Obama’s Sinister Silence in the Year of the Protestor

ZNet. Wednesday, December 21, 2011. As he approaches what could be his next-to-last Christmas in the White House, conservative U.S. President Barack Obama is trying to sound and look progressive – like someone Rachel Maddow and the other MSNBC political hosts can be proud to “lean forward” with. Having claimed to understand the popular economic frustrations that led to the Occupy Movement, he is posing as a progressive agent of “grassroots” change in opposition to the arrogant rich. Consistent with the late and formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ useful description of the “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism,” he is presenting himself as a man of the people fighting to give ordinary, hard working folks a “square deal” in their eternal struggle with the malefactors of wealth. It’s called being in “campaign mode.” 

It’s a strategy that requires a giant amount of recent American political and policy history to be sent – I should say kept – down Orwell’s memory hole. As I have detailed at depressing length in numerous previous publications, Obama’s presidential record has been a chilling monument to the power of the nation’s “unelected dictatorship of money.”[1] Rather than burden my loyal readers (all three of you) yet again with the dismal policy specifics, let me nominate as useful epitomes and emblematic expressions of Obama’s undying fealty to the newly famous One Percent the president’s response to the two great explosions of genuinely progressive and grassroots activism that exploded on to the stage of American history in 2011, for which Time magazine has recently designated “the protestor” as the “person of the year”:[2] the Madison, Wisconsin labor uprising of February and March and the Occupy Wall Street rebellion of October and November. 

“To Stay Out of the Fray in Madison”  

“Change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” So said presidential candidate Barack Obama to 4000 supporters in Madison, Wisconsin in October of 2007. [3] 

So where did President Obama line up when a thunderous sea of public sector workers and their supporters swarmed into  the streets of Madison for days and weeks on end to protest right wing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s outrageous assault on union power, collective bargaining rights, and social programs last February and March? Walkers attack on workers’ rights and government services sparked a remarkable popular movement that put as many as 150,000 protestors in Madison, the state capital, on a regular basis, and put a national and global media spotlight on the Badger state. 

Obama responded to this incredible outburst of mass opposition to the arch-reactionary agenda of a hard right, Tea Party-affiliated Republican governor in a most conservative way. As Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman observed in the second week of the Wisconsin protests, Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Top Democratic officials told Weisman that this was because Obama “is eager to occupy the political center…to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election.”[4] New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes learned in early March that the White House intervened in anger against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the Wisconsin labor rebellion, which administration officials found contrary to their happy neoliberal message: 

“..the White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights. When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters…Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address, in which he exhorted the country to… ‘out-innovate and out-educate’ its global rivals.”[5] 

Calmes might have gone further. She could have added that lining up with union members and worker-citizens fighting to protect state revenues and labor rights would not have squared well with the administration’s own regressive freeze on federal wages and hiring, with its decision to pass on George W. Bush’s plutocratic tax cuts for the rich, or with the assault on public spending the administration itself was conducting in partnership with the Republican House. Obama’s failure to align himself strongly with the public workers and their fight within and beyond Madison was consistent further with his centrist campaign pledge to be a “post-partisan leader” ready to take on his own party’s union base. It matched: his support (over the opposition of teachers’ unions) of charter schools and “performance-based” teacher pay; his recent advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by labor; his recent public strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation’s management-friendly labor laws, and his federal workers salary freeze (a move that angered by public sector union members). [6] Before the progressive labor rebellion broke out, Obama had already gone far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the narrative that American prosperity was being undone by overpaid public workers and excessive government regulation, not by the real culprits on Wall Street, who recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008.[7]  

“Instead, Obama was Silent”  

It was unrealistic, perhaps, to expect the president to throw his hat in the ring with mass direct action in Wisconsin or anywhere else. But Obama and his handlers distanced themselves from the Wisconsin fight even after the state’s union and Democratic Party leadership succeeded in shutting down the mass protests and channeling the fight against Walker and the state G.O.P. into a campaign to recall a number of Republicans from the state senate in special elections to be held in early August. The White House’s refusal to enter even this major party electoral battle on labor and the Democrats’ side may well have cost unions a chance to reverse Walker’s ugly anti-labor legislation. As the liberal academic Peter Dreier noted on the Huffington Post (in an article titled “Why Was Obama Missing-in-Action in Wisconsin?”) the week after the Republicans survived the special election with the state senate majority barely intact:

 “….Obama has been sitting on the sidelines, failing to use his bully pulpit to encourage the burgeoning movement to protect working families from the corporate- and Tea Party-sponsored attacks.” 

“Obama’s silence could be felt on Tuesday in the outcome of the special recall elections through which Democrats and liberals sought to turn back the tide of Republican reaction. Had Obama gone to Wisconsin and campaigned for Democrats, or even made a few public statements endorsing the Democrats seeking to unseat six of Walker’s right-wing state Senate allies, the liberal Democrats might have turned a narrow defeat into a spectacular unprecedented victory.”

“…So where was Obama, the former community organizer, while Wisconsinites were mobilizing a heroic effort to defend Democratic values and defeat the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party….? Had Obama used his bully pulpit to endorse the Democrats, praise the grassroots organizers, and encourage voters to come to the polls, it is likely that enough additional Democrats (2,190 in district 14; 5,376 in district 8) would have come to the polls to turn the narrow Republican victories into Democratic triumphs…”

“…Even if he didn’t step foot in Wisconsin, Obama could have indicated that he was aware of the Wisconsin battle and espoused his support for the progressives and Democrats. He could have affirmed his belief in collective bargaining, criticized Walker’s right-wing assault on basic services, attacked the avalanche of corporate and right-wing money pouring into Wisconsin, praised the states grassroots activists waging a battle for economic justice and fairness, and encouraged Democrats to vote in those six critical elections. Those organizers would have been inspired by Obama’s words. They would have returned the favor by supporting Obama’s re-election campaign next year.” 

“Instead, Obama was silent.” [8] 

“Your Silence Sends a Message” 

Flash forward two months. When the remarkable, anti-plutocracy Occupy movement broke into the national and global spotlight from its original base in New York City’s financial district last October, Obama and other top Democrats smelled some opportunity. “For a Democratic Party dispirited by its president’s sliding approval ratings,” the Wall Street Journal correctly reported early on, “the new energy has been greeted as a tonic comparable to what Republican congressional leaders tapped in the tea party movement – and are now finding it difficult to harness… Democrats see an avenue to bring the anger back to their side.”[9]  Still, Obama had nothing nice to say about the movement itself – no words of encouragement or recognition for its determination to act in accord with the notion that progressive “change happens from the bottom up.”  And, of course, he had nothing to say when the Wall Street titan Michael Bloomberg (the 12th richest person in the U.S) and numerous other Democratic (Bloomberg is an Independent) big city mayors cracked down violently on the movement in mid and late November. The proto-totalitarian, militarized police state repression unfolded without the slightest hint of disapproval from a “progressive” president whose time was occupied with skipping from one $34,000 plus-a-plate fundraising dinner to another and who was advancing the One Percent’s neoliberal trade agenda in Asia and Australia when the biggest wave of urban Occupy evictions took place in mid-November. Especially chilling was the eviction conducted in the dead of late night and early morning in lower Manhattan. By one eyewitness account: 

“The area around Zuccotti Park was subject last night to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown (the Times’ Media Decoder blog says that journalists are describing the tactics as a media blackout). ..reading the various news stories, it appears they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the reported tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the kitchen, as well as separate accounts of the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM, reader Wentworth reported that police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.”  [10] 

A friend wrote the following to Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo from London after the 1 AM raid on Zucotti Park: “Seems like the U.S. police are resorting to measures more reminiscent of a dictatorship. I hope Obama is happy!” Coleman-Adebayo was reminded of past visits to South Africa, where she heard anti-apartheid activists recall “the dark days of repression and how police would conduct raids during the early morning hours knowing that their victims would be groggy and fearful in the dark.”  Obama, Coleman-Adebayo wrote, “has remained silent about violent police actions to remove Occupy Wall Street protestors across the nation whether New York, Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles or elsewhere. As president, Obama should be the primary defender of the Constitution, yet he remains silent, apart from hypocritically pontificating on global platforms while at home the economy crashes and violent police actions against peaceful protestors take place.”[11] 

Around this time Obama delivered a jobs speech at a high school in the town of Manchester in the politically pivotal state of New Hampshire. Using their patented “human microphone” method, Occupy activists interrupted the president minutes into his oration, decrying the repression of peaceful protestors at Occupy encampments around the country. They were quickly countered by students, who began chanting, “Obama! Obama!” But after the speech, an Occupier got close enough to Obama to pass him a note which read as follows: “Mr. President: Over 4000 peaceful protesters have been arrested. While bankers continue to destroy the American economy. You must stop the assault on our 1st amendment rights. Your silence sends a message that police brutality is acceptable. Banks got bailed out. We got sold out.”[12] 

The administration was likely more than merely silent. The multiple metropolitan repressions and evictions were partly coordinated with assistance and advice from Obama’s FBI and Homeland Security department.[13] 

The Symbols and Gestures 

On February 14 of 2011, just as the Madison uprising was taking off, Barack Obama said something interesting to liberal author Ron Susskind. “Going forward as president,” Obama intoned in the Oval Office, “the symbols and gestures – what people are seeing coming out of this office – are at least as important as the policies we put forward.” It was a remarkable statement of the president’s apparently shameless embrace of the ugly fact that American politics is as much about imagery, words, marketing, and manipulation as it is about actual deeds and policy substance – about perception “at least” as reality. I cannot help but wonder if Obama is aware that his silence on the great popular, grassroots struggles for change that arose in the United States this year – and his silence on the vicious repression (with administration assistance and approval) of one of those struggles – sends a deafening message of corporatist, fake-progressive hypocrisy. 

Indefinite Detention Made Permanent 

Obama’s silence on police state methods aided and abetted (at the very least) by his presidency seems less than surprising when we realize that the president (a former constitutional law professor who campaigned as a civil libertarian critic of George W. Bush’s Orwellian measures) is currently “poised to sign into law terrible new measures that will make indefinite detention and military trials a permanent part of American law.” The measures, attached to the annual giant U.S. military budget bill,  will also “strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military, which has made clear that it doesn’t want the job. The legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial…[It also] leaves open the possibility of subjecting American citizens to military detention and trial by a military court…will make it impossible to shut the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba [and] includes an unneeded expansion of the authorization for the use of military force in Afghanistan to include indefinite detention of anyone suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda or an amorphous group of ‘associated forces’ that could cover just about anyone arrested anywhere in the world.” [14]

I am quoting the editors of the leading establishment newspaper The New York Times, not the ACLU or Human Rights Watch, who have naturally denounced Obama’s chillingly dictatorial position.[15] 

The Coming Repression in Chicago 

Meanwhile, news comes that Obama’s former White House militantly corporatist chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel is preemptively assaulting free speech in his new role as the Mayor of Chicago. Anticipating mass protests during upcoming G8 and NATO summits in Chicago, Democratic boss Emmanuel plans to significantly raise fines and toughen “security” measures to strongly discourage citizen action against the economic and military powers that be. Last week he introduced a City Council ordinance that would temporarily raise fines imposed on anyone who resists police or aids someone escaping arrest. During the May 2012 summits, Mayor “Rahmbo” wants to increase the minimum fine from $25 to $200 and to double the maximum fine to $1000. His ordinance will also close city parks, beaches, and playgrounds overnight for longer periods of time.[16]  We can be sure that protestors in Chicago will face an especially concentrated and determined example of the awesome militarized police deployment that has become standard domestic-totalitarian state-capitalist operating procedure at global summits in recent years. Superpower’s repressive corporate-managed fake-democracy is a richly bipartisan affair in the “homeland” as well as abroad. 

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books and studies, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Lirttlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com  

Selected Endnotes

[1] On Obama’s first year in office, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), especially (in connection with economic and business policy), Chapter 1: “Business Rule as Usual.”  I have updated the terrible story at length on ZNet, at Counterpunch, and at Black Agenda Report. One useful (I hope) update through late July of this year is Paul Street, “Whose Black President? Getting Things Done for the Rich and Powerful,” Counterpunch (July 30, 2011) at http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/07/30/whose-black-president/

 [2] See Kurt Anderson, “Time Person of the Year: The Protestor,” Time (December 14, 2011), read at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132_2102373,00.html

 [3] Quoted in Quinn Craugh, “Obama Greets 4,000 at Monona Terrace, Calls for Big Change,” University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal (October 16, 2007) read at http://www.dailycardinal.com/article/734  

[4] Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Sits Out State Fights,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2011, A4 

[5]  Jackie Calmes, “Less Drama in White House After Staff Changes,” New York Times, March 3, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/us/politics/04staff.html?_r=3

[6] Weisman, “Obama Sits Out.” 

[7] Robert Reich, “Obama’s Republican Narrative of Our Economic Woes,” The Berkeley Blog, December 2, 2010 at http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2010/12/02/two-competing-stories-of-whats-wrong-with-the-economy/ 

[8] Peter Dreier “Why Was Obama Missing-in-Action in Wisconsin?” Huffington Post (August 11, 2011). 

[9] WSJ, October 7, 2011, A1. 

[10] “Police State: #OWS, Other Crackdowns Part of National, Coordinated Effort,” Naked Capitalism (November 15, 2011) at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/11/police-state-ows-other-crackdowns-part-of-national-coordinated-effort-bloomberg-defies-court-order-to-let-protestors-back-into-zuccotti-park.html 

[11] Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, “Obama Silent, Bloomberg Wrong on Constitutional Rights,” Black Agenda Report (November 22, 2011). 

[12] http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/occupy-protestor-hands-president-obama-note-201229558.html 

[13] David Lindorff, “Police State Tactics Point to a Coordinated National Program to Try and Unoccupy Wall Street and Other Cities,” This Can’t Be Happening (November 15, 2011) at http://thiscantbehappening.net/node/900; Andy Kroll, “Mayors and Cops Traded Strategies for Dealing with Occupy Protestors,” Mother Jones (November 16, 2011), read at http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/11/occupy-protest-coordinate-crackdown-wall-street;  Nigel Duara, “Mayors, Police Chiefs Talk Strategy on Protests,” Associated Press (November 15, 2011), read at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2011/11/15/mayors_police_chiefs_talk_strategy_on_protests/

[14] ”Politics Over Principle,” New York Times, December 15, 2011, read at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/16/opinion/politics-over-principle.html?

[15] Glenn Greenwald, “Three Myths About the Detention Bill,” Salon (December 16, 2011), read at http://www.salon.com/writer/glenn_greenwald/

[16] Michael Eloy, “Protestors Cry Foul Over Proposed G8, NATO Restrictions,” Common Dreams (December 16, 2011), read at http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2011/12/16-5

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By | 2012-02-02T15:04:44+00:00 December 21st, 2011|Articles|