Lawrence Hamm ’78 is the Founder and Chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a progressive grassroots advocacy organization. This fall, the group will hold “Justice Monday: protests at the federal building in Newark” as well as weekly voter registration drives and a “Trump Must Go” rally on Oct. 3.
After taking three years after high school to serve as the youngest ever Board of Education member in Newark, Hamm came to Princeton, where he concentrated in politics and helped organize anti-apartheid protests.
He served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (ID-Vt.) campaign chairperson in New Jersey for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination and ran an unsuccessful campaign against Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary.
Hamm sat down with The Daily Princetonian on Tuesday, July 28 to discuss his recent Senate run, student activism, and grassroots movements.
This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: What was it like running against a well-known incumbent in your recent U.S. Senate Democratic primary race against Cory Booker?
Lawrence Hamm: It was a tough race from the beginning; it was an uphill climb. He was first of all a lifetime politician, a well-known incumbent, already an incumbent for U.S. senator, and had been a presidential candidate, so his name and image recognition was, you know, in the stratosphere. And although I wouldn’t say I was unknown, I certainly didn’t have the name recognition that he had, but I knew all that from the outset. And I decided to go forward knowing all that because I was running for several different reasons ...
I was Bernie Sanders’ campaign chairperson in New Jersey ... So, one of the reasons I was running for the U.S. Senate was to try to bring him some more votes, particularly votes from the African American community ...
The other reason I was running was that I wanted to help to further consolidate the progressive vote in New Jersey. If there’s one thing that the Sanders campaign 2016 and 2020 showed us, is that there’s a very large progressive bloc of voters in New Jersey ... and it’s really time for this bloc of voters to make their presence felt and known, and reflected in elections ...
And of course I was running to try to build my own political base here in Jersey.
DP: Were there lessons you learned from the campaign that you think will help you in your advocacy with the People’s Organization for Progress?
LH: The first lesson is, it is a money game. No matter how you cut this cake, it’s still a money game. And no matter what your campaign is — a progressive campaign or radical campaign, a left campaign, a center campaign, or a right campaign — you got to have money ... And I’m going to tell you, it might seem counterintuitive, but after running for U.S. Senate, I am less optimistic about our electoral system.
The role of money in our electoral system is abominable, and ... candidates do not achieve office really based on their platform; they achieve office based on their money … And if we’re going to have a progressive political movement in the state of New Jersey, we must contend that until we get a publicly financed public political system in our country, until we overturn Citizens United, until that happens, it’s going to be a money game. And if we’re serious about being in this game, we’ve got to be serious about raising money.
I feel compelled to say that because a lot of us who are progressive, who are radical, etc., the left, we’re anti-money … we’re anti-capitalists, we’re anti-materialism, and so we tend to not really want to confront this problem. You know, we say, on one hand we should have progressives in office. But on the other hand, we haven’t really dealt seriously with the problem with one of the hurdles to getting progressives in office, and that is money.
DP: Could you talk about why grassroots movements are so important?
LH: Well, the grassroots movements point to the future ...You know, our weakness has been trying to organize movements strong enough to contend for power, but in terms of analysis and which way we should go toward the future, I think the left for the most part has always been correct ... Whenever you look at the conservative analysis, they always are holding on to the past. It’s always the radicals and the progressives who have the solutions to take us into the future, whether we’re looking at labor rights, women’s rights, rights for African Americans and other people of color, Native Americans, Latinos, gay rights...
I mean, there was a time in this country when it was against the law to have a labor union. It was against the law to try to organize. You have labor laws today because of radical people in the 19th century … The point I’m trying to make here is that in every era in every decade, the people who wanted social justice were called radicals ...
You know, we have to have grassroots movements that are not controlled by money power to in fact advocate for the needs of the people. If you leave these institutions to their own dynamics, the end result is going to be that those who are on top are going to stay on top and those on the bottom are going to stay on the bottom.
DP: How did your experience at Princeton inform your progressive policies and your career?
Lawrence Hamm: First of all, my experience wasn’t really that of the average student ... In the fall of 1971, I served my three years on the school board and was also steeped in local politics at that time. I returned to Princeton as a freshman in the fall of 1974. So, you know, I had political experiences already, I had some political ideas already. My political ideology was an embryo. It was there, but it wasn’t fully developed when I got to Princeton.
Princeton did a lot to radicalize me, believe it or not. A lot of the reading that I was able to do for some of my courses and a lot of it on my own helped me shape my radical views … I was probably a socialist by the time I left in 1980, and a lot of that had to do with my studying for my courses and the studying I did on my own, and my activism, particularly in the anti-apartheid movement we had on Princeton's campus.
DP: Can you tell us more about the anti-apartheid protests that you helped organize?
LH: Well, I think the anti-apartheid movement was one of the most important experiences I had at Princeton. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It was a difficult experience but it was also a wonderful experience. Well, let me say this, there were efforts around the issue of Southern African liberation at Princeton preceding our anti-apartheid movement … but unfortunately the preservation of that memory, you know you have gaps in it because student life is so transitory. Students leading the protests, they’re seniors and when they graduate they take that memory with them and if they didn’t write anything down to bequeath to those who would follow in their footsteps ...
But in the 1970s, you know, some of us came together and we began some anti-apartheid work … And so, to make a long story short, we had some protests in my freshman year, we had some protests in my junior year. By my junior year we were beginning to gain support but it was really in my senior year — that would be 1977–1978 — that the apartheid struggle really took off. And then in the second semester of 1978, we kicked off daily protests at Nassau Hall. We started on Feb. 1, 1978 — the daily protests in Nassau Hall — and we continued those daily protests for like 66 days. And those protests went from a handful of people to like four or five or 600 people every day at Nassau Hall, and you know when conditions were right, we planned a sit-in and took over Nassau Hall for like two days, got the board to say that they’d divest from a couple of companies ... It was really a tremendous movement.
DP: Any advice for student activists today?
LH: I think the greatest lesson that I’ve learned from student activism is that you’ve got to be persistent. One demonstration is not enough … You might not even win the issue. You might not win it in a semester, you might not win it in a year, you might not win it in four years. But you have to struggle and you have to plan campaigns that will be sustained over long periods.
Another thing is, you have to organize in such a way that the organizations that are established keep going after the seniors graduate. Leave some organizational structure in place and leaders in place so that that struggle can continue after you graduate, because, you know, most of these things take several years to win.
Then the other thing is to connect to groups that are outside the campus ... One of the things I would like to see is some kind of statewide conference of student activists from all campuses in New Jersey.
DP: Are you hopeful that this most recent round of protests against racial injustice in America will create real change?
LH: Well, it’s putting us on the road. I think it’s wonderful, the outpouring of protests in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd ... I think the challenge now is to maintain that. Because a lot of times at these marches we chant we want justice. Now what is justice? Well, first and foremost, justice could be a lot of things, but one thing justice must be is the conviction and imprisonment of those officers that committed these acts of police brutality ... But you have to sustain the pressure, sustain the pressure by continuing the protests, continuing to do things that will keep the spotlight on the issue. And let those in power know that we are not satisfied until the perpetrators of these crimes are in jail.
DP: What issue do you believe is not being talked about enough?
LH: I think an issue we need to talk more about, and now is the time to do it, is the issue of capitalism. Is this the kind of system that we want to continue in this country? ... The inadequacy and inequity and injustice of the capitalist system are more apparent now than they’ve been in many decades, probably since the 1930s, particularly because of the COVID crisis, how we see the healthcare system functioning or not functioning. So I think there really must be significant discussion about the capitalist system. Is this in fact, the system that can take us the rest of the way through the 21st century?
Personally I think we have to change the system. But at a minimum … you got to have more discussion on this because the capitalist system is creating inequality, it’s creating the greatest inequality in the history of humanity ... [Jeff] Bezos [’86] is on his way to becoming the first trillionaire in the history of humanity.
DP: Is there anything else you’d like to add and share with the Princeton community?
LH: One thing: that we certainly need to keep up the pressure to demand justice for George Floyd and elimination of police brutality …
Secondly, we have an election coming up in November ... We need massive voter registration in preparation for the November election. ‘Trump must be defeated’ is my mantra …
The main thing I would say is this to young people: not to sit out this election. Don’t throw your hands up ... We’re going to have to fight no matter who the president is. But clearly, Donald Trump represents something qualitatively different in a president. And we can’t ignore elections; we ignore elections at our own peril ... So I’m telling folks, register if you’re not registered. If you’re already registered, check your registration, make sure you’re still on the ballot. And everybody should work to beat Trump on Nov. 3.