Monday, November 17, 2008

Reflections on Elections

Election night caught me by surprise. A week or so before the election, I read an article that said that people were experiencing unprecedented anxiety during this election season. They were not able to sleep, and while not sleeping, were reading more and watching more news and pseudo-news that was increasing their anxiety over what might happen. I shared that sense of dread and anticipation. I was terrified about the election being stolen; I was terrified of what the reaction to that might be, and what the reaction of the government to any reaction by African Americans was sure to be. I was obsessed by the fear of what would happen to Barack Obama if he were elected, and how people would react to that and the reaction to the reaction … More than anything, I was terrified of a McCain-Palin presidency, quite simply afraid that the world could not survive it.

Through most of election season, I did absolutely nothing except read and talk to my friends. But in the last weeks I threw myself into the campaign against Proposition 4, a California ballot initiative attempting – for the third time – to force teens to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion. The polls showed Prop. 4 likely to pass, and I was terrified about what that would mean for thousands of girls like I had once been, who felt they could never tell their parents if they became pregnant. (Currently in California, a pregnant teen can qualify for “confidential services,” a wonderful category that too few Californians know about, which means she can get whatever services she needs [whether termination or prenatal care] without her parents knowing, and she can qualify for Medi-Cal based only on her own assets, not her parents’.)

The one thing I wasn’t worried about was Proposition 8 passing. First of all, I don’t really care about gay marriage, and not just because I haven’t had a girlfriend in seven years. When I was in college, I thought marriage was an archaic institution that was on its way out, and one of the big disappointments of my adult life has been watching more and more of my alternative friends go through various kinds of marriage rites. In terms of the pragmatic reasons people give for why marriage is so important, there are much better ways to get health care for all, a just immigration policy, support for children and old people, than tying them to what type of sexual or romantic relationship someone happens to be in. And secondly, I was sure that Prop. 8 wasn’t going to pass. All along, the polls showed it behind though gaining, plus the youth vote was going to be a big factor in this election, and according to everything you hear, youth don’t care about people’s sexual orientation.

I spent most of election day holding a No on 4 sign 100 feet away from my polling place. I was standing next to the people holding No on 8 signs, who were much better organized than we were. All day people ‑ mostly African Americans, because most of the neighborhood is African American – drove or walked by and gave them the thumbs up, and a lot of them asked me, “Which one is Prop. 4?” And when I told them, some of them said, “Oh, I don’t know about that, I have a daughter.” I gave them our talking points and hoped that in two minutes I could convince them their daughters would be safer if they could make their own decisions around what to tell them about their sex lives. Even a lot of the No on 8 people asked me which one Prop. 4 was.

So my first surprise on election night came at 8:01 here, when the numbers flipped from 207 to 274 and the banner started to roll: “Barack Obama elected president of the United States.” I was not by that time surprised at the news, because we had been watching it for an hour and a half and we knew that he was going to win. I was surprised by the sheer elation I felt. Two friends and I walked out onto the balcony and started screaming, hoping to start a collective cheer but only resulting in someone calling down from upstairs, “Is everyone okay?”

And then the other returns started coming in and the first surprise was a good one – Prop. 4 was losing. When early returns showed Prop. 8 ahead, we didn’t worry too much – it was early, these were early voters, it didn’t count San Francisco or Alameda County … but as the night wore on and the numbers stayed pretty much the same, I was shocked to realize how devastated I was. Because this wasn’t about marriage. You can decorate it any way you want, but it comes down to the fact that people don’t think we’re as good as they are. A majority of California voters don’t think that I should have the same rights they have, and the fact that marriage is not a right I am interested in exercising doesn’t matter. We went to the Castro and wandered around, watching the huge TV screen they had set up in the street, and it was a bizarre mix of overpowering joy and gnawing sadness. Bizarre because neither was anything I would have told you that morning I would be feeling.

A week or so before election day, I had decided I was going to vote for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney for President. After all, Obama was going to carry California, and McKinney’s platform was everything I could ask for. I had to turn off every debate after a few minutes, because I couldn’t bear hearing Obama rant about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, the need to send more troops to Afghanistan and Pakistan, or his unwavering commitment to Israel’s military strength. Then I went to New Orleans. On Sunday, I went to a second line in Central City, and just about every person there was wearing Obama on their body. A woman had on an Obama dress, Obama’s face wrapping around her curvaceous body in a halo of glitter. Someone was giving out fans proclaiming, “Vote First & Be the Change,” which provided a surprising amount of information about how to protect your voting rights. To all of those people, it would have made no difference that McKinney is also African American. To virtually all of them, a vote for McKinney would have been a vote against Obama, and a vote against Obama meant you didn’t want a Black man to be president. Because they have had the experience of voting for a Black person who couldn’t win. I voted for Obama because, very simply, I feel that African Americans have the right to be disappointed by a president they chose.

I know very well that African American politicians can be just as disappointing as white politicians. I lived through the Willie Brown era in San Francisco and am living right now in the hugely disappointing Ron Dellums era in Oakland. The only Black girl in my elementary school was Lynn Wilder, whose father Doug became Virginia’s first Black governor, and trust me, it wasn’t a good period for the state.

When Obama named Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, people in my circles immediately started sending around information about Emanuel’s hard-core Zionist background, the fact that his father was in the Irgun (the infamous Jewish terrorist movement in pre-1948 Palestine), and I got annoyed because it seemed like an inverse of the sort of “But is it good for the Jews?” mentality I grew up with. The chief of staff is responsible for a lot more than Israel/Palestine policy and nothing that Obama has said in the last six years has left any doubt about how good his administration was (not) going to be for the Palestinians. But then I learned that Emanuel is an ultra-successful investment banker, was the largest recipient of campaign donations from hedge funds and financial institutions … it’s not good news. Neither is the fact that one of Obama’s top economic advisers is Robert Rubin, who as Clinton’s treasury secretary started off the deregulation that set up the current financial and economic crisis.

Yesterday I went to the big rally in San Francisco to protest the passage of Prop. 8. It was a pretty good unity event, with speakers like Rev. Amos Brown, an African American former county supervisor who has at times been pretty anti-gay. There were great signs like “No More Mr. Nice Gay”, “Another Str8 Against H8” and “Two Nice Girls In Love = REALLY SCARY.” There were also some really offensive ones like “Black Is the New Gay.” You might think that all the white guys carrying that sign would at least pause to wonder why they didn’t see any Black people carrying it, or if not, you might at least think the fact that a Black lesbian yelled at them that they didn’t have Black skin so they have no idea what it’s like would cause them to think, but not so. We argued with them until we were hoarse and frustrated, but they just couldn’t get what’s wrong with expropriating someone else’s struggle. There were also a lot of signs saying, “Chickens Have More Right Than Gays” or “Chickens 1, Gays 0,” referring to the passage of Proposition 2, giving farm animals the right to turn around. Next time I go to one of these things, I’m going to carry a sign saying, “Queers Rights = Animal Rights.” (Some Israeli friends of mine are in a group called One Struggle, that is a largely queer anti-occupation animal rights group.)

Despite all these conflicts, I feel hopeful. I can’t help it. It feels like a huge cloud has lifted. I believe Obama is a supreme opportunist. I read Dreams from My Father a few years ago, and the person who wrote that book was a lot more progressive than the guy who is about to be president. So I believe he changed his politics to get elected, and that makes it hard to trust him.
The good thing about opportunists is that they sway with the wind. And that means it’s up to us, the progressive movements, to create a huge wind.

Code Pink plans to demonstrate at his house in Chicago for the next two months. That’s a mistake. But it’s not a mistake because Obama shouldn’t be pressured or criticized, or because, as one friend said, “Obama hasn’t done anything yet.” He has done plenty. His appointments speak loudly, as do statements he made during the campaign. It’s a mistake because one, it’s something only a small group of full-time activists can do, and two, they have not built broad support for such actions. It will make people who like Obama, especially African Americans, see the left as old racist nay-sayers, and will make Obama feel embattled before he gets started.

A better approach would be to target every Democratic congressperson or senator for the next two months. That is something everyone can do wherever they live, in whatever manner works for them, and it puts the people who depend on our votes on notice that we’re watching them, not just Obama. For eight years, we in San Francisco have heard from Nancy Pelosi’s staff, “It’s not us, it’s the Republicans. We’re with you. If only we had the majority, we would do what you want. If only we had the White House, we’d make change.” Okay, you’ve got the majority and you’ve got the White House. Let’s see it.

The left needs to get it together, and fast. The people who work on every issue, from health care to green jobs to prison abolition to housing rights to welfare, need to get together and come up with a 100 days agenda for the new administration and the new Congress, and we need to get it out there using all the communication technologies whose power the Obama campaign proved.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the constitution. All the big civil rights groups have announced campaigns to “Restore the Constitution”. Well the constitution is more than the Bill of Rights, though goddess knows, that is something that needs to be restored in a hurry. The preamble to the constitution says something about promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Civil rights are more than freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Civil rights include the right to housing, the right to food, the right to some leisure time, the right to education, the right to love whom we choose and marry them if we insist, the right not only to survive but to thrive. If we can convince the ACLU and CCR to make this part of their 100 Days to Restore the Constitution campaigns, and if we all unite behind that campaign, then I think we have a chance to get things off to a better start.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to read a personalized account of election week, and appreciate your honesty about voting for Obama. It surprised me that Nader received more votes than Cynthia McKinney nationwide and i'm not sure what that says about the Green Party... though your account from New Orleans adds a perspective that was definitely lacking from international circles; especially in this part of the world, most of the americans are gringos, seemingly removed from those communities.

    Anyway, nice post and i also agree with your assessment of Rahm Emanuel.

    Peace out