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Organizing Pennsylvania’s 197: Cheri Honkala on Frontline Communities

At last year’s Green Party Convention in Houston, Cheri Honkala, founder of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, gave a workshop on organizing frontline communities. She began with a video of the devastated, post-industrial landscape of Kensington, her Philadelphia neighborhood. Walking through its streets, she pointed at its employment opportunities: “Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Taco Bell. Liquor store. And oh yeah, here’s Fix-A-Flat. This is our industrial base now.”

She said that she had been involved in over 200 abandoned-building occupations, claiming them for housing. She had helped set up homeless encampments and helped get people fed. She had been arrested at least 200 times.

We had this conversation after the workshop:

Ann Garrison: I was confused by the difference between Green Party organizing and housing rights organizing, and how they need to come together.

Cheri Honkala: I think we have to take a page out of history and look back on the organizing efforts of the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party talked about the need to build a political party, but at the same time they were doing things like breakfast programs, trying to figure out how to feed people, how to keep people alive, doing Copwatch, you name it. And I think that now is the time to do a similar kind of thing.

The nonprofit industrial complex has set up fake silos that divide and divert people’s energy away from organizing to gain political power. And they do that because many of the nonprofits receive a lot of soft money from the Democratic Party, so they don’t organize people to gain what they really need, which is political power.

We don’t need bigger and better welfare programs, social services, these kinds of things. In our country it’s not a question of scarcity. It’s a question of greed. There’s plenty to go around, and if we develop the political will, the organization, and the political independence, we can house everybody, we can feed everybody, we can provide the best education. We could solve everything if we wanted to. So we refuse to agree to this concept that there’s not enough to go around, and our job going forward is engaging in a real fight for freedom and democracy and economic human rights. And that also means making sure that we keep our brothers and sisters alive while we build this political independence.

AG: When Jill Stein was talking to someone recently she said that Greens are involved in the social movements, but they’re not there opportunistically, just to wave their banner and recruit for the Green Party. What do you think about that?

CH: Well, I’m not quite sure what Jill meant by that, but for frontline communities, it’s not opportunistic to build for political independence. The Democrats and Republicans make the laws in this country, and we in the frontline communities remain oppressed and hungry and homeless as a result. It’s time to move on. And I think that maybe what Jill was trying to say was that Greens actually care about these issues and that many Greens come from these social movements. And I think that when we couple social movements with a political party, then we can really give birth to political independence.

Challenging election theft in Pennsylvania’s District 197

Months after the Green Party Convention, Honkala entered the race to represent Philadelphia’s State House District 197, the poorest in Pennsylvania. Its demographics are 76% Black and 20% White, with tiny LatinX, Asian, mixed race, and “other” percentages. Honkala’s own mother was Cheyenne, her father Finnish.

She ran in a special election held to replace Democrat Leslie Acosta, who pled guilty to money laundering, a federal felony, in March 2016. Acosta didn’t resign until January 2017 after her fellow Philadelphia legislators insisted. On a comic note, Rep. Ed Neilson, D.-Philadelphia, told Acosta she wasn’t welcome and that for all he knew, she was “wired up” to gain more favor with prosecutors before sentencing. Neilson later told the press that, “It’s in the back of plenty of people’s heads,” and “it just came out of my mouth in the heat of the moment.”

Republican Lucinda Little was the only candidate who managed to secure a place on the ballot, but in a 95% Democratic district, she had little chance. Democrat Freddie Ramirez was removed from the ballot via residency challenge, and Democratic Party officials then nominated Emilio Vazquez, a little known parking authority official. However, they did so past the filing deadline, and a Pennsylvania State Court judge rejected efforts to see Vazquez added to the ballot. The same judge denied Honkala a spot on the ballot, saying her nomination petition was submitted a day past the deadline. But Richard Winger of Ballot Access News wrote that the judge did not rule in accordance with the law: “Because the Green Party polled over 2% of the winning candidate’s vote total in 2016, the law [in Pennsylvania] does not require a petition for a Green Party nominee in special elections, so the deadline only concerned a declaration of candidacy,” which Honakala had submitted on time.

Honkala and Vazquez both pursued write-in campaigns, and Vazquez was declared the winner on March 24 this year.

Last weekend, at the Green Party’s Annual Meeting in Newark, New Jersey, Honkala talked about how the Democrats—not the Russians—had stolen the election from her:

“I learned about what it means to really run for office in a frontline community that’s run by the Democratic Party, also known as the local mob, and it has not a damn thing to do with Russia. And as they’re talking about the Russians stealing the election, I’m watching the fact that they stole my election in the 197 district, and it’s not appearing on any of the progressive media. You’re not hearing about it on the radio shows.

My election should have been a slam dunk. I ran against the local parking authority guy that nobody had a damn idea who the hell he was.

And on election day, the joke was, ‘Cheri, you didn’t get the menu.’ You know what the menu was? How much money it cost each ward leader in order to get you a certain percentage in each of the voting booths.

So, as we went around and saw brothers and sisters being paid in between the housing projects, as we saw them pass out stamps for the Democrat from the seat inside the election booths, as we produced video after video after video of election judges getting paid money to ensure that I was not elected on election day, we made a decision to raise the necessary $7,000, and we’re going to federal court.”

Honkala said that after she declared she’d see the Democrats in federal court, her tires were slashed, her life was threatened, and her belongings were thrown in a dumpster while she attempted to move them into storage. She and her son Guillermo were evicted from public housing and became homeless again for the first time since escaping homelessness and becoming a homeless advocate herself. She also said that this affected far more people than her own family:

“And people know that when I talk about me being homeless again in my life, we’re not just talking about me. We’re talking of anywhere up to 22 people at any given time that reside in my house. And so now some of those people are having to sleep in cars. I can’t take any of the kids in from the city, because right now I’m hiding in plain sight waiting to go to federal court. And yet I turn on the television and have to hear about Russia.”

She said the head of the local Democratic Party called her and said, “Cheri, this could’ve been a shoo-in. If you had just decided to be a Democrat, you could’ve been state rep right now.” A Pennsylvania state rep makes $84,000/yr., plus $157/day per diem when the legislature is in session, which would probably go a long way in the 197, but Cheri demonstrated her commitment to the Green Party by running as a Green.

At the Green Party Annual Meeting, she said:

“It’s time for us to wake up, to realize that we really are at war, and that if we’re serious about having people of color and frontline communities in this party, it’s gonna take more than caucuses. It’s gonna take more than conversations. It’s gonna take investing in frontline community elections to ensure the uplifting of lives like those of the 55,000 people of the 197.”

Amen. To donate to the residential community center that Cheri is attempting to create for herself, her son, and her neighbors, click on Human Rights House. To donate to the election fraud lawsuit that she and the Pennsylvania Greens have filed in federal court, click on Cheri for the 197th.

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Ann Garrison is an independent journalist who also contributes to the San Francisco Bay View, Global Research, the Black Agenda Report and the Black Star News, and produces radio for KPFA-Berkeley and WBAI-New York City.  In 2014, she was awarded the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize by the Womens International Network for Democracy and Peace.  She can be reached at ann@afrobeatradio.com.

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