Daylight and precipitation have been fighting it out over the past few weeks in the greater Chicago area. A similar situation is happening on the ground. One of the longest-serving Democrats in the House of Representatives is facing a strong and spirited challenge for the first time in decades. The district itself is bluer than phthalocyanine and its constituents are increasingly wary of corporate-friendly politics.
Enter Anthony Clark, a 37-year-old democratic socialist steeped in the revolutionary history of Chicago’s working class movements. He’s also a Democrat running against 12-term incumbent Danny K. Davis, who has represented the Windy City in Congress since 1996.
In previous years, the incumbent has practiced classic Chicago-style politics by challenging his opponents’ nominating petitions–a strategy once used by a young Chi-town politician named Barack Obama. This year, however, Davis and his attorneys have been quiet. In 2008, the country’s most electorally effective branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) endorsed Davis; Clark himself is a DSA member and the organization is going with their own man in 2020. Whereas Clark has been all over Chicago and national media, Davis is something close to a non-entity media-wise. Sometimes you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
I first reached out to Clark for his insight on the continuity between Obama-era immigration policies and President Donald Trump‘s much louder use of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Clark’s momentum has increased apace in recent weeks. The following interview was conducted over the course of a few days in mid-December via email and instant messages.
COLIN KALMBACHER: Could you give us some basic information? I usually joke about “name, rank and serial number,” but you can actually answer that question quite literally.
ANTHONY CLARK: My name is Anthony Clark, I am a 37-year-old (10/27/1982) disabled military veteran (6 years active duty Air Force), special education high school teacher (11 years), founder and non profit director (Suburban Unity Alliance), and candidate for Congress in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District.
What motivated you to get involved in electoral politics?
I was raised in the struggle. My parents worked up to 70 hours per week, while my grandmother helped to take care of me, in an effort to provide me with better access to opportunities and safety. My grandfather and father, who were both huge Muhammad Ali fans, would always share with me one of Ali’s greatest quotes: “Service to others is the rent you pay for room here on this Earth.”
When my parents finally saved up enough money to rent an apartment in Oak Park, Illinois, the first suburb outside of the city of Chicago, I began to understand what the struggle actually was. I observed firsthand how literally crossing a street could mean the difference between life and death. How the median income of one community was $80 to $100 thousand and the median income of the community next door was $20 to $30 thousand. How economics maintained segregation that should have ended in the sixties.
As a product of the struggle, it was difficult for me at times growing up as a Black teen caught in between two worlds. I was always a fighter, but at an early age, I was fighting for the wrong reasons. I didn’t yet know how to serve and give back…I chose to enter into one of the largest welfare states, the military. Serving six years, traveling the country, being deployed, experiencing the military industrial complex, I quickly learned that the language of struggle was universal. How a capitalist society like America, not only played a role in my oppression, but the oppression of others across the globe in the name of profit and supremacy.
When I was shot in 2007 and diagnosed with Behçet’s disease in 2008, which led to my medical discharge, I told myself that I was going to return to my community and fight to end the struggle. I became a teacher…
America’s educational system is broken, so while serving as a teacher, I felt I needed to do more. I formed a nonprofit in 2016 to address greater equity issues in my community. Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA) has done everything from collaborate on getting a Welcoming Village Ordinance for immigrant families in our community passed to getting Columbus Day eliminated and Indigenous People’s Day recognized. SUA also has done major work in addressing homelessness, medical debt, and school debt in our communities.
You recently attracted a significant amount of press for posting a video of you lighting up. Could you tell us a little about how that decision was made–and how your campaign manager felt about it? How important is it that America end its failed War on Drugs and close that chapter of our history?
The war on drugs was/is racist. The war on drugs and the prohibition of cannabis has devastated Black, brown, and poor communities. Slavery by another name, after the end of legal slavery in 1865, has been maintained through the disproportionate representation of Black people, brown people, and poor people within our criminal justice system. Chattel slavery was about making profit and our current prison industry supplied by the war on drugs and prohibition of cannabis is about making profit.
Those who have made profit from prohibition do not look like me. They are not Black, brown, or poor. Now, with greater pushes for federal legalization and Illinois legalizing on January 1st, those planning to profit from legalization do not look like me. Historically, the stigmas attached to cannabis, have always been attached to POC [people of color]. I am a fighter and believe in speaking truth to power; my team knows this about me. I felt it was extremely important to not only share my truth in regard to cannabis [but also because] the incumbent in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District and presidential candidates like Joe Biden continue to hold regressive stances in regard to federal legalization.
You also recently visited South Bend, Indiana to meet with Black Lives Matters activists who protested Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy. Tell us a little about that trip and why you think Buttigieg is 100% not the candidate for Democrats in 2020.
Buttigieg is an example of neoliberal identity politics cloaked in the idea of collective progress. Often POC and the poor are spoken for and at, but rarely listened to and heard. Following the incident of Black Lives Matter South Bend protesting Pete’s town hall, I saw so many attempting to silence the voices of the protestors and weaponize identity.
I felt it was extremely important to get into the community, since corporate run media failed to do so, and talk directly to community members of color in South Bend. Listening to their truths and in particular the truths of one Black Lives Matter South Bend leader, you learned of a mayor focused on the development of predominantly downtown white communities and further divestment in Black and poor communities. We learned how Pete continues to fail to hold address the systemic issues that exist within his police department and hold officers accountable.
Pete has a Douglass Plan that sounds great on paper, but when you learn of his actual leadership in the very communities that the Douglass Plan is supposed to help, the truth reveals a mayor that views the Black community as props in their ascension to power…
Cynics and naysayers insist working class politics from the left just can’t win elections. What’s your response to that?
Civility, centrism, neoliberalism, moderate ideologies, are all the tools of the oppressor. Democrats holding these viewpoints must understand that too many working class Americans, particularly of color, believe that their economic well being under a Trump regime or under a moderate regime is no different. You cannot defeat capitalism with capitalism.
The reason Trump, who is a symptom, came into power, is because the middle stands still, while the right continues to direct our government, all the while they both prosper politically and financially. True working class politics is not going #toofarleft, it is about bringing the party home. Abolishing slavery was once considered too far, so was women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. The reason we are still fighting to address all, is because we haven’t gone far enough. There is no middle ground when it comes to human rights.
This is a class war and working class people share common anxieties about their economic security. The diversity of the working class is often viewed as a hindrance, but what unites us in the commonality of the struggle. Fighting for a revolution and radically changing how working class voters perceive their own agency in relation to politics will lead us to victory.
You’re running against an entrenched incumbent who has followed the party line for years—but a lot of voters will say that Danny K. Davis is liberal enough for Cook County. Make the case for why a change is necessary here and now.
We have to understand the Democratic establishment is not the friend of the working class. We have gotten to this current point not simply because of far-right Republicans, but also because of “liberal enough” Democrats who attempt to hold the middle and concede the human rights of the people they claim to represent.
An entrenched incumbent that is focused on maintaining their seat will always place party before the people. Liberal enough looks like those of us on the ground expending all of our energy fighting for a livable wage, for a “liberal enough” representative to say $15 dollars minimum wage in 2023 is good enough, when $15-per-hour isn’t good enough now.
Danny K Davis’s “liberal enough” stances, have led to a representative that says he supports immigrant rights, but yet takes money from Amazon. Has led to a rep that says he supports Medicare for All, but yet takes money from Big Pharma. Who claims that they believe in public education, but yet has videos on YouTube of a secret meeting with Mr. Privatization Arne Duncan, prior to multiple school and mental health facility closures within the district.
Nancy Pelosi just gave Trump two huge political victories in the form of his long-sought-after NAFTA rewrite and the establishment of the Space Force—big and expensive bills that play to Trump’s strengths. What does that say about congressional Democrats and the so-called “Resistance”?
The resistance for the establishment is an optical illusion, tantamount to virtue signaling. Congressional Democrats would rather have four more years of Trump as that would maintain the wealth gap, which funds their campaigns and benefits them personally, than to support Bernie Sanders. Establishment Democrats depend on the survival of oppressed classes of people for votes, not our empowerment.
Where does your campaign fit into the narrative of socialism, electoral politics and the fight against white supremacy? You’ve shared the words and works of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader who was assassinated by the police and FBI in Chicago. Could you talk about Fred and what he means to your understanding of politics?
Fred Hampton is a giant in my eyes. I have shaped my political ideology from his teachings. Capitalism is the root cause issue that oppressive -isms work to maintain. Capitalism protects white supremacy and both the Republican and Democratic parties are invested in this protection.
Many believe that capitalism and systems under it can be reformed, fighting capitalism with capitalism. As Fred Hampton once stated, we must fight capitalism with socialism. We are in a class struggle and fighting a class war. Oppressors count on the oppressed being enticed by individualism and led astray by weaponized identity politics. We are provided a Black face without Black empowerment. We are provided a woman’s face without women’s empowerment.
Currently politics works the people and we have to fight to ensure that politics works for the people. We do that by attacking capitalism. I was honored to receive a leadership award from Fred’s brother Bill Hampton, before Bill passed, and I was honored to play a direct role in helping to save the childhood home of Fred Hampton from foreclosure.
How is the campaign going? What are your interactions like with voters? Are you running any paid media or mostly relying on organizers, social media and interviews like this?
Our campaign is run 100% by members of DSA and we continue to pick up volunteers and support on a daily basis. Our strength is our boots to the ground approach as we have built and continue to build strong coalitions throughout the district. We are 100% grassroots, people funded.
Historically, our district experiences low voter turnout and currently older voters are leaning towards Biden. We felt as a team it was extremely important for us to be bold, as this movement is bigger than one candidate or one race. We are part of a movement and when we knock on doors, we are not only knocking for our campaign, but for the Sanders campaign as well.
What is beautiful about this movement, particularly in regard to social media is the ability for grassroots candidates across the country to uplift and support each other. There is a network of wonderful candidates that talk daily and support each others messages.
Our campaign is going stronger than ever. We were hit by a hit-and-run driver in the 3rd quarter (August), which led to serious surgery. Without the support of my wonderful team, the community, as well as candidates like Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearingen, Amy Vilela, Mckayla Wilkes, Lauren Ashcraft, Joshua Collins, and beyond, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today.
Millennials and Zoomers are two heavily left-leaning generations—pluralities of which both favor socialism over capitalism. Boots Riley has made the point that these tens of millions of people want socialist art and the chance to vote for socialist politicians. What’s your take on how these two generations stand to reshape American politics?
The generations that understand the language of the struggle are Millennials and Zoomers. Both generations are not willing to passively sit back and politely knock on the door waiting for it to open. We (I am a Millennial) continue to see the ever-expanding wealth gap and are not willing to be civil. Instead of knock, we are ready to kick the doors down.We are the generations feeling the full weight of capitalist oppression. Where once, many of our parents as working class Americans could afford to pay for college or had an overabundance of factory work opportunities, our generations are staring at death, as capitalism kills.
Keeping on with the differences between generations—and without going into generational warfare—older voters are typically a problem for the socialist left. Jeremy Corbyn recently lost because of his inability to connect with voters over the age of 45. Bernie Sanders struggles with older voters to a much lesser extent. How is your primary challenge dealing with this issue?
Through education. Older voters, while not a monolith, want to know that they and their voice still matters. When I am knocking on doors, I am not only knocking to share my story, I am knocking on doors to listen. Despite our generational gaps, through listening and sharing my truths, we often are able to make connections within a shared class struggle. There is a mutual concern for social security benefits, pensions, public safety, health care, and the environment.
Once connections are made, then we can talk about what are the policies needed to address are concerns for not only them, but for their children and grandchildren. Often, without labeling the policies socialist, as often labels can be polarizing, we come to the same conclusion in regard to policy and what candidate is fighting for that policy (Bernie Sanders).
What’s the response been like from voters in the 7th Congressional District? The local party apparatus? Community organizations? Any endorsements?
The DCCC and local Democratic party attempts to ignore a candidate like myself as much as possible. If either do not have a use for you in regard to maintaining the status quo, you are viewed as a threat. Both hope to ignore, but if that is determined not to be possible, then they attempt in various ways to silence, by threatening at a national and local level to black list organizations and individuals that provide you with a platform or support you. Despite these efforts, the voters of the 7th Congressional District, a working class district, are ready for change. Once they learn about our campaign, support has been overwhelmingly positive. The challenge with such a large gerrymandered district, is connecting with the majority of voters prior to the primary.
In regard to endorsements, we have by far the most endorsements in the race, which is a testament to our work ethic as each endorsement is more than simply support on paper. We are actually boots to the ground and supporting each other. Our endorsements: Brand New Congress; DSA Chicago; Desiree Alliance; 25th Ward IPO; Rizoma Collective; The People for Bernie Sanders; Northside DFA; DUH – Demand Universal Healthcare; The Digital Left; Our Revolution Buffalo Grove; The Daily Ember; Progressives of Kane County; Cori Bush; Amy Vilela; Paula Jean Swearingen; Alexandra Halaby; David Zoltan; and Women for Justice.
What’s your campaigning and organizing style like? Tell us about your ground game, voter contacts, fundraising and so on.
Our style is centered around speaking truth to power, being bold, and outworking everyone. I wasn’t an individual who woke up one day and wanted to run, without being invested in the community before. We focus on being boots on the ground, working with, fighting for and helping to educate our under-served communities.
We will never pander as this fight for us is personal, not political. Our ground game and voter contacts are our strength as we have data from the 2018 election cycle and know which precincts and wards we beat the incumbent in, along with strong relationships in each community of the district due to coalition building. Volunteers continue to join the movement eager to canvass, phonebank, and host events. In regards to fundraising, the accident that occurred in 3rd quarter hampered our efforts as I personally dealt with depression while recovering, as I was relegated to bed rest for several weeks. However, in the 4th quarter, fundraising has picked back up and we are bringing in higher numbers than ever.
Do you have a favorite story about interacting with a would-be constituent?
I would have to say one of the most powerful was from a constituent who I knew personally from the community and who had been a supporter of the incumbent based on, as they stated, name recognition and experience. This constituent experienced a tragic death in the family and was being taken advantage of by a funeral home. They reached out to the incumbent who ignored them. They then reached out to us and we helped them. Not because we wanted or expected anything from them, but because it was the right thing to do.
Following our support, the constituent reached out to us and told us that we now had their support, because despite knowing that they didn’t initially support us, we helped them no questions asked and didn’t expect anything in return.
Let’s talk about hope. Is that a word that your campaign embraces?
MLK once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” We continue to be disappointed in the struggle, but because our entire fight is built upon what we hope our future to be, we will never give up. We fully embrace hope, because that drives us not to accept the status quo, as we are always hoping for the best, for what this country could be.
This interview has been edited for length.
[image via Anthony Clark for Congress 2020; used with permission]