Cornel West speaks at town hall in Leimert Park on January 7, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

What does a Cornel West presidential campaign look like? In a quick glimpse on his campaign trail, West has work to do

6 mins read

West’s intellectual savvy and record of activism is undeniable, but his presidential candidacy has yet to find its bearings in the political waters of 2024. Still very much an outlier, West moves forward in “the people’s campaign.”

Public intellectual turned presidential candidate, Cornel West, made a stop to Los Angeles’ Black cultural enclave, Leimert Park. West talked at what was billed as a special town hall featuring “femme voices.” During his address, he spoke about his presidential campaign as a third-party candidate and his ideas on what political leadership should look like. For him, it is a revolution of love, dignity and respect.

“The sharing of power, that’s what revolutions do,” said West when describing how his campaign addresses the failure of major parties including voices and concerns of the average American, and those who sit at the margins.

“If you think of the ways in which we need revolution, we need to think in ways [of] sharing power is sharing resources,” West furthered.

Since his October 2023 announcement, his campaign has been in flux with colorful notes as a definite outsider. West started as a Green Party candidate, but broke away from the known grassroots political organization early into his campaign. At the town hall, West announced that he is now on the ballot in Alaska. Backed by the Aurora Party, the move makes him the first independent to be on the presidential ballot in the state. This major progress shows a shift in what a town hall member described as people, and in particular, young people being “tired of the bullshit” in the political space.

West enters into his candidacy of an uphill battle that he frames as a “David and Goliath” moment. Plucked from a biblical story where the underdog ends up being the victor, West fuses his staunch soulful Christian orientation with his lifelong activism in class solidarity. A scholar by trade and Black music aficionado, his town hall talk fused his preaching roots with theoretical explanations and activist work.

For over two hours, West went between political theory and political critique about the state of the U.S. A pointed moment in West’s talk is when Nico—who identified as a “staple” vendor in Leimert Park—brought up the challenges for local Black businesspersons. For years, he along with a collective of marketeers have been selling to the community, but now they are working on building a better business infrastructure for Leimert Park to establish more fiscal salience and staying power.

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Leimert Park is known as one of the last remaining Black business and cultural hubs in Los Angeles. Like many commercial-residential districts before, Leimert Park barely holds onto its identity and Black ownership. With the unrelenting force of gentrification that intensified after the construction and completion of the latest light rail public transportation route, the K Line, there has been a mass exodus of African American residents and mom-and-pop shops. The K Line runs between Crenshaw Boulevard and Exposition Boulevard, several major corridors that once housed voluminous homes, stores, shops, churches, civic organizations and community centers belonging to Black Angelenos.

West applauded Nico’s work in a tradition of small businesses that he called, “cooperative economics.” Also, West pointed out that 80% of the businesses in the U.S. are small ventures, but larger corporations are rewarded by being heavily subsidized. If elected, he plans to reverse government efforts by pouring more resources into subsidizing small businesses.  

West also said that he “did not have a problem with civic people having control over those particular industr[ies]” such as coal and gas because “greed has run amok” in the country. He added. “One thing I believe in is democratizing and nationalizing big business. One thing that I’m going to do is nationalize the fossil fuel industry,” he promised.

Missing political teeth

Talking to a crowd with a heavy mixture of millennials and Generation Zers with a sprinkle of Gen X and Boomers, West, at times, used Black musical icons such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Count Bassie and John Coltrane to emphasize how cultural traditions underscore his intersectional approach of grassroots struggle, political agency and pop culture. While West’s talk at the town hall riled up an emotional response from the crowd in a modest-sized venue where many stood listening to the session, West’s explanation on the particulars of his platform were under-explained, if at all.

A significant segment of his speech addressed Israel’s continuous bombing of Palestinians in Gaza as a result of an October 7, 2023 attack and kidnapping of Israelis by Hamas, a militant Palestinian group. For months, there has been a call for the Biden Administration to discontinue its support of Israel’s aggressive military affront which has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, which are mostly civilian. Even hospitals and places that international war regulations identify as neutral zones have been subjected to attacks. Included in the numbers of those dead are women and children, along with record-numbers of amputations and other war-related injuries. 

The United Nations has said that Israel has violated war laws, but President Biden is unyielding in his backing of the Israeli state. West clearly stands for peace. “When you love folk who are being crushed, you hate the fact that they’re being crushed and if you don’t do something, [inaudible] are going to shout out,”  said West on the topic. As well, he retorted that if it were the reverse, and Palestine were the aggressor, he would criticize them with as much fervor.

When a town hall attendee questioned West on what he will do as president in regards to the Israel-Palestine crisis in Gaza, West stood firm in enacting a ceasefire, but offered no details on what a ceasefire and subsequent actions would be. 

Cornel West speaks at town hall in Leimert Park on January 7, 2024. Photo credit: Kaia Shivers/Ark Republic

One issue that West made sure to earmark on the subject of Israel and Gaza, was how many political officials, including Black politicians, have remained either silent or in support of Israel because they have been bought off. In the same vein, he criticized Black Christian leaders for remaining mum about the issue.

Another question fielded by West expressed a concern about the multiple conflicts in the world that are improperly addressed, and some, funded by the U.S. government. They asked about West’s transparency about campaign financing. West’s response was that they publish quarterly, their campaign raising.

Another town member asked West about his work addressing the inequities of maternal deaths amongst Black women. Still, there was a lack of policy to think through an issue impacting African Americans. Another member asked how he was going to bridge the gap between younger and older voters, his answer, in short, was to listen, conflict is inevitable and to hold each other accountable.

In his talk, West mentioned that his Los Angeles stop included a trip to a local homeless activist. Ark Republic asked West how his campaign would mobilize homeless voters, especially in a city with such a high unhoused rate consisting of Black Angelenos. He reiterated that he is working with homeless activists and if president, he’d ensure that “everybody will have a house.”

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A follow up inquiry by Ark Republic asked how he would address the issues of discrimination amongst Black farmers. West said that he had been in conversation for decades with two Black farmer-activists who had been doing work in the area. Yet, West failed to offer a substantive approach in dealing with the deep-rooted systemic issue within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What was obvious about West’s resume. He has dedicated his life to intellectual discourse, political agitation and cultural engagement, as he cited a number of jazz artists, political actors and academic peers. What remains to be seen, if he is a contender who can cut through the two-party hegemony that often shadows voters who are hungry and looking for solutions outside of the mainstream.

West enters into a murky political landscape where GOP candidates are once again, in a crowded catfight and a Democratic party is holding onto an aged voter-base whose disappointment has led to a palpable exhaustion. Even so, a third-party candidate’s efforts to win speak of an arduous battle. If he is to be the people’s president, the people need more meat in policy, mobilization and action; especially after his duly noted criticisms of the failures of the Barack Obama presidency. In his speech, West said he welcomes critique. It was apparent in the questions by town hall attendees who are voters that need more answers than feel-good rhetoric.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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