DONNA WARREN RECALLS THE EXACT MOMENT OF her political conversion with both the pragmatism and spiritual fervor that the phrase implies. It was 1992, and Warren was attending one of countless community forums held across South-Central during the long, gray aftermath of the civil unrest. She fell into a conversation with a distinctly displaced-looking white man who introduced himself as a Green and offered Warren a brochure that listed, among other things, the party's 12-point political agenda. It was an epiphany on 47th Street. "I saw all the things that resonated with me -- reparations, feminism, the environment, anti-death penalty -- and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm a Green!'" exclaims the former Democrat. "I signed up right there."
Ten years later, the 56-year-old Warren is Peter Camejo's running mate in a gubernatorial race that features the Green Party's first full slate of candidates. An auditor by trade, Warren is the first African-American woman to run for the office, and the first African-American Green candidate for it; she's hoping to make more history with a win, but her much bigger challenge is to convince more blacks that their political future lies not with clueless Republicans or complacent Democrats, but with a third party.
Breaking the force of electoral habit would be tough enough to do with voters in general, but it's even tougher with black voters, whose voting preferences have been cemented over time by the belief that the Democrats are the party of civil rights, affirmative action and public education. Yet if that were even modestly true, the Clinton years would not have been marked by urban unrest and a dramatic rise in the prison population; as tough as it may be to woo blacks out of their comfort zone, they in fact have the best reasons of all Democratic voters to defect. But not only are issues such as public education and urban decay no longer framed racially, the black political set that would champion them fears diluting what political power and government careers they have left. Among the black electorate, there is a worry that breaking away from a mainstream party in which they often serve as the swing vote will marginalize them further at a time when black percentages are shrinking in the overall population.
Warren brushes all this aside. "A lot of people say to me, 'We like you, but we're afraid,'" she says. "And I say, 'Of what?' Of Bill Simon sneaking in and feeling like we're responsible? Look, we as a community need to take a risk. Lots of people don't vote already because they don't feel enfranchised. Democrats are a done deal. But if we can change the electoral process, that'll change. People have to feel like they have a voice in their own survival."
INCISIVE BUT ALSO WARM IN A NEARLY MATERNAL way, Warren doesn't fit the firebrand mold of a black activist. But her activism was certainly baptized in fire: In 1997, her 34-year-old son, Joey, a crack addict who served prison time for possession, was shot to death at Warren's home, before her eyes, during an argument with a friend. Warren was already involved in prisoner-rights issues, and active in Mothers Reclaiming Our Children and FACTS (Families To Amend California's Three Strikes), but Joey's violent end, and the trial that wound up convicting her son's murderer of a lesser charge of manslaughter, convinced Warren that the system was rigged against blacks, and intensified her various efforts at social reform. In 1998, she sued the CIA and the Justice Department for allowing crack cocaine to proliferate in South-Central's communities of color; in 2000, she co-founded the South Central Green Party with veteran agitator Deacon Alexander. Last year Warren became the first Green to run for Congress in a predominantly black district when she challenged Diane Watson and a slew of other candidates vying for the seat left open in the 32nd by the death of Julian Dixon. Warren lost, but she took on the famously close-mouthed black political establishment when she criticized rising star Kevin Murray, assemblyman and senator for the Crenshaw District, for selling out his support of a state racial-profiling bill.
That won her some respect, if not outright support. The black leadership pretty much keeps Warren at arm's length. Disappointing as that is, it does not surprise her. "Most black leaders are saving their own butts," she says bluntly. "It's not about principled decisions, or the right thing to do, or reflecting constituencies. [Assemblyman] Rod Wright once said to me, when I was considering running against him some years ago, 'Ms. Warren, you just don't know how it is in Sacramento. You have to play with the big boys.' I said to him, 'Mr. Wright, the big boys didn't put you in office.'"
If Warren's indictment of black politicians gives the traditionally inclined masses pause, her indictment of such undisputed community heroes as Magic Johnson will give them more. Warren's economic views hold that the big-box retailers Magic is luring to the inner city, like Home Depot and Starbucks, are nothing but community cancers that kill off local small businesses and recycle profits only to themselves, leaving the community with little beyond minimum-wage jobs and a false sense of progress.
The image problem that concerns Warren is not her own, but the Greens'. Despite its progressive platform, the party is still often perceived within black communities as a "white, Westside, tree-hugging party" that reflects a more ethereal, less socially grounded left that isn't all that useful when it comes to hard urban issues. Peter Camejo and the Greens are certainly trying to counter that notion, Camejo by aggressively reaching out to Latinos in his campaign literature, Warren by emphasizing reparations and three strikes in literature of her own. Sharane Palley, another longtime black Green raised in L.A. and living in Sonoma County, says these are but baby steps in a painful political journey that has far to go. "It's going to get worse before it gets better, I think," she says of the current climate. "Right now the Democrats are being led, and the Republicans are holding the bridle. Even folks who don't want to know, who've been looking the other way, are going to be forced to look at things. And then they're going to have to make a choice."