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Grassrooting vote the Native Vote 2012, Native Style!
On the grassroots trail of a Native American candidate seeking to become a Council member in Richmond, CA.
Armed with a Ziploc bag full of bookmarks and a compliment, Mike (Ali) Raccoon Eyes Kinney moves quickly from house to house “slinging paper.”
As an experienced precinct walker, he gives himself 15 seconds to assess each porch before he decides whether to deliver the thin strip of paper emblazoned with a “WE LIKE MIKE!” slogan, his picture and the words “Candidate for Richmond City Council 2012.” If the doorstep is too cluttered, he won’t go near. There might be a dog hiding in there. Apartments? They’re low-vote. Opposing political signage? Forget it.
“It’s insulting to them and it’s insulting to me,” Kinney, 59, says.
He pushes on, stuffing his bookmarks – a more pragmatic form of political communication, versus the glossy mailers that he says just end up in the trash – between chain link fences, potted plants, handrails – anywhere they’ll be noticed.
Kinney has made these rounds before in neighborhoods across Richmond. He’ll be out on the campaign trail next week, working to “get the vote out.” He always greets people on the streets with a compliment.
“Hello, young man.”
“Good afternoon, pretty lady.”
Kinney approaches a corner house and greets John Hoppe, 41, who was smoking on his front porch around lunchtime on a recent weekday.
“I’ve been looking for an excuse for a smoke break,” Kinney says, lighting up a Pall Mall.
As he delivers his introductory spiel and his campaign promise to halt property taxes, two other neighbors join in. Clint Scoggins, 63, smoking a Newport and drinking a can of King Cobra Malt Liquor asks about the city’s school kids. John Stimeo, 48, sits on their right, Miller High Life in hand.
The real conversation begins when the men bring up a recent city construction project on an aging sewer line that they say caused sludge to back up into the neighbors’ yards and left them to foot the bill for repairs. Hoppe points to a section of lush, green patch of grass on his lawn where the sewage seeped up and fertilized the grass.
Kinney takes a breath.
“Here’s what I need to do,” he says slowly, explaining in detail where to find claim forms in City Hall and how to address the City Council about their problem. He calls the City Manager’s office to find out when they’re open and when the next council meeting will be.
“I’ll be there for you guys,” he says. “It’s not about the candidacy … it’s about what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong.”
“You’re a beautiful person and I don’t like to see you stressing,” Kinney says to Hoppe.
He slings a bit more paper, passing out extra bookmarks.
“You have a good spiritual day,” he says as he rounds the corner to visit more houses.
Kinney isn’t a typical City Council candidate, but after 35 years of community advocacy, he says he knows what the community expects of him. He’s critical of the “racist and colonial” progressives on the council and he scoffs at Measure N, the proposed tax on sugared beverages. He comes from a military family and favors cutting taxes and downsizing city government.
“You cannot intellectualize the community; you have to feel the community: the needs, the wants,” Kinney said.
Back at his Richmond home, Kinney sips coffee from an electric green mug. Outside, there’s a Gary Bell for City Council sign stuck in the lawn. Bell is a family friend and Kinney’s campaign treasurer, who Kinney says “keeps it honest, keeps it clean, keeps it transparent.”
He wears a wool beret and fatigue pants – the uniform, he says, of a spirit warrior – a turquoise ring representing his commitment to his relationship and community, a button with his face on it, and a lock-blade knife.
“I represent a different kind of energy, a different kind of power and a different kind of strength,” he said.
The son of a Cherokee man and white woman, the lifetime Richmond resident said he grew up with self-hatred – “damn for what I was, damn for what I’m not.” The name Raccoon Eyes comes from the band of Cherokee from South Kentucky; Kinney is the name given to his family by Protestant missionaries in Appalachia.
He described the “Indian Country historic trauma,” in which the “unresolved grief of mass extermination, racial cleansing and ethnic genocide” still echoes in the consciousness of Native Americans.
“In order for us to forgive, we must learn to forgive ourselves,” he said.
Richmond, he says, in some ways must do the same.
“I say to Indian Country and I say to people of Richmond: stop pounding yourself, stop beating yourselves up for crimes you didn’t commit … forgive yourselves,” he said. “Let the healing begin.”
Kinney emphasizes his commitment to stopping violence among the city’s youth. He said one of his proudest moments was helping to negotiate a ceasefire between Richmond gangs in 1993.
“I just want to see kids quit killing kids,” he said. “No one in this community has escaped that. It’s about teaching the values of peace.”
Fed up with the violence, he and a few other adults spent six months playing messenger between rival groups. At midnight one night in June 1994, the peace treaty went into effect.
“That first night, no gunfire. No gunfire. I was like, ‘damn, rock ‘n’ roll,’” he said. “That was a good time.”
One night during the moratorium, he and another adult bought a number of beers for a meeting with gang members. As he got out of the car, he heard a click and felt something cold on his temple, he said.
“He says, ‘Fool you got five seconds to tell me who the F you are,’” Kinney recalled.
Someone repeats the mantra: “Fool, that’s Mr. Michael, fool.”
“I said, ‘Man you need a drink’ and passed him a 40,” Kinney said. “The same kid that pointed that pistol at me: I was his best man at his wedding five years later and their first child, they named after me.”
To reduce gang violence, Kinney, who calls himself an “independent Democrat,” proposes an economic development program called “Renew Your City.” The idea is to have all the young people in gang sets to attend a summit, he said. Employers will choose 500 of them that they can hire “as is.”
“That is a real beginning,” he said. “Let me tell you, watch how the violence goes down, that’s a true equation.”
He promises he would be a single-term councilman and says he wants to give people four years of leadership, stability and relief from taxes.
“I have a problem with people who are entrenched into poverty and entrenched into welfare,” he said. “There are answers to questions and there are solutions to issues, but nobody here wants to talk about this. As a Native man and a spiritual practitioner, I will tell you one thing: you have to remove your ego and ego trip and allow spirit to enter. Ain’t nobody doing that up there.”
His ideal group on the council would be Nat Bates, Corky Booze and Gary Bell.
“Another reason I’m running … you have to understand the culture of city government, you have to understand the culture of the City Council, and you have to understand the culture of the City Council Chambers,” Kinney said.
“This is not about a nickel-and-dime council race,” he said. “It’s about the entire empowerment of the city of Richmond. It’s about a successful four years for the community.”
At the North Richmond Shoreline Festival last week, City Council candidates had the chance to take the stage and address the community. Instead, Kinney sang.
“There’s nothing I can say to these people that they haven’t already heard,” he said.
The traditional Cherokee prayer song, titled “Beauty Way,” is meant to bring balance and harmony, he said.
Though simple, the song reflects Kinney’s political message: creating a successful city, empowered to meet the challenges of living and working here.
He pulls his Ziploc bag of bookmarks out of his pack, preparing to work the crowd and sign autographs – sling more paper. He offers his favored farewell.
“You have a good spiritual day,” he said.