Party of One
Cliff Fleetwood speaks a lot about "we," as in, "Getting people to volunteer, getting people to hold office, that's what we want." He talks at length about consolidating black voter turnout and moving the black community "to the center of American politics." And he plans to raise money this summer for his dream -- the Black Party -- by canvassing neighborhoods and hosting dinners.
But so far, there seems to be only Cliff Fleetwood.
He says he has registered fifty Black Party voters in Colorado. The dozen or so Denver voters, including Fleetwood, have listed their address as the St. Francis Center, a day shelter near Coors Field. Fleetwood's total budget and expenditures, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's office, equal $0, and despite his fundraising plans, he admits, "I'm not one who likes to ask people for money."
So far, he's posted three signs on California Street between 24th and 25th avenues, but two are only paper fliers stuck to telephone poles. Neighbors say the signs have been there for a week or so, but none of them know anything about the party or Fleetwood. One woman said most of the people on the block are white.
Yet there he was last Saturday, on the steps of the State Capitol, passing out yellow fliers to the handful of passersby, announcing his bid for state Senate District 34 and fighting to become, as he puts it, the voice for 35 million African-Americans in a society where "whites cannot stand to see someone black who is above them -- a brother or sister with the same status as them."
It's a sentiment that Fleetwood, who is 39, believes he has seen firsthand in Denver. When he moved here from California in 1996, he was drawn to what he calls the John Denver myth of Colorado -- a rustic and serene land populated by progressive, laid-back hippie types. Instead, he says, he ran into Denver cops who harassed him for no reason. Eventually, he got so fed up with the situation that he decided to move to South Florida.
At the time, politics were the furthest thing from his mind, but his experience in Denver bothered him. "I realized I'm probably not the only Afro-American in the country who has to deal with that psyche of hatred toward the black man," he says. He wondered why African-Americans didn't have a party that addresses their issues specifically. The answer, he thought, was to start a black political party. So he filed papers to register his organization in Florida and began to sign up voters.
Florida officials say Fleetwood did register his party, but that subsequent mailings to him were returned unopened. "The addresses they gave us were bogus," says one official. "Almost like it was a joke."
Although Denver had left a bad taste in his mouth, returning to the city armed with his new idea was a challenge he couldn't pass up. "I don't ever run from a good fight," he insists.
Colorado may not be the best place to launch a black political organization since African Americans make up only 4.7 percent of the population -- versus 13 percent nationwide. But Fleetwood believes that because of the reality of racism, Colorado and the rest of the country are ready for the Black Party. "There are generations of Afro-Americans living in poverty, being treated as a product. Those memories are still there," he says.
On February 22, he filed a committee registration form in Denver, which put the Black Party in the state's database. But all that form means is that his organization agrees to report contributions or expenditures -- which to date haven't amounted to anything. As far as actually becoming a recognized political party, he has a long way to go. He'll need to submit bylaws and a list of officers and circulate a petition to get a candidate on the ballot of the next election.
Fleetwood is counting on the St. Francis vote. "We want the person that's so disenchanted with the present system to get back into the game, to vote and make a difference," he says. As it turns out, Fleetwood is himself an occasional guest at St. Francis, though he goes under an assumed name.
If idealism drives Fleetwood, so, too, it seems, does suspicion. He says he rarely sleeps in the same place two nights in a row. That's not paranoia, he says, "that's just real." In fact, although he hopes to have a national presence within five years, Fleetwood isn't sure he'll last that long. "I'll probably end up being assassinated," he says, with just enough gravity in his voice to make you think he may not be joking. "I doubt it, but it's a possibility."
Still, it's a lot easier being in the public eye when -- at least for now -- there is no public eye. "I'm having a lot of fun," Fleetwood says. "What will happen will happen."