Lawrence Hamm: "The progressive movement must continue to push forward within the electoral arena"
Longtime activist Lawrence Hamm discusses the Black Lives Matter protests across the US and his bid to unseat Senator Cory Booker.
This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Lawrence Hamm is the chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress – an independent, community based association of citizens working for racial, social and economic justice, which he founded in 1983.
A graduate of Princeton University, Hamm has been a community activist in New Jersey for the last 35 years. He was the state co-chair of the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign in 1988, the president of the New Jersey Rainbow Coalition, and the coordinator of the Malcolm X Commemoration Coalition.
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He was also the New Jersey state chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020.
Hamm is running for the US Senate against incumbent Democrat Cory Booker – who ran for the presidency earlier this year. The primary election will take place on July 7th.
Aaron White and Freddie Stuart spoke with Hamm about his life as an activist, his involvement in the Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders campaigns, and the unprecedented nature of the Black Lives Matter movement across the US and the world.
Aaron White: Right now you're running against Senator Cory Booker and have been a social justice activist for many years. Could you speak to what politicized you growing up, and your political inspirations?
Lawrence Hamm: Well, I didn't come from a politically active household. I came from a regular working class family. My father was a truck driver. My mother was a seamstress who worked literally around the corner in the cleaners. As a child, I wasn't privy to all their conversations. So I don't know how much politics they discussed. But I have no memories of going to meetings and demonstrations in the early years.
I think the seeds of my political consciousness came from my mother. My father passed away when I was four. She gave me a sense of right and wrong – a sense of fairness. And then in the early 1960s, it was a common practice to send kids down south for the summer. So I used to go to Georgia, to where my folks were from. I remember when we got on the train, this might have been 1960/61. We got on the train that still runs called the Silver Meteor. It's an Amtrak train that runs up and down the East Coast. And we got on in the north, there was no problem. But when we got to Washington DC, the nation's capital, the conductor came to us and told us we had to move to the rear of the train. I asked my parents why – they didn't explain it immediately. But later on, it was explained to me that when you pass through Washington, you cross the Mason-Dixon line, and the laws of segregated travel came into effect. So that was an experience.
Then the rebellions in Newark in 1967, which I literally watched from my doorstep. We sat on the porch in July of ‘67, and literally watched things go up in flames all around us. And I asked my grandfather why this was going on. I was about 12 at the time. And he started by talking about his experience in the military. He fought in World War One. And he was saying when he went to France, to help the French fight against the Germans. He said the French people asked him if they could see his tail, because, you know, these racist stereotypes all over the world. That was an experience.
Then, when I started arts high school, we had a freshman orientation. That's when the faculty and staff all come out to speak to the students at the beginning of the school year. They asked the Student Government President at that time – in the fall of 1967 – to speak. They told him to speak about the city council. And he came up to the podium and he started talking. But he started talking about the war in Vietnam. I didn't even know where Vietnam was. But he started talking about the war in Vietnam. And the principal told him “don't talk about the war in Vietnam”, but he kept talking. This was the first week of school. The Principal and the Student Government President got into a fight on the stage, because the Principal was trying to drag the Student Government President away from the podium so he wouldn't talk about the war in Vietnam. So these were some things that helped formulate my consciousness.
I led my first action of civil disobedience as a senior at arts high school, a walk-out over educational conditions. We marched down to where the Board of Education, the school board was meeting. And we had a sitting down there in my senior year. And I would say from that point on, I've been active ever since. I was appointed to the New Jersey school board at the age of 17. I'm probably still holding the record for the youngest fully voting school board member in the United States. The mayor asked me to sit on the board of education, and I agreed and I was sworn in on July 1, 1971. I served for three years on the school board. That definitely politicized me.
Freddie Stuart: You mentioned the famous protests in Newark in 1967. And today we're in another moment of mass mobilizations. The Black Lives Matter protests are in every state across the US. In your vast experience campaigning for social justice, how unique is the moment we're currently in?
Lawrence Hamm: This is one man's opinion. The moment in and of itself, to me is not unique. There have been mass mobilizations around horrific incidents of police brutality before. I mean, in New Jersey, there were mass mobilization around the murder of Earl Faison in the Orange police station – that didn't make national headlines. The beating of Rodney King did. There were demonstrations all over the country in the 90s when Rodney King was beaten, or when Abner Louima was tortured in Brooklyn, that sparked nationwide protests. When Amadou Diallo was killed, that sparked nationwide protests.
But to me, what is special about this latest action is the speed at which these protests have happened. In the other situations, it took awhile for the fire to catch on and spread across the nation. George Floyd was killed around the end of May. And within two weeks there were almost 400 protests in all 50 states. Here in New Jersey, we had the first big protests for Floyd on May 30. The People's Organization for Progress called the protest in Newark that brought out 12,000 people according to the New York Times, probably the largest demonstration in Newark we've ever had.
Since May 30 there have been over 140 protests in cities and towns. So the speed at which this thing has happened and the decentralized nature – those two things are the distinguishing features of this particular mass upsurge.
My main concern is this: I hope that the people who have planned and executed these things will have an understanding that it can't just be one protest. It may take until November for them to even bring Chauvin to a trial, and then the trial could go on for months. So this is going to be a protracted struggle. My advice to those who would receive it would be to pace yourselves and plan ongoing events. Do so in a way that you can sustain. If you're an organization that doesn't have a lot of resources, and people power, then maybe one demonstration a month, but that's good. If you have one demonstration a month for 12 months. That's a lot. If you're a stronger organization and you can do something once a week, do that. And then if you're an organization, like the People's Organization for Progress or other organizations, and you can do something every day, do that. But do what you can sustain, what you can keep doing over the long haul.
Do not stop the protests, stay in the streets, but do it in a planned and organized way, and most importantly, in a way that can be sustained.
Aaron White: Another real concern is that we might see a law and order backlash. As in 1968, with the election of Nixon, who ran counter to the civil rights movement. So how concerned are you that what we're seeing right now is going to be met with an increased white supremacist response, and a draconian heightened military presence?
Lawrence Hamm: Well, we've already seen evidence of that in certain states. They've already called out the National Guard in certain places, and we've had white supremacist incidents. They like to drive cars into crowds. They killed Heather Heyer several years ago.
So we're going to see a heightened response, we're going to see heightened repression. But people should not be beaten into submission. We must have protests. Do not stop the protests, stay in the streets, but do it in a planned and organized way, and most importantly, in a way that can be sustained.
You know, if you have a protest every day, for the next 30 days, and then your people have worn out and they don't want to protest anymore. That's a loss. It's better to do it a few times a month, and keep people going for 12 months. Then do it every day for 30 days and burn people out. We must have sustained protests, and they must be planned and they must be organized. And you must expect the reaction, police, military, and not just the response of law enforcement or white supremacists, but the political war.
Every day they're waging a propaganda war against us. They send a message every day: protest is futile. Why are you protesting? And we get that from people around us, you know, even who are close to us. That it is not going to make a difference.
Don't let yourself be demobilized. Understand that the war is also on a psychological level, that there are analysts and pundits and writers and people of all kinds. Opinion makers of all kinds, who every day try to get people not to fight back in 1001 different ways. We have to be hip to that – understand that it is a psychological war.
We have to strengthen ourselves mentally, and be prepared for the ebb. The struggle has an ebb and flow. It's like the coming in and out of the tides, or the overflowing of the banks of a river during certain times of year. In response to incidents of police brutality and other horrific things, you get a spontaneous mass outpouring, and it's wonderful. It's euphoric. We get high off of it in ways, but then it goes away. It doesn't last forever. And whereas you call the demonstration with little effort, and 1000 people to come out, now you're working your butt off to get less than 100 people to come out.
But don't be dismayed. Don't be deterred by that. That's the natural cycle. The struggle doesn't go in a straight line. It rises, it dips, it ebbs and flows, it zigzags and sometimes it reverses. But you got to stay the course and be consistent. And don't be discouraged.
Freddie Stuart: Right, and I know if anyone is looking for an example of consistent sustainable protests, you've been doing these “Justice Monday” protests in New Jersey, in Newark, for almost two years now, to protest police violence. I'd like to turn a little bit now to the political outlet for potential policy solutions. You were the state chair for Bernie 2020, and a co-chair of Jesse Jackson’s campaign back in the 80s. I wondered if you could speak a little bit to the connection you see between those two movements?
Lawrence Hamm: All political movements have a left, a right, and a center. And even within political parties, you have a left, a right, and a center, even within radical organizations. And there's always been that left, liberal to progressive faction within the Democratic party. And there have been various attempts over the years to push this faction to the surface. For most of the period since the election of Roosevelt, for the most part, the establishment and corporate Democrats have maintained control. But there have been efforts and campaigns to break through that represent a more liberal or progressive point of view.
That was the case with Jesse Jackson in 1988. It was not only an expression of the more liberal wing in the Democratic party, but it was also an expression of black political power. Black people who at one time couldn't be in the Democratic party - because the Democratic party had been the party of the Confederacy. Believe it or not, it was the party of the Ku Klux Klan. It's funny how things turn into their opposites over time. The Republican party was the party of Lincoln that prosecuted the civil war, but somewhere along the line probably beginning in the 1930s, with the depression of ‘29, and on into ‘30, then the election of Roosevelt and his proposal for New Deal, you begin to see a redirecting of the Democratic party on the vector that it's on today.
In the United States, we don't have a viable working class party. So the working class for the most part in what labor movement leaders we do have, they've thrown in with the Democratic party. So black people in the 1960s, were seeking black political power. The vehicle was the Democratic party. Many blacks were elected, many African Americans were elected. And at a certain point, they began to say, well, we don't always have to go behind a white member of the Democratic party, we can put up our own person to run for president. And you saw that with Shirley Chisholm in 1972. Even before ‘72 there were African Americans that ran for president. Many people don't know that Frederick Douglass ran for president in the 19th century.
The point I'm making is that this liberal wing of the Democratic party pushes forward when it has the strength to do so, and it had the strength to do so in 1988. In fact, Jesse Jackson ran twice. He ran in 1984. He ran in 1988. His platform was very much in the vein of, I won't say identical to, but in that vein of Bernie Sanders’ platform of 2016. And so again, we had that pushing forward of the liberal wing in the 1980s, and then it fell back, it pushed forward again in 2016 with Bernie Sanders. Only this time, I would say, not just the liberal elements of the Democratic party, but progressive elements because Sanders platform was qualitatively different than previous platforms of insurgent candidates within the Democratic party. And I guess the market feature, the place where you would start would be Medicare for All. Even in the liberal platforms that have been put before by other candidates, they did not call for the complete overhaul of the healthcare system, but Sanders did in 2016.
Bernie Sanders served a very important purpose with his campaign of 2016, and his partial campaign of 2020. He showed demonstrably that there are large numbers of people, very large numbers of people in the United States that will support a progressive platform. They will support Medicare-for-All, doubling the minimum wage, abolishing student debt, free college, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Green New Deal. Probably 50% plus of the country is ready for that, and it's really being held back by the leadership of the party, which is still in the hands of the corporate and establishment Democrats.
Aaron White: One thing that the primary process really exposed was a generational divide in US politics right now. I know Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly won the younger vote. He didn't do as well with older voters, especially older African American voters in the South. Can you speak to this generational divide, but also how a progressive campaign can overcome that and what you think needs to be done?
Lawrence Hamm: Well, here's my analysis in a capsule. The progressive movement must continue to push forward within the electoral arena. We will have many more defeats, but we must continue to push forward because we can't have victory unless we push forward. And if we don't push forward, we actually fall backwards. I was very disappointed. I've yet to hear what I would consider an adequate explanation as to why senator Sanders stopped his campaign. We were with him, whether he was going to win or not, we're with him.
We're with him because we were representing not only him, but representing the movement, which included those people in the Democratic party who support that platform. I think it was a mistake, to fall back the way we did. You have to understand we're on the long road to empowerment for the progressive movement in this country. And if people get in this business, there's gonna be a lot of defeats. I don't care whether you go third party, whether you go inside the Democratic party, outside the Democratic party, it's gonna take a while for us to get enough support, until we can actually start winning.
Between me, you, and the gatepost, winning the election is not the most important thing. The most important thing is building up our political power. For instance, I'm running for US Senate. My goal is to win the election. But if I don't win the election, after July 7th, I and the People's Organization for Progress will be politically stronger than we were before we went into the process.
When I was in high school, I was a long distance runner. I was a long distance runner, because I was so slow they wouldn't put me in any other event. I couldn't run fast. I couldn't run the 100, the quarter mile, I couldn't even run the mile. They put me in the two mile because there was nobody else one the team that wanted to run two miles. And for two years, I lost every race I ran. It wasn't until my junior year that I started winning. And in my senior year, I became a state champion, group one school state champion, and record holder. Why do I say that? To illustrate the fact that I had to lose 40 races before I could actually start winning. And that's the mindset that the progressive movement must have today. We are willing to take the defeats – if in fact the defeats make us stronger, and move us forward on the path to ultimate victory.
We must have, call it what you want, call it progressive, call it radical, call it working class, we must have that kind of movement in America. And we must have that kind of movement that has demonstrable political power amongst the people. I haven't run for office in 30 years. The last time I ran for elected office was in 1987. I ran on a ticket with the civil rights attorney, Arthur Kinoy. You look him up, he's not well known, but he played a very valuable role in the labor movement and in the civil rights movement. He ended his career as a law professor at Rutgers University. We ran as independents in the general election, not as insurgents in the primary.
So for 30 years I didn’t run for office. When this campaign for US Senate is over, I will be able to see how much strength I have in the electoral arena. And what my weaknesses are, and where I need to improve. There must be an electoral expression of the progressive movement. We must have a multi-dimensional strategy. We must have a strategy outside the electoral arena, and we also must have a strategy inside the electoral arena. We must be able to show our strength in the streets with our demonstrations, protests, our marches, our boycotts, our economic withdrawals or economic support. We must be able to show our strain, but we also need an expression in the world.
Those are all the people that are running on the slogan, “not me, us” that are on the ballot across the state of New Jersey. There's literally 150 of us, between the delegates for Bernie Sanders and all of us who are running for all the other offices. If people really want to see an end to police brutality, then they need to vote for the candidates who are committed to doing everything necessary to end police brutality.
Freddie Stuart: What I want to ask you now is the other side of that coin. You say the progressive movement must have a stake in electoral politics, and do its best to win over the hearts and minds of the voting public. Obviously, given the moment we're in right now, given the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted people of color, and working class people all across the country; given the Black Lives Matter movement; do you think that these mobilizations, these protests will translate into conventional party politics? Do you think they'll translate into progressive votes with people like Jamaal Bowman running in New York next week, or Charles Booker in Kentucky, or your race for Senate in New Jersey?
Lawrence Hamm: To give a short and direct answer. I think that these protests will help those progressive candidates that are running. I think the protests here in New Jersey will help me because people know, those who do know about me, know that I've been fighting police brutality. And all of a sudden, the position I've been taking for 40 years, is now eminently clear. And people say, well he must have been right all those years previously. So I think that the protests will help. I think they will help get the candidates more votes, whether they will help the candidates to the point that they'll win the election, I cannot say, but I do definitely believe that the protests will help those progressive candidates that are running.
The protests are also helpful and positive in and of themselves. Even if they don't translate into more votes for people running for office, because Pelosi and company wouldn't be taking the knee if it wasn't for these protests. They're only doing these things because they’re seeing the fire is all around me. They want to show “we're not the enemy”. I mean, you’ve got the police chiefs taking a knee now, you’ve got the NFL saying that the players who protested were right. They wouldn't be saying that if there weren't people in the street in all 50 states. That's what's making them do it.
Aaron White: One issue that we're focusing on in an upcoming podcast is the housing crisis that many Americans are facing, and especially with the coronavirus and the Democratic leadership failing to support a rent or mortgage moratorium; many people are struggling just to pay their basic everyday bills. If you do make it into the Senate, what kind of policies would you fight for in terms of guaranteeing affordable housing to all Americans?
Lawrence Hamm: Well, the first thing I'm going to do is to either sponsor or cosponsor a bill for a National Housing program. That should be one part of our national jobs program. When this country was faced with a depression in the 1930s, Roosevelt put forward the New Deal. We need to put forward a new New Deal, call it a 21st century New Deal. A multi-dimensional jobs program, with one part of it being housing construction, with say a million or more new units of housing across the country. Affordable housing for people, affordable based on the realistic demographics of the areas of the country that are impoverished, and not some artificial market rate of affordability that the people who actually live in those areas cannot afford. So we need a national housing construction program to construct say anywhere from a million to 4 million new units of affordable housing, affordable based on the incomes of the working poor in this country. So putting forward that kind of bill will be one of the first things that we'll do.
Freddie Stuart: I just want to ask you a final question. I'm here right now based in London..
Lawrence Hamm: Oh, you're in London? I didn't realize that. I wouldn't have said demonstrations across the country, I would have said demonstrations around the world!
You have had huge demonstrations in London, and people in Paris and in Germany and all over. It's really heartening. I want to thank all my comrades over there, even though I don't know their names, because you turning out in numbers in your country inspires and strengthens and mobilizes us to fight even harder in this country. Thank you.
Freddie Stuart: And we want to thank you for spending time with us.
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