Obama’s second inauguration and the new terrain of struggle
Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall
Horace G. Campbell
2013-01-24, Issue 614
When Barack Obama was sworn in as the President of the United States for the second time on January 21, 2013 in the 57th presidential inauguration, the forces that mobilized to reelect Barack Obama temporarily celebrated. The Presidential Inaugural Committee had mined all of the symbolism of the day of the varying liberation struggles in the United States to maximize participation: A gay Latino poet, Richard Blanco read a poem (a first in the history of inaugurations), Beyonce sang the National Anthem, James Taylor, the legendary guitarist and songwriter, kicked off the musical performances, strumming his guitar and singing, "America the Beautiful." Kelly Clarkson followed with an arrangement of "My Country `Tis of Thee." Later at the inaugural balls, other singers and activists such as Stevie Wonder linked the past civil rights struggles to the current struggles. Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and numerous others brought the music of struggle to the occasion.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, delivered the invocation at the inauguration events. Throughout the succinct 18 minute address, President Obama invoked names and imagery from freedom struggles, as well as the battles fought by immigrants, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In his reference to the struggles of Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, President Obama was stating clearly that one could not separate struggles, thus giving the battle for gay rights the historical weight of the fights for gender and racial equality.
The 44th President was sworn in on the Martin Luther King Jr Holiday, on two bibles – one belonging to Martin Luther King Jr and the other belonging to Abraham Lincoln. The historic nature of the occasion also included the fact that 2013 was 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln and 50 years after the Historic March on Washington when MLK delivered the “I have a Dream” speech.
More than one million had flocked to the Washington Mall to participate in the festivities. Millions more in all parts of the world watched and followed by television or listened on the radio. The second inauguration of Barack Obama was an event of historic importance in the midst the worldwide capitalist depression. This writer watched and noted that there was genuine joy among sections of the oppressed, especially from the black and brown, the poor and the gay and lesbians. Many of those who celebrated were clear that they will have to be vigilant and redouble their efforts to beat back the conservatives and militaristic forces who want to take the society to war. Covert and overt wars abroad and repression at home awaits the majority of humanity in the midst of the crisis of capitalism and the peace and social justice forces know that there are powerful elements that want to further militarize the US society. Obama stated, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
This was another clear indication of the ongoing battles inside the Pentagon over the future of the military budget.
In our contribution this week we will look at seven of the major forces that organized to re-reelect Barack Obama. The independent organizational capabilities of these constituencies will be severely tested in the next four years. Beyond the soaring rhetoric of Obama and the press reports that Obama made a ‘progressive’ speech lay the reality that after four years in office, the oligarchs are stronger that they were in 2009. Yet, these oligarchs were not satisfied with the tenure of Obama. They made it clear that Mitt Romney was their standard bearer.
During the election phase, the conservatives were confident that with their billions of dollars they would again seize the Executive. But the people were not frightened. They organized; they mobilized and they went out to the polls to vote. Some commentators were taken back to see people waiting in queues for eight to ten hours to vote. They were not waiting to vote for Barack Obama. They were waiting to register their desire for a break with the Old and New Jim Crow. The alliance that voted for Obama will be tested in the next period as the Obama Administration continues its appeasement of the financial oligarchs. Obama’s inauguration speech went a long way toward acknowledging the massive grassroots mobilization that guaranteed victory.
While some sections of the population are looking to Obama to implement change, this contribution will argue that the decisive aspect of change will come from the political mobilization and organization of the networks of social justice activists. There are numerous social justice networks in the United States, but this contribution will focus on seven decisive forces that will shape the immediate future on whether Barack Obama will be a transient historical figure or a real history maker who was pushed beyond the confines of the narrow partisanship of the present two party system.
FIRST, THE BLACK WORKING PEOPLES – THE SELMA REFERENCE
From the pictures of the celebrants at the inauguration, the happiness of African Americans was everywhere on display. The inauguration was a definite celebration of the Civil Rights struggles that made it possible for Barack Obama to be elected President of the Uniuted States of America. Whether it was in the invocation and prayer by Myrlie Evers-Williams or the reference to Selma in that historic paragraph, Obama acknowledged the long struggles for civil rights and voting rights inside the United States.
Many younger readers would not have known of the epic struggles for voting rights more than sixty years ago. The reference to Selma in this speech brought back the memories of those epic marches from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in 1965 where Martin Luther King and the youths fighting for Voting Rights were brutally attacked and beaten. Today, the Edmund Pettus Bridge stands as one of the monuments to the long struggles for freedom and battles of peaceful demonstrators against white supremacists on March 7, 1965. Older citizens will remember the audacity of the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who wanted to stop the march of history.
Just as how the Civil Rights activists had stood their ground in the sixties so a new generation had come out in 2012 to ensure that the voting rights act was not reversed. The black voter bloc proved decisive as the backbone of that sector of the society that would not be intimidated and coerced. It was this bloc that came out and defended the gains of the Civil Rights Revolution that were won in the second half of the twentieth century. Prior to the elections, there were numerous expedients under the banner of voter identification laws to roll back the right to the franchise for non-white voters. For the black voting block they were aware that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was at stake.
There were numerous commentators who noted that Obama did not especially do anything for the poor and the blacks, but the poor and blacks understood concretely that the various initiatives for voter identification across the country were expedients to roll back the hard-won rights of the Black working people. This bloc voted massively with 95 percent of the Black vote going to Barack Obama. Obama was explicit in his inaugural address when he gave notice that the Justice Department would be fighting to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” he said.
THE SECOND BLOC: THE LATINO VOTE
The second constituency that was decisive was the immigrant vote, especially that section of the immigrants that hail from South and Central America, called Latinos. In his Inaugural speech of 2013, Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
For decades one wing of the neo-conservatives had courted this constituency and believed that with the influence of the conservative Cuban exiles in the USA, the Republicans would dominate this constituency. However, the racist policies of the conservatives, especially the idea promoted by the Republican candidate Mitt Romney that some immigrants should self-deport awakened a new level of mobilization. The Latino voters understood that as the fastest growing demographic, their voices would go a long way toward shaping the politics of the United States in the 21st century. This Latino constituency came out and voted in significant numbers for Obama by 71% to 27% with the political power of the Latino vote manifesting itself in state and local elections in many states across the Western States of the United States. It is in a big state such as Texas where in the next ten years the political power of the Republicans will be threatened. This shift has led to a new push by the Conservatives to find ways of dividing the Latinos and to promote hostility between the Black and Latino citizens.
The third constituency that proved decisive in the election was that of the women’s vote. Throughout the speech on inauguration day, Obama acknowledged the straggles of women. From the dawn of the Republic, women have been fighting with Black women such as Sojourner Truth, Harrriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells Barnett and Fannie Lou Hamer standing out in the ranks of the struggle for gender rights. In the official canon of US women’s history the historic meeting of first women’s rights convention, Seneca falls, New York in 1848 had marked a seminal moment in the history of the struggles for democracy in the USA. In his speech, Obama acknowledged this history stating, “We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labour liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
Later in the speech Obama reiterated, “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
For decades the neo-conservatives had been spooked by the demographic shifts in the United States and had mobilized a major campaign to roll back the rights of women in relation to reproductive rights. The right to choose and for control over the bodies and brains of women were two dominant themes of the 2012 elections. When the neo-cons had controlled the Executive, they had supported very conservative Christians who called themselves Christian fundamentalists to oppose abortion rights for women. In some states, these neo-cons were willing to enact bizarre plans such as transvaginal ultrasound test before granting permission for terminating a pregnancy. The Supreme Court legislation of Roe Vs Wade had given women basic rights of choice but the big push was to mobilize women, especially those deemed as white, to be supporters of the Republican Party. January 22, 2013 was the fortieth anniversary of the Supermen Court decision to recognize the reproductive rights of women.
Added to the question of reproductive rights was the entire system of domination by men in the society. Liberal feminists had sought to confine the questions of the rights of women to equal rights. However, while questions of equal pay for equal work were crucial questions, the more conscious women understood that they were fighting for more than equality. Conservative women such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann epitomized the kind of conservative white women who wanted to mobilize women on the basis of whiteness and Christian conservatism. These forces were diminished in the 2012 elections
THE WORKING CLASSES OF THE UNITED STATES
In the midst of the capitalist crisis, the push of the Conservatives was to roll back most of the democratic gains of the working class that had been won in the twentieth century. The overt measures to roll back collective bargaining rights as well as rights relating to healthcare, pensions, occupational safety and a whole host of other rights were on the line. Organized and unorganized workers made a tremendous contribution to the network of networks that provided the ground forces to knock on doors. In the large industrial states that in the past had been called the rust belt states, (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin etc) the trade unions and the worker centers proved to be the key to the victory. Numerous pundits had paid close attention to the battle for a large industrial state such as Ohio. It was in such a state where the workers proved to be decisive.
The most progressive and far-reaching content of the inaugural address was to be found in the fullthroated defense of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community in the United States. This was the fifth major constituency in the alliance that elected Barack Obama in 2012. The Obama administration rescinded the “don’t ask, don’t tell” farce and it was in the past four years when many states granted the right to gays and lesbians to marry.
The reference to Stonewall was to the historic battle between the police and gay activists in Greenwich Village in New York City, June 28th, 1969; Barack Obama linked the struggles for women’s rights to civil rights to the rights of gays and lesbians.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Later in the speech, Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
This acknowledgement of the centrality of the rights of same gender loving persons was a major progressive step in mainstream US politics. It was the first time that a President had openly supported gays and lesbians in an inaugural address.
Obama was aware that the mobilization of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) community was key node in the network that turned the elections. This community had been threatened by the aggressive measures of the neo-cons to criminalize same gender loving persons.
In previous election cycles, the neo-conservatives had mobilized the Christian fundamentalists to organize against the rights of the LBGT community under the banner of ‘family values.’ The progressive coalition mobilized and defeated the ideas of the conservatives. Having lost the argument at home, this neo-conservative force has now moved to align with very conservative forces internationally who not only want to deny rights to people with diverse sexual preferences, but want to mobilize to kill these persons.
MOBILIZATION OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FORCES
The record of the Obama Administration had been unremarkable in relation to supporting the Environmental Protection Agency and standing up to the Oil, Gas and Coal lobby in the United States. The Environmental justice forces had to mount their own campaign against the Republicans; Obama had not been courageous on questions of defending the people against the big tycoons. In his address, Obama was making a pitch to this important constituency saying,
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
Obama was taking the conservative line ‘on climate change’ and in the four years in office Obama had used his administration as a stumbling block to international efforts to curb global warming. The position of the United States in Copenhagen 2009 and Rio 2011 ensured that the conferences were substantive failures.
However, as the leading environmentalists argued, Barack Obama cannot stand against nature and against Physics. Weeks before the elections, the massive Hurricane Sandy pointed to the fact that a new mode of economic organization had to be created if we are to have a liveable planet by the end of the century.
THE PEACE COMMUNITY AND ELECTIONS
The record of the Obama Administration had been terrible in the context of the deployment of force overseas and the continuation of the Bush wars. Barack Obama intensified the use of drones and targeted killings. It was under his watch when NATO invaded Libya and created turmoil. This Administration had reneged on its plans to close down the dreaded Guantanamo Bay prison. Inside the Middle East, the Obama Administration did not sufficiently stand up to the Israeli lobby.
The organizational work of the peace community had pushed the military establishment to experiment with new forms of warfare involving Special Operations, Drones, private military contractors, third party combatants and information warfare. This experiment shattered in Libya with the colossal failure ending with the death of the US Ambassador to Libya.
The opposition of the top military brass to Obama, especially the Crusaders complicated the picture of the US military posture. The peace community did not become derailed by the internal fights at the top and continued the anti-war pressures. These pressures inspired more support for new organs such as Wikileaks.
The questions of war against Iran and the encirclement of China are two dominant issues that will challenge the peace movement. In his inaugural address, Obama states that, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
In expressing what could be considered a wish, Obama stated, “A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun.”
For the millions of peoples in Africa, Asia and Latin America who still feel the scourge of the US military machine, this statement about ending a decade of war rung hollow. However, in the context of the infighting at the top of the imperial military machine, the statements about perpetual war reflected a long standing battle inside the Administration. In November 2012, Obama had sent his top lawyer in the Pentagon to deliver a speech in Oxford to state that the War on terror was not endless. Less than a month later, the counsel was out of the Pentagon.
The peace movement had been weakest in relation to its grasp of the wars that are now being unleashed in West Africa.
The Obama Administration will be pushed by that section of the peace movement that opposes the US Africa Command. The current debacle in Mali has exposed the duplicity of the military that had ploughed half a billion dollars to support the very same elements who are now locked in war in Mali and the Sahara. This was a major test for the peace and justice forces. Peace activists oppose the jihadists. Equally, the peace and justice forces oppose French imperialism in Africa. The question of the future US relations with Africa will be a major test in the second period. It is here where the peace and justice forces in Africa will have to work closer with the peace and social justice forces in the United States.
LESSONS FROM THE SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
With the historic memory of 150 years since the Emancipation Declaration, it was inevitable that comparisons were made with the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. Just as Obama had acknowledged the centrality of the black citizens in his victory, so in 1865, Lincoln had recognized that it was the organized and unorganized activities of the African Americans that had tipped the balance in the Civil War. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln had said,
“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
C.L.R James had noted the revolutionary content of this speech by Lincoln and that in that speech in 1865, there “was the recognition at last of what the Negroes had done for America, and of what America had done to the Negroes – and the determination at whatever cost to break the power of the reactionary slaveholders.”
This determination to break the back of the slave holders cost Abraham Lincoln his life.
Since the period of the reconstruction in the nineteenth century, capitalism in the United States had depended on the divisions between the black and white workers to maintain power. The tenacity of the black working people over the past 150 years has brought US society to a point where the society will have to make a choice between the reactionary white supremacists and the new directions for the society. Numerous commentators have stated that this capitalist depression is worse than 1929. The question that must be posed is, If this depression is worse, then will the recourse to militarism and fascism be worse?
The seven constituencies that I have highlighted in this analysis of the second inauguration of Barack Obama have given notice that they will be a force against reaction and militarism. While there is disagreement among the left about the real meaning of the speech of Obama, there is agreement that the mobilization of the social justice forces that culminated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement marked a shift in US politics.
The self-mobilization and self-organization of the youth was another node in the network of progressives. These youths had mobilized the Occupy Wall Street Movement to shift the politics away from the deformed energies of the Tea Party. In bringing to the fore the concentrated wealth of the top one per cent these Youths exposed for all, the rising inequality gap between the rich and the poor. These youths pushed the arguments about democracy and the 99 percent to new levels.
The Obama Administration is on a collision course with the social justice forces that elected him. As President of the United States, the dominant social forces as represented by the financial oligarchs have decided that the recomnposition and reconstitution of capitalism must be the work of the Obama Administration. This recomposition cannot take place outside of a context of deepening the oppression at home and abroad.
The vote for Obama was a vote against the financial oligarchs and one day after the lofty speeches, reality set in.
For this author, the second inauguration day of Obama was like Christmas during the period of enslavement. For a week, the enslaved partied and made merry but after the Christmas vacation, they knew that they had to go back to struggle to overthrow slavery. The current struggles against wage slavery and all forms of oppression call for new energies and new forms of politics. It was the same C.L.R James who stated that revolutions are not settled in parliaments, they are only registered there.
The re-election of Barrack Obama in 2012, did not resolve the class warfare in the United States and the battles over the future mode of economic organization. Obama tapped into a progressive tradition to deliver a memorable speech. It will be up to the organized forces to push the administration away from the moorings of the oligarchs and to ensure that in his second term, the Administration will make a break with the inglorious past.
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* Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University. He is also a Special invited Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Global NATO and the catastrophic failure in Li
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