Roseanne Barr is running for president. It was clear, when she addressed a packed house at Oaksterdam University on Thursday night, that the bulk of the crowd was there to hear her say that out loud. Former Democratic Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney delivered an introduction to the evening, cutting directly to the chase. “We are meeting here,” she said, “because the Peace and Freedom Party had the courage and the smarts to nominate Roseanne Barr as their presidential candidate.”
Before her speech, Barr sat at ease in front of the crowd in a black-and-white striped sweater—effortlessly standing out by virtue of being so recognizably Roseanne. The longtime television star and pop figure force for proud working class classlessness wore a coiled pearl necklace and floor length black skirt. She sported short, gray hair. “I just got my new trifocals,” she howled brassily out to the crowd as she produced a typed speech along with thick glasses. “I’m not very good at seeing yet.” She waited with a comedian’s patience for the laughter to dry up before thanking the audience for coming. Despite the years and cosmetic procedures between TV icon Roseanne and presidential candidate Barr, her familiar squinting smirk made her unmistakable.
Roseanne shared the small stage Oaksterdam had erected, in the second-floor meeting hall of the downtown cannabis growing instruction center, with McKinney and a panel of speakers that included former Black Panther Elder Freeman, Peace and Freedom candidates Gene Ruyle and Mary Mcllroy, and “Ganja Guru” Ed Rosenthal. When McKinney announced that Roseanne would speak last, the crowd reacted with playful booing. The advertised topic for the evening was The Political Future of Medical Marijuana, but Roseanne was the event.
“Thank you for breaking through your mind control programming to reach the other side where you have some free thought,” Barr called out to the crowd when it was finally time for her speech, her microphone little more than an ornament, given her own natural volume. This introduction, like most of her speech Thursday, began on a snarl and ended with a gleeful grin. A central theme in her address was criticism of what she called “the prison-military-industrial complex” of America—the system under which drugs are criminalized, she said, to allow the government and corporations to profit from incarceration and to create slave labor through inmate manufacturing.
Barr’s tone bordered on comedic at times, but always returned to a central place of rage; and the crowd gave its loudest response when Barr’s fury reached its highest points. “The nation has to realize that giving its kids a choice between war and prison if they are poor is not a choice at all,” she yelled above the rising cheers of the crowd. “Locking up your own tax base is simply stupid.”
To an eclectic crowd of anti-government activists, medical marijuana advocates, third party campaigners and curious undecided citizens, Barr delivered a speech that both was and was not all about marijuana, and also both was and was not all about Roseanne. From the moment she began her prepared speech in her characteristic, yowling bugle voice, this much was clear: Barr absolutely means business with this campaign, and she absolutely plans to enjoy every second of it.
She’s running for president, and the fact that you likely had to read that twice before it sank in, it turns out, has a lot to do with how she ended up on a ballot at all. “We need someone who will get a lot of attention for our party,” said Co-Chair of the Alameda County Peace and Freedom Party Marsha Feinland. “We don’t get a lot of attention.”
Attention is currently what the Peace and Freedom Party of California needs in order to stay alive—that is, to stay on the ballot at all. Started in 1968, Peace and Freedom has existed for over 40 years on a platform of socialism, workers rights, and more recently, support for marijuana legalization. Feinland said that in order to have its candidates appear on state ballots, the party must have a statewide registration equal to 1 percent of voter turnout for the most recent gubernatorial election. Currently, Peace and Freedom is about 50,000 registered party members shy of the necessary 110,000. They’ll be on the ballot for 2012; but to be on future ballots, the party will have to come up with a significant expansion of registered members. Thus was the circumstance set perfectly for Roseanne Barr.
In August, Barr, who had recently lost the nomination she had campaigned for from the Green Party, turned to Peace and Freedom only to find herself an unlikely Johnny-on-the-spot. “We’ve had candidates more directly in line with the party,” said Feinland. “But they won’t get the kind of attention that Roseanne would get.”
At the Peace and Freedom Party’s national convention in Los Angeles, Barr spoke for 15 minutes—all the time she could spare while filming “The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne” nearby—and received the nomination without ever having been formally entered on their primary ballot. “I’ll tell you what won people over,” Feinland said. “Roseanne said her priority would be getting people to register in the Peace and Freedom Party.”
The party’s strong confidence in Barr to gain attention and build enough of a following to deliver 50,000 new party members was helped out considerably by the television star’s record of support for marijuana legalization. “The marijuana issue has tremendous appeal for young people in this country,” Feinland said. “And for old people too.”
It certainly drew a crowd in Oakland, where Barr delivered a speech connecting marijuana laws to wider realms of social freedoms—a relatable position for many at Oaksterdam, which first made headlines in 2007 when it opened as the first American university dedicated to teaching the techniques and practices of growing cannabis, and again in April 2012, when the building was raided by federal agents.
Still open and holding classes in spite of the federal action, Oaksterdam served as an apt venue for Barr’s speech, which dealt at length with her support for a reduction of federal government power. In fact, the event was initially planned at the Montclair Women’s Cultural Arts Club, but later moved to Oaksterdam. The defiant adherence to state regulation rather than federal law the cannabis university demonstrates just by keeping its doors open, said event organizer JR Valrey of Block Report Radio, made Oaksterdam “a better fit for the event.”
Jeff Jones, an Oaskterdam instructor and cannabis-legalization veteran who’s wife Dale Sky Jones was recently appointed head of the university, was in the audience and said that “a lot of people in the room might not have come to Montclair.”
Barr has become somewhat famous in recent years for her staunch support of medical marijuana, even using a July appearance on David Letterman to poke fun at the famous gun-rights slogan delivered first by Charlton Heston. “Obama,” Barr said, “You’ll get my joint when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers.” It was this indignation she showed in her speech at Oaksterdam, a speech that also drew heavily on the ideology she defended when she addressed Occupy Wall Street in 2011. “Government’s not supposed to be for profit,” she yelled in an early crescendo in the speech. “Government’s not supposed to be run like a business.”
And while the rage she showed off in her attacks on government wasn’t shared by all, the climate of the crowd was certainly one of frustration with the current political system. Eric Salerno, an activist who came down from Sacramento to listen to Barr, said his interest was equal parts nostalgic fandom for Roseanne the celebrity and support of Barr’s political positions. “She’s like my second mom,” Salerno said. “We all grew up watching that woman.” He believes it’s important for high-profile candidates like Roseanne to bring attention to third parties, even if they hold no illusions about winning. “It needs to be done regardless of whether you win or lose the fight,” he said. “Keep fighting, and eventually we’ll win.”
Barr also connected marijuana laws to the economy. If the government allowed her to grow cannabis on her farm in Hawaii, Barr said, “which they won’t, because it’s not a free country,” she claims she would be able to provide jobs for hundreds if not thousands more workers. She briefly quipped about the environment at this point, after bringing up her Hawaiian nut farm. “By the way,” she said with a more relaxed volume and a smirk, “if people would be getting their protein from nuts instead of animals, we wouldn’t have any global warming.”
Jeff Jones said he agrees with most of Barr’s policies—but that he is weary of pledging full third-party support. Jones was “spooked,” he said, by what he called “the Nader effect” of third parties sometimes tipping the scales in the two party system. He nevertheless remains encouraged by the stances taken by the Peace and Freedom Party.
Barr set herself apart from politicians in the two parties, in her speech, whom she said make policy more based on what will appeal to their party than on their beliefs. “It means less than nothing to billionaires that they cause the death of entire communities on a whim,” she said, regarding the drug war and its destructiveness. “Then they turn around and fund the ‘Right to Life’ movement.”
Lisa, an Oakland undecided voter who asked not to have her last name used, said she was impressed that the Peace and Freedom party representatives had opened the evening by pointing out that Obama was projected to win California by a wide margin, and that voters were therefore free to send their votes safely to third party candidates. “Roseanne brought me out,” Lisa said, shrugging. “And it was nice to see someone speak with passion, not from a teleprompter.”
Barr went on attacking all US drug policy. “The war on drugs is a class war,” she said. “The war on drugs is a drug-lord’s wet dream. Pot is big business, and billions are invested in keeping it illegal.”
Mike Campbell from Richmond said he came specifically to hear the discussion on social policy and drug law. “It’s obvious the war on drugs is a war on a class,” he said, glad Barr had made the point. “Having been a member of the middle class, I can say that it goes beyond poor people.”
As Barr built to her climax, she became even more gleeful. “RESIST INSANITY!” she said, pausing to laugh fiercely while the crowd cheered the slogan. “EMBRACE SANITY!”
The audience, sensing the speech had reached its home stretch, began unrelentingly cheering. Barr had to yell out her closing line. “If you want a candidate such as myself, who believes that social safety nets such and health care should come before the profits of a few in those hallowed halls of congress,” she said, straightening out her smile and waiting just long enough for the moment to lose any of its comedy, “then here I am.” The crowd dissipated quickly after Roseanne left, though many formed a group around the Peace and Freedom Party booth in order to register.
“Roseanne is speaking about issues other presidential candidates aren’t,” said Berkeley Mayoral Candidate Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, who came to hear the presidential candidate speak. He says this particular crowd came out to listen to Barr to have “the opportunity to listen to somebody connected to their reality.”
Roseanne Barr is running for president, and while this is likely a surprise to most, it is by no means a surprise to Barr, who has been dropping comments about her intentions to run for president for over a decade. In a 1995 interview with John Lahr for The New Yorker, Barr brought it up along with a slew of many ambitious prophecies. “You should keep that quote,” she tells Lahr in the piece. “Then you can say I said so.”