Another World is Possible! USSF Organizer Cheri Honkala becomes VP Candidate

Tue, 2012-11-13 09:29

By Jade Brooks

This election cycle, people in 38 US states will have the opportunity to cast their vote for a ticket that includes Cheri Honkala, and organizer who has been deeply involved in the US and World Social Forum process and who founded the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. We talked with Cheri during her campaign, which she has used as an opportunity to increase public awareness of the work being done through the US Social Forum and the People’s Movement Assemblies.

After being offered the VP spot on the Green Party ticket late this summer, Honkala deliberated (calling it the “most difficult decision I’ve ever made in my life”). She decided to accept, citing the “many people out there in this country who have invested in my leadership, who have made me who I am.” Honkala feels she has “a responsibility to a larger movement in this country, to play whatever role I can in trying to change things because of how devastating things are now.” During all her years of activism, Honkala admits she’s never focused much on electoral politics, spending more energy on resisting government and challenging power. But in hindsight, she thinks that was a “missing piece” of the work she’s been engaged in.

The majority of the people in our country, whether we like it or not, when they think about politics they think about the electoral process,” says Honkala. “So if...we’re really serious about creating another kind of world than we have to be serious about engaging in all the different processes and systems that the majority of people in this country are engaged in and a part of. And one of those is the electoral process.”

Honkala wants to “educate the people in this country that there is this growing independent political motion in this country and it doesn’t have to be attached to money and it’s putting forward a real platform of ideas that we can unite around.” By watching her and Jill Stein’s campaign this year, Honkala argues that their base of people around the country are getting an important look into democracy--seeing how difficult it is for third party candidates to get on a ballot, to get access to money for a campaign, and to participate in the debates.

A lot of times in our social movement work we get really good at saying, well this is what’s wrong, this is what’s wrong, this is what’s wrong.” But both during her campaign for sheriff of Philadelphia in early 2011 (when she ran on a platform promising to stop evicting people from their homes) and now during her VP campaign, she has had the opportunity to say “here’s--very concretely--the changes we’d like to see in this country and this is how we’re going to pay for it and this is how we’re going to do it. No, laws don’t have to be like that. Why do they have to be like that? Because somebody said they have to be like that?”

This year, the Green Party’s platform reads like a laundry list of the demands of progressive and Left forces in the US over the past twenty years--they want a Green New Deal which will create jobs in renewable energy with equitable worker’s rights; comprehensive public education from kindergarten through college (thus eliminating student debt); and an end to the War on Drugs, among many other issues (see for the full platform). In contrast, Honkala hears that many people are voting for a Democratic candidate whose beliefs they don’t share. She explains, “people have been trying to figure out who can have the best seat on the Titanic, instead of working together to figure out how to get off of it.” As she and Jill have traveled throughout the country, Honkala jokes that their stump speech is “political therapy,” letting the people they meet know it’s okay for them to support a candidate who is aligned with their “values and puts out ideas about the kind of country and world that you’d like to live in.” In her view, both the Democrats and the Republicans represent “corporate America,” whereas in other countries with strong social movements people can choose between many political parties. Honkala goes on: “Unless we break with the Democratic Party, we’re never going to free ourselves as a people.”

For Honkala, her life work of activism (or, as she puts it, “trying to help people secure the basic necessities of life”) has been “one hell of a task.” In contrast to the lawyers and politicians who typically run for public office in the United States, she has an intimate view of the struggles poor people are facing in this country and the injustices and inequality that are its current-day fabric. Out of a need to connect with other poor people organizing nationally and internationally, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union began participating in a national coalition--the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign--and this group eventually got a seat on the World Social Forum, where they were able to connect the struggles of the poor in the United States to the struggles of the poor around the world.

We tried to do a lot of work in separating [the people in the United States from the US government],” Honkala remembers of their participation in the World Social Forum process (where, at times, PPEHRC members had to use their rent money to afford plane tickets to the meeting). “Our government didn’t necessarily represent the people and the media didn’t necessarily represent the reality of people in our country and what they were facing.” When the US Social Forum came in Atlanta in 2007, Honkala and the PPEHRC were concerned about the role of the poor in the process and so they created a Poverty Tent in front of the convention center where the USSF was held. At the next US Social Forum (in Detroit in 2010), Honkala helped to host a People’s Movement Assembly and  World Court of Women (she had previously been invited to speak at various Courts around the world), because, she remembers, “we thought it was important to have a space where we, primarily as women, would begin to redefine what is right from wrong, what are our values, putting forward our own ideology, and redefining what is good and what we want our country and society and our world to look like.”

Honkala sees her activist work and her V.P. nomination as strategically connected. “The only way that things have changed anything in history is when a social movement has been attached to the development of some kind of independent political motion,” she explains. “I’ve got one foot over here in social movements and I’ve got another foot over here in building this independent political motion. While I’m running for Vice President I’m also making sure that the folks I’m meeting across the country [learn about all this work], I’m introducing them to the US Social Forum, I’m introducing them to the World Court of Women.”

Plans are already in the works to bring a World Court of Women to Philadelphia next fall--where Honkala will be participating either as the Vice President of the United States or as Cheri Honkala. Regardless of her title, she’ll be making sure to listen to how “people have suffered under the current system that we have” and working towards a process that’s about “taking back our country and about taking back our planet.”