If any one ever needed a better reason to throw the Democratic Party into the garbage can of history, last Tuesday night’s “Town Hall Meeting” in Oakland, California, was a perfect example of the party’s pathos, duplicity and outright arrogance.
The night had been billed as a chance for people to “tell their stories” directly to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland.
I was asked by my friend Leslie to take photos of an action planned by a group she organizes with called USUncut, a direct action group fighting public budget cuts and targeting corporations who avoid billions in taxes. She and three others from the group planned to attend the Town Hall Meeting and use the opportunity to confront Pelosi on her having signed off on the recent debt-ceiling deal, and to unfurl one of their “Tax The Rich” banners.
The event was held in the Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ in East Oakland, in Barbara Lee’s congressional district, and when I arrived the entryway to the church had been festooned like a sort of Democratic Party Pep Rally. Everywhere were signs announcing that this event would be about “Jobs!” After signing in you were slapped with a sticker that said “Good Jobs Now!” Both political parties have, in their brilliance, figured out that in a depression people will want jobs, and now every politician in the land is chanting it like a mantra: “Jobs! Good Jobs! Green Jobs! Job Creation!” as if were one to repeat it enough times the unemployment numbers would magically drop.
I filed into the large main hall of the church, and took a seat close to the front podium which had been draped in banners blaring “Jobs Now!” The announcers began the event by saying that tonight would be a night for people to talk about whatever hardship they were feeling, and for the politicians to listen so that they could take those tales back to Washington.
Ahh, would but that it actually worked that way. The man sitting next to me said he had a list of questions that he wanted to ask the Congresspeople. I asked him what the first question was and he flipped open his notebook and showed me. “#1: Why should we vote Democratic if this country is a Corporatocracy, where the country is run by large Corporations?” I nodded. “#2: If it’s obvious that the right wingers are the real danger, why are we colonizing the Muslim world?” I nodded again. He and I appeared to be on pretty much the same page.
Then the event began, and the politicians filed onto the stage and were introduced. But first came stern warnings against anyone taking issue with Nancy Pelosi: Green For All’s Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins condescendingly explained to the assembled audience that this event was about “unity”, and that if we were “divided” our enemies would be made stronger. What she was really saying was that no one was going to be allowed to criticize the politicians on the stage. So she was basically calling for the antithesis of politics, which is at the very least about criticism. She then demanded that the night’s story “will not be about the two people in the back who are angry at Leader Pelosi; tonight the story will only be about jobs!”
However, much to the event organizers’ chagrin, there were more than only two angry people in the room. As Pelosi took the stage, someone yelled “Sellout!” When Pelosi brought up the recent debt-ceiling agreement, several more people yelled at her “Well why did you vote for it then?” and the Congresswoman was forced to explain why she had sold out, saying that she had signed the budget deal to avoid the U.S. defaulting, and claimed that at least Medicare and Social Security had been saved. She neglected to mention that those programs can, and will, be put on the block by the “Super Congress” that is going to decide where the actual cuts will come from.
After a couple of more hecklers had been hustled out of the room by security, it was time for the “speakout” part of the event to start, and one by one, different people told their stories and made comments to the politicians on the stage. Everyone spoke of being out of work or too broke to make ends meet, and it was heartbreaking to hear from so many folks who were having such a rough time. One old man told the Congresspeople, “As far as I’m concerned, the Democratic Party no longer speaks for us, as they haven’t been standing up for workers or creating jobs.”
But it was when Pelosi responded to the question of how she would help “job creation” by replying that her party was going to “rebuild the U.S. manufacturing sector” that I almost burst out laughing. And where exactly is the capital for that project going to come from? If they won’t raise taxes and won’t cut military spending, where will the money come from? What are they going to do, sell off Social Security and use the money to build factories? And then pay the workers 30 cents a day so we’ll be “competitive”? Actually, I wouldn’t put that past them…
Meanwhile my friend Leslie was patiently waiting in line to address Pelosi, her list of questions in her hand. She had already been told to be quiet by security guards after she had shouted a couple of critical comments. One man wagged his finger at her and said that this was “Barbara Lee’s event.” I replied that I thought it was supposed to be about the people and not the politicians, for which he had no response.
And then, after perhaps 45 minutes of people’s commentary, Pelosi announced that she would shortly be leaving to attend another event, but assured us that she would watch the rest of the people’s stories on videotape at a later date. Leslie yelled at her, “You spent more time talking at us than listening to us!” A woman from the Alameda Labor Council ran over and admonished my friend, “Show some respect!”
“Do you respect Nancy Pelosi?” Leslie shot back. No response. It was a pretty, ahem, difficult question…
The woman drew herself up into a schoolmarm-ish pose and scolded my 32-year old friend with, “Well, aren’t you so spoiled!”
“Do you have full benefits, then?” retorted Leslie. Again, no response. The security guards again warned my friend to be quiet and left her alone.
Then, to add insult to injury, instead of letting the remaining people have their chance to talk to the most powerful Democratic politician in the country, besides the president, the organizers announced that we would now watch a video about what other people were saying at events just like this around the country. The large video screens on the walls came to life and we began to watch a film about people doing exactly what we had been doing just five minutes prior. It was beyond ridiculous. It was kind of surreal.
And that, dear reader, simply blew my friend’s breakers. She stood up, all five-foot-two of her, and shouted, “Instead of listening to us, you’re making us watch a commercial!” The huge security guards materialized, demanded she leave, and she complied.
As we cycled back through East Oakland towards the train station, I realized why the Democrats had chosen this place to hold their event, at which would be present the House Minority Leader in her only public appearance in the entire Bay Area. They’d picked this district, not Pelosi’s but Barbara Lee’s, because if Pelosi had had to face her own constituency, the people of San Francisco, she’d have faced a much more hostile crowd. Pelosi would have been booed off of the stage, as well she deserves, for so shamelessly selling out her people.
And so like any good politician, she made sure and dodged what would have been a difficult day of reckoning. Instead of appearing in her own district she held her speak-out at a popular church in solid Barbara Lee country. Lee is enormously loved and respected in Oakland, and so it was a perfect place for a loathed politician like Pelosi to appear, where she would be guaranteed a positive reception simply by sharing the bill with Barbara Lee.
As we rode the train back to our respective homes, Leslie and I talked about what we’d just witnessed. She told me that there had been several people sitting near her in the audience who had quietly assured her that they supported her when she talked back to Nancy Pelosi. But those people had said absolutely nothing to back her up when she was confronted by the event organizers and security. “I don’t know who is more disappointing,” she sighed. “Democrats like Pelosi, or all those people who are as mad as I am, but don’t say anything.”
David Martinez is a San Francisco-based filmmaker and activist. His latest work is a film about rebellion in Sudan, called “Songs To Enemies And Deserts”, and was co-produced with photojournalist Shane Bauer who is currently imprisoned in Evin Prison in Tehran. For more information on the film and Shane’s plight see www.dmz2008.wordpress.com. Martinez can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.