By Doug Mason
Cheri Honkala, the Green Party’s vice-presidential nominee, gave a presentation at Webster’s Bookstore & Café this month that clearly linked environmental issues to social and economic justice, peace, women’s rights, civil rights and the labor movement.
Honkala is an internationally recognized anti-poverty advocate who is the National Coordinator for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC) based in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest multi-racial, inter-generational movements led by the poor and the homeless. Working directly alongside the poor to build a movement to end poverty, she has organized tens of thousands of people to take action via marches, demonstrations and tent cities.
"We set up Romneyville in Tampa and Obamaville in Charlotte," said Honkala. "At every national convention, both Democratic and Republican, we’ve set up Hooverville –like encampments. They’re for the homeless or suffering people who don’t have access to healthcare and other necessities of life." Read more here...
Ms. Honkala’s work over the last three decades has sprouted over 150 organizations similar to PPEHRC across the country. Among many honors and awards, she was named "Hellraiser of the Month" in the April 2005 issue of Mother Jones magazine.
She is a single mother with no health insurance who has firsthand experience with homelessness; an experience that she said is unlike any of the other candidates for the highest office in the land.
"Poverty is an issue that hasn’t been addressed by any of the Democrats or Republicans heading their respective national tickets," said Honkala. "Half of Americans now live below, at or just above the poverty line. I think I provide a bridge for the Green Party into communities inhabited by inner-city youth, seniors living in nursing homes, the disabled, eight million homeowners struggling to keep their modest houses, and other low income folks."
In 2011, Ms. Honkala ran as the Green’s candidate for Sheriff of Philadelphia on a platform of ending foreclosures and halting evictions. Her campaign slogan was "Keep Families in Their Homes."
When Philly’s Greens chapter approached her about running for that office, she explained that "I have over 200 arrests for participating in nonviolent direct actions, and have spent a lot of my life being transported by the sheriff’s department."
On August 1, 2012, Honkala was arrested again, along with the Greens’ presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, and three others, during a sit-in at Fannie Mae headquarters on Philadelphia’s Bankers Row. The protesters demanded that the mortgage company halt foreclosure proceedings against two Philadelphia families.
"We need financial reform in this country," said Honkala at the protest. "The developers and financiers made trillions of dollars through the housing bubble and the imposition of crushing debt on homeowners."
Hokala and Stein were jailed overnight, and then charged with "defiant trespassing."
"Our trial will be held sometime after Election Day," said Honkala. "Hopefully, Jill will be doing house arrest in the Oval Office, and, when I’m not working at the White House or elsewhere, I’ll be at the vice presidential mansion wearing my ankle bracelet."
As the first woman ever to run as Philly’s sheriff, Ms. Honkala garnered over 10,000 votes, bringing many new faces to the Green Party.
The conversation then turned to the upcoming elections.
"Unfortunately, large sections of the population are sitting out of the 2012 elections," said Honkala. "It’s not because they’re not interested in what’s happening in this country. They just don’t see that their vote matters. But our campaign gives an opportunity for people to see themselves, because we represent the 99 percent."
A teenage mother, Ms. Honkala was living in a car with her young son Mark one frigid, snowy winter in Minneapolis when it was demolished by a drunk driver. In order to survive, they "occupied" an abandoned HUD property that was still hooked up to all utilities.
The experience led her to become an activist who later moved to Philadelphia, after she got her high school diploma.
"I quickly learned how corrupt, difficult and undemocratic politics were in this state," said Honkala. "We were living in a homeless encampment, and the Mayor came by with portable toilets accompanied by a city councilperson bringing water supplies. It’s pretty bad when your elected officials are encouraging you to live on an outside lot. We decided to march on foot to Harrisburg, about 22 miles a day. We’d sleep along the road with other women and children."
When the afore-mentioned homeless group arrived in Harrisburg, they set up camp under the capital building rotunda.
"On our first night, there was a bipartisan champagne and caviar dinner," said Honkala. "A leading Democrat approached us, offering free box lunches if we would move down to the end of a hallway. One homeless family argued that ‘we aren’t going to become invisible for a boxed lunch.’ The next day, notices were posted that the building closed at 5 p.m."
At that appointed hour, hundreds of state troopers arrived and carried each of the homeless demonstrators to the outside stairway.
"We called our encampment ‘Ridgeville’, after the sitting governor," said Honkala. "Gov. Tom Ridge later wrote an opinion piece in the Harrisburg Patriot News calling for these homeless people to ‘go home.’ Yeah, not a very smart guy."
On a record cold October night in Harrisburg, the state police returned to the stairway and took all of the protestors’ blankets.
"We went to a nearby convenience store and begged for plastic and cardboard refuse," said Honkala. "We wrapped the homeless families in those materials to prevent hypothermia. The following day, Democratic politicians promised to get us a lawyer to file for an emergency injunction, but a legal aid attorney came by later and lamented ‘Sorry, they’ve threatened to take a million dollars from our funding if we provide legal services to your group.’ Clearly, neither the Democrats nor Republicans had our well-being as a priority."
"When I got a call from Doctor Stein asking if I would be interested in being on the short list as her running mate, I figured that during the vetting process my arrest record would raise too many red flags. When I got a call the Greens a few weeks later, I expected them to say ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Instead, I was challenged with the most difficult decision of my life. I consulted various mentors, who said ‘Not only should you run…you have a responsibility to do so.’ So here I am, living on Mutter Street in Kensington, one of Philadelphia’s poorest districts, on the same ticket as a Harvard-educated doctor of internal medicine who lives on Trotting Horse Lane in Lexington, Massachusetts."
Ms. Honkala echoes Dr. Stein’s platform, the Green New Deal.
"We proceed from the idea that there is enough to go around…it’s just a question of misplaced priorities," said Honkala. "We believe that if we brought the military home and spent those trillions of dollars on the economy, we could heal much of the financial crisis that has economically crippled so many of our fellow citizens. What we would do is green the economy, creating 25 million sustainable new jobs dedicated to saving the environment. Instead of destroying our water supply, we’d stop the fracking for fossil fuels and promote organic agriculture. We’d work to clean up the air so that our children don’t have to spend so much time in the emergency rooms because of the asthma epidemic. We would turn unemployment centers into employment centers. We would put the homeless to work renovating abandoned houses. We have more such abandoned properties than homeless people. We see healthcare as a basic human right, and would push for a universal, single-payer health system based on existing programs like Medicare and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ programs for vets. Everyone should be covered for rehabilitation, drug and alcohol programs, surgery, dental care and other medical needs. We have a wealthy country that can be free from unemployment, hunger and homelessness."
Addressing a crowd composed mostly of Penn State students, Ms. Honkala went on to stress a key plank in the Green New Deal. "We would immediately forgive student debt because, without jobs waiting for them in their chosen fields, many young adults have become indentured servants. We will push for free education, from pre-school through graduate school. College students shouldn’t have to graduate to minimum wage jobs with this huge financial burden. The Greens also favor a Living Wage. In Philadelphia, that means making $16.75 an hour just to get by, rather than $7.25 an hour."
But the Greens have struggled just to get ballot access.
"We had to fight like hell to get on the slate here in Pennsylvania - we had to get more than ten times the number of valid signatures on our petitions as the Democrats and Republicans," said Honkala. "Does that sound fair to you? Especially when you consider that we don’t have access to billions of dollars flowing through our coffers. I’m happy to say, though, that despite all the obstacles the two major parties have strewn in our path, the Greens are the fastest growing party in PA right now, which might have something to do with a certain hometown girl from our state."
At press time, the Green Party is on the ballot of 38 states, while seeking or litigating access in five other states. The Stein/Honkala ticket will be a write-in option everywhere else except Nevada and Oklahoma. There are Green parties in 47 states (as well as in Puerto Rico and Washington. D.C.), and Greens have organizations in other three states. The most recent CNN poll determined that 2% of voters will choose Jill Stein over President Obama, Governor Romney or the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, Gary Johnson.
The Green Party of Pennsylvania will be holding a statewide meeting in Webster's backroom from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 18. Further details and logistics will be discussed at the monthly meeting of the Centre County Green Party at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, November 12, in Webster's Cafe.