Peter Camejo: A Red-Green Life

Claudette Begin

Posted March 7, 2009

THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENTS lost a major advocate last September 13th when Peter Camejo died after a long battle with lymphoma at the age of 67. The broad, historical impact he had was obvious in the national media response and the hundreds of emails and blog entries following his death.

At Peter’s memorial on November 23rd in Berkeley, California, the range of speakers attested to his persistent dedication to helping the poor and working class from his teenage years to his death. They spoke one after another of his personal warmth, enthusiasm, boundless energy and stream of ideas, strategic thinking, oratorical talents, optimism, and of how inspiring he was to them.

Peter became a socialist and a leader in the Socialist Workers Party during the wave of radicalization of the late 1950s and ’60s. Although he played many roles as an SWP leader through the ’70s, he was widely known in the party as an incredibly fun and motivational speaker. He was also a mass leader, often intervening strategically in the antiwar movement.

Expelled by the University of California, Berkeley for his leadership of the antiwar movement there in the late ’60s (technically for using a microphone without a permit), he was named “one of the 10  most dangerous men” by Governor Ronald Reagan. Despite his differences with the SWP leadership’s increasingly sectarian and undemocratic policies, his popularity in the ranks forced them to select him as the SWP presidential candidate in 1976 (during which he even appeared on “The Today Show”), but those differences eventually got him expelled.

Having been a movement staffer for decades, Peter had to find another way to live. Eventually he found his way towards marrying his mathematical talents with his zeal to change the world through socially responsible investing. Progressive Asset Management, a company he founded with other progressive stockbrokers, became an avenue for promoting a number of innovative projects for fair trade, housing for the poor, and solar energy.

He sponsored tours of international activists from New Zealand and Brazil; facilitated the formation of a nonprofit foundation supporting activists in East Timor; and he sought to engage activists in following the transformative movements in Venezuela.

Peter was constantly looking for new opportunities to effect meaningful, mass change. He founded North Star Network in the ‘80s to bring together serious activists, including former SWPers, with some leaders from the Salvadoran movement. He formed the Progressive Alliance of Alameda County in the hopes of encouraging progressive activists from Peace and Freedom, the Green Party and even the Democratic Party to work together and eventually form a viable alternative to the two-party system.

That experience, and the Draft Nader for President movement within the Greens in 2000, convinced him that the Green Party was such an avenue. The Green Party platform was very progressive and inclusive. He became very involved, familiarizing himself with the structure and methods of the Green Party. He was frustrated with the paralyzing aspect of their consensus process but saw the opportunity for effective campaigns within the Greens.

His subsequent candidacy for governor in the recall election made him a household name in California as he appeared in the televised debates with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other candidates. Camejo received the highest third-party vote in California since 1934. He captured significant percentages in a dozen counties across Nothern California, even beating the Republican candidate in San Francisco County, and facilitating the subsequent candidacies and election of several Green Party members to local offices.

Ralph Nader, impressed, asked him to be his running mate in 2004. Despite the overwhelming vote they received in the Green Party primary in California and the support they had in other states, the national Green Party endorsed another ticket and they had to run as independents.

This signaled a serious rift within the Green Party with a current that wanted to avoid confrontations with important Democrats. Peter fought against this current, whose supporters increasingly bowed to Democratic Party influence. This eventually led him to lose faith in the Green Party.

His last speech was at the 2008 Peace and Freedom Party convention, where he urged them to choose Nader and Matt Gonzalez as their presidential ticket, which they did.

Peter was a major contributor to the Green Party’s base among Latinos, Blacks and other people of color, as well as in the general electorate. He ran not as an individual, but as part of slates which he crafted to draw in leaders from those movements.

He campaigned for giving driving licenses to undocumented immigrants. He helped build the May 1 national demonstrations. He was a constant on Hispanic radio. He spoke out against secret arrests and marginalization of Muslims following 9/11.
Building Progressive Politics

Peter was always happy to support and mentor new leaders as they emerged, befriending Jason West, the Green Party mayor in upstate New York who performed gay marriages. His eye was always on mass proselytizing; he rejected terms from the socialist movement that would unnecessarily alienate people.

For example, he explained the reversing of progressive taxation in California by using one simple chart that documented the significant trend of taxation away from major corporations and the wealthy to the working class. His political contributions have to be seen in the light of someone who constantly sought ways to have an impact, whatever the difficult times politically.

Ralph Nader captured the essence of Peter. On the day Peter died, Nader said “Peter was a friend, colleague and politically courageous champion of the downtrodden and mistreated of the entire Western Hemisphere. Everyone who met Peter, talked to Peter, worked with Peter, or argued with Peter, will miss the passing of a great American.”

In his obituary in Time magazine he expanded on this, saying “Peter Miguel Camejo . . . was an irrepressible force of nature. When he spoke out for justice throughout the Americas, not only his body shook, but so did the entire room.”

Peter completed his autobiography just before he died — covering his entire political life and much of his personal life during those times — an account and analysis many are anxious to read. It will be published by Haymarket Press. A dvd of the memorial will be available soon — contact if you wish to be notified.

ATC 139, March-April 2009