Despite mixed feelings about Obama, protesters fight Mitt Romney, the ‘King of the 1%’
Politics is an elaborate chess match, and in St, Petersburg one small strike was staged against the Republican National convention on Aug. 26 that revealed the thrust of President Obama’s 2012 re-election strategy.
As panicky Republicans cancelled the first day of the convention on Monday because of Tropical Storm Isaac, the focus on Sunday was the “RNC Welcome Event” at Tropicana Field. These days no major convention event is complete without a counter-protest, and in downtown St. Petersburg nearly 500 people gathered Sunday to march to the sports stadium and voice their displeasure at what they derided as “the world’s largest cocktail party.”
Given the spitting rain and gusts, the turnout was better than expected. And given the months of police and press hype that a mob of mayhem-wreaking anarchists would crash the RNC, the protest rally around Mirror Lake seemed more like a festive Sunday in the park.
A couple of hundred people milled about as Dave Rovics belted out crowd pleasers like “I’m a Better Anarchist than You.” A handful of buses pulled up and disgorged more protesters who came from far away as Miami, New York city and Wisconsin. The rally and protest was organized by the Florida Consumer Action Network, a local grassroots organization focused on public policy issues.
Few anarchists were in evidence, apart from a scrum of fidgety black-clad youth who melted into the rally after drawing stares. It felt like an Occupy-related event with a giant puppet of Romney tagged with a “King of the 1%,” and chants of “We are the 99%.”
Grabbing attention with his preacher’s cadence, Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, announced, “I’m here to stop the corporate takeover of America.” Sykes castigated “our leaders [who] want to privatize Social Security, Healthcare, Education and Prisons.” He blasted Mitt Romney for wanting “to enrich the 1%.” And he described the November presidential ballot in epic terms: “We’re not just fighting for the 2012 election. We’re fighting for the future of America as we know it.”
On the fringes off the rally, next to a pack of camouflage-clad sheriff’s deputies, a pungent, hippie-looking gentleman with a Ron Paul 2012 sign dangling around his neck and a video camera taped to his helmeted head, taunted the crowd. “Do any of these hippies here supporting Obama know that Obama has dropped two times as many bombs as Bush?”
His words stung one observer who yelled back that “Obama has to do the bidding of Washington.”
The exchange captured the conflicting mindset of the Democratic base. Romney, Ryan and the right are painted, not unfairly, as extremists who will hurtle America back to the dark ages. But Obama, despite sitting in the Oval Office, is seen as powerless.
The weather and fear mongering no doubt cut down on the turnout, but one community organizer clued me in to another factor. The organizer, who wished to remain anonymous, said “A lot of people I work with don’t have hope in national politics. There was an element of fear about the RNC, ‘Can I even go outside with all the street closures and restrictions?’ There is definitely animosity toward Republicans, a lot of ‘Fuck these guys,” but my members also questioned what was going to be accomplished by going out in front of the barricades. I heard a lot of ‘It’s not going to change nothing.’”
The anti-RNC event was labeled a “community vigil,” and it was strikingly diverse. There were anarchists, socialists, libertarians and unaffiliated radicals. Mostly it was white middle-class liberals, working-class African-Americans and a collage of poor people. There were numerous tee shirts and signs indicating support for Obama. What united the crowd was the 99% rhetoric.
That was by design. The community organizer said, “The word from on high was, ‘Don’t say working class, don’t say poor. Say middle class or 99%.’” Why 99%, I asked. “Because it polls well” the organizer explained.
The Occupy Wall Street movement lives on from student-debt campaigning and labor solidarity to home foreclosure defense and anti-fracking organizing. But as a national force Occupy has been reduced to a bogeyman police and politicians dangle in front of a lapdog media that dutifully report every outlandish allegation as stone-cold truth, and it exists as a mobilizing force for the Democratic Party.
You see, Obama is running a re-election campaign using Occupy Wall Street’s language. He won’t say the 99% or 1% outright. That would be too divisive, or so the media owned by the 1% say. But the attacks on Bain capital outsourcing and Romney’s secret tax returns are tapping into the volcano of anger that Occupy gave life to. Late last year an official in the AFL-CIO’s national office told me that Romney was their “dream candidate,” and in April Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn told me that Mitt Romney was “Mr. 1%.” Unions like SEIU and liberal groups such as MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream carry the water in flogging the message that Romney will be the president of the 1% who will turn the screws even harder on the rest of us.
That assessment is not untrue. The right would unleash a world of pain on most Americans. But the nature of our endless electoral process, which sucks all the oxygen out of the brain, blinds most Obama supporters to how the Democratic Party is complicit in pushing our politics to the right.
With close to one third of the population in or on the cusp of poverty, 46 million on food stamps, 51 million uninsured, a “real” unemployment rate stuck at 15 percent, millions of families doubled up and millions of homes still entering foreclosure, Obama can’t run on his economic record. Sure, much of the fault is the guy before him, but that excuse wears thin after four years. Particularly because Obama rode into office with a congressional super majority and a road paved with political capital.
But just as Clinton turned Reagan-era extremism into a bipartisan consensus, Obama doubled-down on the “war on terror,” and endorsed cutting Social Security and Medicare and enacting austerity policies within a year of taking office. Obama thus helped enable the next stage of right-wing extremism that he is now running against.
So it’s not really ironic that Obama has swiped the language of Occupy, even as his FBI and Homeland Security have made Occupy’s anarchists into Public Enemy #1. That’s how politics work.
Local organizers in Tampa know the deal. When I mentioned that liberal groups have co-opted Occupy by creating the 99% movement and are using the fury against the whole political system for partisan ends, two different activists agreed and went further. They said there was an astroturf element to the anti-RNC rally in St. Petersburg. One said of liberal groups and unions, “You see a lot of their tactics that amount to astroturfing. They see the Super PACs employ this strategy and they think they have to do the same thing. That’s what I find most troubling.”
The 99% are truly suffering. And it’s a no-brainer that they will suffer even more under Romney than under Obama. But under darkened skies sprinkling rain, no one at the rally spoke of brighter days ahead for the 99% if Obama does win.