May 29, 2024

Cornel West names L.A. professor, activist Melina Abdullah as running mate on presidential ticket

6 min read
Cornel West is running as an independent candidate and faces significant challenges in his campaign for the White House. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

By Benjamin Oreskes and Matt Hamilton

Independent presidential candidate Cornel West named Cal State Los Angeles professor Melina Abdullah as his running mate on Wednesday, saying that her commitment to social justice and to prioritizing the needs of poor Americans embodied the values of his candidacy.

“I wanted to run with someone who would put a smile on the face of [civil rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King Jr. from the grave,” West said on Tavis Smiley’s Los Angeles radio program.

Abdullah is well-known figure in local political circles: She co-founded the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter and has been a fixture in recent years at protests and acts of civil disobedience on issues including police funding and the war in the Gaza Strip.

West’s choice means at least three women from California are running for vice president Abdullah, Vice President Kamala Harris and Nicole Shanahan, selected by independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Former President Trump has not announced his choice for running mate.)

The three candidates reflect the wide spectrum of backgrounds the state has to offer, with Harris coming up in the rough-and-tumble of Bay Area politics, Shanahan steeped in the Silicon Valley and Abdullah representing leftist and progressive grassroots activism.

“It’s striking. But that’s about all that we have in common,” Abdullah said when Smiley noted that she and Harris had Bay Area roots and both attended Howard University.

During the broadcast, Abdullah recalled first meeting West when she was an undergraduate student at Howard, and said she revered his influence on American political thought.

“It felt as though God was speaking to me, and I said ‘yes,‘” she said of receiving West’s call last week.

She noted that theirs is the first presidential ticket in the U.S. to include a Muslim, and Smiley pointed out that it was the first all-Black ticket.

“Both of us want to disrupt the narrative that you have only two choices,” said Abdullah, 52, referring to Trump and President Biden, the presumptive major-party nominees. “The world tries to tell us that we’re tethered to certain ideas that we don’t have to be tethered to. We can be expansive, and imaginative.”

West, an academic, author and activist, said alternative voices are needed to represent the anger of Americans frustrated by wars abroad and a lack of investment in communities at home. Lacking the infrastructure of a mainstream political party, West is collecting signatures to appear on ballots across the country. According to his website, he is now on the ballot only in Alaska, Oregon, South Carolina and Utah.

Selecting a vice presidential candidate is a key part of the process of making the ballot in many states. Unlike Kennedy, who is also running as an independent and is garnering gamering double digits in some national polls, West is barely getting more than single digits. The academic has failed to raise much money making the task of getting on ballots all the more challenging.

“Trump is leading the country toward a second Civil War. Biden is leading the world toward World War III,” West told Smiley, with whom he co-hosted a radio program a decade ago. “That’s the choice you have if you only are tied to the duopoly. That’s what it comes down to. We are providing an alternative… We ain’t on nobody’s plantation.”

In recent years, Abdullah has spoken out against police shootings and increases in the Los Angeles Police Department budget. She and other activists regularly appeared at Police Commission meetings, and as The Times wrote in 2015, turned “normally dry public hearings into hours-long confrontations that frequently devolve into officers clearing demonstrators from the room.”

She has long pushed for abolishing the police and prisons, and in 2020 was a forceful opponent of then-Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s reelection campaign, and a supporter of current Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

During that race, Lacey’s husband, David, was charged with assault after he was accused of waving a gun at Abdullah and other protesters when they appeared outside the couple’s Granada Hills home early one morning. (The case was dismissed after he finished a diversion program.)

In 2022, Abdullah was forcibly removed from a mayoral debate on Cal State L.A.’s campus. She and Karen Bass, who has been mayor of Los Angeles since that election, have a decades-long relationship.

In 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Abdullah was a central figure in organizing large rallies in Los Angeles. More than a decade ago, along with Patrisse Cullors and others, she built what would grow to become the Black Lives Matter movement and later the nonprofit Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.

Abdullah also is the founder of Black Lives Matter Grassroots Inc., which made waves in 2022 by accusing the foundation and one of its executives, Shalomyah Bowers, of “fraudulently [raising] money from unsuspecting donors” and diverting more than $10 million to benefit Bowers and his consulting firm.

Bowers and the foundation vigorously denied the allegations and sought the dismissal of the lawsuit. L.A. Superior Court Judge Stephanie Bowick agreed to toss out the suit in June 2023.

In her ruling, Bowick wrote that part of the lawsuit’s “allegations are so confusing and unintelligible it cannot even be determined what” was being alleged.

The judge earlier this year ordered Abdullah’s group to pay more than $374,000 in legal fees and costs to the foundation, Bowers and his consulting group.

Smiley asked about these legal fights, and Abdullah said that as nonprofits, the various chapters that belong to Black Lives Matter Grassroots wouldn’t be endorsing anyone in the 2024 race.

“Some people might see it as baggage, but I actually see the work and experience of organizing and the kind of authenticity of our work as being something that actually fuels this campaign,” she said. “I know that as we move forward, organizing is essential.”

Last month, Abdullah was sued by Nana Lawson Bush V, a colleague in Cal State L.A.’s department of pan-African studies, who accused Abdullah of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Bush said that Abdullah had characterized him as a “horrible oppressive, vindictive, misogynist,” a “polygamist” and “a voodoo practitioner,” and that her “defamatory statements” had scuttled his appointment as interim dean of the university’s College of Ethnic Studies, according to the lawsuit, filed in L.A. County Superior Court.

In the suit, Bush contends that Abdullah had been campaigning for years for the position, including with the hashtag #DrAbdullah4Dean, and that she vowed to “go public with everything” if Bush were appointed.

“Dr. Abdullah has the knowledge and understanding of how her allegations negatively affect Dr. Bush as an African American man,” states the lawsuit, which also accuses the university and its trustees of harassment, retaliation and failure to prevent discrimination.

Neither Abdullah or nor her attorneys have responded in court, and Abdullah didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Atiya Myers, the lawyer representing Bush, declined to comment on Abdullah entering the political race, saying that “ the legal proceedings and their merits are entirely separate from the political sphere and should be viewed as such.”

“Dr. Bush’s decision to refrain from commenting on Dr. Abdullah’s qualifications or fitness for vice-presidential candidacy is a reflection of this stance and is in no way indicative of any prejudice towards her candidacy or Dr. West’s campaign,” Myers said in a statement.

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