Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 12

Seeking Refuge in the Forlorn Bayou…Indians on Parade…Shock and Awe Revisited….Rejubilation in Biloxi
These are ugly times in the 2008 campaign, a good time to duck your head in the sand, or in Hillary Clinton’s case, duck under the onslaught of non-existent sniper fire to take photo ops with eight year old Bosnians. If you thought the talking heads were out of things to talk about, wait till you give them a 6-week lay off from a primary or debate to have a dramatic countdown to.
For this Rovingstorm writer, the idiocy of Geraldine Ferraro made me so angry as to make writing impossible. Then I cathartically started a group called Fordham Students Ashamed of Geraldine Ferraro (FSAOGF) and the anger eased out. I’ll admit, I already disliked Ferraro somewhat, or at least found her unimpressive. Her keynote address at the Fordham Law Democrats dinner last spring was rambling and filled with factual inaccuracies. Between Ferraro’s nasty racial comments, Spitzer’s stunning fall from power, Clinton’s Youtube ‘gotcha’ moment and Bloomberg’s presidential prospects fading in a sea of homeless people and broken subway lines, this is not an impressive time to be a New York politician.
It was, however, perhaps the perfect time retreat southwards, to the greatest battleground of all, the battle to rebuild the Gulf Coast. As most of you know, Biloxi, Mississippi is where I spent the most important year of my life, from 2005-2006, and some of its great moments will be chronicled by Guillermo Olivos in his near finished novel. Getting back down to the Gulf Coast is an emotional whirlwind, a mixture of sad hopelessness (‘look how many people are still not in their houses!’), self-disappointment (‘why would I not be here helping this effort right now?’) and, just occasionally, inspiration that things really are getting better.
It’s been 31 months since the storm, and things are not great in New Orleans. In a recent interview, Mayor Nagin declared he was worn out from the job, and challenged a TV reporter to a fist-fight in the parking lot. A recent study put homelessness at 4%, or a whopping 12,000 people. Every progressive activist and lawyer walks around head hanging low, exhausted that even the simplest justices don’t come Easy in this town.
Despite these conditions, national volunteer support remains staggering. This spring, the Student Hurricane Network, and organization of law students doing work on the Gulf Coast, sent nearly 1,000 students to Louisiana and Mississippi for spring break, almost as many as they did two years ago, fresh after the storm happened.
A few folks and I were placed with the Workers Rights Center for Racial Justice, which bringing attention to a large group of Indians (dot, not feather) who had been lured by construction corporations on false visa charged, placed in animal like housing conditions, worked for months without pay, and been threatened with deportation whenever they complained. It was a horrific but familiar story, this time with a group of educated subcontinenters who were not going to take it lying down.
So we took to the streets, and marched through a series of New Orleans neighborhoods, chanting in Hindi. As the Indians marched, labor organizers called locals to come out from their porches and apartments and for Mexicans from their construction sites to chant with us and learn about the injustices. To their credit, blacks in New Orleans don’t need to hear specifics, they just assume if angry minorities are marching, rich white corporations have fucked them over somehow. “Just keep fighting for your rights, honey,” one woman hollered at me.
“The key to this,” one organizer explained to me, “is to get the black community, hard-pressed for jobs as it is, to not see Mexicans and Indians as enemies, but rather as allies that corporations are pitting against each other to lower everyone’s wages.” There was some confusion, however, as many onlookers thought the marchers were Hispanic in the first place, even though they were chanting in Hindi, which incidentally, seemed like an off-putting way to build a coalition.
The overall effectiveness of a chanting in Hindi to get your message across is questionable, and will probably becoming increasingly off-putting during this multi-city tour that takes the Indians through Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, up to DC. New Orleans is a first-tier, ‘now I guess this is happening city,’ up there with New York, San Fran, and Vegas. It takes a lot to turn heads in a town where its perfectly acceptable to be wasted at eight in the morning and have gay parades through downtown, but people in Baton Rouge and Greensboro might not be as receptive. The whole affair will probably be a headache for the Indian Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Nothing like turning on your own people to protect business interests during your first months in office.
Near the end of the protest we stopped near a major public housing project that is being demolished for no good reason except to drive its poor former residents from the city forever. An organizer explained this, via translation, to the crowd of Indians. I don’t know how they felt, but the message I came away with was, “Hey guys, look! More people getting shit on here in the Big Easy!” Building a coalition is a sad, sad time here in NOLA.
The racial fever burning through New Orleans was particularly poignant given the national story last week, which was Obama’s preacher causing the candidate headaches (Youtube is always watching…). Funny how an angry black preacher becomes this highly scrutinized figure of importance- CNN even analyzed his new Easter sermon. Since when have we ever cared, or even known, what pastors and preachers for other candidates say over the course of their long careers? Colbert brilliantly juxtaposed Wright with the infamous and largely forgotten moment when Jerry Farwell and Pat Robertson blamed gays, feminists and secularists for 9/11, a tad more idiotic than blaming imperialistic U.S foreign policy.
Yes, it was a good time to take stock of the racial tension in the air, because at that very moment in Philadelphia, Barack Obama was delivering one of the great speeches I have ever seen. I trust most of this readership has already seen, heard, or read the speech, but the link is here: http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/hisownwords/
It was the most in sync I’ve felt with an audience since I watched Ahmadinejad’s Columbia speech in the Fordham Law cafeteria (“Man, that guy is crazy!”). The speech spoke truth after truth about the complex and unfinished issues of race in America. So yes, the speech was absolutely incredible, and honest, and for those wondering what it all means politically, it showed Obama’s ability to take an adverse situation and handle it was grace and composure. There was no passing the buck, ducking for cover, bullshit excuses, just a thorough explanation, reflection and call for elevated discourse. It was, as usual, far classier than anything Hillary Clinton could ever come up with. She doesn’t have the human in her left to make a speech like that if it were written for her. But will it be enough?
Apparently not for Pennsylvania, where their own Democratic governor, a top Hillary booster, has declared that swaths of the Democratic primary base aren’t ready to vote for a black candidate. What if we told you he was half white? It’s of no concern- Obama will still be the nominee, and everyone can stop fretting, thanks to Bill Richardson.
Richardson’s endorsement was timely, and though it will only sway a few votes outside of his family, who presumably already voted this season, the media seem to think this is stupendously important, so I’ll roll with it. Media cycles are the name of the game, of course. The best part was probably that James Carville compared Richardson to Judas on Easter, to which Richardson responded, “This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that turned me off to the Clinton campaign.” I saw Carville on TV last night explaining that his comparison was “not literal,” because it’s always helpful to remind people that Hillary Clinton isn’t Jesus. I can just picture the next Karl Rove disciple slapping a WWHRCD bracelet on as he goes into battle.
After the Obama speech I wandered the New Orleans streets for a bit. The hollowness of the empty plastic cup and the abandoned home was haunting. For some, the juxtaposition of a town full of bar to bar romping, jazz swinging and girls gone wildin’ with the most noble humanitarian effort in recent domestic history is a perfect fit (I think of the Onion article, “Alternative Spring Break Devolves Into Regular Spring Break”), but for me that’s all it can be, the perfect disaster relief vacation. New Orleans is a town where some things are not just back to normal, they are doing awesome! The Hornets are in first place. Mardi Gras sent the hotel business booming. Live jazz bands like Rebirth play to white college crowds so packed you can barely move. But that march with the Indians told it all. In the poorer communities, nothing, and I mean nothing, has changed. The people largely haven’t come home. Those who have working for slave wages, and choose between living in unfinished houses or poisonous trailers, sending their kids to a school system in shambles, and their sick relatives to third worldly crowded hospitals. It’s the two Americas, right there in the Crescent City.
As if the conflation of the Democratic Primary and the Hurricane Katrina weren’t epic enough for one week, the news cycle had to toss in the five year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (or, as one CNN producer put, the five year anniversary of the ‘Liberation Army's march to Baghdad’). Like many of you, I remember vividly where I was when that fateful shock and awe campaign began. It was spring break, and Kieron and I had drunkenly bought one way tickets to Myrtle Beach and flown down with almost no money, no cell phone charger, and no plan on how to get back home. We slept under boardwalks and ate at the American House of Pancakes until we found a place we could afford, the Stardust Motel.
After checking in we sauntered off to our first bar, where the local Myrtle Beach crowd was fixated on Fox News. As the first green explosions of the war began the bar burst into a mighty cheer, and the bartender flicked on “Bombs over Baghdad”, an anthem that would play four times in succession as forty-somethings danced up and down in the dark and trashy bar. Those were the days. And that war drum has marched on ever since. I think what deflates the anti-war movement is that George Bush has no conscience. LBJ and Nixon, you could see the anguish on their faces, even as they stayed the course. If you sang “Hey, Hey, how many kids have you killed today” to Bush, he’d probably stare at you, blink a few times, and then respond, “Six. No, seven. But Al Queda is on the run. And it is worth it.”
Man. Time to go to Biloxi.
It’s an intense but warmly familiar feeling driving down the broken shells of commercial buildings that adorn Route 90 on the way into Biloxi. Councilman Stallworth, the leader and one of the true heroes of the relief movement in Biloxi, graciously showed some of my Fordham colleagues a tour of the East Biloxi Coordination Relief Center, a fascinating hub of elevation maps, rebuilding grids and architectural models. The Coordination Center was where all the relief groups in the area would meet twice a week to trade notes, divide work, and make sure the relief effort was coordinated. For the Fordham crew, who had spent a depressing week observing the disorganization of New Orleans, this was an inspiring reminder that the rebuilding process could be done properly. And by properly, I mean 40% of the people who have returned getting back into their homes. That’s success down here, and while I would never disparage it, no one down there would tell you we don’t have a long way to go.
Our group met with James Crowell, the intrepid leader of the local NAACP. We became close working together to organize the first Martin Luther King Jr. parade after the storm. The group met in his office, which has had a leaky roof since the storm. It is hard to find a man more in touch with the people purports to represent in any non profit or advocacy group anywhere. It comes as little surprise, with folks like James and Councilman Stallworth leading the way, that Biloxi is hardcore Obama country. After a day of work, a tour, and mandatory pit-stops at Shady’s and The Pub, we were on our way back to New Orleans. And Biloxi’s been back on my mind ever since.
I see Guillermo patrolling the Hope VI housing project with a clipboard in flip-flops. I see Jeff Rohde ripping a bathtub from a wall with his bare hands. I see Nate Harrold pimping shades and barking instructions into his cell phone as the Biloxi’s only healthcare clinic is being. I see Catholic Nick wheeling and dealing with local Catholic leaders, Amy DeHuff looking for the pulse of a community, and Animal Rescue Ben pulling into the parking lot with 36 Katrina puppies he rescued from extermination.
We were in our 20s, seizing the day, experiencing, as Councilman Stallworth says, “one of those rare moments when you know you’re really making a difference.” Hurricane Katrina was as great a call to patriotism as 9/11, and I told George Bush as much when we met in April of 2006. But each passing day, it feels less like my time there was service rendered, and more like a privilege and an honor to have been part of the process. As we always used to stay when folks thanked us, “We’re just happy to be here.” And we by no means the only ones who got it. Americorps' vaunted NCCC program currently has 55 teams of 10 dispersed throughout the Gulf Coast. For some, the domestic battle of our lifetime rages on.
In these times, the weight of the world can seem overwhelming. The war. The economy. The painful primary. The slow Katrina recovery. Tibetans being slaughtered. Everyone at work, late into the night, missing the beauty of spring outside their windows, or beyond the reach of their cubicles. It doesn’t seem like the energy is there for something big to happen. But I think of Jim Lovell. In a documentary about the astronauts who made the initial moon landings, Lovell reflected on the sudden change in his assignment from orbiting the Earth to orbiting the moon:
“It was a bold move. It had some risky aspects to it. But it was a time when we made bold moves.” People, it’s time to make bold moves again.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 11

Fear and Loathing in the Mother of All Swing States...From the Land that Hope Forgot…Making a List and Checking it Twice…Every Spark of Friendship and Love Will Die Without a Home…

Mansfield, Ohio is a dreary, gloomy place. Last Saturday our team descended on its frozen streets for a day of canvassing. Friday had been great- the Obama operation in Columbus was the smoothest operation I had seen to date. There were no frills, no spontaneous chants of “fired up, ready to go,” no saccharine speeches to pump up volunteers, just a lot of work to be done, and a lot of people doing it. And that’s what you’re looking for after a nine hour drive through the night. But the word on the street was that help was needed in Mansfield, a post-industrial town 70 miles north of Columbus that makes Claremont, New Hampshire look the French Riviera.

Of the first ten houses on my walk lists, two buildings had been demolished, five were boarded up, and one was a homeless shelter. Things picked up for me a little bit as the day went on- I found a some stray Obama supporters here and there, though even they had a forlorn look about the whole thing, definitely not Obamamania. One cracked out resident asked me who I was supporting. Keep in mind that I had just handed him Obama literature, and was wearing an Obama headband and two Obama buttons on my jacket. I told him I was supporting the good Senator. He flashed a gold toothed smile. “Oh, good! I thought you were supporting George Bush! Go Obama!” Other members of my team actually had worse days than I did, reporting that between a third and half of the houses on their walk lists were boarded up, a most intense personalizing of the home foreclosure crisis. I had always assumed things in Ohio weren’t exactly great, but the dilapidation was more than I could have imagined.

The highlight of the canvassing experience belonged to Britt, who stumbled across a vagrant named Stony in an alleyway. After she asked him for directions, he insisted on accompanying her for the rest of the canvass, explaining that God had been telling him to look for a sign. “Maybe this is the sign,” Britt offered. Stony agreed, noting that he had only been on the way to the tobacco store to trade his cd for three dollars anyway, something he could do later. Stony canvassed all day, and after it was all over, pledged to volunteer for Obama for the remaining days until the primary.

While we were listening to Stony’s exploits at the Mansfield headquarters, a distinguished looking gentleman walked in. He explained that he was a State Representative for the area, and was checking in to see how the operation was running. When asked if he had endorsed Obama yet, he shook his head. “I certainly support Senator Obama, but you have to understand…Governor Strickland has the entire Democratic Party machine behind Clinton. He’s giving her all of the State Democratic Party offices for her to run her campaign out of, and pushing people to not lease space to the Obama campaign. He’s got a list of all the people who have endorsed Obama, including all us State Reps.” He paused. “He’s making a list, and checking it twice…”

Looking back, the influence of Strickland and perhaps the last functional machinery operating in the state of Ohio cannot be understated. Governor Ted Strickland is not just any random Party Apparatchik official- as Hillary Clinton’s presumptive running mate he had an enormous personal investment in the outcome of this primary. Strickland comes from the God, guns and gays wing of the Democratic Party, and if we're gonna make the tent big enough to embrace governors like him, he should have the decency not to intimidate supporters of Obama, who represent the inclusive coalition we will need to govern effectively.

Saturday night we attended a rally with Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who some consider a possible Obama VP. She is the two-term Governor of Kansas, no small feat for a Democrat, and her approval ratings are among the highest in the country. What we saw at the podium that night was someone who could be the first female president. She wasn’t a firebrand, and didn’t demand incessant rounds of applause in her stump speech. But she was precise, in command, and most importantly, soothing in much the same way Obama is. When she speaks of bleak times in the present, it’s only in the context of hope for the future. No one will ever call her shrill. Sebelius would make an excellent Vice Presidential nominee, and I’ll place her in the same boat as Ray Mabus and Jim Webb for that slot. Mark Shields, of Jim Lehrer New Hour fame, was on hand for the event- in fact, Timmy gave him directions to the event when he wandered into the Obama office. He was the most disarmingly friendly person of fame that I’ve ever come across, and I invited him to check out the RovingStorm Dispatches. If you’re reading this, Mark, welcome to the site!

Earlier in the weekend I had run into my Vegas co-worker Kevin Griffith, who after serving as Obama’s communications director in South Carolina now had the sweet-ass job of handling celebrity surrogates in Ohio. This is actually a job I had at Dartmouth for the Kerry campaign. It had its cool moments, like hosting Vanessa Kerry around campus for an evening (she’s pretty fun, actually). A less cool experience was hosting the C-List Celeb Brigade that stormed through town the day before the New Hampshire Primary. Strung out from late hours working on the campaign and drinking, I got a call to go find a tan van parked on the edge of the town green. Inside I found Max Weinberg, John Heinz, and Jason Priestly, who I did not recognize, much to his offense. I was never a fan of 90210… I muttered to myself as I led this entourage, which included a few other people I hadn’t heard of and their handlers around campus student centers, unable to answer the simple question posed to me, which was why an undecided Ivy League student voter would possibly be swayed by Jason Priestley. Max Weinberg was a hit though, and I had to rescue him from a swarm of acapella girls.

Thing’s were a little cooler here on the Obama campaign though, Kevin assured me. “Arcade Fire is coming to do four free shows in the state. If you stick around you’ll probably get to see them.” Timmy almost had a heart attack. The choice was clear. We finished a more routine day of canvassing in the Obama friendly Columbus suburbs, and gunned it for Nelsonville.

Live from Nelsonville

Nelsonville is an odd little town, full of hipsters, the scene of one of the great late 19th century mining strikes. Our crew of five was among the last people let in to a 450 person opera house. The mood was electrifying, and the band fantastic. Win, the lead singer, opened, “We drove 13 hours to be here, and every second was worth it!” He explained that the following song was written right before the 2004 election, when they knew Bush was going to win. “Hopefully our next album will be more optimistic…”

First Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZO7ZWfvCjBE&feature=related

Second Song (footage from Ohio tour): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88qA65pGun4&NR=1

At one point, Win stepped up to the mic, transparently as giddy to be there as we were. “You know, I don’t if it’s making any difference us being here…but we’re just so excited to be a part of it all…imagine, finally someone we can believe in! Thank you so much for having us!”

Third Song: http://youtube.com/watch?v=8GkIH74E-BI&feature=related

“This is a song Sam Cooke wrote about segregation. We recognize that it’s being sung by a rich white guy, but it still inspires us…”

Fourth Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qunFl3syXQ4&feature=related

Fifth Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNfWC4Sgkcs&feature=related

Sixth Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqGiCXtvokM

“I know it’s lame when celebrities tell you what do with your life. Not that we’re celebrities…But just please vote for Obama!”

Seventh Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLTWujAWWDo&feature=related

As an encore, an old Lennon classic…

Eighth Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybysPwL4iLU&feature=related

The energy, the humility, the magic meeting the moment- Arcade Fire is the perfect band to stump for Obama, and the perfect way for us to end our weekend. We drove through the night, arriving in New York City an hour before Margot had to be in court over a predatory lending/home foreclosure case. It’s all connected, a seamless web.

So why did Clinton win Ohio? The first reason is that the people of Ohio have nothing to look forward to, nothing to hope for. It is the land that hope forgot. There is nothing that any president can do to restore the steel towns that pepper the countryside. Springsteen said it himself:

Now main streets whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back to
Your hometown… your hometown… your hometown…

Of course, that was in 1984, and things have gotten worse, not better. Hope doesn’t resonate in these parts, not like fear of the other and the machinations of local party hacks working for Lord Strickland.

Some say that the two-front attack of personally smearing Obama and promoting herself as more likeable worked for Hillary this round. As usual in Clintonian politics, the short sightedness of her strategy is breathtaking. As far as I’m concerned, the trifecta of rabid fear mongering, racism and praising John McCain over her Democratic rival keep her in the solidly ‘despicable’, let alone ‘unlikable’ camp. First, there was the “3am” ad, in which Clinton, through images of a sleeping child, implied that Obama was ill-equipped to be president in an age of terror. The ad was replayed all over the media ad nauseum. If you want to find it, use Google, because this site has too much decency to play it here. Fear mongering of this kind is exactly why Hillary Clinton would make a horrible president. Deep at her core, if she still has one, she doesn’t believe that Democrats can ever lead this country without succumbing to the same paranoia driven foreign policy that have mired us in Iraq for six years. Obama has said throughout his campaign that he doesn’t just want to end this war, but that he wants to change the mindset that got us into war. This is the clearest distinction between the candidates. A vote for Clinton is a vote for saber rattling, carpet bombing and a prolonging to the war in Iraq, which she will announce the day she takes office.

I have included two clips below. In the first, she touts her and McCain’s experience, disparaging Obama’s experience as “a speech he gave in 2002.” Thanks Hillary, I’m sure that will play well in the general. The second is evidence that Hillary campaign darkened Obama’s face and widened his face and nose in an image, in an attempt to make him look menacing. As the site explains, there is no way to prove this with complete certainty, but the image alteration could not have been an accident, the image was on the Clinton campaign site, and the campaign originally denied knowing about the image’s existence, even though it was on their website as they claimed that!



All this leads me to making the second major distinction between Obama and Clinton, and that is class, as in classiness and dignity. Everyone knows what ugly skeletons lay in the Clinton closet, and most of us would wince at the thought of unpacking the new ones that have accumulated since Bill left office. But Obama has not gone after Clinton on any personal level, keeping the brunt of his offensive about the war, NAFTA, the divisiveness of the Clinton years, all rooted in observable fact. During her monumental losing streak, Clinton never once congratulated Obama on his victories, and in the end stopped acknowledging his existence at all. In contrast, the first thing Obama did in his speech on Tuesday night is congratulate Hillary on running an excellent campaign in Ohio and Texas, this after he called John McCain to congratulate him for winning the Republican nomination. Obama would bring back a d├ęcor of dignity and respectability to the White House which has not only been missing during the Bush years, but was dreadfully absent during the Clinton years.

So, what next? As most of you know, the pledged delegate count still significantly favors Obama, and according to rumors, the Superdelegate totals between the candidates may equalize as soon as tomorrow. Obama is expected to do well in many of the states remaining, such as Wyoming, Mississippi and North Carolina. Clinton, who has a Strickland clone in Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, will probably do well in Quaker country. But the votes simply aren’t there for Clinton to catch up, barring some absurd chicanery in Michigan and Florida, which I wouldn’t rule out. The campaign will drag on for another few weeks, maybe another few months…This will become a game of stamina, and provide a much needed respite to old man McCain, who can sit on the sideline and take potshots at Obama, knowing Hillary will back him up.

These are ugly times, folks, but no one said dismantling the machine would be easy or pretty. As for me, my next trip is to New Orleans, where I’ll lead a crew of law students in helping Katrina victims navigate the horrendous laws designed by Bush and Congress to ‘rebuild’ the Gulf Coast. I don’t when the next political Dispatch will come. This isn’t CNN, after all, and I don’t have to waste your time when I have nothing to say. But to beleaguered supporters in Obamaville, keep your head up. We won Texas, after all, and some say his ground organization there is the most impressive one since LBJ. A poll today shows McCain beating him there by one point in the general election! Hillary is not the worst nemesis Obama will have to deal with as Leader of the Free World. This is a test for him that will build character. This is a test he will pass, a battle he will win, a longer war for change that has only just begun. And so, like rough riders we roll…