A Most Bizarre Green Party Convention
by Don Fitz
Happenings at the first Missouri Green Party (MOGP) convention since it obtained ballot status were unusual, to say the least. They issue warnings to state Green Parties across the US as well as for any group that seeks to empower members to make decisions collectively.
While Green Parties in several states lost their ballot status in the 2016 elections, Missouri may be the only one that obtained ballot status for the first time. Several good things came out of the August 12-13 MOGP convention in Columbia. It was perhaps the largest gathering of people from the most areas of the state since efforts to put Ralph Nader on the ballot. Over 60 Greens from five chapters and at-large members came.
Even more important, consensus was reached on having a dues structure, a position long advocated by the Green Party of St. Louis / Gateway Green Alliance. Bruce Dixon, of the Georgia Green Party and Black Agenda Report, spoke to the group by skype on the importance of the organization funding itself through dues so it does not become beholden to corporate interests.
Tabling the entire platform until a future meeting was a huge plus. Since drafts went to MOGP members only one day prior to the event, Elston McCowan and Angelika Mueller-Rowry commented several times that voting on the platform would be undemocratic. Though it may seem negative to do so much work writing program drafts and not having them pass, people realized that it is better to have well thought-out planks with full discussion prior to approval.
But there were down sides – very foreboding down sides.
Black Delegates Matter
“Respect for diversity” is a key value of the Greens. This means respect for ethnic, gender and political tendency, among other factors. Unfortunately, this key value was met with contempt rather than respect.
The only four black Greens at the meeting were from St. Louis. St. Louis Greens nominated Rev. Elston McCowan to be one of the delegates to national meetings. Unlike some black candidates who have no history with the party and are nominated as “tokens,” Elston has an outstanding record. He was the Green Party candidate for mayor of St. Louis in 2009, gained over 34% of the vote against the Democrat when running for Ward 2 alderperson in 2015, is co-chair of the (legally structured) Green Party of St. Louis Central Committee, is co-chair of the Gateway Green Alliance, has been a guest several times on Green Time TV addressing lead poisoning and other topics critical to the black community, was chief organizer of the Ballot Initiative Drive for the Missouri Stein/Baraka campaign, was the Midwest Regional Director of the Missouri Stein/Baraka campaign, and is pastor of Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church.
In a close three-way race, Elston was edged out of the vote by two white candidates with nowhere near his track record. Instead of selecting the black candidate who was the most qualified person in the room, Greens voted to give him the booby prize of being an “alternate,” where he could quietly sit in the back of the bus.
The disrespect for Elston McCowan reflected a disrespect for minority opinions that permeated the meeting. A proposal to select officers as a group (so there could be several types of balance, including political orientation) ran up against a claim that political positions should not be considered and insistence that every candidate should be voted on individually.
Think for a second what this means. Across the US (and in Missouri), Green Parties are asking for “proportional representation” of selecting electoral college and other representatives. This is a demand that minority voices should not merely be heard, but have representation. Many people who voted FOR proportional representation in general elections voted AGAINST proportional representation within the Green Party. The implicit message is: Do as I say – not as I do.
This would have made an enormous difference in the way convention delegates were selected. The facilitator announced that everyone would vote for 2 (of the 3) nominees. He rejected the process of voting for 1 of 3, which would have meant proportional representation for any grouping which included more than one third of those in attendance.
Green Action Networks vs. the Democratic Party
St. Louis Greens had proposed to kick off the meeting by linking together Greens from different parts of the state who were working on political issues. The idea was to have four concurrent discussion groups addressing Food Sovereignty, Social Justice, Environmental Justice and Everyday Issues (school funding, single payer, loan forgiveness, $15/hr wage, etc.). People would get to know those from other areas by going to the discussion reflecting their political work. Each group would cover how Greens could “network with kindred groups, propose coordinated actions, draft Green Party statements, and identify potential Green Party candidates.” Then everyone would get together to approve action plans consistent with party goals.
Many people liked that idea of setting up Green Action Networks (GANs) – especially the suggestion that Green Party candidates flow from grassroots organizing. Others seemed skeptical at any hint that Green Party candidates should have organizing experience.
Before the convention, St. Louis Greens had asked for 2 ¼ hrs for both parts of the GAN discussion. But a compromise was reached which reduced the GAN discussion to 1 ¼ hrs. When time was short at the convention, the total allotment plummeted to 5-8 minutes of discussion of GANs as an abstract concept with zero time for people to link up with other Greens doing similar activities and zero time to plan future green actions.
Time was gnawed away from GANs largely because time devoted to the Democratic Party was considered sacrosanct. Democrat Winston Apple had been invited to lecture the MOGP on “Government By the People” proposals which are six petitions, mostly for electoral reform, with one being on the “Green New Deal,” and one on health insurance.
The convention discussed the electoral reform proposals until suddenly one person asked for a vote to endorse all six measures. I asked for a separate vote on each so we could discuss the “Green New Deal,” which no one had even mentioned. The chair refused. All six proposals suggested by the Democratic Party politician passed without Green Party members having the right to speak about or hear concerns on several of them.
After the convention, Paul Lehmann wrote that the “Green New Deal … is a corporatist co-opting of the Green Party plan for creating a green economy and environment. Centralization of energy production and continued exploitation of natural resources for continued overly extravagant building and living is a Democrat idea, not of a true Green Party decentralization and reduction of natural resources usage philosophy. I thank Don Fritz for pointing out the error of my ways on the Green New Deal that I had initially embraced.” Could others have changed their minds had discussion been allowed?
A sidenote is that Rita Mauchenheimer came into the convention with petitions for “Clean Missouri,” which was 1 of the 6 electoral reform proposals that it endorsed. Explaining that it would limit campaign spending, she found Greens who refused to sign it, saying that they had not heard of it. Yet, the next day, when the professional Democratic Party politician asked for support, the same people went beyond signing for it and voted it in as a MOGP project.
The mood of some at the convention was that self-activity by Greens was of little or no value; but, once the Democratic Party Big Boys said it was okay, Greens should dive headfirst into the pond, even if it meant disallowing discussion in order to do so.
Basis of Grassroots Democracy
Another of the Greens' key values is “grassroots democracy.” Most people assume that includes having the right to discuss changes in the basic rules of organization (bylaws) before voting on them.
Before the convention, the bylaws committee had been charged with updating the party's bylaws to conform with changes required by Missouri law regarding parties with ballot status. Kansas City member Zay Thompson took it upon himself to write 34 or 35 changes that would completely alter the nature of the organization. Not only was that far too many for full discussion at one meeting, his amendments left out several key ballot status items.
Henry Robertson and I worked on three changes we thought would cover everything for Missouri law. We were both on the bylaws committee. TheGreen Party of St. Louis recommended that we prioritize necessary changes and address other changes at future meetings. The majority on the committee would have nothing to do with that. They insisted that there would be no problem covering what were now 37 or 38 amendments.
A week or so before the convention the committee asked for comments and Angelika Mueller-Rowry, a St. Louis Green who was also a founding member of the German Green Party, sent in 10-12 additional suggestions, mostly geared to strengthening inner-party grassroots democracy, transparency and accountability. There were now about 50 amendments for presentation, explanation, discussion and voting on during an hour and a half or so convention time.
There were major concerns with the amendments. First, many of them seemed unnecessary, extending the bylaws from 3 pages of the old version to 9 pages of the new version, making them less accessible to the average member and centering control of the rules in the hands of lawyers and “experts.” Second, many of them might be good, but could easily wait so there would not be pressure to pass them quickly. Third, many of them were somewhere between not so good and terrible, which would mean a LOT of discussion was necessary.
For example, one proposal read “Members may not be a member of any other political party with ballot status.” Zay explained that this was designed to keep out Democrats but allow Socialist Alternative and similar groups to send their members in. I objected that “with ballot status” was a nonsensical distinction because it would allow right-wingers like Constitution Party members (if they lose ballot status) to join but keep out many Berniecrats who we share values with. Angelika objected that Green Party loyalty has to be undivided. The objection gained some support but was voted down.
Likewise was the expulsion portion which expanded a simple formulation of two successive meetings voting to expel a member to an array of how to expel members and chapters under a variety of conditions that never occur anywhere. It portrays to readers that the Green Party is obsessed with exterminating thought criminals.
Zay's rewrite of the bylaws concentrated power at the top of the organization. This was abundantly clear with the new power he would give to the Party Chair at state meetings: “The Chair or Chair's designated facilitator shall establish and communicate a process for orderly meetings.” In response to the objection that allowing the Chair to dictate all rules was something that would have made Comrade Stalin blush green with envy, the bylaws committee agreed and Zay withdrew his idea.
Fast Tracking the Green Party
The majority the bylaws committee refused to allow a minority report to the convention, but promised that concerns could be expressed during discussion. Then, while going over the rules during the convention, the same promise of open discussion was repeated, with the only limitation being that if we got bogged down, there might be only two speakers for and two against each bylaw change.
But we did get bogged down, not a little bit, but really, really bogged down, because, as predicted, it was not possible to have fair discussion of 45-50 bylaws changes at one meeting. But the majority decided that it was absolutely necessary to ram those changes down the throat of the minority. So they determined that the best way to do it was to break both promises for open discussion, present only one side (why to vote in favor of changes), eliminate the right of the minority to voice its opinion, and force voting with zero debate.
When the US Congress refuses amendments to international trade deals, it's called “Fast Tracking.” When it's done in the Green Party, it's called “straw polling.” The majority proposed that, for the remainder of the bylaws approval, as each article was brought up, there would be a “straw poll,” with people raising their hands of approval or disapproval. If the majority in the “straw poll” approved, it would go to a vote. But, of course, before going for a vote, a person representing the majority position on the bylaws committee would explain why it recommended approval. This would not be debate, but merely “information.”
Yet, no one in the room, not even the minority on the bylaws committee, would be allowed to say one word of concern about the amendment. No, that would be “debate” (as opposed to “information”). So, perhaps 13 bylaw articles were “approved” by this method, thereby killing all amendments from the floor in the process. Each approval wrapped a rope around the hangman's noose that was the executioner of democracy. And each time, the majority clapped and cheered and waved their hands in the air in celebration of the liquidation of open discussion.
There was an exception to this. Zay Thompson had proposed a bylaw amendment that would allow the Coordinating Committee to expel an entire chapter by itself, without taking it to the membership meeting. The procedure was so awful that it would actually allow a minority of the MOGP to expel the majority, with no checks on its control. The convention allowed and approved an amendment removing the power of chapter expulsion from the Coordinating Committee and giving it to the statewide assembly.
There was another time that I managed to get recognized by the facilitator and proposed an amendment that made the majority see red. An update proposed by the bylaws committee was that members must be sent proposals for future bylaws amendment at least a month in advance of the meeting. Since that was not in effect at the time of the August 2017 meeting, it was legitimate that the committee sent its final version of 40 or more changes ONE DAY before that meeting. Since it disallowed the reporting of minority views, many of Angelika's amendments were not included in that email, and she was forced to bring written copies the DAY OF the meeting, which is to say members had zero advanced notice of her proposals.
So I moved to change the requirement of a month advanced notice to only a day and asked “If we are going to address 45-50 changes without seeing the final version more than a day before this meeting, then why would we need more than one day for the 2-3 changes that are typically made at meetings?” Outraged at my presumptiveness, the next speaker called for an immediate vote.
When my motion failed unanimously, someone yelled out, “Why would you vote against your own motion?” and I responded “Because a ridiculous motion can be made to illustrate the absurdity of a situation, as is happening at this moment.” Some amongst the majority saw no humor in exposing hypocrisy as their eyes shot darts of hatred across the room.
One of most disturbing aspects of meeting was to watch people who regularly oppose injustice sit silently as they watched it happen and even vote in favor of many motions to smother discussion.
This series of authoritarian, pro-Democratic Party measures did not come out of thin air. Much of it was due to a message of character assassination emailed by Zay Thompson the day before the meeting. Instead of focusing on political issues, Zay's message was a personal attack on my character with fantastic misrepresentations.
Zay ignored the intense divisions in the Green Party since its beginning in Germany and made the deeply ahistorical claim that I was solely responsible for “the national Green Party split.” He continued in this line, charging that I was the only reason the MOGP split. Of course, this left out that, around 2002, the KC Greens walked out of the MOGP to form the rival Progressive Party of Missouri and that St. Louis Greens tried to involve them in joint activities for the next 15 years. And Zay made the incredible accusation that, before he arrived, Greens in Missouri had to ask my permission to run for office. In fact, I didn't even know most Missouri Greens running for office during the Stein/Baraka campaign and had spend more time than anyone else in the MOGP trying to recruit people to run since the Nader campaign.
Zay had distorted so many things that many people came to the MOGP convention prejudiced against St. Louis Greens in general and me in particular. In fairness to Zay, he did not originate the smear technique, which has a long history in the Greens.
Even before I joined way back in 1990, there were already full-fledged hate campaigns against New York Green Howie Hawkins and anyone else who dared to suggest that activist politics should take precedence over electoral politics.
By warning people that Don Fitz had dictatorial control over St. Louis Greens, Zay implied that I could only be stopped by suspending democracy and instituting dictatorial control over the convention (which is what happened to large parts of it).
Even though he did not create these methods, Zay proved adept at using them to persuade otherwise fair-minded people that the threat from St. Louis was so great that they had to prohibit debate, vote after hearing only one side, and shove a highly qualified black candidate aside.
Armchair progressives could easily dismiss what is written here as personality conflicts or sour grapes over losing votes. In actuality, it goes to the heart of how we build a mass movement that brings together people from different geographical areas to make collective decisions without being overrun by a reborn elite. These issues existed before our great-grandparents were born and they have not gone away.
They appear in new forms with each generation. Today, they may occur as respecting minority opinions (for political tendencies as well as identity groups), practicing (as well as preaching) proportional representation, allowing people to discuss endorsements and bylaws changes before forcing them to vote, listening to minority reports from committees, avoiding character assassination, and, above all else, being wary of moves to centralize power in the hands of leaders when assemblies-of-the-whole are able to make decisions just as effectively.
A century ago, the left was self-embalmed when, after the global movement looked to the Socialist Parties to prevent the horror of a World War, the German, French and other Social Democrats voted funds for their governments to rush into mass slaughter. The Russian Revolution promised renewed hope but the iron heel of Stalin re-pulverized the dream of a world without bosses. There has never been a world-wide recovery from these decimations.
The entire New Left of the 1960s and 1970s was an attempt to break out of the domineering practices of top-down trade unions and vanguard parties. Coming together as “Occupy” and other mass movements reveals an intense desire to overcome corporate dictatorship without ourselves giving birth to new forms of oppression.
There is no magic bullet or simple answer. Our political descendents will not escape from these contradictions. What to do? Certainly, it is not giving up and walking away from the struggle for a democratic Green Party completely severed from the parties of big business. Perhaps the only “true” solution is to never give up searching for it. Working to break the stranglehold of capitalist oppression is only half of our task. We must never forget that the other half is asking how we can build a new world which abolishes exploitation without re-creating hidden forms of domination.
Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of the Green Party USA. He produces the show Green Time in conjunction with KNLC-TV. In 2015 he designed and coordinated the campaign for Proposition H, which obtained 69% of the vote, thereby significantly slowing overdevelopment in University City. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor.