Ja’Mal Green on the South Side of Chicago on April 26, 2018.
Photo: Terrell Jermaine Starr (The Root)

Ja’Mal Green is standing inside the entrance of the 87th Street Metra station, on Chicago’s Southside, with a fist full of business cards, telling passersby that he wants to run the city.

“Hello. My name is Ja’Mal Green, and I’m running for mayor,” he says.

Sometimes he stops mid-sentence, because some commuters dash past him without making eye contact—perhaps assuming he is trying to sell them something. Jeremy Wade, Green’s campaign manager, is looking on nearby, and notices that his young charge is getting tired.

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“You ready to run?” Wade asks.

“Yes, yes,” Green says, running his hand across his face, fighting off sleep.

“I asked you if you’re ready to run, and you said ‘yes,’” Wade says, in the kind of caring yet stern tone an older mentor would use when talking to a younger person that is unaware of how challenging the task before them really is.

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Green has been up since 6:30 a.m. getting ready to meet commuters. It is one of the best ways for Green to introduce himself to voters, Wade believes. So far, it’s been a crash course. Now at 8:30 a.m., it’s the peak of rush hour and many folks aren’t in the mood for small talk. A few people, however, warm up and let Green introduce himself, as they take some of his campaign literature.

One man with his young daughter stops to shake Green’s hand.

“Yeah, man, I heard about you,” the gentleman says. “I’ll look out for you, bruh.”

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Neatly dressed in a tailored, dark blue blazer, an open-collared, pink dress shirt, brown slacks, and a pair of loafers, Green looks sharp, professional—and very young. At 22 years old, he is the youngest person to throw his hat into the race. At least 10 other people have declared for the race or expressed interest, including incumbent Rahm Emanuel, the man Green wants to unseat.

Green’s candidacy may appear to be a losing battle, but activists have proven to be formidable in recent elections. Political insiders didn’t see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over entrenched Democratic power broker Joseph Crowley coming. Braxton Winston, who protested the police shooting of Keith Lamar Scott, won a city council seat in Charlotte, N.C., last fall. Khalid Kamau won a city council seat in South Fulton, Ga., a newly incorporated municipality outside Atlanta, in April of 2017. In June, Mariah Parker, a Ph.D. student and activist, won her race for commissioner for District 2 in Athens-Clarke County, Ga. She took the oath of office with her hand placed over Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X.

For Green, his run for the mayor’s office is as much about voicing the concerns of Chicagoans who feel ignored—the youth, people who feel shut out of the political conversation—as it is his desire to win the race.

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A Black Lives Matter activist with no political experience under his belt, Green has far more experience fighting the system than working within it. Like many millennial protesters, his social consciousness came of age in the wake of Mike Brown’s August 2014 killing at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. However, it was the ruthless shooting of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officers two months later and Mayor Emanuel’s subsequent refusal to release footage of the violent killing to the public that pulled Green into street protests, demanding the mayor’s resignation.

Stomping the pavement in protest of racial injustice is where Green has felt the most comfortable. This is the case for many activists, who often see government as too corrupt to repair. But the more Green reflected on his own activism, the more he realized its limitations.

“I always believed that being an activist was a little more powerful, because you are independent of the system,” Green says. “But you really have to define what power is. And if you are able to hold the system accountable as an activist, I think that raises awareness—definitely. But you’re not really moving for issues that matter to your community, unless you’re in a position of authority. Being the mayor gives me the opportunity to take all of those issues that are plaguing communities, and to put them into solutions. A lot of people say being a politician corrupts you. But you just have to be a person that keeps control, and does what’s right for the people.”

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After 30 more minutes of meet and greet at the Metra station, we hop into a small SUV and drive to a black-owned coffee shop on the South Side. Wade turns the radio to a morning talk show. The hosts are discussing allegations of police misconduct concerning six police officers. Green shakes his head in frustration as he listens. If he were mayor, one of the first things he would do is push for cops to purchase liability insurance.

“If their record is bad, then insurance companies won’t want to insure them,” he says. “They’ll then have to protect their insurance policies on the streets, because if you turn off your body camera and you shoot somebody—you do the wrong thing and the insurance company pulls your insurance. It’s out of my hands.”

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The city of Chicago has paid out more than half a billion dollars in police misconduct settlements since 2015, so Green’s argument is a legitimate one. It is also one that plays into the more aggressive approach of his activist roots.

Twyla Blackmond Larnell, assistant professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, says Green’s run should not be viewed solely as a matter of him winning or losing. Besides pushing incumbents to justify their time in office, challengers help inform voters on issues they may not have considered.

“Activists run for office regardless of what they think their chances are of winning, because really what you want to do is inform the public,” Larnell says. “In Chicago, there is a tone of established, politically affiliated officials that are jumping into this race and that makes it a little bit harder. But Ja’Mal plays a key role in just getting the youth out and mobilizing young people across the city and letting them know that: One, it’s possible for them to get involved in politics and that there is a place for them. And two, giving them a voice to speak on issues they care about. Most of the people running are older, so Ja’Mal represents an important demographic that often gets left behind in American politics.”

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We arrive at the cafe and grab a table. The coffee seems to have woken Green up a bit. In an hour, he has to do an interview at a local television station. His time stumping as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run has helped him hone his messaging for the cameras.

“I learned a lot being a surrogate for Bernie Sanders,” Green says. “The problems that we’re suffering from in Chicago is all over the country. That’s one of the things I learned: Communities of color and minority communities all over the country have similar problems that need to be addressed. That’s why I joined his campaign—because, as an activist at that time, I was like, ‘I ain’t in no politics.’ Bernie Sanders was the only one that could pull me in,” he continues.

Green grew up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, one of the poorest communities in the city. He saw it all growing up—from hiding behind bushes while witnessing people being shot to watching shootouts right outside his home. His mother could barely make ends meet at times. He was in and out of at least 12 schools, and got kicked out of nine of them for “being the class clown.”

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“I’ve seen lot in my young life,” he says in between sips of coffee. “I always vowed that if I ever made it to the age of 21, I would leave.”

At one point, he almost did leave—as early as last year, in fact. A father of two sons, ages two and three years old, Green didn’t see a good future for his family in his hometown. But over time, he saw that people were following his activism and appreciated the positive contributions he was making on behalf of the local community. In retrospect, he now thinks his desire to leave was somewhat selfish.

“I felt like if everybody did that, then where we gonna be?” he says. “We’d just leave and it’s leaving home just messed up. Somebody has to change things. Somebody has to do good for these communities.”

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Green knows people believe he doesn’t have a chance to win the election, but that doesn’t bother him. He recalls Bernie Sanders’ run, saying that the senator’s loss was actually a win and points to the progressive wave that motivated political novices to seek office—and the victories that have since followed. He’s convinced that, minimally, his run will shock the city. Even if it doesn’t end with him in City Hall, his run will inspire Chicago’s marginalized communities to engage its politicians in ways they never realized before his candidacy.

Green lists off the ways in which people will challenge their government:

“We wanted economic development. What’re we doing about this? We gonna organize. We’re gonna become activists. People are gonna start nonprofits. People are gonna get out there and make sure whoever is in their administration hears about these issues.”

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Beaming with confidence, Green appears fulfilled with his purpose for running. If anything, his run as a politician will emulate his activism on the streets, and in that sense, he is already winning.

“It’s gonna force elected officials to pay attention,” he says, “and do what’s right.”