Fear and loathing in Obamaland
M&G reporter Niren Tolsi visits the land of Barack Obama.
The man cupping my testicles in his hand had an anodyne voice. Purposely so, it felt, as his fingers moved to the inner thigh and he kept talking about what he was doing to me.
His tone may have been trying to hide his embarrassment at the intrusion. Perhaps add a veneer of respectability to this public full-body grope.
Regardless, the voice felt matter-of-fact but extremely discomforting. As if he was a breathless pederast.
Behind me at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport, a Dubai-bound little-old Muslim lady, who had been shivering in anticipation of her own full-body pat-down by security, had left a puddle of pee on the floor.
The Transport Security Agency types appeared nonplussed: “That’s nothing, move along, move along,” urged a female security guard.
Airports in the United States resemble futuristic abattoirs where, in the present, civil rights are being slaughtered at the blades of paranoia and racial profiling: security is constantly shouting out orders to the cowed.
People undress to a series of metallic clangs as the containers for coats, shoes, belts and jewellery circulate towards them. Passengers proceed through metal detectors and, sometimes, when the alert pings, to the Rapiscan full-body scanning and photographic booths. Towards it, and during the assortment of poses struck, they resemble animals herded to sacrifice.
It’s post-9-11 paranoia confirming Politics 101: the terrorists are winning.
Over the Thanksgiving long weekend—when airline usage and security checks were at an optimum and punters threatened Speedo protests against the pat-downs—many security experts concurred with the satirists.
These checks were a tad late if one was attempting to stop would-be hijackers or bombers at airports because decent intelligence should have nipped it earlier. And, privacy violations aside, the only thing achieved by these intimate pat-downs was that some people would finally be getting some action. Welcome only if large, lumbering coppers in uniform are your type. Or you’re desperate.
Thanksgiving itself is an odd celebration of genocide. According to the US Census Bureau in 2009 only 1percent of the US’s estimated 310-million population were Native American, Alaskan Natives or their mixed race descendants.
Historian Howard Zinn in his masterful A People’s History of the United States estimated that around 25-million “Indians” inhabited North America before Christopher Columbus landed. The majority having been wiped out by imported diseases and indiscriminate massacres, many targeting women and children.
In Zinn’s retelling of the Puritans’ violent appetite for more land in New England he notes that the English “were clearly the aggressors but claimed that they attacked for preventive purposes. As [colonist] Roger Williams, more friendly to the Indians than most, put it: ‘All men of conscience or prudence ply to windward, to maintain their wars to be defensive.’”
It is a position that has echoed through the history of the United States of America until the present. One raged and howled against. Most recently, at BB King’s Blues Club on New York’s 42nd Street, just off Times Square, where the spindly Gil Scott Heron is in a jocular mood, and a little spaced out, too.
Best known for his diatribe the revolution will not be televised, the artist chats to the crowd for a while, talking about the wars the US is fighting and “the military and the monetary getting together” leaving in their wake only “the bitch in obituary”.
“I’ve just been touring Europe,” Scott Heron tells the crowd inside, “and Europe is concerned about you, America.”
The land of Obama
This is just three weeks after President Barack Obama’s Democrats suffered severe losses in midterm elections characterised by racist vitriol and even his own party members attempting to distance themselves from him in their campaigns. It was also an election, where just over 40% of the eligible electorate voted.
Outside, a middle-aged black man called Kyaam can’t bring himself to go inside or give me his surname: “It’s just too painful man, it hurts too much to go inside,” he says. What does?
“To see him like that, still on the crack, what a waste, man. And you know what he has been saying for the past 30 years is still relevant, still hurting,” says Kyaam.
“This is still a racist country. This is still the deep South everywhere. Look at the midterms, they voted against Obama because he was a black man. Because the idiots believe the media-run racist campaigns that the war in Iraq is his fault, that the recession is his fault, we can’t think beyond our dicks,” says Kyaam, who appears to be a purveyor of big booty soft-core magazines. He then proceeds to show me various cellphone pictures of himself with various celebrities, such as Magic Johnson, and a bevy of big-booty beauties.
Milan Kundera once opined that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Considering the all-out anti-Democrat campaign by right-wing media such as Fox News pundit Glenn Beck, who draws two million viewers to his show and constantly referred to Obama as “imam”, it is difficult to dismiss Kyaam’s analysis.
Or the sense that the US is navigating the troubling age of multimedia information overload by being parochially selective. A disturbing trend.
It is winter in America
Inside the club, meanwhile, Scott Heron breaks into his elegiac Winter in America: “And now it’s winter/ Winter in America/ Yes and all of the healers have been killed/ Or sent away, yeah/ But the people know, the people know/ It’s winter/ Winter in America/ And ain’t nobody fighting/ ‘Cause nobody knows what to save/ Save your soul, Lord knows/ From Winter in America.”
In Chicago’s Hyde Park, one of the few genteel South Side suburbs, an icy wind is blowing in from Lake Michigan and Street Wise magazine vendor Troy Dixon EL is wishing everybody a “Happy Turkey Day” outside the Dunkin Donuts on East 53rd Street.
Dixon EL is a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America, hates Thanksgiving, has a rap sheet for break-ins and attempted murder and talks candidly of doing crack and cocaine, but having much preferred his addiction to the cheapest gin available.
Street Wise‘s most improved vendor in 2009, Dixon EL has been clean for five years now, after waking up one morning, literally, in the gutter: “My feet were frostbitten and I was pissing blood, man, I realised my life was ready for change,” says Dixon EL.
President Obama lived in Hyde Park before moving to the White House and Dixon EL was happy to chat about what that relocation has meant.
Discussing the Democratic Party’s savaging at the polls in the November midterms, Dixon EL felt people sat back once Obama became president “expecting everything to change overnight while they themselves did nothing”.
“If you want change you’ve got to make it happen yourself. I had to make the change that I wanted to see: I got clean and sober, I started working again, voting again, and I got my life back. I’m on Facebook, I’m out there and the other part of my life is now part of history,” he said.
Speaking to Dixon EL, it would seem that many Americans forgot the “together we can do more” part of Obama’s grand rhetoric that swept him to the presidency in 2008.
Or, perhaps, that the rhetoric may have blacked out the “Do More” list.
It is a common regret in the US. Especially with the rise of the libertarian far-right Tea Party social movement that benefits from funding from big corporations such as Koch Industries and exposure from conservative media such as Fox TV.
Much later that night, at Ms Sis’s coffee-shop/hang-out spot deep in the South Side, community activist Willie “JR” Fleming echoes Dixon EL’s words about Obama more directly: “That brother - and I support and love him—is a threat to organisers. Obama is fucking up community organisation. People just expect everything to just be better and it’s a fuck up,” he shouts.
On the rough side of town
Chicago’s South Side is supposed to be the city’s roughest area, with gang violence and police brutality a regular occurrence. Almost all the buildings around Ms Sis’s are victims of the US sub-prime crisis and economic recession: foreclosed, empty, and with boarded up windows. At around 1am, the streets are deserted and broken down.
A few weeks before, Abahlai baseMjondolo president Sbu Zikode had been giving an afternoon talk about South African housing issues at the venue when gunshots had rung out and everyone - aside from the South Africans present apparently—had dived to the floor.
Prowling the inside of Ms Sis’s chain-smoking and ranting, the broad-shouldered Fleming cuts an imposing figure. He is a career activist whose mother is a former Black Panther with 11 children and 84 grandchildren (“My momma grows activists, man”). His father works for a US intelligence agency (“He was one Negro who figured you can’t destroy the system from the outside, so he went inside”).
Fleming has been channelling his energy into halting the eviction of people, especially from public housing projects like the infamous Cabrini-Green and foreclosed homes on the South Side.
He is deeply concerned that the US Housing and Urban Development department (HUD) is advising other countries’ governments, including South Africa’s, on public housing.
Especially on a policy shift towards mixed-income projects that include bank-bonded houses: “My Momma always taught me to ‘Clean out your own home first before you go advising other people’— Housing reform in America is fucked and what we we’re doing now by involving the banks is outsourcing.
“You sub-contract, sub-contract and sub-contract until you have an infinite number of outsourcers and no centre. With no centre there is no one responsible for the human rights issues, especially government. We’re setting the world up for infinite servitude to the banks and the corporations,” he said.
The US federal government has, over the past 15 years, invested $6,1-billion demolishing 96 200 public housing units in 235 projects and producing 107 800 new or renovated units in these mixed-income areas—usually in prime parts of the city, especially in the downtown CBD area.
According to a report on the state of housing in the US by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Housing, Raquel Rolnik, based on her visit there in October and November last year, less than 12% of the “former housing residents made it back to their original neighbourhoods”. Usually because of the high costs of the new houses.
The report states that units were being demolished without residents having suitable alternatives and that, in most cases, they were moved to “equally distressed areas”.
“Gentrification pushes out the poorest to areas with reduced services and employment opportunities. Legislation is needed to safeguard affordable housing in prime locations,” noted the report.
Scoffing at the term “gentrification”, Fleming says, “its urban and economic cleansing, my brother”.
Fleming admits to having reached the end of his political tether “in November last year when Rolnik visited Chicago and she told us there was nothing they could do [about the evictions and encroaching gentrification]”.
‘He spoke to our people’
Then, two days later, Ashraf Cassiem from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign (See Pages 38 and 39) was in town and, according to Fleming, “he did the worst thing he could have done—he spoke to our people”.
The charismatic Cassiem revitalised activists and ordinary community members and a few weeks later a Chicago branch of the Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), with Fleming as chairperson, was formed.
Fleming says the AEC has brought with it new struggle strategies, especially around community mobilisation, suggesting that while the US may be exporting a corporate approach to housing to the world—already apparent in municipalities like Cape Town and Durban—but the world is responding in its own way.
In Cabrini-Green the next evening, it is perhaps unsurprising how close the area is to upmarket suburbs like Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Go a few blocks in any direction and one enters the city centre, the lakeside or the posh parts of town.
Already, gleaming new upmarket residential blocks have sprung up and started encroaching on this former public housing project that was started in 1942 and named after a nun, Frances Cabrini, the first American to be canonised.
Mike Mclaren is standing on the walkway outside his apartment in 1230 Burling Street. It is the last high-rise in the area—the others have already been demolished.
Mclaren was born in Cabrini and has lived in several of the buildings that have since disappeared. Staring through the metallic mesh that cages each floor in, he says of the memories: “If I could look at all this around me with an infrared light, just to see the blood that was spilled here, on this land — This was a hard place, but it was home and we want to benefit from the changes now, but we’re nothing people. This development is happening without us.”
A single father with five children, Mclaren says the Chicago Housing Authority wants to move his family to Lawndale, on the West Side and further away from the city centre.
He worries after his children and the issue of gang territory: “Cabrini has always had a bad reputation for gang violence and moving to another area means taking that baggage with us. I know people who have moved, and the youth can’t go out anywhere in these new areas because they are from Cabrini. The Cabrini reputation means they are singled out and some of these places are war zones,” he says.
A few weeks after the Mail & Guardian visited Mclaren a court ordered him and the remaining families in 1230 Burling Street to move out. They did.
Chicago, much like a South African city, is profoundly divided along racial lines and Fleming suggests that the city’s black elite, which Obama married and inveigled himself into, care little for the poor.
Fleming relates a conversation with a black Chicago politician regarding Cabrini-Green, the politician’s response: “No one has a right to this city because we all migrated here. You live where you can afford to live, otherwise you go back.”
A large portion of Chicago’s black population are linked to the two million who left the Deep South for the Midwest, North East and West, from 1910-1930, leaving behind persecution, lynchings and arbitrary death.
The Great Migration was evocatively captured, in a series of paintings—similarly titled—by Jacob Lawrence, which hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Speaking to Fleming, one feels that rendering of suffering and struggle is incomplete.
From Al Capone to the Black Gangster Disciple Nation to decades of systematic torture by police, mobsters, gangsters and the brutal arm of the law are synonymous with Chicago.
As are the shadier political arts. The city has been run for 43 out of the last 55 years by Richard J Daley (1955-76) and his son Richard M Daley (1989-2011), who does not intend standing for re-election next year. (Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, upset the White House power structure after he resigned earlier this year to make a run for the Daly legacy, one which he is widely expected to win.)
The powerful Democratic machine here is based on an ingrained patronage system where votes and voting banks in wards are exchanged for contracts and jobs in the city. There is also what political analysts call the “pinstripe politics” of patronage: the financial elite providing campaign funding for future returns in government contracts.
In his insightful New Yorker piece, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama”, the author, Ryan Lizzy’s, interview with alderman Toni Preckwinkle, an influential South Side politician and one time mentor of Obama, whose backing the current president sought in 1995 when he considered entering politics and running for a recently vacated state senate seat, is particularly telling.
“On issue after issue, Preckwinkle presented Obama as someone who thrived in the world of Chicago politics,” noted Lizzy.
A line that comes rushing back while speaking with Fleming into the early hours of Black Friday—the traditional US post-Thanksgiving consumerist ritual when shops open in the early hours of the morning and America stampedes in for the bargains. Fleming is gathering some money together for his ex-wife to pick up as his ten kids need some new clobber.
But he chats continuously, drawing complex lines between Obama’s advisors, funders and current Chicago based government projects. He rants about the relationship between current White House advisor Valerie Jarrett and the Obama’s, for example.
Jarrett was Michelle Obama’s boss in the Chicago’s City Hall, before leaving in 1995 to join Habitat Company, which develops property ranging from public housing to luxury condominiums. She left as chief executive to join the White House staff in 2008.
In a 2008 profile the New York Times noted “Ms Jarrett specialises in smoothing feathers, not ruffling them, but her link to Habitat could raise complications. The company, the court-appointed overseer of vast tracts of Chicago’s public housing, has been accused of mismanaging some of those projects, allowing them to deteriorate even more than they had under government supervision.”
Fleming is incandescent: “You’re privatising public housing and who’s getting the contracts? Your friends, people like Jarrett, while you’re damning my children!”
Pinstripe politics, it seems, has trumped that of the Tweeters and Facebookers whose $5 and $20, Obama acknowledged in his victory speech for driving his successful 2008 presidential campaign.
Politics will always be a dirty business, usually leading one to drink. In Mckenzie’s, a New York dive-bar off West 8th Avenue, the stench of antiseptic mingling with stale vomit that permeates almost all dive-bars is getting up the nostrils.
Anil Bhoola (not his real name) is a first generation American whose parents settled in New York City from India, he’s just graduated from medical school in Granada and protesting that he is the “wrong person to speak to” about the Obama’s controversial health-care reform that was passed a few months ago.
“I get so worked up about this,” he says. “Americans are just stupid sheep — I don’t think what a lot of doctors in this country think: So I’ll earn a little less but people need the healthcare and I think the bill that was passed was compromised too much. America is about being selfish and thinking about yourself. Its not just healthcare man, we’re just sheep.”
Bhoola is getting worked up and Janis Joplin’s rendition of Me and Bobby McGee starts upon the jukebox: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose/ Nothing ain’t worth nothing but its free/ Feeling good was good enough when Bobby sang the blues/ Feeling good is good enough for me.”
Niren Tolsi is a reporter with the Mail & Guardian