Dear Mr. President-Elect:
I suppose congratulations are in order. I must admit that it felt better to wake to an excited morning rather than the despair of the last two Wednesday mornings following the presidential elections. In the days since your election, people have been saying that you were born to this fate, to unite America and bring peace to the world. Others have declared that the United States has gotten beyond race. Still more see you as the embodiment of Dr. King’s dream, a Universal man, written right into your DNA. To be sure, your election represents a singular moment, a moment to seize the ground, a moment of great rupture precisely because the United States is and has been a racist country, a culture of white privilege, white supremacy domination, that your election makes anything seem possible, makes the world feel turned around. But it only feels turned around. It really hasn’t turned around, certainly not upside down.
I did vote for you, Mr. President-Elect, despite myself. I meant to vote for Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, but I saw your name at the top of the ballot and felt the wave of enthusiasm rolling westward across the country, and felt the force of the words of the elderly African American woman somewhere behind me who told her friend, “I’ve been waiting sixty-one years for this!” So instead asking for another ballot, I just kept going down the ballot. I voted for you even though I knew that in this campaign, you did what Democratic presidential candidates have been doing since Clinton, run away from the Black base of the party. That you had to run away from the Black base didn’t surprise me because you really didn’t have to convince the Black base, only convince them to get out and vote on Election Day.
I knew that you would have to denounce and repudiate Minister Louis Farrakhan; that is standard operating procedure for many African American public figures. I knew that you would have to distance yourself from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, regardless of how widespread his views of U.S. practice in the world are. African Americans simply are not allowed to hold these views publicly and still be taken seriously. The nation must always be above reproach, even by those speaking for the bottom. I knew that you would have to make a speech on race without broaching racism, would have to construct false equivalencies between Black anger and White anger, that you would have to relegate Black anger to older generations and a thing to be left in the past despite the dire conditions to which Black youths find themselves subjected. I felt no shock at your Father’s Day speech castigating African American men as absentee fathers, talking down to them without context, the context of a prison industrial complex that removes so many young men from their families, or keeps them in transitory living spaces as they try to stay one two and three steps ahead of state authorities, or the broader context of the 50 percent of marriages that fail in the United States, or the lack of jobs that keep African American men officially out of the home so that the family can receive public assistance while they actually live with their families in what in the neighborhoods are open secrets. Nor was there any surprise in your NAACP audience’s enthusiastic applause, long concerned with the politics of image and fear that working class Black folks might (continue to) sully the reputation of nice, middle class African Americans. None of this shocked me because I knew it wasn’t for me. It was for the people who needed convincing that you are a different kind of African American, more like them
That, Mr. President-Elect, is still the sad fact. Race did still matter, and race does still matter because racism still matters. It remains a question of power and whose interest must be served. The narrative is being constructed as it is being disseminated: the Civil Rights Era has come full circle. On the most recent edition of Bill Moyers Journal, Mr. Moyers begins the hour with an essay that includes a montage Civil Rights Era stock footage and the naming of iconic names and places from the period. I have a great deal of respect for Bill Moyers. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the omissions in his video essay. The omissions condemn real men and women who helped make that history and shape those years to obscurity and confinement. The official story is being repeated on news talk television and sports talk radio. Just this week, activist, actor and former NFL running back Jim Brown offered the same line on a Fox Sports Radio. No one mentions the more radical edges of the movement, nor does anyone often mention the recalcitrant mainstream culture that has been in reaction to these movements since the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the mid 1960s. What does anyone think Nixon meant by appealing to the Silent Majority? After all, affirmative action, a modest proposal indeed, remains controversial, and you could not be perceived as too closely associated with African American interests, only African American skin for its symbolic value. And right now, the country and the world are enamored with the symbolism.
Still, white Americans have come a long way. I say white Americans, although I know you want to emphasize the “we’re all Americans, a United States of America” line, because, well, the rest of us haven’t done anything so unusual. People of color in this country routinely vote for people other than those from their particular ethnic background. Americans across the board routinely vote for candidates across class lines. So when I hear people say, “We’ve come a long way,” I don’t feel a part of that we because what Americans are being congratulated for is an accomplishment of white Americans, perhaps many of those same white Democrats who had preferred to vote for Republicans rather than their fellow Democrats who were represented as too liberal, often code for too friendly to communities of color and women. Perhaps it was their children. Either way, they should be proud of finally doing what the rest of us have had to take as business as usual. So again, congratulations for reaching out to those white Americans and convincing them to choose something other than the fear and the familiar that they have been choosing since the Reagan years. This is a change and reason for hope.
Mr. President-Elect, I have a proposal. Because this is a moment of rupture, because this is a moment when anything seems possible, because this is a moment when people are hoping for reconciliation, I have a proposal, one that require courage and all of your exceptional skills of persuasion. The United States, unlike South Africa, has had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so the complete story of the 60s and 70s remains untold. Most U.S. citizens have no idea what horrors their local, state and federal government agencies wreaked upon dissidents through COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI. Few know of the political prisoners who are now being completely erased from memory in the new narrative of American triumphalism. Mr. Obama, as a gesture of reconciliation, I propose you grant amnesties and pardons to the African American, Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American and Hawaiian, and the radical white prisoners of conscience and prisoners of war now warehoused in U.S. federal prisons.
Mr. President-Elect, you can begin by pardoning Leonard Peltier. The original sin of the United States was not slavery; the original sin of the United States was genocide, dispossession and displacement of the First Nations. Leonard Peltier has now served more than 30 years.
Oscar Rivera Lopez of the Puerto Rican liberation movement has served 27 years.
Mutulu Shakur, Tupac’s stepfather, has served nearly 30. Speaking of Shakurs, you could lift the bounty off Assata Shakur’s head, offer her amnesty, and let her return from Cuba, her home for nearly 30 years.
How about pardons for Debbie Africa and Janet Africa.
David Gilbert, former member of the Weather Underground, has also served nearly 30 years.
The San Francisco 8, former Black Panthers, have been re-indicted for murder charges that had already been thrown out years ago because the confessions had been induced by torture, cattle prods among other things.
Should they continue to be harassed in their senior years? These men and women should be spared the fate of Nuh Washington, a Black Liberation fighter who died in federal prison.
Yes, Mr. President-Elect, you will be accused of radical ties or being soft on crime, a friend of domestic terrorists, of disrespecting the lives of police officers or federal agents who may or may not have been killed or wounded by these persons. Guilt or innocence is not the issue. Their rights to self defense and self determination don’t have to be the issue. After all, the U.S. has been very forgiving of political crimes. President Ford continues to receive praise for “reconciling” the country by pardoning Richard Nixon. Many Americans thought that was a mistake, a mistake we still suffer from insofar as it left presidential abuse of power unchecked. Still, most Americans at least seem to have forgiven Nixon. G. Gordon Liddy walks the streets freely, even after encouraging his radio listeners to shoot federal agents in the mid 1990s. Scooter Libby was pardoned after complicity in exposing Valerie Plame. Speaker Pelosi took impeachment off the table despite the many impeachable actions of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of State Rice. At the very least, William Ayres is an example of the benefit these freedom fighters can offer society. And now there is another opening, one from your chosen home, Chicago, with the recent indictment of Chicago police commander Jon Burge on charges of torture, the torture of over 100 African American men by officers under Burge’s command. Those are the men who reported the abuse.
The world expects Guantanamo to be closed. That will take political courage. But what is practiced at Guantanamo was learned in U.S. state and federal prisons, all of it. Few U.S. Americans know because the treatment of prisoners in law and order America doesn’t merit comment in the political calculations of most politicians and mainstream media. The prisons should not be ignored as they are a stark example of the contradictions that will continue to plague U.S. society in their most obviously racialized and class manifestations. The Land of the Free locks up more than 2 million of its citizens and residents. African Americans make up more than half of those incarcerated. When one adds to their numbers the number of Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, well visiting an American prison is like visiting a Third World country, right down to the sweatshop labor. Mr. Obama, it will be hard. But you should consider what a gesture of peace and reconciliation amnesty for these freedom fighters could mean. Consider the signal it sends about your commitment to the U.S. dealing directly with its uncomfortable past rather than let it remain buried as the repressed memory within a narrative of victory over obstacles that will remain incomplete and unresolved without these dissident voices, these anti-imperialist, ant-racist voices. Consider that, Mr. President-Elect.