Putting People First: A Day with Dr. Jill Stein
by James Jordan
Just before we entered Bisbee, Arizona, Dr. Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination, was on the phone scheduling an interview. She was excited because it would be with a Tucson television station. She told us these local market exposures were so important because they are best able to get her message out to new ears beyond her more typical audience. The interview was set for 3 p.m., which should be easy to make just so long as we stuck with the itinerary we had planned for the day.
We were on our way across the border to Cananea, Sonora, a three-hour drive from our starting point of Tucson. We were going to meet with striking miners at the Buena Vista Copper Mine, and with families negatively affected by a huge chemical spill from the mine. After the interview was done, I would drive Jill to Phoenix for a 6:30 p.m. dinner. It was a tight itinerary, but not too tight, and we should be able to fit everything in.
Jill was in Arizona for a series of events in preparation for the state’s primary elections. The race is contested, and she was there to win votes. (Jill is running against Kent Mesplay, who her field director Adrián Boutureira described as a good man and a brother in the struggle. It’s kind of refreshing to hear that kind of talk given the polarities so prominent elsewhere in this campaign season!)
Why, then, was Jill about to leave not only the state, but the country? I got to know Jill not as a candidate but as an activist outside electoral politics. I first met her when she was part of a delegation I led to Peru in 2014. (I work for the Alliance for Global Justice, which is made up of persons from a variety of left political viewpoints and which decidedly does not endorse candidates for any government office.) We were there to attend the People’s Climate Summit for the COP 20 United Nations climate talks, and also to visit with farming and indigenous communities, unionists, teachers and students in the Cajamarca Region, where popular mobilizations until now have successfully stalled the Conga mega-gold mine, a project of Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation.
Before that, I had heard her speak at an environmental conference in New York she helped organize that occurred just before the Peoples Climate March. Afterward, I became involved in the Global Climate Convergence, which Jill helped co-found. There’s two things I quickly learned about Jill. One is that she believes in taking the struggle to the streets and the countryside. Her campaigns are oriented towards building an enduring movement even over and above getting votes. Second, she believes strongly that the people must take control of and change this system if we are going to achieve our goal. She very much doubts that can be done through the Democratic Party.
When I heard Jill was coming to Arizona, I got in touch with Adrián, also a friend whom I’ve known for over 12 years. It turned out that for the morning and early afternoon of March 11, she had nothing on her calendar. I suggested to Adrián that I take Jill to Cananea. I thought it could help inform her message in a way relevant to her visit to Arizona. And I knew it was relevant to our experience in Peru and would help round out our understanding of these various, particular struggles in an international context.
Let me explain. Here in Tucson, local miners from the United Steelworkers and other unions are trying to get a new contract with ASARCO and the company is refusing to negotiate in good faith. ASARCO is a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, the third-largest copper mine in the world. Grupo Mexico owns mines in the United States, Mexico, Peru and Spain. It’s a truly transnational corporation. German Larrea Mota Velasco and his family own almost half of Grupo Mexico. He is also the Director of the National Bank of Mexico, which is in turn a subsidiary of US-based Citigroup.
Across the border, in Cananéa, miners have been on strike since 2007 against the Buena Vista Mine. They are striking for better safety for workers and the community, and for better wages. Grupo Mexico had the strike declared illegal and has subsequently hired replacement workers who are mostly from southern Mexico where free trade economics and US imposed policies have led to a collapse in rural economies. That has fueled their migration (more of a forced displacement) to the North of Mexico and into the United States looking for jobs.
At the same time, in Arequipa, in southern Peru, there is a major struggle against a Grupo Mexico project, the Tia Maria mine, that has united miners, indigenous leaders, farmers, and environmentalists in a struggle to shut the project down. Newmont Corporation owns a share as well, and while Jill and I were in Peru, although we weren’t able to go to Tia Maria, we did hear about this struggle and one of our hosts was from Arequipa. So I thought that for Jill to be here in Tucson, where she heard about the local ASARCO struggle, and with what she’d learned in Peru, that going to Cananea would have some special meaning for her.
Jill may be an environmentalist, but she believes in making connections that go beyond the individual silos that separate and segregate struggles. I’ve never known Jill to support any mine or extractivist enterprise, but she also believes in supporting workers even within these industries in their demands for safety and better conditions. She knows there is a connection between corporations not caring for their employees and corporations not caring for communities and the environment.
Grupo Mexico’s environmental record is, like its labor record, dismal. They are responsible for 20 superfund sites in the United States, and in Peru, they are one of the 10 companies with the most environmental complaints against them. On August 6, 2014, Grupo Mexico was responsible for a spill of 10.5 million gallons of sulfuric acid into the Sonora river watershed, the largest single environmental disaster in Mexico’s history. The workers at the mine had repeatedly warned the company about faulty and worn out seals, which were the source of the leak, but the company did nothing. This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened. For instance, also on the border, in the state of Coahuila, Grupo Mexico had been warned again and again by their workers at the Pasta de Concha mine about safety concerns and violations. These were also unheeded, and in February, 2006, an explosion at the mine killed 65 workers, their bodies still, to this day, never recovered.
Jill knows that all our struggles here in the heart of the Empire are all truly international. She also knows that Sonora is more than a state in Mexico. It is a bioregion -- it is a rare, beautiful and fragile desert and at its heart are its riparian areas. The spill in Cananea is something that hurts the entire ecosystem here and it has profound effects in Arizona, USA as well as Sonora, Mexico.
On the way to Cananea, Jill also got to see firsthand some of the scars and infrastructure of Border Militarization. All of us riding with Jill had been involved to various degrees in the immigrant rights struggle and the fight against border militarization. We talked about how free trade agreements had constituted an onslaught against both US and Mexican farmers. In the US, farming families were still losing their farms, and their children were having to leave for the cities or to join the military, forsaking the places of their heritages. (Rural peoples make up 6% of the US politician but 50% of military recruits.)
In Mexico, the destruction of rural economies that resulted from passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had been even more devastating. NAFTA went into effect in 1994, the same year the Clinton administration started construction of the wall along the border with Mexico. NAFTA led to a 60% increase in immigration and border militarization forced undocumented workers and their families into the harshest areas of the desert. Roughly as many people have lost their lives due to dehydration, exposure and dysentery crossing the desert to look for work as the US has lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As we road along, we pointed out to Jill various border militarization installations and some of their environmental impacts. We rode alongside the beautiful San Pedro River, a river that mostly runs in the United States, but has its origins in Cananea. The San Pedro is the only watershed in the US where you might see a jaguar. It is home to several unique species of plants and animals and is one of the most important areas in the United States for bird populations and migration. It is also being literally sucked dry because of military-industrial concentrations, border militarization and unsustainable mining and agribusiness industries. When we arrived at the border crossing in Naco, I explained that in the past, in such an out-of-the way and unpopulated place, the station was not even always occupied, and that nothing had been there but a gate, a building and a wire fence. Today, there’s a double iron wall and crossing the border is not unlike running a gauntlet in your car.
When we crossed into Naco, we were met by officers of Los Mineros union and they lead us the rest of the way to the union hall in Cananea. At the union hall, we were in for a bit of a surprise. We had been expecting a public meeting of some sort where we would hear from striking miners and families who had been impacted by the sulfuric acid spill, and Jill expected to make a statement of solidarity at the end. Of course, for these miners and families in Mexico, what mattered to them was not so much that Jill was a Green Party candidate for the US presidency but that she was a medical doctor and an environmentalist and that, indeed, she had written two books about the effects of the environment on health (In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development and Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging). So when we got there, after unloading some bottles of water (the water supply there is still contaminated from the spill) and taking a few photos, we were escorted upstairs where Jill was taken to a small office room. There, in the company of local and union health care workers and our small crew, Jill started receiving a stream of persons. They were coming as patients, to show her what was happening to their bodies since the spill, and to ask for her expert advice.
Jill did not bat an eye. I saw an immediate transformation. Gone was the candidate, gone was the activist. What I saw there was an attentive physician who carefully looked at the medical reports each person carried, who looked at the various rashes and blisters they were suffering, who asked questions as thoroughly as she could, and then proceeded to give her impressions and to make suggestions on what they might do and what kind of care they might seek out. I was only with her for the first visit before exiting the room to spend some time talking to union officials.
At about 20 till Noon, I went and warned Jill that if we were going to make this very important interview in Tucson, we would need to leave sharp on the hour. At noon I went in again, and she was in the middle of yet another consultation. At 12:15pm I went in again to insist that if we were to make it to Tucson in time, we would have to leave immediately. At 12:30pm I knew -- she wasn’t going to make the interview. She wasn’t even trying. Another 15 minutes later I remarked that we really would have to leave soon if we were going to get everyone back to Tucson, get her things, and still get her to Phoenix for the evening engagement. Jill relented and decided that for the remaining people she hadn’t seen, she would address them together as a group.
So Jill did get to make a “public statement” at the end, but it was no campaign speech, it had no soundbites, it was no press event. She commended the work of the doctor and personnel there who had accompanied her in the office and arranged for these visits. She validated the people’s fears and concerns about the spill. She gave some advice about care for the rashes and blisters and the need to avoid using the contaminated water. And then we took group pictures with the families and unionists and said goodbye.
As we left Cananea and started our trip back to Arizona, she remarked that she knew we weren’t going to make the interview. When she started seeing these people and the problems they were experiencing, “What could I do?”. She did exactly what was called for. She took off the campaign hat and put on the stethoscope.
Let me say a little bit about the carload Jill traveled with. Her translator was a woman with dual Mexican and US citizenship, a longtime Tucson resident, and very active volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign. A couple of us, still registered as Democrats, are planning to vote for Bernie in the primaries and Jill in the general. The woman who was driving is a longtime local activist who was excited both to meet Jill and to go find out more about the situation in Cananea. I just emphasize this to show in yet another way that Jill the candidate is an extension of Jill the movement builder. She’s not just there for the Greens or for her voters. She’s there for everyone. She’s there to stop business as usual and to pave roads to a new and better -- and inclusive -- world.
During her one Tucson campaign event the night before, someone asked Jill about the Sanders campaign. She expressed that her campaign was not against Sanders, it was against an oppressive system. She did not believe Sanders was going to get the nomination and that even if he did, he would find himself beholden to or stopped in every direction by the Democratic Party status quo. And she said that if he does win the nomination, “we’ll cross that river when we get to it.” She encouraged people to vote as their conscience told them. She is running as a Green because she believes it very unlikely a political revolution could happen in this country via the Democrats. She maintains that both the Democrats and the Republicans are parties of the big corporations, of the 1%, and that we can count on the Democratic Party bosses to crush any internal movement to challenge their control.
Yes, Jill is a candidate for the Green Party nomination for President and she wants our votes.
But before that, she’s about building a movement across borders and silos. And even before that, she is a human being with a heart full of compassion who puts people not only before profits, but before photo ops, media exposure and campaign stops. The Jill Stein I know is a woman who, when faced with a room full of families waiting to see her because their health has been put at risk, will interrupt her busy schedule to attend to the matter at hand.
Yes, that’s my friend, Dr. Jill Stein. Personally, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see as my president.