Revolution #155, February 8, 2009
Staging an Intervention with Victims of Obama-Mania in D.C.
Editor’s note: Amidst Inauguration "Obama-Mania" Revolution distributors challenged people to Stop thinking like Americans! Start thinking about humanity! Right in the midst of Barack Obama’s inauguration they struggled with people TO OPPOSE THE CRIMES OF U.S. EMPIRE, SUCH AS IS NOW HAPPENING GAZA, EVEN IF "RE-BRANDED" BY OBAMA. In addition to correspondence already posted at revcom.us, Revolution received the following reports on this experience.
A Political Intervention Indeed
The experiences of the week before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the commander in chief of the U.S. empire as well as the inauguration itself were quite profound. This was a political intervention indeed and we had some effect but the patient is obviously reeling. I was part of a small team that went to the "WE ARE ONE" concert on Sunday Jan 18. Confronted by media people I told them "We are not one! We live in a society, world and a system where a handful of people control all the wealth and power and use it to accumulate more wealth and power to themselves. They commit atrocities all over the world like these endless wars for empire so that they can continue to exploit the people of the world. Obama is recruiting people into service to this empire. Revolution newspaper is here to tell people to get off the Obama-lade, Stop Thinking Like Americans and Start Thinking about Humanity!" All day that concentrated the type of agitation we took to the people.
Once in the National Mall we spoke to crowds of people. While I was speaking to one group about the plans of the imperialists for war and aggression around the world a Black man jumped up soon to be joined by another singing "My Country Tis of Thee." I had fun with this especially when he got to talking about the "Land of the Pilgrim's Pride." "Do you know who the pilgrims were? Do you know what they did? They participated in the slaughter of the Native people to clear the way for this so-called greatest country in the world..." Some others started singing "We Shall Overcome" Widespread debate broke out over Gaza with some people saying, "The Israelis are wrong to be killing innocent people." Others would say, "They (the Israelis) just got tired of having somebody lobbing bombs at them..." "God gave that land to them". One older Black man who clearly respected what we were doing tried to argue that the Israelis have a settler regime and stole the land from the Palestinians. In the midst of this one or two people gave donations of $5 and distribution of the paper was clearly spurred by the controversy. Overwhelmingly most people did not want to hear us but we got a lot of debate and struggle going. A number of people both out of curiosity and really wanting to look into what we were saying and challenging them with took the newspaper. This stuff was thick but it was not impenetrable. Even the guy who initially stood up to sing ended up taking a newspaper. He said, "You know I understand what you're saying. But this is a celebration!" In response to my arguments he would eventually say, "You gotta give the brother a chance!"
This was typical of much of the experience but frankly a lot of times people struggled mightily to not hear us at all. Of those with whom we did engage more than 75% (at least) had some variety of the "You gotta give him a chance" logic. "We gotta see what he's gonna do!" It was a mighty struggle pointing out to people the ample basis that exists for evaluation based on what Obama has actually said and done. Most people had/have no idea about his AIPAC speech or his comment in the Israeli city of Siderot (remarks about protecting his daughters to justify Israeli atrocities). No one knew about his comments in the wake of the Sean Bell verdict (that people should respect the verdict of the court letting Sean Bell’s killers get off). This was mostly true of those whom would actually talk with us. I witnessed some but not a great deal of people openly adopting reactionary positions (the guys who said that god gave Palestine to the Israelis) but for the most part those types of people were relatively quiet or just glared at us. The Obamalade drinkers ranged from the truly intoxicated to those with "contact highs."
An incident that took place outside Ben's Chili Bowl restaurant focused on how people are being manipulated into bad places through all of this. There was a line of about 50 or more people waiting to get inside. We had a bullhorn and were talking to the people about Gaza among other things and how Obama is promising to surge troops into Afghanistan and expand the war in the Middle East. Quite a few people were hostile to us. People who might have been inclined to give us a hearing were intimidated into silence like one Black man who actually called me over wanting a paper when he heard the agitation. The group he was with, in particular the woman who appeared to be his wife or partner, was irate. She actually snatched the money from his hand. After a few minutes of back and forth like this he actually tossed me a dollar but his wife refused to allow him to take a paper though he clearly wanted it. A Black woman of about 40 years old was one of the "less hostile people" and she started saying, "I know all those troops don't need to be over there! They need to be right here in these streets making them safe for these young people out here..." And she started to walk away. I caught up with her down the street and asked, "Do you really mean that the you think that U.S. troops should be patrolling the streets? You think they will be here to protect us? That's not what these troops do. This is what they do!" And I opened to the centerfold piece on the U.S. backed invasion of Gaza. She immediately backed off her statement and we were able to talk further. I learned that she was a teacher and along with her concern for the well being of the youth was her desire that they be taught the truth. She's one of these people with a "contact high." People are being led into places that they don't really want to go. We have to lead them out of these places.
I spent most of the day of the inauguration in McPherson Square where a variety of Peace activists and progressives were gathered. This included groups like Code Pink, Amnesty International, D.C. Witness for Peace, SDS, ISO and World Can't Wait. With the exception of World Can’t Wait and folks calling for an end to Guantánamo Bay Concentration Camp we were the only force that I saw that included actual opposition to the active crimes of imperialism and no one was confronting Barack Obama's role as an imperialist spokesperson outside of our newspaper. I did meet a young man from the Congo who now lives in Toronto who came to hand out small leaflets that he'd written denouncing the role of the U.S. in the ongoing civil war in the Congo.
More typical of the approach that most of these activists had towards Obama and these events was concentrated on a huge banner displayed by Code Pink. It read: "YES WE CAN! HELP PRESIDENT OBAMA MAKE PEACE!" and included a dramatic image of Martin Luther King in fiery discourse. (His fist in the air) One of the groups was encouraging people to fill out placards that read "Dear Mr. President, I Hope for___" and you would fill in the blank. Examples posted around hoped for a variety of things lke, "Peace," "National Health Care," "end the war in Gaza," "bring the troops home" etc.. National Health Care was clearly a major issue which seems to be a rallying point of progressive forces. Some people were actively promoting the programs and health care systems of other imperialist countries of Europe and Canada. It led to interesting discussions when I pointed out to people that these programs were based on imperialist relations of production and exist on the basis of this global system of exploitation. Most of these folks had either not thought about this at all or very little. One said to me that it was a way to start and he suggested that "We should start by loving and caring for the people right around us and spreading that to the rest of the world step by step. I asked if this coverage would include immigrants who've been driven here by the anarchy of the system of capitalism. He said, "That's a problem."
Flashing Back to Jena, Louisiana
It was just very real out there. Back in the ’60s, white folks were telling Black folks all the time to shut the fuck up, and how this is “the best of all possible countries,” and if you don't like this shit then get the fuck out and go back to Africa. And at the Obama inauguration, this is what Black people were telling us; this is stuff you thought you'd never see.
I was flashing back to Jena, Louisiana, where thousands of people were out in the street protesting the hanging of the nooses at the high school, and what all that conjured up around Jim Crow and lynching. And then there's all these millions of people out in DC acting like that never happened.
I've been to DC, I can't count the number of times, for protests and demonstrations, and I've always walked away with a lot of different materials in my pocket, different materials from the left. And nobody was out there. You think about DC, it's almost crazy that people are not handing you political literature. This was an eerie kind of thing there, with nobody else actually out there. And then we got out there, got out into the heat of things and struggled with people about all of this shit.
Another thing is the question of revolution. When we raised that, the response over and over again was THIS IS a revolution. In the context of that, struggling with people to recognize that this is another Black face in a high place, representing the same motherfucking system. This is where the newspaper plays a very important role—maybe not at that moment but as people go back home or whatever. And the agitation did a lot of that as well, around these misconceptions they're caught up in. And then think about Bob Avakian's work—the piece that ran in the paper about “Obama: Playing the Trump Card?” the “Communism & Jeffersonian Democracy” talk and so on—you begin to appreciate that more and more. For example, understanding the concept of striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, even among the oppressed—that this is a very powerful pull, and it's not even spontaneous, this is a conscious thing on the part of people to actually go there before anywhere else. A lot of people who've been disillusioned by this system and society, people who've known better in the past, went there with the Obama election. It was like damn! And then the whole freaking left tailed it. And if you don't have that understanding and if you're not in the midst of fighting it—then not just the masses but the conscious element can become paralyzed in the face of all that shit.
Some Thoughts on Spreading Revolution at the Inauguration in DC
Being in DC for the inauguration of Barack Obama couldn't have brought home in any sharper relief the point from Lenin that Bob Avakian has been emphasizing, about how spontaneously the masses strive to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie.
There were a lot of different kinds of people in DC, but it did seem mainly middle class people, both white and Black. For example, at the concert on Sunday, “Obama: We Are One,” which aired on HBO and featured all kinds of pop culture icons like Jamie Foxx, Tom Hanks, Garth Brooks, Stevie Wonder, Denzel Washington, and many, many more, the crowd was maybe 2/3 white, overwhelmingly middle class. There were images of Obama everywhere throughout our time there. For example, there was this young Black guy, with his dreads up in his red, black and green hat, on the National Mall. He was flying a kite that was maybe 7-foot-wide, with Obama's picture on it. It was really weird walking around on Monday, the day before the Inauguration—you're in Washington, DC, the heart of this imperialist monster with all these federal and State Department buildings and whatever, there's people carrying and selling red, white and blue stuff everywhere you look, and you're at the Washington Monument with all that stands for in terms of the foundations of slavery of this country…and there’s a Bob Marley song being played over the loudspeakers and jumbotron tv screens, and we're being drowned out by Sheryl Crowe and Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi singing Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
I can't emphasize enough how much it really mattered that we went out very boldly and very straight up against all this, with the real deal about the change that Obama actually represents and the real revolution that's needed. This, suffice it to say, was VERY “against the tide.” This is something we were trying to get right and summing up as we were going along and trying to deepen. But I do think we had a collective understanding of what we were aiming to accomplish, which in large part was 1) planting a revolutionary pole in the middle of this madness, straight into the teeth of this thing, and trying to win people concretely to a revolutionary position on the spot and draw forward the best of people who should, or once did, know better, 2) aiming to influence people and having a strategic sense that we were speaking to people and shaping how they might respond to events down the road, even if it wasn’t immediate, and 3) trying to learn about the sentiments of people concretely, etc.
I think both our spirit of defiance going straight into this patriotic awfulness, and the response of the majority of the people, are captured in the following scene: This was a situation where people were waiting to get into the National Mall for the inauguration itself on Tuesday. We got there super-early and still were not able to get in. Many, many thousands of people were lined up outside of the mall at different points, trying to get in through the security checkpoints. One crowd we went out to never did get through because the mall was already filled. So people were just swarming in and standing and waiting, and one of our people got up on a dumpster and held up a giant poster (from the issue #154 of Revolution) that said “Uncle Bam Wants You to Serve the American Empire...Don't Do It!” and started speaking to the crowd. A lot of what we were getting into was how the real change that was going on with Obama’s presidency was that you, and millions like you, who should know or once knew better, are now getting sucked back into this same imperialist system which is a nightmare for people here and all over the world.
I guess this was partially or mainly a religious crowd who had come together and just been rallied by their preacher, and they chanted first that they wanted their preacher to speak and drown our person out. Then they started basically chanting “Shut him up!” and “Yes we can!” Our agitator talked about how he imagined this is the way “good Germans” would have responded, and how that “Yes we can” bullshit was a really incredible three syllable analysis! But as he looked around—and those of us distributing the newspaper and trying to raise money could see this too—there were individuals among the crowd scattered here and there who had a look in their eyes that indicated there was something about what he was saying—the reality that this system is still in place, and what this red, white and blue is actually about—that resonated with them. And he aimed his agitation to those people, saying look, you in the purple hat, or you with the glasses, or whatever like that—you know better. This is the kind of non-thinking, patriotic shit you are getting pulled into. You have to do something about this, and you can't just go along and be silent. He meant this both concretely on the spot as well as in a more overall sense, and I think this really had an effect on those people. Overall that crowd didn't want much to do with us and would get very angry at us for being “party poopers” or whatever and supposedly spoiling the celebration, but then there were these pockets of people.
And I do want to say that having had some more in-depth discussion with some of those kinds of people, one thing that stood out very, very sharply was that for those who did have at least more of a concern about people losing their critical faculties over Obama, or who did understand more about what America actually is about—there was both a big tendency to disconnect the person of Obama from this system, as well as an abysmal lack of understanding that people getting drawn to Obama was something very, very dangerous.
Also it was very helpful when Carl Dix talked about how when he was growing up in the ’60s and when Malcolm X and the Black Panthers came around, he tried to keep his distance and was actually scared of them. But then further along when he found himself on a bus on his way to basic training for the U.S. Army, he started to think about what they had been saying about how our fight isn't over in Vietnam but right here in the USA. You think about that, and how some of these youth out there in DC were really reading the Uncle Bam poster, and how 9,000 who people went home with this paper—and I think that made a difference, and could make a difference down the road, that there were revolutionaries out there saying that the illusions around Obama was dangerous. Now yes, we have a lot more work to do, but I think we also have to appreciate that going straight into the teeth of something like that was important, as so much was concentrated there at that moment.
Looking later at the inauguration speech by Obama, I thought this was a highly ideological speech. It starts with this whole thing about the storms to come in the world, and renewing the American dream, and this really spoke to people. For example, I talked with this white, sort of college-aged dude, and he and his friends were just elated walking in the streets after hearing this speech. I had run out of newspapers at that point and I was kind of “incognito” so to speak, and I just said to this kid, “Hey, I didn't get to catch the speech, what did you think?” He said it was absolutely wonderful—I don't know if I've ever seen a young white guy like this ever be so openly enthusiastic about something, except for the religious lunatics—and he said that Obama had basically said that the revolution was not over and the struggle continues from here. Now, I hadn't heard the speech so I had to ask this kid, “wait, did he actually use those words?!?!” And he said no, of course Obama was much more eloquent. When I asked him for specifics, he talked about how Obama laid out that the day of rule with an iron fist was over, and that it was time for America to go out and lend a hand to the world and lead the world through diplomacy. And how Obama is going to work with leaders from other countries who want to work together, and not be afraid to get tough on the dictators out there. My first reaction was to say to this kid: come on, you have to read between the lines! What right does America have to go out and run the planet? And he's getting you ready to go out and further the whole war of aggression in the Middle East and wherever else! With that, the kid got mad and forced his way away from me in the crowd. But his friend said he would google Revolution newspaper as well as search for “Obama + AIPAC” on Youtube. I don't know if that kid who walked off ever knew better, frankly—he's part of the generation we have to reach—but this is a key section of people Obama was aiming to reach, and was reaching, and you could see how ideological an effect this had. It wasn't just a political program (although it was that too), but it was, on a very high level, about what America means and what it means to be an American, and that this is something fantastic and unprecedented for humanity.
Another young person, a Black woman in her ‘20s (basically a Black nationalist who wasn't fully consolidated into any particular political program) who we talked to at the “Obama: We Are One” concert, was wearing a Michelle Obama pin. (If there was something you could think of associated with Barack Obama, there was a pin that you could buy on the street for that.) We had a whole longer debate with her and her friend, and an older Black guy who came up and was jumping in. And it was really deep because while the older guy was mad about the “Uncle Bam” poster (he kept going, “you're trashing Barack!”), she didn't really have a problem with it. And she condemned Obama's positions on Afghanistan and Gaza, along with other parts of his political program. She basically didn't think he was any good on one level, and she saw that he is now the head of this same system, founded on slavery as well as the continuing oppression of Black and other people. But she was extremely proud of him; she spoke lovingly about how he's a Black man who was able to “win at the game.” This was why she felt he gave symbolic hope and pride for people—it was kind of along the lines of, a Black man beat the white man at his own game. We got into a lot of things with her, like okay so now it's a Black man at the top—but there may be more slaves alive on the planet today than two centuries ago (according to the book Disposable People by Kevin Bales). There's all this sweatshop labor and people starving in Africa. And it's this man who's now at the top of the system that puts people in that misery. What is there to be proud of about that? We got into sharply with her how he proved to those who really run things that he can best serve their interests—by pulling people who should know better right back into, or for the first time into, this “American dream” with all the horrors that means for the people of the planet. We struggled with her about her Michelle Obama pin and how she shouldn't wear it if she knew better, that this was harmful and went along with all of the above. And one of us got into it with her about how Michelle Obama is putting forward a whole image of what it should mean to be a woman in this society: leave behind being a lawyer and get back where you can make the most meaningful difference—in the home, as a wife and mother.
Through all this, I got a deepened sense of the “Obama package” – as people see it: he's the first Black president, he's rational, he's a good speaker, he's good looking, he's young and virile, he's got a beautiful wife and gorgeous children, he's a man of the people, he was a grassroots organizer. He's a whole package for people, and he's speaking to people that “we're going forward, together, into a whole new era.” And I think this is much of what we were aiming to divert.
We learned a lot about how to do more compelling agitation through this whole thing where we were in these massive swarms of people (I mean MASSIVE). There's so much content in the paper that you can wield in that regard—actually draw out the debates, right there on the spot. I think we were most effective when we got a scene going and sparked debate, and actually got people to raise their questions. Some of what they raised was very bad. We all kept noting how there were all these Black people telling us, if we hated it so much, we should just get out of the country! There was one debate in front of the Washington memorial, where this Black middle-aged guy was going, “There's no other country in the world that's as wonderful as this country, and why would you want to live somewhere else—why?! This is the best we can hope for.” He really couldn't get beyond this, and we had to go there with him and get into it. And when we did our best, we were actually joining things on a high level.
One thing I think we have to do a lot better at is speaking to people like that white college kid, and this whole spirit of wanting to serve something higher than your narrow self-interest, especially in such tumultuous times. Now there's some stuff where Obama was pretty self-exposing in his speech, where he talked about how military service is the highest form of that. On one level, I think, that is self-exposing, but on another level, given the circumstances, you actually have to get into that, because this whole “support the troops” thing is really rampant and even heightened in some ways now—with people feeling like, yes, this is a “good war gone bad” and we're going to get back to rooting out the evil in the world and what the war was supposed to be about, etc. But, for example, when we were agitating on bullhorns or speaking to people about the point from the Revolution editorial “The Promise of Change, the Rules of the System…And the Real Revolution We Need” (issue #153) on John F. Kennedy—how he said “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and how you'll soon learn that the service to which you are being called for is the service for U.S. imperialism—people, especially the youth, really don't know what the real deal was on the Peace Corps, for example, and I think we had trouble connecting the dots for people in this regard. And I think this is actually very, very important.
When we were speaking about the need for communist revolution, this actually speaks to that spirit in some direct and indirect ways, especially when we bring real content to that. But that's another place where I think we could have done better in the agitation. For example, the second part of the article on the housing crisis which goes into how housing could be transformed under socialism (“The Housing Crisis, the Capitalist System, and the Better—Communist—Way,” #153), is something we could have brought in more. And I think there's a lot to both the concrete material as well as the whole approach to the second half or so of the recent special issue of Revolution, “The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System...and the Revolution We Need,” which gets into very concretely, and in vivid and understandable ways, how the revolution and a new revolutionary society could actually solve the pressing problems of today. I think this has to infuse what we're stepping out with to people both around “Obama-mania” and in a more overall way.
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