The New Obama Nation
The New Obama Nation: A Progressive Viewpoint
Our personal journey to the 56th Inauguration.
by Judy Ramsey,
with a little unsolicited editorializing by Paul Barrow
"Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." - Abraham Lincoln
Our route along Interstate 40 on January 16th took us directly to Nashville, where we changed vehicles, and climbed into Paul Barrow's rusty old 1979 GMC van, with which we could carry a million pounds of warm clothing, blankets, apples Jean had brought along, Paul's video gear, which he never used even once, and some tall Starbucks coffee mugs, which we kept hot all the time. There were just four of us. Huti and Jean and myself were from Oklahoma. Our intent was to tap into the grassroots energy of Obama supporters in order to promote progressive issues and keep them front and center.
Paul assured us that the van was in fine shape, of course. Newer captain's chairs and a nice plush bench seat had been added just recently, and he had tuned it up, and darkened the windows, either to funk it up, provide a little privacy in the boondocks of eastern Tennessee, or, to perhaps disguise certain proclivities. And we might have set off with a kind of optimism and energy not felt for a very long time had it not been for the fact that the van could hardly make it away from the curb in front of his house. It was like being in that Magic Bus of our youth, headed out to change the world, only with a headache, a severe case of bronchitis, and a serious hangover. In fact, Paul had sprayed a bunch of "cleaner," he called it, into the carburetor, and the engine just wasn't going to digest all of it all at one time. Nothing serious, supposedly. But something told me that we might be stuck somewhere with an overhaul and a huge bill before we made it back.
With a lot more wheezing and coughing, we finally got on the road. Fifteen miles down the interstate, in Mt. Juliet, a small suburban bedroom community of Nashville, we exited the freeway to a Waffle House where we could pull up beneath a strong light in a parking lot. The fan belt wouldn't stop squeaking. While, inexplicably, there in the midnight hour, two girls fought bare knuckled in the parking lot, writhing on the pavement like two hogs in heat, with their boyfriends egging them on, Paul got out, seemingly unperturbed, with his yard-long crowbar and a wrench and went to work, tightening the belt. The squealing noise and the girls seemed mostly to go away after that, but not without an occasional whine at an exit ramp along the freeway. So we were off to take on the great big world of presidential inaugurations and a celebration the likes and grandeur of which none of us had ever contemplated before.
With the van having quieted itself at last, for the time being at least, we made a few miles. After a brief rest in Roanoke, Virginia, the following morning we made a loop up near Washington D.C. on Interstate 66, and then circled back down toward Richmond, Virginia, and the beautiful home of Andrea Miller. Andrea is a progressive Democrat, a member of United Progressives, and a woman who proved to be the kind of hostess one would expect to be entertaining presidents, not our rag tag bunch. Her home was nothing less than a page out of Architectural Digest. Paul seemed reluctant to even park in her driveway. And obviously, with that old van, I was sure that we were going to get arrested just for being on the street in her neighborhood. (A couple of nights later, we were in fact approached by the police, lights flashing, wanting to know what we were up to, while we were stopped in the vicinity, looking at a map, and trying to find our way back to Andrea's.)
Andrea does in fact entertain various elected officials from time to time, and had won more than 40 percent of the vote as a candidate herself for the 4th Congressional district of Virginia in a runoff with her Republican opponent this past election. She is contemplating a run in 2010 again. Her home would be our base of operations while in the D.C. area.
On Monday, January 19th, Martin Luther King day, our first stop was Busboys and Poets, by far the most popular progressive watering hole in DC, at 14th and V. Howard Zinn will hold a talk there this coming February 2nd. While we were there, Jean and Huti had a chance to visit with Alice Walker (The Color Purple) later that day. Busboys and Poets was founded by Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American artist, who named the restaurant in honor of black poet Langston Hughes. Hughes, according to Wikipedia, "worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel in the 1930s, prior to gaining recognition as a poet." That's where we left the van for the rest of the day.
Before joining the peace and impeachment community to toss shoes on the White House lawn, we had an opportunity to talk to a long line of people waiting to get into Busboys, and handed out several of our cards. It was there, also, that we quickly began seeing the distinctions between African Americans supporting Obama, and the white progressives standing in line. Only a small percentage of the African Americans would admit to being progressive or accept our card while the majority of whites did. That isn't said in an attempt to isolate African Americans as a race, or progressives, for that matter, but rather to point out the particular illusions that commonly face progressives in attempting, as we were, to advance the progressive cause. There is a strong tendency among whites, because of the civil rights era, to lump African Americans together with progressives, along with all the socialist tendencies of the latter, and this is completely off the mark. African Americans excited about Obama were excited not because he has expressed progressive views but because he has brought to fruition the dream of Martin Luther King of a day when blacks can share in a world of racial equality and political power. But racial equality and political power don't automatically translate into support for single payer universal health care or concern for global warming or ending the war. That distinction made all the difference in what we could expect from the inauguration of Barack Obama in spreading the progressive message.
At Lafayette Park, adjoining the White House, we found David Swanson corralled by the lens of a video journalist, doing an interview, and we were late for the shoe throwing, We only happened upon the scene as they hauled the shoes away in a small utility vehicle. We hadn't given ourselves sufficient time to get there. It was still a great experience, however. We stopped to chat with Colonel (Retired) Ann Wright (co-author of Dissent: Voices of Conscience: Government Insiders Speak Out Against the War in Iraq) and to have our picture taken there on Pennsylvania Ave. It was a good occasion to talk with several people about United Progressives and give them our card, and despite the setback we've suffered with the suspension of our website just as we were on the road, returning home, we believe that the benefits of getting out our message to unite will be rewarded by our singular will to persist and prevail and to unite progressives.
One of the feelings I clung to is that it was difficult for me to celebrate the fact that George Bush would soon be gone, with all the potential for revisionist history that is likely to occur as his presidential legacy is washed over. Bush is counting on history to vindicate him somehow. He belongs in the Hague, where all the other war criminals have been sent. I couldn't be happy that he could simply walk away with no accountability and no justice for the sake of some kind of perceived unity. After years of advocating for impeachment, I resolved to continue the pressure for criminal prosecution.
After some interviewing with independent journalists and photo ops, Paul and I started the long cold walk from the White House to view the Lincoln Memorial while Jean and Huti returned to Busboys where their opportunities appeared to be much more entertaining than ours. The stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial was still set from the day before (see YouTube video) with Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, and many others, so it was quite a long maneuver into the building. We somehow managed to not only see it, but to be reminded of some of Lincoln's greatest quotes. Obama's swearing in on the Lincoln Bible became much more profound with the words
"Allow all the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and only that, is self government."
I felt in Obama's message that this was our victory and not his alone. The turnout for his election, and now for this inauguration, had been a people's event. The aura and excitement of people getting so involved in politics is hard to dismiss. The YouTube video referenced above also depicts quite clearly how this whole event had probably become perhaps the biggest moment of black pride in the history of America. It was theirs to claim, and somehow it seemed appropriate later, on inauguration day, that we stand back as much as possible and just allow what it was to be, and to experience it for what it was, both beautiful and monumental, so memorable and so consequential in its impact upon the future of America. It became all too clear that our goals for uniting progressives on inauguration day would be sent to the back burner. We would not be able to, nor did we have the desire to, distract from the mood of this historical moment.
But it's also hard to contemplate the fact that Obama has adopted in wholesale fashion the neo liberal policies of Hillary and Bill and Vice President Joe Biden. These are the folks whose policies brought 9/11 to our door. And now we're asking for more of the same? It seems that we are deluding ourselves into thinking that we are better on the home front, as we thought we were during the Clinton administration, with the improvement in prospects for African Americans and universal health care, but it's difficult to believe that this is going to mean much when we are out tromping all over the world with our big boots just like George and his fellow dirtbags, which is really the source of the problem in the first place.
Foreign policy is going to re-make our domestic policy, because of its costs, and because of the kind of people it makes us. The morality of what we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the manner in which we so proudly support our "friends," the Israelis, our de facto imperialist proxies in the middle east, paves the way for the most basic disrespect for the neighbors on our own streets from Baltimore to Sacramento, with whom we share driveways and garbage collectors.
A quotation from Lincoln, from a speech given in Peoria, Ill., on Oct. 16, 1854, and engraved in marble in the museum below the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. it was then that he first publicly spoke out against slavery as a politician. A full quote in context is as follows: According to our ancient faith," he said early in the address, "the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of masters and slave is . . a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and only that is self government." -- from the WSJ.
We moved on to the Vietnam Memorial so that I could search for the name of a high school friend. As I viewed his name engraved in the stone, I was moved by this very personal reminder of the casualties of war -- one I had hoped would be forever engrained into our memories and never repeated. So much for Mission Accomplished.
Jean and Huti, who had split off to return to Busboys and Poets, managed to connect with Alice Walker and Amy Goodman. It turned into a great opportunity for them to get out the message from United Progressives in this one location which may be the only opportunity we were able to take advantage of for our progressive cause throughout this entire event.
On the following day, Tuesday, Inauguration day, as we prepared to enter the train in Fairfax, Virginia, to travel into Washington, D.C., I sensed a feeling of deep interdependency and connection to total strangers. We were all on the same ride, going to the same destination, for what could have been mostly the same reasons.
With our limited results the previous day, now we had every intention of making it to the Arrest Bush rally David Swanson had organized in front of the FBI building. We even had tickets to the parade there in that location. But by the time we got into DC, the parade route had reached capacity and virtually everyone on the train was being herded straight out to the Mall. And that's where we stayed. We were on the National Mall where the Washington Monument became the most prominent fixture in the city and the focal point for the huge crowds. The jumbo trons were everywhere but seemed to be obscured by not only the crowd but the bare trees. The best part of the day, however, was, indeed, observing this mass of people as they responded as a large sea to the breath of hope that swept across them, the swell of flags waving so strongly that it causes the dust from the ground all around us to suddenly lift and rush toward the streets. We were in a mixture of young and old, black and white, local and from very far away, living in the moment as metaphors for hope, peace, solemnity, dignity and honor. I couldn't help but cheer when I heard the words, "I, Barack Hussein Obama...."
One analogy expressed was that of a church crowd, but there was no praising Jesus or Hallelujah choir, except for a few individuals who had mounted themselves on fence rails and raised platforms, shouting that the end was near and the time for salvation had come, messengers of those prophets, no doubt, who believed that Obama would never have a chance to take office. That concern seemed to be reinforced by the appearance of snipers on all the rooftops, helicopters in the air, security police and National Guardsmen clearly in charge, and a line of Homeland Security Hazmat vehicles on the mall too long to count. But the real spirit was much different, much more than that. The connection to the civil rights movement and all that it inspired, was obvious: it wasn't so much that Obama was being taken for a messiah or a god-like figure; but there was the sense in this crowd that he was clearly a leader of a people who have waited a long time to participate in their democracy. Unfortunately, he is just a leader; he is not the sole actor in a democracy. There is no magic wand he can wave to solve all our problems. If he's the kind of president we hope we elected, then he's going to have his ear to the ground, and he's going to pay attention to all those rumblings at change.org. It's there and through other mediums, such as uniting our voice through United Progressives, that we can do our part. If we forget our responsibility as citizens, electing Obama will count for nothing.
And as Glen Ford has frequently pointed out in Counterpunch, on Black Agenda Report, Black Agenda Radio, and elsewhere, Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King. Ford spoke of King's work against American militarism and economic disparities and, when put to the MLK test, endorsed Dennis Kucinich. Dr. King represented much more than the civil rights movement, much more than electing just any black man; he also expressed a deep desire for peace and justice. Obama's game during the campaign, Ford pointed out in a Counterpunch article, had been " to maneuver himself deep into the foggy Iraq policy realm inhabited by the gaggle of Democratic "front-runners"--a muck from which nothing ever emerges of any relevance to Iraqi or world realities." Ford called him a "windblown politician" who " avoids anchoring himself to any principle." The odds that peace and justice may come in this presidency seem pretty distant, and progressives have their work cut out for them.
During and after the inauguration, from noon until at least 5 PM, the mall was completely closed off. Close to two million people were prisoners on an island 1.9 miles long. No one could get off or on for several hours. In the biting cold wind in that exposed landscape, all of us were left without directions or information or a clear plan on how to exit and herded like cattle as we searched for a point of exit. Few were prepared for the long wait we were forced to endure with a wind chill near zero, trying to get across Constitution Avenue and up several blocks to the Metro commuter train station at 18th and I. One interesting tall black man was waving small American flags and shouting "free, free at last." He caught Paul by the eye, and must have sensed his deep skepticism for this whole affair, because he looked directly at him and said, "You'd better get up and stand up."
When we finally arrived at the station, people stood, not in a line, but as a mass body of long fur coats, scarves, and wind breakers, filling the entrance like Crazy Glue in a dried up tube, completely at a standstill. It was like that for hours more. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks adjacent and we paused for a cup of coffee, while poor Paul stood in line for an hour just trying to get into a restroom.
Jean was having more fun than a porcupine at a balloon festival. She had brought her polar bear suit, which she takes rather gratuitously to events to symbolize the effects of global warming, and I think there was someone taking a picture of her almost every minute we were in the city limits.
I took the time to start a conversation with some of the people gathered around. My first discussion was with a woman from Macon, Georgia, who shared a seat close to the ashtray. She had been one of only three black students to integrate into her high school, and she remembered vividly the quality of education on a separate-but-equal scale. Her reasons for attendance were obvious.
She wandered off in search of her family and another woman took her seat. I can only say that this new person was a "black" woman, not an African American, because when she spoke, she had a European accent. She was from Switzerland. Her sister, who had accompanied her, was from Sweden. They had traveled all the way to America to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. That probably says all that needs to be said about the hopes of black people in general around the world as the world's supposedly greatest superpower marks the beginning of a whole new era in international relations.
She seemed a bit reluctant to talk to me at first. As I found out, she was somewhat intimidated by the military fatigues I wore. I had worn an army shirt in honor of a friend serving in Afghanistan who had been an Obama supporter and wanted to come home. Once she heard my explanation, she completely engaged the conversation.
Her observation, which she believed was shared by all Europeans, was that George Bush had only served one purpose: to assimilate all the evil in the world against the rest of us. I assured her that there was a significant number of Americans who had been engaged in the last three or four years in an attempt to hold him accountable by pressing for impeachment. That opened her up even more, and she told me how she felt about Israel. Too much support from the US, she said. She felt we should move them to a place like Australia where they could prosper. She assured me that the Jews could prosper anywhere. That way, they wouldn't have to live among the Arab people they seemed to hate and want to kill. I thought she had a pretty good point, though historically unreasonable and inaccurate.
I later saw her in line for the restroom having a conversation with a young, pretty white woman. When I asked if this was her sister, the woman from Sweden she had been looking for, she said no, but she could have been. Her blood was indeed very mixed, she said. She was there, in the crowd, to remind Americans of the hope and inspiration Barack Obama brings to the rest of the world.
After many hours of standing and shuffling a few feet, standing some more, and shuffling a few feet again, while a tall elegant black woman threw up in front of us in the waiting line, we finally made it to our train. The train was jam packed so tight, there was no need to hang on to the handrail above. As the train moved down the tracks, we just weaved slightly from front to back with the shifting weight of the whole mass of people wedged in together. When the door opened, we could see Huti floating out like corn mush going down a drain. When the crowd was out, finally, he'd figure out a way to wiggle back in. But after several stops, moving around and talking with people, some were kind enough to give up their seats to a bunch of old, worn out hippies.
Although we believe that Obama's inauguration promises some advancement of progressive values, the importance of uniting could never be more significant now, when it would be easy to relax our grip and ask like so many other progressive organizations are doing, "What do you want us to do now?" Any organization that is asking that question ought to be off your list immediately, because our challenge as progressives is clear and unmistakable, and hasn't changed with a new administration. We want to emphasize as our mission that it is through unity as progressives, as United Progressives, that we can win. In the words of Alice Walker, we are, indeed, the ones that we've been waiting for. We must not fall asleep. We must join what this leader represents: a new American way forward, progressing as a community, a nation and part of a more prosperous and peaceful world.