On the eve of the G-20 summit last week, President Barack Obama gave a long interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which he said that even during his days as a community organizer in Chicago he was never a big fan of mass protests.
With the clear intention of discouraging those who might join the looming demonstrations against the G-20, Obama explained that he was always a believer that "focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people’s lives is what really makes a difference; and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally is not really going to make much of a difference."
While I personally never jumped on the Obama bandwagon, such a flippant dismissal of protest by the president is disappointing nevertheless, and slightly reminiscent of how his predecessor wrote off the millions who took to the streets before the invasion of Iraq.
Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman noted in response: "Of course, Mr. Obama’s answer would be news to those who marched in countless civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war demonstrations over the decades. It would also be news to those who filled stadiums to hear candidate Obama’s stump speeches in 2008."
Not surprisingly, his remarks were also not well received by the protesters who had arrived in Pittsburgh.
"You have revealed the real Obama!" Clarence Thomas, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said during a rally demanding new jobs programs, according to the Wall Street Journal. He said the president’s statement was "very, very disrespectful" to the civil rights and other social movements.
For all of his flaws, Obama is clearly an intelligent person who must have known better.
It would not have taken an incredible investigative feat to discover that the protesters descending upon Pittsburgh were doing so for very "concrete" reasons that touch their daily lives in very real ways.
They came to advocate for greater assistance for everyday people during these tough economic times, for more serious government action on global warming ahead of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have already taken such a staggering human and financial toll.
In fact, as a general rule of thumb, most people — whether they are diehard activists or not — don’t normally travel great distances to face ominous riot police firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and deafening sound cannons, unless they have been deeply, personally affected by the issues being protested.
And given the global financial meltdown that has hit working people so hard, can anyone really say that those who critique the entire capitalist system don’t have a point?
Rather than being a mere "abstraction," as Obama claimed, capitalism is an economic system that functions on a set of rules that we created, which inevitably leads to massive inequalities between the haves and have-nots and the easily avoidable deaths of millions around the world every year who simply cannot afford basic medical care or food. It rewards greed and is based on a belief that continual, limitless economic growth is not only possible, but necessary.
The planet’s atmosphere and natural resources, however, are finite and being quickly exhausted by the developed world’s gluttonous consumption.
In his new book, All My Bones Shake, Robert Jensen succinctly sums up our predicament: "Capitalism is fundamentally inhuman, antidemocratic and unsustainable. Capitalism has given those of us in the First World lots of stuff (though much of it of questionable value) in exchange for our souls, for our hope for progressive politics, and for the possibility of a decent future for children. Either we change or we die — spiritually, politically, literally."
Obama’s dismissal of mass nonviolent action was disingenuous for other reasons as well. Behind his desk in his Senate office, Obama prominently displayed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
In an interview last year, he explained that the portraits were there "to remind me that real results will not just come from Washington, they will come from the people." And only weeks before the G-20, during his "controversial" address to school children, the president brought up Gandhi, calling him "a real hero of mine."
Could anyone possibly argue with a straight face that King, who was killed while planning the Poor People’s Campaign, would not be on the streets with those calling for economic justice? Would Gandhi not oppose the diversion of $700 billion this year from meeting people’s basic needs to fund the Pentagon and the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan?
The interview with Obama also revealed a growing chasm between his approach to social movements and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to whom he is widely compared.
After listening to the concerns of the legendary labor organizer and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph during a meeting, as the famous and perhaps apocryphal story goes, FDR replied: "I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit … But I would ask one thing of you, Mr. Randolph, and that is go out and make me do it."
During his presidential campaign, Obama even used this story. He told his supporters that he was just one person who could not make the changes they wanted to see by himself. Obama’s final message was clear: "Make me do it."
Now that Obama is in the White House, however, he is singing a different tune. Rather than encouraging grassroots protest to help push the public debate and further a progressive legislative agenda as Roosevelt did, Obama is unfortunately publicly trying to quash pressure from the left.
As a counter to the recent mobilization of right-wing tea-baggers, it would seem that now is as good a time as ever for the president to embrace the protesters who are championing at least some of the causes that he once claimed to believe in.
Instead, Obama disgracefully sent in the militarized police — with the National Guard on the ready — to silence their dissent.
Eric Stoner is an adjunct professor at St. Peter’s College and an editor for Waging Nonviolence. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones and The Nation, among other publications.