Barack Obama, Occupy Wall Street and Martin Luther King’s Mission and Legacy

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Barack Obama is the largest governmental obstacle to the continuation and completion of Martin Luther King’s mission.

Bill Moyers had an excellent conversation with James Cone and Taylor Branch about what could be called, “MLK’s unfinished business;” Moyers called it, “James Cone and Taylor Branch on MLK’s Fight for Economic Equality.”  I recommend checking out the whole conversation, which starts out this way:

You may think you know about Martin Luther King, Jr., but there is much about the man and his message we have conveniently forgotten. He was a prophet, like Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, calling kings and plutocrats to account, speaking truth to power.

Yet, he was only 39 when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. The March on Washington in ’63 and the March from Selma to Montgomery in ’65 were behind him. So were the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the last year of his life, as he moved toward Memphis and fate, he announced what he called the Poor People’s Campaign, a “multi-racial army” that would come to Washington, build an encampment and demand from Congress an “Economic Bill of Rights” for all Americans – black, white, or brown. He had long known that the fight for racial equality could not be separated from the need or economic equity – fairness for all, including working people and the poor. That’s why he was in Memphis, marching with sanitation workers on strike for a living wage when he was killed.

Popular notions of Martin Luther King’s work celebrate his mission as one that was fundamentally about racial justice.  Moyers and his guests point out that this conventional wisdom seriously understates the scope and scale of King’s vision and mission. King’s mission was not only to advance the interests of African-Americans but to demand and implement a culture of social and economic justice.

King’s legacy is surely evident in the Occupy movement.  From its use of King’s tactics, Gandhian non-violence, to its mission of social and economic justice, the Occupy movement is considerably indebted to King.

While the Occupy movement was controversial, that Occupy was continuing in the tradition of civil rights social movements was well recognized:

Council of Elders – Occupy Wall Street – Statement of Solidarity

The Council of Elders, a newly organized, independent group of leaders from many of the defining American social justice movements of the 20th century, declared today that we stand in basic solidarity with the national Occupy Wall Street movement and the committed young people who give guidance to this important quest for justice in the 21st century. We wish to explore every possible, helpful way in which we can connect together the continuing flame of the justice and democratizing movements of the 20th century with the powerful light of the emerging movements of the present time, reflected in the Occupy Wall Street initiatives.

As veterans of the Civil Rights, Women’s, Peace, Environmental, LGBTQ, Immigrant Justice, labor rights and other movements of the last 60 years we are convinced that Occupy Wall Street is a continuation, a deepening and expansion of the determination of the diverse peoples of our nation to transform our country into a more democratic, just and compassionate society-a more perfect union. We believe that the rapidly expanding and racialized impoverishment of our population, the rise of mass incarceration, the celebration of the culture of war and violence all create the bitter divisions among the peoples of our nation and throughout the world. Indeed, we believe such developments among us ultimately diminish the quality of life for all humanity, beginning with our own children who watch as we lower the priority for their care and education.

We applaud the miraculous extent to which the Occupy initiative has been non-violent and democratic, especially in light of the weight of violence under which the great majority of people are forced to live, including joblessness, foreclosures, unemployment, poverty, inadequate health care, etc. Among the Council of Elders, we place the highest value on the role of compassion and non-violent action in our personal and organizational lives. From that hard-won grounding in the humanizing movements of the 20th century we seek to support and join with Occupy Wall Street in contributing to the dreams and visions of many in this nation for a beloved community, a multi-generational, multi-racial, compassionate, democratic society with equality, liberty and justice for all-always searching for partners in the creation of a more peaceful, sustainable world, a world with living, loving and growing space for all of our children.

Barack Obama and Occupy

The non-violent civil rights actions of the 1960’s certainly “attracted” a group of brutal thugs operating under the color of law.  As President Obama put it in his address at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Memorial on the Mall:

It is right for us to celebrate Dr. King’s marvelous oratory, but it is worth remembering that progress did not come from words alone. Progress was hard. Progress was purchased through enduring the smack of billy clubs and the blast of fire hoses. It was bought with days in jail cells and nights of bomb threats. For every victory during the height of the civil rights movement, there were setbacks and there were defeats.

Occupy’s non-violent protests met with the same response:

brutality collage

This time though, there is considerable evidence that Barack Obama’s administration coordinated the assault on the Occupy movement, and has worked assiduously to avoid accountability for Obama’s actions.

Just as the government surveilled and reported on King obsessively, recent FOIA revelations show that Obama’s government has been obsessively tracking the Occupy movement.  In an action that betrays Obama’s most likely intent, those FOIA documents reveal that they have carefully tracked press reportage of the movement:

The documents show a Department of Homeland Security that appears obsessed with the question of whether any and all protests that are being surveilled receive media attention and coverage. Reporting within the DHS on media coverage of First Amendment protected activities, even in the smallest places, appears to be a routine part of DHS intelligence reports. None of the documents explain why media coverage of peaceful demonstrations is of interest to law enforcement or concerns “homeland security” in any way.

It seems odd that Homeland Security, which is reporting to the President about domestic terrorism would be intently following the press coverage of the Occupy movement.  It seems unlikely that an organization of their resources would have to find out about “terrorist” actions and plots in the news media. In fact, it seems a quite reasonable assumption that the goal of the Obama administration was, as the director of the organization that made the FOIA request says, to “surveil and disrupt,” the movement for political reasons:

“This production of documents, like the FBI documents that the PCJF received in December 2012, is a window into the nationwide scope of DHS and FBI surveillance, monitoring, and reporting on peaceful protestors organizing with the Occupy movement. Taken together, the two sets of documents paint a disturbing picture of federal law enforcement agencies using their vast power in a systematic effort to surveil and disrupt peaceful demonstrations. The federal agencies’ actions were not because Occupy represented a ‘terrorist threat’ or a ‘criminal threat’ but rather because it posed a significant grassroots political challenge to the status quo,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the PCJF.

So, while President Obama was quite pleased with the global peers of the Occupy movement when their actions to demand democracy and social and economic justice where it suited his foreign policy objectives, Obama’s appreciation of that agenda stopped at the border:

The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.”

The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators,” Obama said in a statement on Friday. “This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”

“I am deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. The United States condemns the use of violence against peaceful protesters in those countries, and wherever else it may occur.”

Wealth, Privilege and Identity

Early on in his political career, Barack Obama courted the 1%:

We never heard of this guy Barack Obama until 2004. Less than three years before taking the presidency, he was in the Illinois state senate, a swamp of scammers, backhanders, and party machine tools – not a stellar launch pad for the White House. And then, one day, state Sen. Barack Obama was visited by his fairy godmother. Her name is Penny Pritzker. …

Pritzker introduced Obama, the neophyte state senator, to the Ladies Who Lunch (that’s really what they call themselves) on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Obama got lunch, gold and better – an introduction to Robert Rubin. … Rubin opened the doors to finance industry vaults for Obama. Extraordinarily for a Democrat, Obama in 2008 raised three times as much from bankers as his Republican opponent.

Barack Obama courted the 1% and they annointed him with cash and awarded him the privilege of leading.  What made Wall Street bankers like Robert Rubin and so interested in him?  It may have been his corporate-friendly rhetoric that was on display at his audition at the Hamilton Project.

Whatever it was, they sure liked it a lot.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, he sure requited the love showered on him by Robert Rubin’s Hamilton Project buddies. In fact, the Hamilton Project went dormant in 2009 and had to relaunch in 2010, because Obama had appointed so many of its staff to government positions, and the Hammilton Project’s agenda was pervasive in the White House:

“My experience from inside the government is that Hamilton ideas were pervasive,” said Michael Greenstone, the new director of the program and formerly chief economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “That’s partially because several people in the administration were previously affiliated with the group, but even in meetings where there was no one in the room that had anything to do with Hamilton, a lot of the very sensible solutions to the country’s problems seemed to be emanating from Hamilton.”

Peter Orszag, the first director of the program, is now Obama’s budget director, Orszag’s successor at Hamilton, Jason Furman, is now a key White House aide, and Furman’s successor at Hamilton, Doug Elmendorf, is director of the Congressional Budget Office.

In fact, the Obama administration must have felt just like home to people who came from Hamilton and Goldman Sachs, because there were so many people with ties to those organizations in the White House.

Given who Obama, already a successful person, was hanging around with, it looks like he started identifying with wealthy people as his folks.  For example, check out this statement from Obama’s website of which there are many similar examples from Obama’s stump speech for his tax plan:

“Do we want to keep giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans like me, or Warren Buffett, or Bill Gates – people who don’t need them and never asked for them?”

The language that he uses clearly demonstrates that Obama associates himself and identifies as a member of the 1%.  Those folks are his peers in his eyes.

Given that Obama shares that group consciousness, it is little wonder that he found the Occupy movement a threat that had to be suppressed. And let’s be clear, it was brutally suppressed by agencies under his control without a public peep about the nastiness of the process from Mr. Obama.

The fact that Mr. Obama is the first black president and has said so many nice and respectful things about Martin Luther King should not cause us to see an irony in his pulling out all of the stops to suppress the first mass movement since the 60’s that had the potential to address parts of MLK’s agenda that are unfinished. Obama is enfranchised and privileged by the system he defended so aggressively.

We should also not find irony in the fact that Mr. Obama is the first black president and on his watch black poverty is up, black unemployment is up and black wealth has plummeted.  Of course, though the economic position of almost all Americans has worsened, these effects of the great recession have hit the black community harder than the general population and President Obama’s proposed recovery policies will make matters worse for African-Americans.  

What is interesting, though, is that there is one group that is prospering and has been prospering even more handsomely under Mr. Obama’s stewardship of the economy, as the economy recovers for some but worsens for most.  Interestingly enough, the group that is prospering while others decline is the group that Mr. Obama seems to identify with.

Now you might say that Mr. Obama is not the only economic actor and others bear responsibility for the performance of the economy.  It is true that most members of the legislative branch are very wealthy, with a median net worth of Congressmen at about $850k and for $2.5 million for Senators as of 2011. However, every one of Mr. Obama’s budgets submitted have been austerity budgets and austerity just happens to benefit one group, can you guess who?

Austerity’s Big Winners Prove To Be Wall Street And The Wealthy

Cutting or eliminating government programs that benefit the less advantaged has long been an ideological goal of conservatives. Doing so also generates a tidy windfall for the corporate class, as government services are privatized and savings from austerity pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens.

Mr. Obama has worked assiduously to impose austerity that will benefit the 1%.  While his latest budget proposes to raise taxes on the wealthy, his idea is to, “share the sacrifice” by using chained CPI to raise taxes more on the little guy, while cutting earned benefits like social security and medicare:

According to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, if individual income taxes had been indexed to the chained CPI starting four months ago, by 2021, 69 percent of the gains in revenue would come from taxpayers with incomes below $100,000, while those in the highest income brackets would barely be affected. For example, workers with incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 would experience an increased tax burden of 14.5 percent, while those with incomes over $1 million would just see an increase of 0.1 percent.

The sad fact of it, is that despite whatever Mr. Obama’s rhetoric has been, the results of his policies has been to create unequal outcomes that benefit the group that he is a member of rather than what most of us consider the traditional constituency of the Democratic Party.  His efforts have come at the expense of the missions of great Democratic programs like the New Deal and the Great Society and those of social leaders like Martin Luther King to create a more equal and just society.

One wouldn’t have to search too hard to find explanations of how a certain degree of privilege can blind one to the struggles and oppression of others.  Virtually every social division that has been used to exploit humanity by the 1% has its literature, male privilege, white privilege, privileges that accrue to ethnic or religious majorities, class and economic privilege.  Given the level of social and economic mobility in America, virtually everyone can have a mixture of privilege or its opposite.

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s privilege has blinded him to the struggle of the 99% to achieve meaningful social and economic justice.

Obama has done a brilliant job for his own group, the 1%. If we are known by our works moreso than our words, activists who care about the 99% should be able to divine who it is that is not on our side.

As Cornel West put it in a recent interview:

“[Obama] talked about Martin Luther King over and over again as he ran.” … You can’t just invoke Martin Luther King like that and not follow through on his priorities in some way.”


  1. thanks for reading!

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