Frontlines for Obama in the Potomac Primary: Saturday


cross-posted to Jack & Jill Politics

Years ago, I found myself upgraded for free on a flight from Florida to Boston. The man seated next to me was of the prostelitizing flavor of Christianity. He went on missions abroad and door to door to spread the good word. I asked him, "Why can't you just leave people to their beliefs?" His response: "If you knew this plane was going to crash, wouldn't you try to tell the captain and all the passengers so they could try to correct the situation or at least call their families? Well, that's how I feel about my religion. I know that these people will go to Hell if I don't help them get saved."

While I would hardly go so far as to say that those who don't vote Obama are going to Hell, I have felt a sense of mission about sharing the vision of a politically engaged America that Barack Obama's campaign has rekindled in me. I looked forward to moving my words from the computer screen directly to my fellow citizens (blogging in 3D!), and it was with that sense of mission that I traveled to DC this past weekend.

My initial mission was to have a face-to-face discussion with the family friend I referred to last Friday, but the trip included so much more. I returned exhausted but also reinvigorated about the potential each of us has to contribute to this world, and I have an increased respect for the value of simple conversation among neighbors.

The second mission was to meet up on Sunday with fellow New Yorkers who traveled down to volunteer by canvassing door to door in Northern Virginia.

This post deals just with Saturday. Considering how little sleep I've gotten, I can't promise the most eloquent (or spell-checked) tale, but I'll do my best to cover the highlights while only slightly blowing up your computer screen with an insanely long post.

Friday night - 11pm-3am: Planning & Packing

  • burned a couple of CDs with my Obama music to canvas by mix

  • reserved a Mini Cooper via Zipcar to be picked up at Union Station in DC

  • downloaded some videos to the ipod including Obama's address to Google where he unveiled his technology plan last November

  • downloaded and printed Obama's position papers on issues I had never bothered as much to dig into including immigration and homeland security

  • charged my TomTom GPS

  • printed some detailed, two-sided, info sheets that friends in NYC had created which described Obama's accomplishments and plans for 11 issues

  • printed some black and white "Yes We Can" 8.5x11 "posters" on my home printer

  • sent some color prints to a Kinko's on K Street that would be waiting for me when I arrived. The posters are these "Progress" joints from Obey Giant

  • printed Krugman's health care critique and critiques (another) of his critique


Saturday - 10am-1:30pm: Meeting A Fellow Self-Canvasser

I had the train ride all planned out. I had my downloaded and printed info plus the Google video. I wanted to be prepared for my encounter with the skeptical family friend, and I was going to cram for this exam. But when I got to Penn Station, I saw another self-motivated Obama supporter. She rocked several buttons, homemade posters and info sheets. Her name is Andrea Fazzari, and she's a world-traveling photographer
whose work appears in Vanity Fair, Gourmet magazine and others. She has done street canvassing in NYC on several occasions, never at the direction of the campaign. She just felt moved to do it, made her posters, and made her case to strangers. She had a few nightmare stories of encounters with rude Hillary Clinton supporters, including a hilarious run-in with an elderly woman who shoved her so hard she almost fell down. Ah, New Yorkers.

Andrea was heading to Baltimore. She had identified a Whole Foods there, figuring it would be a high-traffic location for a Saturday, called them to be sure she had permission, made her posters, printed her info sheets and just rolled out. Han Solo like that. I wasn't the only crazy motivated one.

We talked a lot about her travels (especially to Cambodia), why we were supporting Obama and America's challenges with racism and poverty. Yep, just your average conversation among strangers on the train! We also checked out the Maryland resources on my.barackobama.com which is seriously useful. Obama has provided some great self-organizing resources at his site.

After Andrea got off the train, I got in touch with a Jack & Jill Politics reader who had reached out via email that morning. She was planning on doing street corner canvassing in Georgetown. We exchanged some text messages and set a meeting place.

Saturday - 1:30pm-5pm: Jack & Jill Politics Live!

The reader who contacted me is Rebecca Abou-Chedid. We have some crazy cool people as part of this JJP community. Until two months ago, Rebecca was national political director for the Arab American Institute! After pimping out my Zipcar with my homemade posters (here I just mean "pimp" as in "heavily accessorize" not as in "create opportunity for Clinton to yet again play the victim"), I met Rebecca over at Wisconsin Ave & M Street (blasting the mix the entire way). I wish I had video. I think I was born to do this. In college I loved working tables for the student organizations trying to recruit freshmen. Nowadays, every week, I "bark" in Times Square to get folks in the seats of comedy shows. Barking for Barack. Ha. That's what's up!

Rebecca and I then headed to unofficial Obama HQ in DC which is Busboy's and Poets at 14th & V St NW (Potomac Primary watch party Tuesday Feb 12 6pm-midnight). It's a very cool spot inspired by Langston Hughes with a great restaurant, bookstore and lots of artist space and performance (Bomani Armah of Read A Book fame is on the board). The owner is Iraqi. Rebecca has worked for O in multiple states including New York, South Carolina and Nevada. She told me Nevada got real ugly, ugly that has yet to be reported and which we didn't have time to get into completely. As one example though, she said the Clinton volunteers's main pitch was to yell repeatedly that Obama is a Muslim whose middle name is Hussein. Ugly and hate-filled. You hear that Mr. Krugman??!!

Saturday - 5pm-7pm: Back to the Hood.

I drove slowly through my old, now heavily-gentrifying hood blasting the Latin music Obama jams. I stopped by my next door neighbors who immigrated here from El Salvador. None of them can vote because they aren't yet citizens, but William has his interview this Tuesday. He was frustrated with his Latino brothers who were not for Obama. I left him some info sheets though I didn't have any in Spanish.

Saturday 7pm-9:30pm: dinner with family friends.

no politics talk allowed as it was a birthday dinner and the celebrated one did not want to have people warring. We held our tongues except for brief moments when she went to the bathroom

Saturday 10pm-2am: The family caucus

This was why I had come to DC, and I was tired as a mug by this point. I ended up talking with two people skeptical of Obama for different reasons. Robby is basically my age. Our mothers were good friends back in the day, and we share a life trajectory. Both raised by strong black women during the crack wars, escaping the city against the odds to be educated at Ivy League colleges, currently employed in stable jobs having avoided both the prison industrial complex and baby mama drama.

Robby is cut from a different political cloth. He's basically a libertarian brotha, and despite some frustrating moments when I felt like my two conversion targets were not letting me answer their questions, we had a damn fascinating conversation. Robby actually had four very good suggestions/observations for Obama.

  1. When he comes to DC, he shouldn't just appear in the newly gentrified section. He needs to come to the still-black parts of DC in SE/Anacostia or Benning Rd. etc. It would do a lot for black DC to see that someone who works in their city actually cares about it beyond kickin it on Capitol Hill. Obama does support DC voting rights, but Robby's basic point was that he could get extra mileage out of showing he cares. He reminded me that Bill Clinton marched down Georgia Ave back in the day, and there are still black folk who remember that fondly.

  2. Despite the dogwhistle concerns of a lot of us about the Hussein, muslim father issue, Obama needs to own and advertise the value his heritage and name bring BEFORE the Republicans paint him as a traitor with it. One of my own strongest selling points is that O is uniquely capable of playing makeup with the world after Dubya has taken multiple dumps on it. With family in Kenya and years spent living in the most populous Muslim country in the world, Obama is connected to global poverty (for example) in ways no other president has ever been or will be

  3. Obama has rightly focused on inspiring and motivating the American people, but in order to realize many of his stated goals, he needs to inspire and motivate federal employees. If he can do that, he has a good chance of getting something real accomplished

  4. (updated. just remembered). Can black people criticize or not be for Obama without being considered traitors (similar to the NOW fanatics who call women voting for not-Hillary traitors)? This is a great question, and the answer should be yes. It depends on the nature of that opposition (CBC water-carrying vs. policy/philosophical/fact-based critiques like the Black Agenda Report peoples). It would be a travesty if black people did not feel free to raise concerns about Obama, and I know I have to be careful to check my fervor when confronted with facts. We all should. Blind followership hurts us all.


My primary reason for being there was someone I'll call Anita because I never got her permission to use her name. We talked more about this concept of "who does Obama owe" (and yes I've read your comments that just because a Goldman Sachs employee gives to Obama doesn't make him indebted to global imperialistic finance interests). She is someone who didn't start voting until very late in life because she never had anyone to vote for and considers all politicians to be corrupt. My case to her as I blogged last week was, if that's the case, you should consider Obama the least corrupted for having been in national politics for far less time than Clinton or McCain.

After taking some detours through a discussion of DC's mayor Fenty, Anita threw out something for which I was not quite prepared. I had always feared that it was white people who had unachievable expectations of this articulate, educated black man. But Anita works in the city's welfare department. She sees people on a daily basis who lack basic access to services. She nearly cried recalling the times (multiple) she has had to teach 13 year old black children how to write their own names. Her point was that there are many black people expecting the world from President Obama. They see him as someone who can finally bring an end to their suffering, to their broken schools, to their poverty to racism. These people who have no money yet find money to donate $10 to his campaign worship him as a man with a magic wand. Anita's question: what will he actually do for him?

Robby and I had similar initial reactions: for people expecting Obama to solve the problems of poverty and racism for them, too bad. He cannot do that. Robby added that it's not even the president's job (Constitutionally) to go lead such interventionist policies. This was not satisfactory to Anita who wanted to see the National Guard sent to inner city schools to protect kids from violence there. "If we can send them to Iraq to protect those people, why can't we send them into the hood to protect ours?"

After thinking on it further, I found a better answer to Anita's concerns. I do agree that there's a limit to what the federal government can do for everyone, and that the wheels of government turn slowly, but that's only true to a point. The president (and especially a President Obama) can shine the light of government on society's problems; he can direct certain government resources like the department of justice toward eradicating certain types of ills; he can initiate job programs that re-establish local economies; he can motivate the collective citizenry to invest in changing their communities for the better themselves. And as for the government moving slowly, well that's all a matter of priorities. This government moves very quickly when it comes to war and big money.

At points during the conversation I found myself so very frustrated. In part because I was fielding incoming questions, rapid fire, from two people often at the same time. In part because I sometimes felt inadequate to the task. In part because I was mad tired. I almost gave up and called it quits a few times, but Anita, to my surprise, said the following:

"You have already moved me more towards Obama, and I'm glad you came down. I still can't say for sure who I'm voting for, but don't you ever give up on him. As long as you have the breath, you go to the floor for him because you never know just what it is that will sway someone." Today, I sent her Obama's urban poverty address from July of 2007.

That push, from someone who wasn't even fully down, turned out to be useful advice for my door-to-door canvassing in Northern Virginia the next day. More on that later.