After a lot of back and forth last week I finally made the firm decision to vote for Barack Obama for president of the United States. This was not an easy decision for me as I am 45 years old and have never in my life voted for a major party candidate for president. Why did I make this decision? Basically, it comes down to three factors: race, culture and a series of conversations that I had with my daughter who is in college and expressing her political opinions quite passionately and articulately. A little over a year ago she sent me a link to a clip of Barack Obama, asking me what I thought. Here is the unedited response I gave to her at the time: “Hey baby! what do i think? well, first of all and most importantly i think its great that you`re paying attention to the world and listening and thinking critically. as for the video, well, hmmm, how should i say this...
in the united states electoral politics is like an annual festival...something like the christmas season but only longer. a lot of packaging and ritual and rhetoric and flags and cheers and collective rallies. the truth is that none of what obama is saying is new to me. i`ve heard it over and over again from politicians since i began paying attention to the game. i`ve learned not to listen too closely to the words...all the chatter and cheerleading and such. its not that rallying emotions isn`t an important part of creating change...it is. and it isn`t that i don`t ¨like¨ obama more than hillary, whom i actually detest. but i`ve learned to look at politics from an institutional and corporate perspective. the rules and regulations that govern the american political process are so corrupt and entrenched that participating in it is absolutely the wrong way to go about effecting meaningful change. i have absolutely no confidence that barack obama, a member of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, will be able to mobilize his own constituency, let alone the house and senate, let alone the imperial judiciary, let alone the american body politic, to effect anything like the extremely radical changes that are needed to steer the united states corporate, financial, military and state establishment in a significantly new direction. unless we begin to talk about serious constitutional changes that empower people...for instance, the ability for citizens to organize a:
pleb·i·scite [pleb-uh-sahyt, -sit]
1. a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.
2. the vote by which the people of a political unit determine autonomy or affiliation with another country.
....all this rhetoric is simply a way to channel people`s hopes and dreams and potential energy AWAY from direct action, direct democracy and political empowerment into a system that is inherently disempowering. worse, it leaves the citizenry with the illusion of having participated in the process that is MOST responsible for their disempowerment. its really perverse when you get right down to it because at the end of this entire:
cha·rade Pronunciation[shuh-reyd; especially Brit. shuh-rahd] –noun
1. charades, (used with a singular verbYour browser may not support display of this image.) a game in which the players are typically divided into two teams, members of which take turns at acting out in pantomime a word, phrase, title, etc., which the members of their own team must guess
2. a word or phrase acted out in this game.
3. a blatant pretense or deception, esp. something so full of pretense as to be a travesty.
people will not have examined the platform or oppressive history of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY, the very party who brought us slavery and some of the worst, most racist, imperialist, genocidal, corporately beholden administrations and policies the world, yes, the world, has ever known. i defy you to point to a moment in time when this shameful track record was significantly altered or reformed. for obama to be running for executive office under this political system is like a jew running for the head of the nazi party, like a queer trying to be pope. already i see the subtle changes coming over obama as he struggles to fit himself into an impossible, obtuse posture that can both appeal to the living human fabric behind his rhetoric and the literally hundreds of millions of dollars -- dollars that will only expand exponentially as he ¨wins¨ more votes for the system and which do not belong to him but are ¨donated¨ to him by powerful corporate and lobbying interests with very, very specific agendas of their own...not to mention the material means to enforce their will.
i am almost more worried by obama`s charisma than i am inspired by it. one good thing that i can see coming from an obama presidency is that it may escalate the painfully slow process of people`s disillusionment, which, counter to his claims, is a given in light of the enormous crisis the united states and world is facing in this day and age. only then might we begin to take the concrete risks (including the emotional ones...attachment to country, race, money, etc.) which will open up a new world of opportunities for everyone. i also think that there is a measure of racial conciliation going on among a selective group or class of people that can be, potentially, rewarding in the long and short run. but don`t expect these fruits to play out in the political arena. mostly they will take place in the home, the schoolyard, the street, the music, etc. in other words, the socio-cultural sphere which is, at any rate, inherently political in its own way.
i have so much to say about so many things that i`m bubling over. life just keeps sweeping me along.
miss you like crazy and can`t wait to get back to the states for a live-hug and a long, endless conversation in a japanese garden over sushi and hot tea.
you kick ass.
So what has changed that would make me go into a voting booth and cast a ballot for a democratic candidate for president? In one sense, nothing. In another sense, everything.
To begin with, over the past year or so I have continued to be organized by my daughter. This was a new and phenomenal turn of events. I had always seen myself as a guiding force in her life, an articulate spokesperson for certain very important political ideals bordering on an ethical philosophy. But here I was being asked to listen to and be led by my own child. It is not unusual for us to spend between 3 to 5 hours a week on the telephone discussing life and politics. At first, I responded by expanding upon and reinforcing the arguments which I had detailed in my letter. Most of us, I am sure, are familiar with these points of view and they have been eloquently put forward by members of the hard left in different forums. These are, essentially, the principles which I have adhered to for the past 28 years of my politically conscious and active life. But as the campaign progressed and her persistence continued, I started to question this argument I was having with my own seed. My position began to sound more and more like a rigid dogma, an inflexible and ideological platform as opposed to a fluid, flexible and nuanced political perspective. I began to ask myself a very basic, fundamental and anti-utopian question: would my "group", my tribe so to speak, be moved forward and empowered by an Obama election. Would having him as president and his wife and his daughters put forward as leaders of the country, shift the terrain of race relations in the United States? Would they help to awaken and mobilize black youth and make them more organized, motivated on the grassroots level? Would it help community efforts to take on the prison industrial complex with a sense of purpose and potential and invested self-interest even if obama himself never supports the effort or says a word about it? When I debated these types of questions, very tribal questions based on self interest and power, I began to say yes, it would. Furthermore, this is a very different answer than I would come up with had I been asking the same set of questions regarding a Gore or Kerry vote. On the real. I'm thinking and talking about race, community and inter-generational legacies.
My daughter is feeling passionate about politics. My daughter is telling me what she thinks might work or AT THE VERY LEAST be a meaningful step in the right direction for her life. Given that reality, who am I not to support her? And no, I can't imagine her, as a young woman of color, stepping to me with the same passion (different from conviction, which seems to imply certainty in outcomes which my daughter isn't so naive as to claim) for a Gore, a Kerry, a Hillary Clinton. My generation of purist, idealist, anti-establishment political resistance, essentially, fucked it up. I’m not arguing that the struggle is over or that I/we have been wrong in the courage of our convictions and the stances we’ve taken. I am proud and unrepentant that I not only didn’t vote for Clinton, Bush or Gore but that I was on the streets in Washington DC putting my body and voice on the line at his inauguration. I am proud of every minute and hour and day that I have spent in jail as a result of direct action against this exploitive, criminal political system and virus of capital in both its local and international forms. We’ve made a mark and had some high points, and I do not think that I/we have been, for the most part, on the side of the people who have done the screwing up of things. But our inability to mobilize an effective resistance to local and global forces of domination does sort of make me feel like I should at least have the humility to listen to the youth…the generation whose shoulders will bear the burden of my/our ineffective political strategies, strategies which have allowed the ushering in and continuance of domestic and international fascisms. I include in this critique my/our to date failed anarchist strategies of divestment from any direct involvement and thus complicity in the state be it through voting, visible and verbal forms of affirmation of the system and/or rejecting every-day “normalized” forms of hegemonic subordination to its rule (not paying more taxes than absolutely necessary, using situationist artistic interventions, etc.) In other words, I believe there is a social movement dynamic to Obama's campaign that on many days, or at certain moments at any rate, transcend him as a politician or any of his given policy positions. For me, supporting and encouraging this “new” alignment is worthy of my affirmation and, yes, vote.
The other major thing that has changed for me is that I recently moved from the North-East to the state of Ohio. As many of you know, this is considered a “swing” state. They will tell you that it represents the middle of the road America, the 50/50 America, the heart of the “real” America. In truth, this is a deeply conservative, racially divided and I would go so far as to say racist state. It is racist in the old-school, segregationist way. The Sundown Town and lawn jockey way. Although I am not naïve and have lived and passed time in many parts of the country, being here has allowed me a unique window into just how deeply race is still being used to mobilize the right-wing, conservative base of American populism.
I can assure you that here in the North Mid-West, and particularly on campus, the energy being stimulated by the Obama campaign is practically the ONLY collective action and social movement inspiring and mobilizing the youth on a large scale...which is the level we are talking about when it comes to presidential politics. The campaign is providing a platform for an interracial alliance that is largely middle class but is also trans-class and trans-racial. In other words, like it or not, this is where the action is at the moment. I wish it weren't so, but it is. Right now, I can't imagine starting a campaign on this campus to for instance, try to get the military recruiters and ROTC off of the school grounds. Now, it’s true, most certainly, that Obama sure won't come out and support such a campaign, but the question remains if I think that the experience of tearing down this monumental race barrier in a presidential election through the kind of political mobilization these kids are launching, can translate into other forms of direct action? Out here in Ohio, voters who come from a line of republicans dating back to Goldwater, and most certainly Nixon and Reagan, are either voting Obama or seriously considering it. Whites who have NEVER been in social situations with black folk are beginning to dialogue around issues of economic justice and U.S. foreign policy. And again, I do think that it’s about more than simply Obama’s political platform being so right wing: Although that certainly doesn't hurt. I think it comes from a moment of shock and dawning awareness among many varying sectors of American society that previous ideologies and processes are broken, founded on lies, deeply corrupt, etc. These are, most certainly, things, realities, observations, facts, whatever, which “we” have been arguing since Emma G. stood up in Union Square and the IWW barnstormed across the nation. But, again, let me say that my own personal belief is that for whatever reasons (and I, as I am sure you do as well, have many ideas about why this is the case) our alternative programs have not been able to gain traction either within our local communities or across the nation. We have not been able to mobilize the creative and political imaginations of a critical mass of folk. I do sense, however, that we may be witnessing the beginning of a process across the nation which is manifesting in alliances that at this moment are coalescing around Barack Obama and his campaign. There is no guarantee that all of this energy will end with an Obama victory, and for me this is almost beside the point, but my question is whether an Obama election and the type of organizing work that is being done on the campaign itself will move this energy forward, help people recognize the power of collective action and their ability to break down walls that once seemed impervious.
One of the most powerful reasons that led me to my decision to vote for Obama concerns this history of white supremacy and its deep-seeded role in mobilizing the American electorate. While an Obama presidency will not end the war in Afghanistan, it may begin to signal the fracture of one of the most important political struggles, wars in point-of- fact, that have been waged over the racist nature of American populism and this country’s nativist alignments in regards to national politics. Although we may not always have worked hand-in-hand, this struggle unifies white radicals, the poor, immigrants, black Americans, Native Americans and citizens overseas who feel the brunt of “our” hostile frontier warrior culture. On Friday I taught a lecture on the history of white militia violence in the 19th and first half of the twentieth century. In it, I sought to demonstrate the relationship between the state and capital in bringing about the ethnic cleansing of the land and the social, political and economic disenfranchisement of people of color. I show some rather brutal images of lynching and the remains of racially cleansed black communities…towns like Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921 and Springfield, Illinois, where Obama launched his campaign in honor of Lincoln without mentioning the brutal, savage events of 1908 that witnessed the murder and exodus of its black citizens.
In the United States, race is political and domestic racial politics has international consequences. Racism comprises the foundation of a white populism that has driven the American political system ever since the slave owner Thomas Jefferson wrote his racist screed, Notes On the State of Virginia with quite possibly the very same quill pen he used to compose the Declaration of Independence...all while maintaining a 38 year interracial relationship with a black slave which began when she was 14 and with whom he had five children. Racism, slavery and genocide were the foundation of Andrew Jackson's particular brand of Populist/Nativism in the 1820s, 30s and 40s which unified the white colonial population at the expense of intensifying laws and acts of violence against rebellious slaves and the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans -- the Chickasaw, the Choctow, the Creeks, the Seminole and the Cherokee -- from their homelands in the American southeast to Indian Territory in what is now the state of Oklahoma. After the civil war, white Nativism and populism formed the basis of the racial terror used against blacks to insure their exclusion from the political and economic resources of the nation. These same white, racist populists were the foot soldiers who were called upon to execute the massacres, i.e., the genocide of Native Americans during the entirety of the 19th century, peeking with the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and continuing through multiple forms of subordination and genocidal policies.
For sure, no doubt, make no confusion; this racist populism/Nativism was and remains absolutely central to the construction of U.S. Imperialism. In the late 1890s and early 20th century populist Nativism mobilized the white domestic population to gather behind Teddy Roosevelt's “Rough Riders” who charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba and to support the imperial expansion into Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam and the Caroline Islands in the Pacific. It was behind the taming and theft of Panama and Central America. A white populace unified around racialist ideologies formed the rank-and-file, the bulwark of Woodrow Wilson's imperialistic expansion during and after WWI. It is no mistake that Wilson gave DW Griffith’s wildly popular racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation a stunning endorsement and refused to stage any meaningful intervention into the escalating practice of lynching and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing being carried out by white nationalists. Officially, nearly 4,000 blacks were killed during this reign of racial terror, but we know the figure is much higher. From the 19th century until at least the mid 1950s, illicit white racist organizations were integrated into mainstream political and civil organizations from the chamber of commerce to local police departments. At least five U.S. presidents -- President Warren G. Harding, President Woodrow Wilson, President McKinley, President Calvin Coolidge, and President Harry S. Truman – were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Not until the civil rights movement did this overt structure of white power, of white supremacy begin to crack. And even then, it saw a dramatic yet rhetorically more subtle resurgence with the neo-conservative movement which emerged in direct and proportional response to the Civil Rights Movement. It began with Barry Goldwater's racist, red-baiting and xenophobic campaign of 1964 and grabbed a measure of respectability and political power with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. We must be clear about understanding that the rise of the New Right was a direct result of the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts which occurred during the Lyndon Johnson Administration. The passage of these acts fractured the Democratic Party and fed the dominance of the New Right. Although this New Right saw its fortunes wobble briefly in the late 70s, white populists regained their footing with a vengeance, giving rise to the ascendancy of the Reagan regime, AKA administration. This power block of right wing fundamentalists, militarists and racists mobilized the domestic population to retrench affirmative action, begin the construction of the prison industrial complex, sever the social contract for health care and domestic infrastructure and, as we all know, launch particularly aggressive military campaigns against people of color around the globe.
This is the legacy I believe the Obama campaign has the ability to challenge and I see my vote in these terms. I am not so naïve as to believe that an Obama administration can completely overturn this history or that it will necessarily even try to do so explicitly. These issues are bigger than Obama or the specific policies he will initiate over the next four years…although his decisions and actions will certainly not be inconsequential. But in observing the reaction of the right wing of this country I have noticed a desperate, almost panicked appeal to a very old, tried and true Nativist rhetoric and sentiments that rest upon the foundation of militant white supremacy. And no, I do not think that a black candidate like Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell would elicit the same sharp reaction among whites that we see being expressed by the prospect of an Obama presidency. We may, just may, be witnessing the slow dying pangs of this radical right movement and I, for one, want to help usher it into the grave. I’m not sure if this is true, of course, but the prospect of it being so is certainly worth my vote for this particular election cycle.
I cannot emphasize enough how effected my family -- the Jones', the Browns, the Senters, the Jacksons -- have been terrorized and dominated by the domestic reality of racial dictatorship. It is not an abstract history but a deeply personal one. In the past I have only, and this even rarely and ambivalently, voted for third-party fringe candidates. I remain a deep critic and opponent of the United States government’s policies at home and abroad. When I see the American flag, it often makes my stomach churn. In my mind’s eye I see it waving over the cavalry who slaughtered my people, the Pamunkey, the Chikahominy and Cherokee Indians. I see it legitimizing the slavery and Jim Crow segregation of my African American ancestors. I hold it and the white populists who bore it accountable for the ongoing economic, psychological, intellectual and physical violence I see in segregated and militarized neighborhoods of color throughout the country. I hold it accountable for the mental illness that took my mother, who was born under legal apartheid, from me as a child. This year I buried my grandmother, our matriarch, who was born in Memphis Tennessee in 1915. While she was alive, she told me of the hardships she endured as a light skinned woman of color growing up in this country. Her husband, my grandfather, who was born in St. Louis Missouri in 1908, made his living first by working as a steward on the railroads...you’ve seen him before, the one in old movies from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s whose white coated arm reaches into the frame to hand the white lead characters a glass of wine or something. After moving north he and his brothers made their living shining white people's shoes and handing out towels to white patrons in the restrooms of fancy New York City nightclubs like the Copacabana for tips. A man of incredible dignity and poise, he was forced to make his money bowing, smiling and subordinating himself in a bathroom for a living. Both of my other grandparents were born in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the southern confederate government during the civil war. When I consider what my elders would say if I asked them how and whether to vote in this election, the answer is clear and unequivocal.
As someone with deep roots in THIS country I see my struggle as being not only against the government, but against the white, racist, nativist, xenophobes who are at this very moment struggling to rearticulate themselves into a power bloc and who I can see are in a state of near panic over the new demographic alignments that have taken place in U.S. society since the hard earned passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act laid the legal foundation for overturning the exclusive, white European basis of immigration policy which is now so radically altering the ethnic composition of the nation. My decision to vote for Obama is a response to this war for the domestic heart and soul of the United States and not an endorsement of the United States government itself. On the bright side, I hope that this means my politics are not dogmatic, ideological and rigid; that they are flexible and can adapt to changing political realities and circumstances. At its darkest, it may mark a capitulation to a power structure which I loathe; an exhausted betrayal of a value system that honors autonomy, direct action and local, grassroots consensus based decision making.
In the meantime, let me just repeat that this is not an endorsement of Obama for president. It is merely my explanation for why I have decided to cast my skeptical vote for him this time around. You may or may not agree with my decision. I completely understand.
In solidarity and struggle,
voice AkA dAlton