January 22, 2009

With POP at the Inauguration

"The honeymoon is over, there is no honeymoon; study this man's history and don't tell me you didn't know. We need to continue to speak truth to power, fight the power and remain grassroots!"

"Yes, we must hold Obama accountable, but let's remember that the new President is about what we're about, Justice."

"We're about one agenda, Justice. We have many different viewpoints among us and I respect that whether I agree or disagree. We're about unity, but we must understand and remember what government he's in charge of, what country he's leading, and we need to be wary."

While a recent CNN poll suggests that more than 66% of African Americans believe that the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for this country has been fulfilled, this "great unity" was not evident at a recent meeting of the People's Organization for Progress, a grassroots African-American community-based organization that ran seven buses to the inauguration in order to celebrate the election of Barack Hussein Obama.

The view promoted by CNN's poll is significantly different than fewer than 12 months ago. In less than a year, more than two-thirds of Black people in this country have apparently come to this conclusion. Put another way, this is like less than 13 million people uniting around a farfetched belief one day gaining more 15 million additional adherents almost overnight. What accounts for this weird conversion experience? It is hard not to conclude that this is completely based on last November's presidential election.

Last November, as the presidential election drew nearer, the People's Organization for Progress found itself in a bit of a quandary. POP is an African-American led, Black majority grassroots organization with more than a quarter-of-a-century history of struggle in Newark, NJ. POP has organized for community empowerment: for better schools, protecting healthcare, for peace in the streets, against police abuse, for reparations for the descendants of African slaves, etc. While the organization's legacy includes struggles such as major voter-registration campaigns, organizing a fuel oil cooperative, and a municipal campaign for a civilian police review board in its early days, more recently POP made history in anti-police brutality campaigns, particularly obtaining convictions of five Orange, NJ cops in the murder of Earl Faison while in custody, as well as many other instances of police abuse.

While the these campaigns defined the People's Organization for Progress in the news media as an "anti-police" organization, POP's depth is more event in the range of issues it takes up, such as "peace in the streets" (minimizing the negative impact of street gangs), multiple campaign against closing public hospitals, for reparations, and organizing as well as leading the largest anti-Iraq War coalition in the state, with more than 150 grassroots, community, religious, veterans organizations and peace group participating. In fact, building this coalition has played a role in POP expanding beyond it's original base in Newark and Essex County, N.J.

POP was in an odd position. There was massive demand to support Senator Obama's candidacy, at the same time as a significant minority of members were involved in Black activist Cynthia McKinney's militantly populist campaign. To make matters more complicated, the bylaws and constitution of the People's Organization for Progress expressly forbids endorsing candidates to elected office. In the end, POP voted in this single instance to suspend the rule against endorsements. After the election, the demand for celebration took many forms. Who can ignore the dancing in the streets, not just in Brooklyn, Raleigh-Durham and L.A., but world-wide? POP decided to run affordable buses to D.C. on Inauguration Day. Because our $40 bus tickets stood out in sharp contrast to the $80 and more everyone else was charging, we had people signing up from as far away as the Bronx to take buses out of Newark.

But POP's internal debate continues. At a recent weekly General Assembly meeting, a broad range of views continued to be heard:
"This is an African man, with a Black family. He has a wife and a mother-in-law that we know will call him out when he does wrong. Not one, not two, he has four Black women in the White House to keep him on the straight and narrow."

"As a people, we need to be elated. We've come from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, to the White House!"

"Since the beginning I've been an Obama fan!"

"I don't know how people can say these things. This is our moment! You don't here the whites criticizing their own for their shortcomings. We need to be less self-destructive…"

"I'm a teacher, and I was very interested in my students views after the inauguration; a few of them connected to 'Bush is gone,' and I understood. A few of them connected to Rev. Lowery and I found that interesting…"

In the end, from the viewpoint suggesting that any negative statements about President Obama are part of a racist plot, to those members who believe that the most limited support is evidence of having "drank the Kool-Aid", POP reflect the diversity of our movement. But clearly, "orthodox leftists" are out of touch when we believe that the grassroots enthusiasm about Obama is just another case of going for the okey-doke, of being bamboozled by "Black Faces in High Places."

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