[Hpn] Catching Up with Ralph Nader by chance martin
Coalition on Homelessness, SF
Mon, 18 Sep 2000 10:32:23 -0700
Catching Up with Ralph Nader
...by chance martin
I'm sitting less than ten feet across from Ralph Nader - Green Party
candidate for the U.S. Presidency - in the Green Party's headquarters
at 680 Valencia St. in San Francisco's Mission District. He's running
late, but taking the time to meet with us between campaign
appearances in Oakland and San Francisco State University the
afternoon of Thursday, September 14th.
The first thing I notice is his shoes: these are the shoes, I'm
thinking, of someone who doesn't own a car. They are well worn. In
fact, Ralph Nader's shoes are less shiny than the soles of San
Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's Bally slippers.
Paul Boden - Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco
- was invited to an intimate meeting of about a dozen of San
Francisco's prominent social justice activists with Mr. Nader.
Problem was, Paul was on vacation, so we sent six staff, including
homeless people, to fill in.
When we learned our time was going to be truncated (due to the
typical traffic delays on the Bay Bridge), we prioritized our issues.
Although Nader didn't actually respond to Jenny Friedenbach, who led
off, we managed to put materials about the Community Housing
Investment Trust and the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing
Project into his hands. And what Ralph Nader had to say that
afternoon reflected many of our major issues.
There were definite moments when you could tell he was riffing on the
same themes he speaks about on the campaign trail, but mostly he was
very genuine and direct. At times, I wished that I could sign up for
some class he taught - he was very instructive. His approach was to
The following is a faithful transcript of a tape of that meeting. Any
inaccuracies are my own. Dubious name spellings are duly noted. I'm
guessing at the actual languages that were used when the dialogue
wasn't in English. The moderator was a representative from the
California Nurse's Association.
* * * * *
MODERATOR: I know you don't have a lot of time. I just want to say
this is Ralph Nader - who's running for President - and that you and
the people here, Ralph, have a lot in common 'cause most of the
people here work on social and economic justice. What I've asked is
that a few of them speak a minute each on some of their issues and
you speak a couple of minutes - 'cause I know you're rushed - and we
don't have time to go around the room. Is that fine?
NADER: These are known as 'activists'.
MODERATOR: These are known as 'people in the trenches'.
MODERATOR: The Coalition on Homelessness is going to begin. OK?
I'm Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness. One of
the issues that we would like you to focus on is the broader issue of
homelessness, and the fact that the federal government is in large
part responsible for the onset of large numbers of people living on
the streets. Here in San Francisco, we have between 11,000 and 14,000
sleeping on our streets every night. We cannot solve this problem
without federal assistance. Federal government needs to be putting
money into housing. It needs to stop tearing down our projects
without one-for-one replacement of those units. We need money for
mental health treatment - not involuntary treatment. We need money
for substance abuse treatment - and that's substance abuse treatment
that the community decides how it looks. Right now, we've got a lot
of problems with the federal government directing how we deliver our
substance abuse treatment.
There's a couple of initiatives I'd like to show you that deal with
homelessness on a federal level. One of them is the Community Housing
Investment Trust, which would develop a million new units of housing
which would be affordable to families and individuals who are making
less than the minimum wage. That's our problem - we have some
affordable housing here, but it's all geared toward working folks and
families, and we have a lot of folks who don't even come close to
making the amount of money to be able to afford it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Jenny. OK, I'm going to move to City College.
Hi, I'm Elisa Nicholas (?) and I'm representing Education in Action
as well as City College of San Francisco Alumni, and I'd like to know
what you plan to do about attacks on young people such as affirmative
action - which was ended here - and Prop. 21 - which incarcerates
young people basically for being young - and the criminalization of
youth. And I also want to know what you plan to do about
underrepresented students of color, or Native Americans, or other
people who are not incorporated into our larger important systems,
such as medicine, law, government, and what you plan to do to keep a
representation of my people in the United States.
NADER: Well, first of all, that Proposition... 21?
NADER: ...it's seen in Europe as absolutely medieval and cruel. The
idea of taking 14-year-olds and treating them as adults and putting
them in adult prisons is to condemn their future as if it was a life
sentence. And this is the heritage of cowardly political leaders, who
don't understand that brutish conditions lead to brutish behavior,
and it's the brutish conditions and deprivation that lead to so much
of what they call juvenile crime. It eliminates any hope of
rehabilitation in a sane and caring way.
Second, we can provide - in this country - free tuition to all
students in public colleges and universities for about 32 billion
dollars a year. And that money can come from shrinking the bloated
defense budget and getting the corporations off welfare. And there'll
be plenty of money for universal healthcare, for affordable housing,
for public transit, and for extending free education from elementary
school and high school to public colleges.
What we have to do is look at the huge pile of tax dollars which now
are being drained to favor the rich and the corporations and say that
tax dollars are to be used for serious purposes - not for stadiums,
not for other purposes to make corporations richer - and serious
purposes involve servicing the needs of the many. Whether it's
housing, rebuilding the public works: schools, community health
clinics, public transit, the drinking water systems; whether it's
healthcare. We have to have a political movement that moves a massive
diversion of public dollars for the public's benefit, not for the
If you want to put it in a phrase, it's 'a movement to meet human
need, not corporate greed'. (applause)
Mr. Nader, I'm Steve Bingham. I'm with the Coalition for Ethical
Welfare Reform - which grew out of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. We're
a coalition of recipients and advocates who try to minimize the
damage caused by the Welfare Reform Act. As you probably know, it
needs to be re-authorized in Washington next year. There needs to be
a nationally led debate - and hopefully, you'll be a leader in that -
to talk about why it's just not working. The rolls have been going
down and nobody's explaining where people are going. Those who are
getting jobs can't possibly raise families on them, so there needs to
be a whole lot more work in terms of minimum wage and support
services to people. There needs to be an elimination of all of the
exclusions, such as people who are excluded for life if they have a
felony conviction for substance abuse. People are not allowed to get
benefits if they have a child on welfare.
The whole thing is social engineering of the worst sort, and unless
we have leadership and a third voice - which you are - the Tweedledum
and Tweedledee that you've talked about are just going to
re-authorize it. We're looking for your leadership.
NADER: Well, there's some western European countries who, years ago,
essentially abolished poverty. Child poverty is down to two percent
in Scandinavia, three percent in the Netherlands, and they did it
coming out of war-torn Europe and World War Two in the '50s and '60s.
Here we are, the richest country in the world, where the top one
percent of the richest people have net wealth equal to the bottom
ninety-five percent. We have 20% poverty nationwide, 25% poverty here
in California, which you can compare with 15% poverty in 1980 in
California - it's getting worse as the economy grows.
We have to have a national mission to abolish poverty... and you know
who launched the last-discussed idea on that subject? President
Richard Nixon, who proposed a national minimum income policy -
drafted for him by his special assistant, Daniel P. Moynihan - and
the Congress rejected it. So we can go back to that flaming radical
Richard Nixon (laughter) ...and put this idea in the Presidential
Election for discussion and debate. There is no excuse for our
country - other than if there's too much power in the hands of too
few forces - no excuse for not abolishing poverty.
People are poor when they're working, not just when they're not
working. You can't live on $5.15 an hour - the federal minimum wage -
which is lower than the real purchasing power of the 1968 minimum
wage, which is now $7.30. That is, after thirty-two years of economic
growth people are making less in purchasing power - two dollars or
more less an hour - than was made in 1968.
So, if that doesn't get your indignation level up, we've got plenty
of other ways to do so. (laughter)
Hi, my name is Trina Gomez (?). I'm from the Homeless Prenatal
Program - I work in the Policy and Advocacy Department. Our
organization serves about a thousand clients every year. We work off
of limited resources, as you know, for families and I just wanted to
know how you are going to shed light on the fact that, locally as
well as across the state, dot-com organizations are taking over the
space that we need for housing, and for non-profit organizations who
need places for their organizations to thrive. How are you going to
shed light on that?
NADER: Well, that comes down to how property is owned. And if
property is owned in the form of trusts, then the trusts have a
certain charitable purpose - or other purposes - and they can't sell
out to the Intels, or the Ciscos, or their counterparts. That's like
land conservancies, where non-profit groups buy up land to keep it
from being developed and preserve it for environmental purposes or
So the key is, you can't stop people who own a building like this
from selling out. What you can do is develop a trust fund - and
that's a very legitimate function of public funds - so that the
ownership goes into these community trusts and is preserved for the
benefit of the neighborhood. In other words, they're not going to
allow gentrification. They're not going to allow people who've lived
here all their lives trying to make ends meet at low-income levels,
then suddenly, just because it's crowded in the richer areas, the
rich folk come in to replace everyone else.
It drives them out, and then where are they going to go? It's not
like there's even single-room-occupancies. All these
single-room-occupancies all over the country have been wiped out to
gentrification and other methods.
So, you can't fight this alone. You've got to fight it in a
cooperative, in a housing trust manner, and you've got to fight it
with a political arm - and that's why the Green Party is spreading,
because it's designed to give folks in the neighborhood a political
arm muscle in the political arena. 'Cause citizens can't do it by
themselves, they've got to have an alliance with a political arm -
not just civic activism.
My name is Jim Hewitt (?), I'm with the Senior Action Network, and
the leaders of our organization asked me to come here today because
they're finishing up with an accountability session right now with
the director of the Mayor's Office of Housing and the Chair of the
Housing and Social Policy committee of the Board of Supervisors, who
- instead of being held accountable - chose to sneak out the back
door before being presented with our demands.
And what we're looking for are accountable officials - on a local
level, on a state level, and on a federal level.
We're asking for housing. After the homeless, seniors have the
greatest need for affordable housing in this city. There's a housing
gap of 9,800 units for senior citizens. We go to the city officials,
they point at the state and the feds - and all the way up the line...
the state points to the locals, and the feds point back down to the
city. The buck has to stop somewhere.
Also, other issues that are important to seniors are: don't even
think about privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age
to afford the sort of program that is insulting... I've already
mentioned housing; single-payer healthcare is very important to our
seniors, and also exploring alternative modes to transportation -
alternative to the automobile. Our seniors think that crossing the
street in this city is an 'extreme sport' (laughter), and we're sick
of having to dodge those cars all the time, so alternative methods of
transportation are high on their list.
NADER: I appreciate your concern because you're so young... it's very
rare for that to happen. The other point is - and it's important to
know - is the use of the recall power. I don't know whether San
Francisco has the recall power - do you? At the local level - where
you can recall politicians between elections? The referendum recall
statewide in California allows you to recall state officials, and I'm
not sure what the situation is here, but that's one way to hold them
accountable. And let's say it would be easier to recall a local
official, for obvious reasons, than a state official. And that's one
way to get their attention.
Overall, what we're seeing here is a massively wealthy country that
serves the wealthy. We're seeing giant corporations that are our
masters, when the corporations should be our servants. We're seeing a
destruction of the trade union movement by international trade
agreement. We're seeing the lack of knowledge by people in the inner
cities that there's even a national cooperative bank that provides
loans for cooperative housing.
Do you know, for example, that if you have cooperative housing here
in San Francisco, you're almost certain to be able to get a loan from
that bank in Washington? Are you aware of that, by the way? You know,
we worked hard in the '70s to get that through. 1978 - it was called
the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, and then Reagan wanted to get
rid of it, so they went private. But their mandate is to give credit
- loans to food co-ops, and housing co-ops, and all other types of
co-ops. And they sometimes complain that they don't have enough loan
applications. So reduce their complaints - flood them with loan
The cooperative housing is going to stay put. If you have cooperative
housing, it's not going to migrate.
Hi, my name is Bianca Henry, and I'm with Family Rights and Dignity,
and I'm seeing a lot of homelessness because demolished low-income
family housing project units are not being replaced on a one-to-one
basis. HUD and the Housing Authority are hiding behind red tape, and
they're not actually selling the land, but they let dot-coms build on
the land. When they develop it and say they're developing affordable
housing, only 33% of the units go to low-income people. Then, when
those low-income people are evicted for some absurd reason, the
housing that's supposed to go for low-income people is going back to
fair-market rate. When we complain about it, they say it's not ours.
But in fact, it is ours. We paid for them to be operating. And I want
to know: what are you going to do about this?
NADER: See, we all have to move protest to power. Don't we get sick
and tired of demanding and having our demands - which are very
legitimate - rebuffed? Or 'we'll take that under consideration',
'we'll assign a study committee to that' in order to cool you off.
The point is, that we've got to move from what we know about the
injustice in our communities, what we know about the solutions that
are available - if we had a functioning democracy, what we know about
the financial resources that are piled up, making the rich
hyper-rich... That's the problem, isn't it? The rich want to be
super-rich, then they become super-rich and they want to be
hyper-rich, and there's no end. The definition of greed is infinity.
There was a time, twenty years ago, when a corporate executive would
be totally satisfied with a million bucks a year. Now, they're not
satisfied with being paid a million bucks a month; some of them want
a million bucks a week.
So, we've got to bring all of these justifications for change
together and move to power. If people do not have power in a
democracy, they do not have justice. They've got to have a power as
voters, a power as workers, a power as taxpayers, and a power as
consumers and tenants, etcetera. And that's what has to happen. You
see, the problem is that if we restrict our activities to charity...
which is important and it helps people in need, but we'd be on that
You've got to go beyond charity, and advocate for change: to go to
the causes of why people are homeless, the causes of why people in
America - the biggest agricultural production machine in the world -
are hungry, why people in America don't get a fair shake because of
race or gender, why people in America can't even get to their jobs,
because if they don't own a car they can't get to a job, because they
need public transit worthy of the name - without getting up at four
in the morning, as in some places around the country.
So the phrase that we really need to use more often is 'a society
that has more justice is a society that needs less charity'. So the
key is justice. And the definition of freedom we should all use is
'participation in power'.
Freedom is participation in power. That's the key. That's what it's
all about in a society. And if the people have the power, they have
the justice. If the corporations have the power over the government
and over the marketplace and the workplace, they've got the power. So
that's what we have to do: we have to move from the charitable
interface - where a lot of you are working - to power.
Along comes the Green Party, right? What is the Green Party? It's got
the right direction, the right policies, and it says: this is a
wide-open party. You've got to fill it with your energy, time and
talent. You've got to run for local city council on the Green Party,
you've got to run for state assembly, you've got to run for federal
office. So this is a party you can build with your own efforts, and
your own time, and your own talent, because I guarantee you, when you
read that agenda of the Green Party, it is so superior to the
Republican/Democratic agendas that you'll say: This is for Me.
And this is what we're trying to do. It's an opportunity to build a
new progressive political movement in America.
Hi, I'm Nadine Nebir (?) from the Arab-American community and I just
wanted to make a couple of points. One is that people have expressed
concern - from our community - that you haven't strongly identified
as a person of Arab descent because it might harm your campaign. So
I'm interested in what you would say to that.
But more urgently, I'm interested in how you would deal with ending
the sanctions on Iraq, Palestinian self-determination, and the issue
of secret evidence.
(Ralph and Nadine converse in Arabic for about a minute.)
NADER: Yes, see how I deny my heritage? (laughter)
(Ralph and Nadine exchange in Arabic again.)
NADER: We're talking about food. (laughter)
NADER: All right, number one: you have to end the criminal economic
sanctions on Iraq - that the American Physicians Task Force of the UN
said are killing 5,000 Iraqi children every month. It's a violation
of so many international laws and agreements - the UN Declaration on
Human Rights for Children. And it's only making the dictator of Iraq
even more repressive, because he can point to the foreign devils who
are keeping critical medicine and critical equipment out of the hands
of hospitals and doctors and nurses in Iraq.
So, it's a totally failed policy. We're not talking about the
military sanctions - nobody disagrees with that - we're talking about
the economic sanctions. What was the second one?
(another exchange in Arabic)
NADER: Of course. You know, even in Israel, now the majority of the
people say there should be a Palestinian state - not just a
Palestinian homeland. And they're negotiating it and trying to decide
the land territory and how much international assistance is going to
go with it and other issues. It's on the right track - it's just got
to have some sort of final deadline before you get another eruption.
Nadine: Can you be a little more specific on the Palestinian issue?
In terms of refugees rights to return or specific issues that you
have views on, regarding Palestine.
NADER: Well, I mean once you get a state, you want a democratic
state. I'm sorry to say that is going to be the next challenge - how
to get a democratic Palestinian state. And in terms of right of
return the Israelis have offered 100,000 people coming back, a lot of
people no longer have any refugee relatives there, after all these
decades. They should work that out. If anybody, the Jewish people
know what the right of return means, and very, very sensitively.
As far as anything else, there's a huge amount of capital that's
needed. A lot of destruction, a lot of deprivations and poverty and,
I think, a lot of the nations in the world will be able to get
together and provide significant funding.
My name is Barry Hermanson, and for the past two and a half years
I've been serving as the Co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition here
in San Francisco. And I guess from everything you have been saying,
that I've heard for a long time now - that obviously you get - about
the need for a living wage. People who work full-time should be able
to support themselves without having to resort to charity or public
subsidies. I know you think that's very, very important.
Recently, we were able to get something passed here. It's not a
living wage - we have a lot of work to do. I think that very soon the
industrial welfare community is going to be considering an increase
in the minimum wage in California, and even what they're proposing is
a joke - it should be much, much higher.
I believe it's time that we ought to have a statewide living wage, we
ought to have a national living wage - that any contract dollars that
are going out, anything for programs and services should condition
that employees make enough that they can support themselves and their
Related to that, I'm an owner/operator of a temporary employment
service here in San Francisco, and I've been doing that for over
twenty years. I started my business by trying to compete by offering
a lower markup than my competitors and offering my employees a better
wage. I've been frustrated for over twenty years because I cannot put
healthcare, I cannot put paid time-off, retirement, into my markup
and still be competitive. We have a huge industry in this country of
contingent workers, temporary workers - millions and millions of
people. It has, over the last 20, 30, 40 years, enjoyed enormous
growth in this country - people who are, essentially, disposable. You
use them for a little while, and they're gone - because they're not
I think we desperately need universal healthcare, but we need to go
beyond that and take a look at the other types of benefits people
really need in order to be able to survive in their old age. I
certainly hope that you will be able to...
NADER: Yeah, well I think we ought to take a cue from western Europe.
They have social wage laws, regardless of whether you belong to
unions or not. The bottom one third of the poorest workers in western
European countries make 44% more than the bottom one third in our
Just for starters, they get a month paid-vacation, they get paid
maternity leave, they get paid sick leave, they get the right -
easier - to form trade unions, and these are countries that were
essentially destroyed in World War Two. So we have to ask ourselves:
why can't we do what they did thirty to forty years ago?
I think we need to go for a National Living Wage - regardless of
whether there's a government contract involved. And that's called the
Social Wage. It's quite clear that if the minimum wage was adjusted
for inflation the way that congressional salaries are adjusted beyond
inflation - and they're about to raise their salaries again in a few
days in Congress by about $4,000 a year - if it was adjusted, it
would be about $7.30 now.
That ought to be the floor for any consideration, right there. That's
where you start. If we can't - after thirty-two years of economic
growth - have workers paid the same as the workers were paid in 1968
in purchasing power, then we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.
We have to raise our expectation levels here. You know, for thirty
two years businesses have been raising their prices, right? They've
been paying their owners more for thirty two years, right? Well, they
haven't been paying their workers at the same proportionate level, so
they've had thirty-two years of windfall here. There's a lot to catch
MODERATOR: One more question...the last person. Lily?
I'm from the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition and we're working on
a process of community planning and fighting against gentrification
and displacement here in the Mission. As you've heard, this is a
nation-wide crisis - and we're in a serious housing crisis. I think
what a lot of us would like to hear is more specifics about how - if
you were elected as President - would you preserve the existing
affordable housing and create more - and also deal with the local
city governments that are stacked with pro-development people who are
allowing the perceived economic boom to destroy our communities.
NADER: Part of that is encouraged by the federal taxes, as you know,
so the federal government has got a role in that. The whole
anti-sprawl movement is a movement of a hundred approaches. I mean,
it's really pretty complex, because you're dealing with zoning,
you're dealing with drainage runoff, you're dealing with lack of
public transport, and all the rest of it. You're dealing with how
dense do we want housing to be - two, three, four, five stories? The
more dense, the less land.
So, it's a very complex issue, but you have to start it by
controlling the property that's in place now through some sort of
trusts and cooperatives so they can't be sold off so quickly -
because the people don't want it sold off - where landlords will sell
out very easily.
Just ask yourself: how do you avoid being discouraged?
Audience: Fight back.
NADER: Fight back. What else?
Audience: Having another choice.
NADER: Having what?
Audience: Having a choice.
NADER: Having a choice... to be discouraged you mean?
NADER: Oh, to choose a different path. Oh yes. Let's see, anyone else?
MODERATOR: OK, this is our last question.
I'm Eric Mar from the Chinese Progressive Association, and many of us
(Ralph and Eric converse briefly in Chinese.)
Eric: ...we struggled for months to free Wen Ho Lee, and the federal judge...
NADER: Oh, sure. That was a frame-up right from the beginning.
Eric: ...the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice... what
do you feel about that?
NADER: You see, here's what happened: the Department of Energy was
caught with a situation where they had to find somebody to scapegoat,
right? So they focused on him, and right from the beginning - I could
just tell from the newspaper reports - that there's something really
insubstantial about their case. And fortunately, we have a great
judge in this case. And he stood up to the federal government, and
criticized them, and shamed them. And for once the judiciary came
through - I mean, it does come through more than once. But in a
situation like that, with the powers of the federal government, with
bureaucrats trying to cover their flanks - right up to the Secretary
of Energy - against this lone scientist, the courts came and rendered
justice. I'm sure he's going to probably have a civil suit against
the government if he wants to exert it.
By the way, the articles from recent papers say there are no nuclear
secrets left to steal. (laughter)
Audience: Can we abolish nuclear weapons?
NADER: We've got to work with other nations for the abolition of
nuclear weapons. Even the former head of the Strategic Air Command,
General Butler, has been crusading for that since he retired three
MODERATOR: OK, we've got to move on now. This dialogue will continue
for a long time...
NADER: All right. So, what do you say? Huh? Thousands of votes come
out of this session! (applause) Everyone can bring their neighbors,
friends, co-workers, relatives. Figure on a hundred votes - each
person. Can you imagine?
* * * * *
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