, and the only thing I can come up with is that they’re both seeking to be elected president for the first time.”
He touched on numerous critical progressive issues during his 20-minute talk: the voting rights act, a “stolen” 2000 election, one million disenfranchised African-American voters nationwide, the good fortune of late of senatorial candidate Barrack Obama in Illinois, the comeback candidacy of Cynthia McKinney in Georgia, the Bush snub of the NAACP (“It’s also the Sierra Club, NOW and the National Black Caucus.”), single-payer healthcare, and his tour this fall with Willie Nelson in Appalachia looking for votes for the Democrats. But it was when Jackson said “we must end the war in Iraq,” those simple words, that the house came down. People were standing, applauding, and pumping their arms in the air for at least two minutes. The Rev. Jackson was connecting with the audience in a big way. He appeared to enjoy it as much as his listeners.
In a press conference following the first forum Kucinich was asked by this reporter about the war: Why is there no timetable in the Democratic Party platform concerning the number one issue for Democrats? Kucinich immediately cited the morning’s New York Times poll of Democratic delegates: “Nine out of 10 are opposed to this war.” Then why is it not in the party platform? “Progressives are going to elect John Kerry,” he said. “We hold the balance right now…progressives want to hold onto their identity then merge into the Democratic Party.” But where are the teeth? What assurances will Democrats have? “The platform is insufficient. The platform is not to be taken as a finished product. We’re going to unite behind John Kerry and we will continue to become stronger after the election,” said Kucinich.