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Crossroads at a President

The Occupation movement has a large contingent — not quite half — that is passionately opposed to endorsing the president of the United States for reelection. The president’s approval rating is actually a little worse among the general public, yet this portion of the the Occupation has managed to make the president into a source of division within the broader progressive movement. The Occupation was supposed to break our silos, but we are still talking past one another and that’s got to stop.

You’ve probably heard by now that black Americans are not taking part in the Occupation:

Beyond a lack of leaders to inspire them to join the Occupy fold, blacks are not seeing anything new for themselves in the movement. Why should they ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations? Perhaps white Americans are now paying the psychic price for not answering the basic questions that blacks have long raised about income inequality.

To be sure, there is something to this argument. It has taken a long time for white America to come around to a discussion of class, and in fact the only American conversation more screwed up than race is class. I think this was best phrased by comedian Elon James in a recent tweet:

“Oh? The Police are treating you badly? Violent for no reason? Weird.” – Black People

But I can’t help thinking back to Jane Hamsher, whose participation in the XL Keystone protests actually hurt their credibility in the African American ‘sphere. I’m also reminded of how John Lewis got shunned in Atlanta, giving that city’s mayor room to deny the Occupation legitimacy. Puritan gatekeeping gets you nothing.

Joan Walsh and Glenn Greenwald and David Sirota, et al — what I’ve come to call the Salonites — don’t seem to understand the topic of race privilege, much less class. Recognition that race is a cultural construct does not blunt the cumulative effect of constant attacks on the character and intelligence of the first African American president.

Put simply, the Bill Maher-Michael Moore set has alienated a huge Democratic demographic.

I have noted here before that getting progressives to do something together is exactly like wrangling butterflies. Take, for instance, the way Occupy Wall Street governs itself through a unicameral pure democracy; proposals must have 90 percent approval of the General Assembly. That’s far higher than Senate cloture.

Yet many of these same activists will turn around and criticize the president for trying to govern by consensus; many scream at every Democratic indiscipline. So when I call Obama progressive, look where he comes from. When progressives say the president hasn’t made enough progress, look where he comes from.

My sense is that the movement intuitively gets this. They should talk to the president — whether by mic check or delegation or stamped correspondence matters not one whit — as long as the president gets to talk back, and the two don’t talk past one another. Occupiers worried about the perception of being “co-opted” should remember this president has said he wants to hear from the left. It is just possible that he actually means it.

The same advice — don’t talk past one another — goes for my friends in the ‘sphere currently styling themselves “pragmatic” progressives, who misname the activist wing of our movement “emo” progressives. Such folk are merely less compromising, and suffer dissatisfaction as a normal state, because the activist is always driven to make change happen faster and cannot get their change fast enough. They are unhappy with the change they have gotten under Obama. Guess what? So am I, and so are most Americans. So is Obama, for that matter.

For those who want to start a whole new enterprise, I say that’s fine. Just don’t expect instant gratification. It took black America a long time to get any change; even with a black president in the White House, the problems of police racism and brutality still exist. This may be the hardest thing for the Occupation to accept: that winning a battle merely means you get to keep fighting. No single election, encampment, or confrontation will sweep aside the old order and give you a revolution. That’s not how the world works.

A conversation with Obama is key to bringing African Americans and Democrats into the Occupy movement. The alternative is to simply build a new silo marked with the #OWS hashtag and wonder why the left won’t connect. President Obama is practically the only unifying leader among African American voters anymore; the black church no longer enjoys the GOTV power it once had. With white Democrats a nearly extinct electoral species across the South, black elected leaders are finding themselves nearly powerless:

The nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says in a report issued Friday that despite Barack Obama’s election as president, black voters and elected officials in the South have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era.

Thus we find two movements prepared to walk away from one another despite very much needing one another. We took a long time to get to a discussion of inequality and injustice in America, and it will be a pity if we waste the chance to have that conversation.

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