Stephen Durham: firing up alternative party debates on tour in California

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On a three-week tour of California, Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) presidential candidate Stephen Durham conveyed an exciting, optimistic message of the power of rebellion, delivered with intensity and clarity.

New York FSP Organizer Durham, one of four people seeking the nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP), campaigned in April and early May in Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Los Angeles. In LA, he shared a stage at a candidates’ debate with other socialists and Green Party contenders, including TV star Roseanne Barr. Accompanied by enthusiastic campaign volunteers, he spoke on the radio and at schools, rallies, and candidate forums held by the PFP, a socialist electoral umbrella with ballot status in California.

Everywhere he appeared, Durham discussed the achievements of his vice-presidential running mate, Seattle Radical Women President Christina López. He said of their collaboration: “This socialist feminist campaign pairs a gay white man and a straight woman of color. By working together we show that it is possible to overcome the divisions that hold the U.S. working class back from being the force for revolutionary change that it could be — and, we are confident, will be.”

Race liberation and feminism to the fore. For supporters and people new to the campaign, Durham’s energetic presence brought to life its reasons to be: to strengthen grass-roots movements while giving outraged voters an opportunity to register a sharp protest.

The tour was a homecoming of sorts for Durham, who became radicalized at the University of California at Berkeley during Vietnam War protests and the Third World student strike. At spirited receptions in LA and San Francisco, he shared this history, as well as his record in the union movement and as an opponent of gentrification in Harlem. He also spoke of the FSP’s accomplishments in united front efforts against modern-day Nazis in the Northwest and racists at the Mexico border.

At the LA May Day march for immigrant rights, crowds cheered when he demanded, “Open the borders!” He was the only white speaker at a rally commemorating the uprising after Rodney King’s beating by LA cops, where he raised the FSP platform calls for a massive, publicly funded jobs program and for elected civilian review boards over the police, controlled by the community.

Wherever he went, Durham declared, “I am a feminist!” Audiences warmed to his passionate recognition of women as movement leaders capable of bridging issues, especially multiply oppressed women of color.

Reform vs. revolution. Showing the breadth of interest in alternatives, an outsized crowd turned out on April 21 for an LA debate among minor-party presidential candidates sponsored by the Maggie Phair Institute.

Three of the candidates who were there aspire to represent the Green Party: Dr. Jill Stein, with a “Green Deal” program for sustainable jobs; feminist comedian Roseanne Barr, who aims to use her celebrity to improve ballot access; and Kent Mesplay, who emphasizes national energy independence and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Another three people at the debate are seeking the PFP nomination: Durham; Peta Lindsay, with the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), a young organizer of anti-war ANSWER demonstrations; and Rocky Anderson, with the Justice Party, a former mayor of Salt Lake City.

Stein, Barr, and Anderson see Obama’s betrayal of the 99 percent as the nail in the coffin of a corrupt Democratic Party. With FDR’s New Deal as a model, Stein and Anderson want to reclaim democracy and, in Anderson’s case, “restore our nation’s competitive edge.”

Sparking healthy debate, Durham took issue with the idea of a golden age of U.S. democracy which could be “reclaimed.”

For example, “It wasn’t Teddy Roosevelt who won the eight-hour day,” he stressed. “It was a workers’ mass movement.” He added, “Socialists see the class line and are internationalist; we want to dismantle imperialist capitalism, not bolster it.” Click here to watch the event online.

The power of a radical alternative. In California’s June primary, voters registered with the PFP will indicate their candidate preference and elect the party’s central committee, which in August will actually choose the nominee.

The California Secretary of State attempted to keep both Durham and PSL’s Lindsay out of the primary. A grass-roots mobilization and legal threats won Durham’s place on the ballot, but not Lindsay’s. (See story here.) And, due to recent anti-minor party changes in state law, PFP faces the Herculean task of nearly doubling its registration by the end of 2014 to stay ballot-qualified.

Meanwhile, PFP is carrying on. In four April debates it presented its presidential contenders, who include the Socialist Party’s Stewart Alexander in addition to Durham, Lindsay, and Anderson.

Durham set the pace. He was the first to raise the war on women, prompting others to beef up their presentations. He was the only candidate to inject a global perspective, pointing out how the success of revolutions abroad depends on revolution in the U.S.

His discussion of the FSP’s platform won over new supporters. Steven Payan, the chairperson of Yolo County PFP, told him, “I am voting for you because you’d be a stronger agent for progressive change as president.”

At several events, Marsha Feinland, a PFP member running for U.S. Senate, raised the vital need to build working-class parties. Durham agreed, and added, “Revolution begins with a left party like the Freedom Socialist Party; the consciously revolutionary party is a necessary, powerful tool for change.”

In answer to questions about left cooperation, Durham referred to FSP’s long history of attempts at joint socialist electoral work and said he looks forward to the day when other left parties make this a priority.

The Durham-López campaign sparked the interest of alternative and movement media. Durham was interviewed by Spanish- and English-language reporters at public radio KPFK, Chris Askew of UnWrapped Radio, San Francisco Bay Area Indymedia, and Northern California’s largest gay newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter.

The highlight of the tour was seeing people embrace and respond to the down-to-earth, unapologetically radical ideas of the FSP campaign.

Guillermo Herrera is a co-chair of Solano County PFP and the Northbay Uprising radio host known as Dr. G. After the Santa Cruz debate, Herrera said, “I was thrilled to meet the candidate. After all that trouble to leave him off our ballot, I can see why the state perceives him as a ‘threat.’ His articulation of the revolutionary perspective and feminism could really change minds.”

To bring one of the FSP candidates or their representatives to your area, contact Campaign Manager Doug Barnes at

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