Originally published on Black Agenda Report, August 11, 2009
Paul Street, Iowa City, IA.
Good Times for Happy and Affluent White Folks
The current recession does not weigh very heavily on Iowa City in Johnson County, Iowa. Iowa City was recently named a “top small metropolitan area” in three career-related areas by Forbes Magazine. It was No. 5 in “Best Places to Begin a Career,” No. 5 for “Best Places for Business and Careers,” and No, 13 for “Top College Towns for Jobs.”
Consistent with these rankings, Iowa City has the second lowest official small city unemployment rate in the nation – 3.7 percent, behind Bismarck, North Dakota. According to DaLayne Williamson, Business Services Director of the Iowa City Area Development Group, “it’s important to be aware that Iowa City is continuing to receive these accolades even in the economic times we’re in.” During the last fiscal year, its main economic anchor, the University of Iowa, received a record-setting $430 million in grants and other external funding, including $216 million from U.S. Department of Public Health and Human Services for the university’s gigantic Colleges of Medicine and Public Health.
Local citizens, most of them employed by the university, including its giant medical complex, flock in the thousands to the community’s twice-a-week farmers’ market and the city’s annual spring Jazz Fest. They support a profitable, ever-more pricey local natural foods co-operative along with an inordinate number of gourmet coffee shops, small bookstores, health clubs, and massage therapy and yoga enterprises. Young families and smiling toddlers and infants are widely evident in and around the downtown and its shining commercial bar- and restaurant-lined “Ped Mall” on weekends and early summer evenings.
The very predominantly Caucasian town (86% white, 6% Asian, 4% black, and 3% “Hispanic”) is dotted and ringed with delightful, leafy residential sections containing tasteful oak-filled homes. In the Iowa City coffee houses in May, you can often hear professors and students discussing upcoming trips to Europe. Volvos, Saabs, Audis, and upper-end Hondas and Toyotas fill the downtown coop’s parking lots.
Stand By Your Man
Many of those cars still carry bumper stickers displaying admiration for Barack Obama. Iowa City is a very blue, that is Democratic, town, and its many middle class “liberals” and “progressives” are proud of the support they gave to the nation’s first black president during the election last November and in the pivotal Iowa Caucus of January 3, 2008. Along with his novelty, his Ivy League academic credentials (a big plus for Obama in campus towns), and his deceptive image as an “antiwar” candidate, Obama’s technical blackness was a major asset working on his behalf among many Iowa City caucus-goers in 2007 and 2008. A large number of those Caucasian caucusers (I talked to hundreds of them in the months leading up to the historic presidential Caucus) were eager to demonstrate their readiness to vote for a (very certain and qualified kind of) black presidential candidate – a topic to which I’ll return below.
Iowa City’s Obama passion continues intact even as the new president betrays yet one more aspect of his deeply duplicitous progressive campaign imagery after another. Obama and Obama-Biden bumper stickers remain ubiquitous here even in the wake of the openly centrist corporate-military president’s escalation of imperial violence in South Asia, his essential continuation of George W. Bush’s arch-authoritarian counter-terrorism campaign (replete with targeted assassination, military commissions, renditions, the denial of habeas corpus to dubiously designated “enemy combatants,” and the electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens), his stepped-up transfer of taxpayer wealth to (“too big [and powerful] to fail”) Wall Street financial perpetrators (heavily represented in Obama’s top economic positions), his refusal to fight for meaningful labor law reform (the now-dead Employee Free Choice Act, on which he campaigned strongly in Iowa), and his advance of a corporate-friendly “health reform” that fails to honor progressive majority opinion in support of evicting the wildly unpopular and parasitic insurance companies from health care. With some small exceptions in the areas of civil liberties and gay rights, Obama’s conservative corporate-imperial policy moves (widely predicted on the authentic Left) have elicited no audible protest from the upscale, heavily AcaDemocratic comrades of the so-called “People’s Republic of Johnson County.”
A “Transient,” a “Resident,” and a Deputy and His Glock
Given the purportedly “progressive” and non- and even anti-racist mindset of “liberal” Iowa City, it is curious to observe the pronounced indifference with which the town’s populace has responded to strong indications that a white 45 year-old Johnson County Deputy named Terry Stotler gunned down a homeless 26 year-old Sudanese black man named John Bior Deng without just cause outside an Iowa City tavern on the evening of Friday, July 24, 2009.
According to the official Iowa City Police Department (ICPD) story and the obedient Iowa City Press Citizen (Gannet News Service) account, Deng was killed by a plain clothes Johnson County “peace officer” responding by chance to a “transient’s” knife-wielding attack on an older “Iowa City resident.” The “transient” (Deng) was holding a knife and yelling threats at the “resident” (later identified as a white 63-year-old University of Iowa janitor named John Bohnenkamp). Stotler unsheathed his .40 caliber Glock pistol. When Deng (whose English comprehension was quite low) “disregarded” Stotler’s command and lunged toward Bohnenkamp “in a threatening manner,” the ICPD/Press-Citizen account ran, the deputy fired.
Stotler delivered a fatal single shot to the left side of Deng’s chest. The young homeless man’s blood collected in a pool on the sidewalk in front of a business called City Electric, just a few blocks south of the Ped Mall, where a large crowd soaked up beer and the cool summer breeze while John Bior Deng drew his final breath.
“I Saw a Cop Shoot a Guy in Cold Blood”
This official story might have stood without challenge but for the remarkable and dramatically differing testimony of two white telecommunications workers. Brock Brones, 22, and Mike Tibbetts, 40, both Iowa City residents, saw the incident unfold up-close sitting in a car stopped in an alley (directly east of City Electric) where they had a full view of the events and turned off their car radio so they could hear what was occurring.
Here are 10 relevant short paragraphs from a story based on their testimony on the front page of the Sunday, July 26th edition of The Gazette, an eastern Iowa newspaper based in Cedar Rapids:
“‘There was no knife, there was no lunging,’ Tibbetts said. ‘I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.’Brones, 22, and Tibbetts, 40, who both work for a telecommunications company in Iowa City, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to Old Capitol Brew Works to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.”
“A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso.”
”The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man — whose side was covered in blood [that would be John Bohnenkamp] — was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.”
”The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.”
” ‘I don’t give a f—,’ the homeless man responded. The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down.”
”Again, the homeless man said he didn’t care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Brones and Tibbetts said.”
”The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.”
”In fact, Brones said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.”
“It wasn’t aggressive,” Brones said. “He was just drunk.”
“… ‘He could hardly stand,’ Brones said of the homeless man.”
(After (curiously enough) doing a criminal background check on Brones and Tibbetts, Gazette reporter Adam Belz found that the latter witness has two minor drug convictions and two DUIs (called OWIs in Iowa) on his record. But Tibbetts rightly noted that his record “has absolutely nothing to do with” what he observed on the evening of Friday, July 24th, “I could be Hitler, at this point,” Tibbetts told Belz, “and it doesn’t change what I just saw.”
Why did Tibbetts and Brones go to the Gazette, not the police, with their account? Long-time local residents I spoke with attribute this to reasonable fear of police retaliation. As one white Iowa City woman with harrowing stories of the treatment her mixed-race children have received from the ICPD explained to me, “they went to the paper first to cover their ass in case the cops go after them.”
“Pick Those Goddamned Bottles Up”
Another eyewitness (still anonymous as of this writing) reports that “resident” Bohnenkamp’s role was less than innocent. This informant notes that Bohnenkamp began yelling at Deng from more than a block away upon leaving the Hawkeye Hideaway tavern, directly across from the City Electric parking lot in which Deng was shot. The custodian was upset because Deng had dropped some bottles he was collecting to cash in at a local grocery store (a frequent activity of Iowa City’s significant homeless population.). Bohnenkamp (emboldened by drink?) instigated the altercation by angrily approaching Deng, loudly commanding the “transient” to “pick those goddamned bottles up.” It seems possible that Deng was defending himself against Bohnenkamp before being blown away by Stotler, with Bohnenkamp telling the officer to shoot.
A local middle-aged African-American woman told me that a number of black Iowa City residents who rode in a passing city bus  also report a version of the Deng-Stotler-Bohnenkamp incident that is at odds with the official story. They are unwilling to testify, the woman says, “because they have [criminal] records.” I take this to mean that they do not wish to deepen their already unpleasant contact with the criminal justice system (especially in a way that would displease authorities) and also perhaps that they do not wish to be potentially identified in the media (as the white Tibbetts was) as people with past convictions. Thanks to the objectively racist “war on drugs,” a third of adult black U.S. men currently possess felony records. Given the fact that felony possession is a major barrier to employment, many people with criminal histories are compelled to lie on job applications as they seek to attain basic income by renting out their labor power. Having one’s record mentioned in public (or to one’s employer by a police officer) can mean the loss of employment. In this and other ways, racially disparate mass felony-marking is a powerful, all-too-hidden form of civic disenfranchisement.
Little Turnout for Deng (2009), Huge Turnout for Obama (2008)
Four evenings after the Gazette story quoted above, forty or so concerned Iowa City residents convened the first meeting of a group calling itself Citizens for Social Justice (CSJ). The gathering took place in the city’s pleasant downtown public library. The group seeks a proper burial for Deng and full public disclosure on the facts surrounding his killing and the investigation that is conducted. It hopes to exert public pressure to increase the likelihood of a thorough and honest inquiry by the state attorney general’s office.
The CSJ meeting’s time and place was announced in advance at the end of an eloquent Press-Citizen column (titled “Citizens for Social Justice”) by Dr. Vershawn Young, a University of Iowa professor of African-American Studies and Rhetoric. The meeting, very disproportionately black, was sparsely attended by Iowa City’s white liberals, who turned out in record-making tens of thousands for Barack Obama on a cold evening in early January of 2008. Two minutes before the meeting began, I personally saw two prominent white Iowa City Obama campaign activists saunter past the library without so much as a glance at the people gathering to attend.
In his column, Young noted that he had predicted last May (in a conversation with the Citizen-Press’s opinion editor) “that a black man would be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances. I also said,” Young related, “that the citizens of Iowa City would probably be insufficiently enraged….I was right about the first prediction,” the professor added, “I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction” (Vershawn Young, “Citizens for Social Justice,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 29, 2009, read at http://www.press-citizen.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2009907290302 ).
Three Disconnects in White Middle Class Liberalism-Obamaism
I also hope the professor is wrong on the second point, but I expect his prediction of “insufficient enragement” to be born out. White middle-class Iowa City “liberals” might be proud of how their readiness to vote for Obama proved transcendence of crude, old-fashioned racial bigotry. But here as elsewhere, white Obamaists’ “progressivism” has been consistently complicated by three basic and interrelated disconnects or contradictions:
- Between (a) their stated reasons for embracing Obama (that doing so represented meaningful statements against militarism and racism and for social reform and justice) and (b) Obama’s actual record (readily available to those willing to do some basic due-diligence research ) of being deeply conciliatory toward existing domestic and imperial power structures, including institutional racism.
- Between (a) their stated reasons for supporting the president and (b) their sharply evident lack of interest in existing local rank-and-file organizations engaged in day-to-day struggles for peace and justice. During my nearly three years in Iowa City, I’ve repeatedly been struck by the sharp contrast between the town’s “progressive” reputation and identity and its apparent acceptance of the dominant U.S. definition of corporate-crafted elections as the only politics that matter. Iowa City residents turned out in the many thousands to hear the legendary left intellectual and anti-imperial social critic Noam Chomsky speak in the city’s downtown in April of 2006. The town’s progressives would do well to heed Chomsky’s words on the eve of the 2004 presidential election:
“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. …”
“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. …”
“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not every four years.… In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (Chomsky, “The Disconnect in American Democracy,” October 27, 2004, reproduced in Chomsky, Interventions [San Francisco: City Lights, 2007, 97-100).
It is characteristic of the local population’s tendency to be overly mesmerized by “electoral extravaganzas” that Iowa City is loaded with middle-class white “progressives” who were eager to vote for a black man but who know and do nothing about the fact that their state ranks number one in terms of racially disparate incarceration rates – this in a nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate and more than 2 million prisoners, nearly half of them black (though blacks are just 12 percent of overall U.S. population).
- Between (a) many local white Obama fans’ proud willingness to demonstrate supposed non- or even anti-racism by voting for a black presidential and (b) their indifference, insensitivity, and even hostility toward the plight of the rising number of poor black American residents who live under segregated and impoverished conditions in the increasingly feared and loathed “Broadway” neighborhood out on Iowa City’s southeast side. More than a few of my “progressive” white neighbors with “Obama-Biden” stickers on their home windows and cars are prone to describing that growing black population as criminals, “welfare-shoppers,” a “drain on local resources,” and “those people” who “don’t know how to behave” and are “ruining Iowa City.” In a popular and false local narrative, “all” of Iowa City’s expanding lower-class black-American population “comes from Chicago” and most especially from that city’s torn-down public housing projects. A significantly police-instigated incident in the Broadway neighborhood last May was widely portrayed among Iowa City whites (“progressive” and not) as some sort of anarchic black “riot.” Obama fans I know rolled their eyes as they declaimed the hideous underclass stirrings underway “out there” last May.
Of course, many affluent white “liberals’” willingness to support Obama has always been predicated on him being a certain kind of black “but not like Jesse” candidate and president – one who is not too outwardly black-American (culturally speaking) and who does not challenge white America’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge the persistent toxic and powerful role that entrenched societal racism and institutionally encoded white privilege play (in intimate linkage to related underlying structures of capitalist domination) in American life.
The two leading and most reliable sections of the Obama coalition during the Democratic primary season were black Americans and affluent, highly educated whites. Racial factors were critical in both cases. For many black voters, the huge majority of whom chose Obama over Edwards and Hillary Clinton (and who told pollters in large numbers that race was a major factor in their choice), it was a simple and understandable matter of racial pride and symbolic representation. Despite lingering reservations about the bourgeois Obama’s “blackness,” the prospect of electing the nation’s “first black president” naturally carried no small weight in the black community.
With affluent Democrats, the racial calculus was different and more complex. Two days before the heavily Caucasian Iowa caucus, one forthcoming progressive Iowa City Democrat in a heavily academic and 99 percent white precinct told me something I’d been picking up for some time. “Obama,” he reflected, “is a way for highly educated liberal and moderate whites around here to pat themselves on the back and say ‘hey, I’m not too prejudiced to vote for a black guy.’ Look, I hate nuclear power and the big corporations that Kucinich and even Edwards are always railing against. Those guys are much better on the issues than Hillary and Obama on the other issues, no doubt about it. But it’s not going to mean a hill of beans with these folks around here. This is a chance for them to say show they’re not racist and that they hate the war by going with Obama.” But it was all premised, he agreed, on Obama being a “good,” that is “middle class” and “not-too fiery black” – one who promised not to offend white sensibilities by confronting white privilege in any meaningful way. Like the racially accomodationist, white-soothing media mogul and mass Obama marketer Oprah Winfrey (who held huge campaign events with Obama in Iowa before that state’s critical Caucus), Obama could capitalize on many middle- and upper-middle-class whites’ formal, state-of-mind repudiation of ugly racial bigotry because he reassured them he would honor their reluctance to acknowledge and confront the continuing power of deeper, state-of-being societal and institutional racism in American life.
In Iowa City and other “progressive” campus communities, Obama was something of a Great White Hope.There as elsewhere across the disproportionately white college-town islands of Obama Nation, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker’s early 2008 observation that Obama “smoothly, strategically, and subtly mines the wells of white guilt” was relevant. So, sadly, was the black reactionary Shelby Steele’s observation that white Americans’ Obamalust was “all about gratitude. White people are just thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn’t rub their noses in racial guilt. White people just go crazy over people like that.” At the same time, Obama’s technical blackness has encouraged many voters to see him as more progressive than he actually is, partly because the black community as a whole tends strongly towards the leftward side of the issue and policy spectrum.
We should be careful, however, about over-generalizing about “white people” as a whole. Obama’s white support in the primaries was disproportionately affluent. Contrary to claims that his campaign transcended race, Obama was heavily plagued by racial bloc voting in the primary race. While he pulled down more than four in every five black votes in most states, he lost the white working- and lower-class and rural vote and he did particularly badly with white voters in the South, reflecting historical tendencies that are well known.
It would be comforting (from a progressive standpoint) to think that many white working class voters resisted Obama and preferred Hillary Clinton (and to some extent Edwards, who dropped out before Super Tuesday) and in some cases McCain because of “Wall Street Barry’s” excessive closeness to capital. I saw some of them of that dynamic working on the surprisingly populist Edwards’ behalf in union households in Iowa. But Hillary Clinton was just as economically conservative as Obama and just as close to the corporate and imperial elite.
The main thing explaining many white working- and lower-class voters’ greater reluctance to support Obama was that he was black. The notion of putting him in the White House worked against what W.E.B. DuBois once called the “psychological wage of racism”  once usefully summarized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the satisfaction of …thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” . Such “satisfaction” is more commonly sought and “required” by whites in the lower reaches of the United States’ steep socioeconomic structure than it is by those in positions of relative wealth, power, and status.
But this does not mean that Iowa City’s liberal middle- and upper-middle-class whites were or are all that much “better” on race. There are racism- and classism-preserving white psychological “race wages” above as well as within and below the working class. For some Caucasians in more elite occupational and socioeconomic categories, there exists what might be called a “psychological wage of superficial non-racism” – the boosting of one’s sense of superiority over less well-off whites by exhibiting one’s rejection of uncouth, lower-class racial bigotry (by voting for a certain kind of safe, technically black politician, for example) while simultaneously resisting any substantive challenge to persistent racial advantages accruing to middle- and upper-class beneficiaries of white skin privilege. The Obama campaign was perfectly calibrated for that curious mixture of racial pseudo-benevolence and intra-Caucasian class arrogance.
For this and other reasons, including their tendency to accept the dominant restriction of relevant politics to “winning” narrow-spectrum, corporate-crafted, candidate-centered “quadrennial electoral extravaganzas,” I frankly don’t expect the white and liberal citizens of Iowa City to get terribly energized about the cold-blooded gunning down of an impoverished homeless black man in the heart of their affluent and “progressive” campus town. I’d love to be proven wrong and am actively engaged in trying to disprove, or at least qualify, my own thesis.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
- Adam Belz, “Deputy Shot Man ‘In Cold Blood’: Witness,” The Gazette, July 26, 2009, 1A, read online at http://www.tmcnet.com/usubmit/-deputy-shot-man-cold-blood-witness-officer-put-/2009/07/26/4291806.htm
- City bus schedules and maps verify that one bus connecting Iowa City’s downtown with the town’s growing black community (the “Lakeside” in-bound) was possibly present (passing or stopped at an intersection close to the killing site) within sight of the incident at the time it happened.
- See, for example, Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers 2008); Paul Street “Obama’s First Hundred Days: A Critical Assessment From the Left,” ZNet (May 1, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21315 ; Paul Street, “Honduras, Washington, and Liberal-Left Grasping at Straws,” ZNet July 7, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/21909 .
- For instructive historical reflections on DuBois, race, and white working class consciousness, see David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991).
- Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Drum Major Instinct,” pp. 259-267 in Martin Luther King, Jr.., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. By James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991). Quotation from p. 264.