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STANDING ROCK SIOUX PROTEST VILLAGE, N.D. — Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president, stepped out of her small tent at the edge of the Missouri River here, where she’d slept in an encampment of protesters the night before. The tent and tarps of her small entourage had been procured second-hand right before this visit, and the plan was to leave the items behind as a donation to the cause.
It was still early in the day, and a warrant had not yet been issued for her arrest — that would come much later. For the moment, this least known and most quixotic of the presidential candidates was but one of thousands of people who’d gathered to try to stop the construction of a planned $3.8 billion, 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which they fear will desecrate sacred burial lands and potentially poison the water source for millions downstream.
It’s Stein’s kind of place. After years of work as a physician, her full-time job has become running for offices she isn’t likely to win. Her campaign is itself a protest movement, both makeshift and permanent — much like this camp, which sprung up months ago when a small group of Standing Rock Sioux pitched tents just north of their reservation and refused to leave. The camp has grown into a small village, with dirt paths named as if they were bona fide streets, a school for children ages 7 through 12, a kitchen that serves upwards of 500 breakfasts a day. Stein can’t help but hope this is all a metaphor for her campaign, which has been growing of late, but which still hasn’t broken 5 percent in the polls.
The road into the camp is lined with the flags of hundreds of tribes whose members have arrived here in solidarity, reportedly making this the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century. Trucks rumble past the flags with deliveries for the donation center, an Army-issue tent where piles of goods are arrayed for taking — the usual jumble of things that are truly useful and things someone simply wanted to give away. Among those is a tub filled with branches of fresh-cut cedar. As Stein stood by the river, a woman draped in a colorful woolen shawl approached her with a small tin bucket of smoldering cedar and sage. Stein, tall, trim, silver-haired, and dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved purple T-shirt, extended her arms as though in flight, as the woman waved the bucket about, swirling smoke around the candidate, offering a protective blessing.
Wherever she went in the camp, Stein met protesters who described hard lives on impoverished reservations. Many said they have so little that the prospect of spending the coming North Dakota winter in a tent here would not deter them, because it was much like the poorly heated, poorly provisioned winter they faced back home.
Stein, in contrast, was raised in comfort. Born in 1950, the third of four children, she spent her first 18 years in Highland Park, Ill., the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, the daughter of a lawyer and a stay-at-home mom (the term then was “housewife”), part of a generation that believed it could change the world.
“I grew up as part of a cohort that was radicalized by the civil rights movement, by the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the anti-war movement and the women’s movement,” she says during a conversation at the river, while the newest arrivals set up their tents nearby.
Her most memorable experience in high school — one that she credits for the person she is today — came during a summer in Sweden on an Experiment in International Living exchange program. Not only was she impressed with the socialist Swedish society where “there was no poverty,” but she was also exposed to other students in the group whose backgrounds were very different from her own. “A young man from Watts right after the riots , a gospel singer, a born-again Christian, a New York City socialist, a transcendentalist from Connecticut,” she recalls. “We were all in our formative years and it was an elevating experience, and what I took away was an affirmed sense of social responsibility.”
She also apparently took away the makings of an impressive college application, because after years on what Stein calls “the treadmill — no, the conveyor belt — to Harvard,” she was accepted. “It’s where my mother wanted me to go,” she says. Technically, she matriculated at Radcliffe, but “by the time I graduated, co-education meant it was Harvard. And by then it had gone corporate.”
That is a common theme in her conversation: the once-attractive entity that goes sour, sells out. “There was a unique kind of feminist identity when it was Radcliffe,” she says, “and it all went corporate when it became Harvard.” She’ll say the same about the Harvard Community Health Plan, where she first worked as a doctor. “It’s now called Harvard Pilgrim, it’s much more corporate, I was there at the start, when it was a lot more idealistic.”) And, most recently, the Bernie Sanders candidacy. But we’ll get to that a little later.
When she first started college she intended to study pre-med, her goal being psychiatry because she was convinced that the solution to social conflicts and racial tensions was “inside all our minds.” But she was put off by the “very focused science nerds who decided when they were born that they would study this corner of biology,” so she went another route, designing her own major, social relations, a mix of psychology, anthropology and sociology.
After graduation, she tried life as a musician (she plays the guitar as well as the conga and the djembe drums), but found that the industry was not looking for what she wanted to sing. I did not fit into a niche,” she says. “I sang world music, ethnic music, participatory music, music people do with you, music as a political and healing force in our society.” She and a group of musical friends tried to create a storefront drop-in center for arts as a form of social healing.
Unfunded, the project withered. A year later she was back at Harvard, first to take the pre-requisite courses for medical school, and then to get her medical degree in 1979. (Her parents were thrilled. They were not pleased that they’d “spent all this money putting you through a Harvard education and you’re going to play music for nothing?” she says.) During her internal medicine residency (also at Harvard), she met and married Richard Rohrer, who was training to be a transplant surgeon, and their first child was born while she was in her first year of work at the Harvard Community Health Plan. (She and Rohrer have been married for 36 years.)
Her attempt to combine motherhood and medicine was, she says, “just awful.” Her son Ben, she says, was not a baby who took easily to strangers or to schedules, making him a poor fit for daycare. After six weeks of maternity leave, she found herself back on call, carrying her baby in a sling on her back. It did not occur to her to leave her job, however, because “that’s what I’d signed up for. That’s what you were supposed to do. We had worked so hard for those degrees, you weren’t supposed to let a kid get in the way, so I just toughed it out.”
Despite those difficulties, she had a second child. “It was my husband’s idea. I was definitely not into it. He was persistent,” she says. This time her maternity leave began two weeks before she gave birth, and she describes those weeks as a time of revelation. “Suddenly I had time to spend with my first kid,” she says, “and I thought ‘Oh my God, this can be so much fun, and he can be so happy.’” After a three-month leave, she decided she could not “do this to my children” by returning to work full-time, so she arranged a schedule of only 10 hours a week.
That lasted a few years, until her employer “said I just can’t do that anymore, because it didn’t fit their corporate structure. And I said ‘OK, I’m out of here.’”
Walking around the protest camp all day, Stein never once asked anyone for his or her vote. Many told her they would vote for her, nearly all thanked her for coming to this remote spot, an hour south of Bismarck. But where another politician might have ended each encounter with “Don’t forget to vote,” or even “I hope I have your vote,” Stein makes a point not to. Instead, she says something like “Thank you so much for joining this fight,” or “Thank you for being here,” because even while running a campaign for political office, she does not believe she’s a politician.
“We’re not here for votes,” she says. “We’re not even here to talk about the campaign. My message here is not ‘Vote for me’. My message is ‘We are here to thank you.’”
“I would not do traditional politics,” she adds, “the kind where you have a career pathway of being a professional politician. To me that stinks. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”
And yet, running for office is now a continuous part of what she does.
Her first step down that path came as she left gainful employment and was asked by fellow parents at her sons’ school to join the fight againstmedical- waste incinerators in the neighborhood and “present the science in ways that make sense to everyday people,” she says. “That kind of became my job.”
Soon she joined the Greater Boston Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and, eventually, the chapter’s board. She protested at Massachusetts coal plants and testified before the legislature for the reduction of allowable mercury levels in locally caught fish. She came to believe money was the reason governments failed to protect the environment, and she became an advocate for campaign finance reform, helping to pass a state Clean Elections Law referendum. When the Democratic legislature defanged and dismantled the reform, she quit the Democrats to join the Green Party.
When her sons were in middle school she went back to working half-time as a doctor at the Simmons College health center. There she saw young adults with increasing tendencies toward asthma, obesity, ADHD, learning disabilities, diabetes, cancer and other ailments that she believes are the “downstream results of upstream environmental causes.”
In 2002, the Green Party recruited Stein to run for governor of Massachusetts. She had never worked in government, run for office or worked on an electoral campaign in her life. Their pitch, she said, was that it wouldn’t turn her into a politician. “They said, ‘Why don’t you just keep fighting these battles for democracy, for cleaning up campaign finance, for cleaning up our incinerators and creating recycling jobs and jobs in clean energy” she recalls. “Why don’t you keep working on that and call it a political campaign and have a chance to talk to a whole lot more people.” She finished third out of five candidates, receiving less than 4 percent of the vote.
She also had what she calls “my epiphany.”
It came during a live televised debate, one she had to fight to be included in. It was held in a Boston TV studio, with only the candidates, moderator and camera operators present. There was no audience, and her answers in favor of “clean energy, living wages, the right to a job, education that teaches to the whole student for lifetime learning not to a high-stakes test, the right to bilingual education, cutting the military budget, health care as a human right” all “went over like a lead balloon within the confines of that studio,” Stein says.
But as soon as the candidates walked out of the studio she recalls being “mobbed by the press for the first and last time.” An instant viewer poll had found her to be the clear winner of the debate, and that is when she had the realization she says guides her still:
“Oh my God, the public is with us?” she recalls thinking. “We don’t have to convince people? My epiphany was that we don’t have to change people’s minds. We have to give voice to things that people already know and feel and support, and do an end run around the forces that are trying to keep us from being heard, like the corporate press and the political parties. I spent 10-15 years thinking we had to win over the power holders and convince them, but then and there I realized the public largely agrees with us.”
And yet, I suggest gently, she did get the word out in that debate — she won that debate — but lost the election.
“I was removed from all the subsequent debates,” she answered. “The system shut us down. It allowed me that peek at reality, and then it closed the doors again.”
Two years later, in 2004, Stein ran for the Massachusetts House of Representatives and lost. She ran for secretary of the Massachusetts Commonwealth in 2006 and lost. She won a town meeting seat in her hometown of Lexington by a wide margin in 2005 and again in 2008, receiving about 530 votes each time, her only elective victories. Then she resigned the seat during her second term to run for governor again in 2010, coming in last with 1.4 percent of the vote. In 2012, she made her first run for U.S. president on the Green Party ticket, and although she became the only third-party candidate other than Ralph Nader ever to qualify for federal matching funds, she received less than 1 percent of the vote. Then, in June of last year, she announced this candidacy.
She would not have run if Bernie Sanders had not declared as a Democrat. And she would not have stayed in the race if Sanders had not endorsed Hillary Clinton. But she is careful in voicing her disappointment in the man she had hoped would take up the Green Party mantle in her place.
“Bernie has done the world an absolutely unfathomable favor,” she says. “I think he has really triggered a movement that cannot be stopped and will not be stopped. But now he’s following the party line. He was clear from the start that he would support Hillary if she were the nominee, and he’s a man of his word, he’s a team player. I think he’s on the wrong team, but who knows, perhaps he’s going to change his mind before it’s over. I don’t know.”
During our hour-long sit-down conversation, Stein stops 12 different times to cough. She’s suffered from asthma since childhood, she explains, taking a sizeable Omega-3 capsule from her pocket at one point and swallows it dry, explaining that, when combined with an anti-inflammatory diet and the right amount of Omega-6, she’s kept that asthma under control for three years. But the combination of sleeping among the goldenrod at the riverbank here and being around the environmental pollution endemic to airports and hotel rooms seems to have triggered this attack.
“You and Hillary Clinton,” I say, because on the day we meet a video of Clinton’s coughing attack on her new airplane has gone viral. (Clinton was later diagnosed with pneumonia.)
Stein looks confused. She had not heard about Hillary’s cough. There is no Wi-Fi here in the protest camp, and cellphone service can be gotten only by climbing a nearby incline (nicknamed Facebook Hill) and holding the phone high in the air.
“A coughing fit?” she says, truly incredulous, and perhaps a tiny bit envious. The only time she has gotten that level of attention during this campaign is when she’s sparked controversy — such as the periodic stories about how she is against childhood vaccines. (“A concocted issue,” she says. She vaccinated both her children, who are now grown and healthy and in medical school. She believes in children being vaccinated. Any statements in which she questions vaccine safety are from years ago, when vaccines contained traces of mercury.)
In the same way, she says, the first time this months-long pipeline protest got any real attention was a few days earlier, when construction security guards and their dogs clashed with protesters, and there was blood.
“Hillary has a cough?” she says, shaking her head. “So that’s what’s making news now?”
As dinnertime approached at the camp, Stein was sitting on the ground near the porta-potties and the home-schooling tepee. Her assistant sat to her left, pulling containers of raspberries, lentil and pepper salad and cooked salmon out of the backpack she carries everywhere — food that Stein and her small team buy from organic coop markets and cook during nights spent in motels with kitchenettes while on the campaign trail.
To Stein’s right was her press director, Melezia Figueroa, using a Wi-Fi hotspot to access a video on a cellphone. Taken that morning, it shows Stein and her vice presidential pick, human rights advocate Ajamu Baraka, about a mile and a half from this camp, in a bulldozer belonging to the construction company that is building the pipeline. It was active earlier in the week, but since the confrontation between the protesters, construction workers and dogs, it had been left unused and unattended.
Protesters had covered the bulldozer with graffiti, and when Stein arrived at the camp she was invited by some of the more militant members of the group to come see their handiwork for herself. As she approached the bulldozer, one man already there confronted her, saying she shouldn’t be using his cause to promote her own political agenda. Then, someone else handed her a can of spray paint. Either to prove she wasn’t political, or maybe to prove that she was, Stein sat in front of the bulldozer and laughed as she wrote “I approve this message” in deep red on the front blade.
The whole thing was captured on a cellphone, and soon the video was up on Facebook and Twitter, garnering more than 100,000 views within about two hours. (Eventually it would reach 1.5 million.)
“Twenty-two thousand shares,” Figueroa said, as she gave Stein a high five.
“It was fun to be a part of this protection” of the environment, Stein said, showing me the video.
“And also to vandalize private property?” I asked.
She smiled. She has been arrested before — three times during her 2012 campaign, once during a bank sit-in to protest foreclosures; once after she tried to enter an Obama-Romney presidential debate from which she had been excluded; and once in Texas while trying to bring food to protesters against the Keystone XL pipeline. She would, she said, be willing to be arrested again.
The warrant for her arrest (and also Baraka’s) was announced the next day, after Stein had left the camp and headed for a rally in Chicago. In a statement there, she said she hoped Monroe County would also “press charges against the real vandalism taking place at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation: the bulldozing of sacred burial sites and the unleashing of vicious attack dogs.”
She would return, she added, to answer the warrant in person.
(Update: On Friday, Sept. 9, three days after Stein spent a day at the protest camp, a federal judge rejected the request of the Standing Rock Sioux for a temporary injunction against the pipeline. Literally minutes after that, the Obama administration effectively reversed that ruling, by saying it would voluntarily stop work on the project while the Army Corps of Engineers reviews whether the pipeline violates federal law, specifically the National Environmental Policy Act, and while the Justice Department determines whether it violates tribal rights.)
(Pull-quote photos above: Alyssa Schukar for Yahoo News, background: Getty Images)