first published in As It Ought To Be, September 14, 2009
Peter Camejo, Socialist Workers Party candidate for US President, 1976.
REMEMBERING PETER CAMEJO 1939-2008
by Matt Gonzalez
Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Peter Camejo’s death. He had been battling cancer (lymphoma) for over a year. It was in remission then came back suddenly and killed him.
I spoke to Peter the last week of his life, in fact, just a couple of days before his death while I was in Ohio campaigning with Ralph Nader. Nader and I took turns talking with Peter by telephone. It was apparent that he was going to die, so there were many heartfelt words exchanged. I made sure to tell him that he had much to be proud of, that we loved him greatly, and that we would miss having him at our side.
Most people know Peter Camejo as a three-time Green Party candidate for Governor of California and for his run with Ralph Nader in 2004. Others recall his days with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), when he ran for US President in 1976 (with running mate Willie Mae Reid) against both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Willie Mae Reid, Socialist Workers Party candidate for US Vice-President, 1976.
Peter was also an author. He wrote about post-American Civil War politics (Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877, The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction) and about progressive financial investing (The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially).
Many of his speeches from his period with the SWP were published by Pathfinder press in pamphlet form including: Who Killed Jim Crow?; Allende’s Chile: Is It Going Socialist?; Liberalism, Ultraleftism, Or Mass Action; How to Make a Revolution in the US; and Cuba and the Central American Revolution.
Peter marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and participated in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, culminating in his expulsion from the University of California and subsequent run for mayor of Berkeley. It was during this era when then Governor Ronald Reagan declared Peter “one of the 10 most dangerous men in California”.
It is without question that Peter was one of the important members of the American Left of the last half-century. He had combated injustice his entire life and helped plant the seeds for many progressive ideas that are popular now.
None of the things we fight for today: gay marriage, equal rights for women, fair wage laws, immigrant rights, universal health care, would exist or even be conceived of, had there not been men and women like Peter pushing from one side — agitating and making people uncomfortable. It amazes me how once these ideas are commonplace, we celebrate the politicians who joined the effort at the last moment, when victory was all but assured. There’s little credit given to how we got on the beachhead in the first place.
How do we measure what it means, to stand up against an injustice that won’t budge, long before it’s poised to collapse by force of the majority sentiment?
Peter knew the system would crumble someday. Politics as we know it will someday buckle under the pressure of human desires for a more egalitarian and democratic world. And when it happens, the “successful” politicians will not be remembered. They were the ones that took the easy path. Worked for change on the margin. Wanted the winner’s circle at all cost. Even if it meant denying what they knew to be the truth.
Peter believed the two-party system was a failure, pure and simple. He mused how years from now historians will scratch their heads and wonder how people tolerated its oppressiveness. Its days are numbered. Just as slavery was, just as the overt subjugation of woman was, just as concentrated capital’s refusal to pay decent wages and give human beings the benefits they deserve cannot be sustained for much longer.
Peter stood up to say that both parties defended corporations such that the differences we are told matter, hardly alleviate any true suffering.
Peter wanted to live in a democracy. He wanted an economic system that produced for human needs not profits. He often said that the only reason someone hires you when you’re looking for a job is that they decide you can make them more money than what they’re going to pay you. He dared to say this was wrong.
He noted that the wealthy mistakenly believed they had earned their wealth and that they believed the poor just didn’t work hard enough. He pointed out that the notion that people should be allowed to do as they please with their earnings overlooked that the manner in which this wealth was invested and enjoyed often meant whether you and I would have a job, whether there would be pollution in the air, and what wars we would be fighting.
Many disparaged Peter’s electoral efforts. The press often referred to the “perennial candidate”, as if to say “here we go again, this candidate doesn’t have a chance”. In their minds they’d say, he barely registered, in terms of percentage of the vote, when he ran for president (91,000 votes or 0.1% of the vote in 1976) or governor (in his best showing, 400,000 votes or 5.3% of the vote in 2002) so why should they cover his efforts?
But Peter wasn’t discouraged by these election results because he understood that the things we fight for today will come to pass, if only by the sheer strength of the logic and decency of the principles we advocate. He was very aware of Latin American examples of minor parties becoming ruling parties in a matter of a single generation.
Peter spoke of Hugo Blanco who led a peasant revolt among the Quechua in Peru in the early 1960s. He was nearly killed by the government and ultimately was given a 25-year jail sentence. Peter visited him at the prison on the Island of El Fronton, during the period of his “exile”. 15 years later in 1978, Blanco was elected to Parliament, as a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party.
There are many stories like this one, where political efforts are totally marginalized, before becoming the dominant strand. Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva helped found the Brazilian Workers Party in 1980. He ran three times for the presidency unsuccessfully, finally winning the 4th time in 2002.
It only took two decades, Peter would have said.
Peter placed his vision of what was possible in the context of these struggles. He couldn’t be dissuaded of his politics just because they weren’t in fashion yet.
Our society has a way of romanticizing past radicals. We don’t think twice when we see Che Guevara on a t-shirt. Many hold up the agrarian revolution that Emiliano Zapata participated in, and think romantically that they would have fought at his side, but the truth is far from that. How many of these people condemn the efforts of politicians like Peter Camejo? How many would have said the timing isn’t right? How many wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help?
Peter Camejo was a beautiful man. He thought the time was right now. He didn’t capitulate like so many of his contemporaries did. He was a socialist.
Peter Camejo and Matt Gonzalez election night 2004. Photograph by Lezlie Meyers.
Handout from the Socialist Workers Party of Massachusettes, when Peter Camejo was a candidate for U.S. Senate, April 1970.
Peter Camejo’s memoir, North Star, was published in 2010 by Haymarket Books.