By Pam Adams
Close to 20 years ago, a young producer for National Public Radio gave two young boys recording equipment, some basic lessons and sent them out to tell a story of growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The result was the unforgettably heartbreaking audio diary "Ghetto Life 101."
LeAlan Jones was 13 years old in 1993. His friend, Lloyd Freeman, was 15. With the help of producer David Isay, they interviewed themselves, their families, their friends, giving voice, sound and sense to a world outsiders almost never see except through police reports or sociological statistics.
"When I was 10, I knew where drugs came from. I knew about every different kind of gun. I knew about sex," Jones says at one point in the radio series. "I was a kid in age but my mind had the reality of a grown-up 'cause I seen these things every day."
It was memorable, controversial, and it should have embarrassed the nation to hear young boys comparing growing up on Chicago's South Side to growing up in Vietnam during the war. Instead, it won a ton of journalism awards that year. This year, a state representative called for the National Guard to come in and help stop the flow of crime on Chicago's South Side.
At the end of the series, Jones promised he'd be back. "You'll be hearing from me again, 'cause I'm an up-and-rising activist."
He's back and he's a candidate for U.S. Senate in Illinois on the Green Party ticket. The topic comes up because he'll be in Peoria this weekend for a fundraiser with other Green Party candidates for state and federal office.
Forget for a moment that the local Green Party organizer can't get his name right. Or that the Green Party, though it's had a black candidate at the very top of its ticket, has made about as much headway with black voters as the Republican Party. Or that black voters are the Democratic Party's most loyal voters. Or that a former senator from Chicago's South Side is the president and the seat itself has a recent past worthy of soap opera drama.
Put it all aside and ponder this:
LeAlan Jones is 31. He graduated from high school, graduated from college. He's legal guardian to two young nephews, one of whom is a star quarterback at Simeon High School, where he volunteers as linebacker coach. His freelance journalism career is on hold while he runs for office. By the conventional young-black-man-growing-up-in-the-ghetto narrative, he wasn't supposed to make headlines again until he was arrested or shot. Instead he is doing what he said he'd do. The only difference between what he talked about in 1993 and what he is talking about now is the scope.
"The only difference between the world of high finance and drug dealers are the commodities they deal. The mentality is the same," he told an interviewer recently.
Making a profit is the bottom line, whether it's selling crack on the corner or packaging risky mortgage loans into risky investments. Jones has seen the resulting devastation from both ends and he's clear about the politics behind which end gets high bail and which end gets bailed out. That's why the Green Party appeals to him.
Both major parties, he says, are too chained to corporate interests and self-preservation to make the changes he supports - for instance, a single-payer health care system, universal pre-school, a new and enhanced war on poverty, labor protections for part-time and contract workers, a state bank and nationalization of all defense companies because, according to the campaign website, "no one should profit off the security of our nation."
When he says, by telephone, that the Green Party "doesn't support conflict, those are values that resonate with me," he is making the connection between the values it takes to end crime in his neighborhood and wars overseas. To get it done, he's not worrying about the chances of a third-party candidate spoiling the chances of electing a candidate from either major party, namely the Democratic candidate.
"How can you spoil something that's already rotten?"