You Are The People. (Updated)

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

cross posted from The Dream Antilles

In Ireland, I am informed, they have some venerable traditions about drinking.  When you go to a party, you bring two bottles: one for tonight, and one for the host at a later time.  You uncork the one for tonight and throw away the cork.  That way the bottle will have to be consumed tonight.

And so we celebrate the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.  Let’s drink the entire bottle.  Let’s deal with the hangover.  And then, let’s go back to work.

Join me with Advil below.

I cried when Barack Obama was elected.  In many ways, it was the culmination of work I had done as a community organizer and as a civil rights lawyer for the past 40 years .

If you had told me 40 years ago, when I was an organizer in Alabama, sleeping with a loaded .38 under my pillow, that in 2008 the Democratic Party would nominate an African American and that he would be elected president, I would have explained to you that you were delusional and f*cking crazy.  I might have thought that you were a visionary, an idealist, someone I dearly loved, but I would have thought you were completely crazy.  I would have explained to you how dangerous Alabama was, that you had to watch your back, and I would have explained the psychic and symbolic qualities of having a .38.  You couldn’t hit anything at a distance, but the muzzle flash was enormous.  It was solely a defensive weapon. It would scare anyone away.

40 years ago at Thanksgiving 1968, a friend of mine, who was then living in New Jersey, told me that she was worried about me being an organizer in Alabama.  She gave me a switchblade to protect myself.  I told her I had no clue how to use it, and that if I had to cut somebody, I doubt I’d be able to do that without maiming myself as well.  She smiled and said it would be a good idea for me to practice.  I did practice.

In 1977 I appeared in Circuit Court in Tupelo, Mississippi, as a lawyer trying to get a client out of the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.  The judge made it clear that he didn’t appreciate having a communist (maybe he had a big “C”) like me in his court.  I cried later because my client needed to be released, but he wouldn’t be. He would continue in confinement for no reason I could fathom.

In 1984 I was the lawyer for a man on death row.  The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed his conviction and sent him home.  I was thrilled.  Then I saw that one judge had dissented.  His argument was that the law of evidence should be changed in this very case so that my client could be killed.  I read the decision and I wept.  I was infuriated.  I couldn’t understand such a lack of regard for human life.

I could go on and on about with these stories.  If this were a saloon and you were buying I would.  I could go on all night.

I can provide you with 40+ years of anecdotal evidence, stories, incidents, remarks. I could elaborate on these and exaggerate them. I could itemize my scars, my injuries, my failures, my disappointments, my mistakes. I could explain to you how my first marriage died in pathetic, heartbreaking failure because of threats, crank phone calls, the movement, stress, pressure.  I could trot out all of my hurts.  I could catalog them.  But I won’t.  Suffice it to say, I cried when Barack Obama was elected.

And now what?

You made Barack Obama president.  You led him to the White House.  You raised the money, you distributed the literature, you knocked on the doors, you got out the vote, you wrote the essays, you made the arguments, you discussed and analyzed the policies, you hooted and hollered and cried and screamed, you pulled the levers, you watched the returns.  You led him to the White House.  You won this election.

And then we all cried.  But it wasn’t the end.  Not at all. It was just the very beginning.  He is only what you have made him.  He was who you had faith in.  He was who you trusted.  He was who you elected.  It was just the beginning of us telling him what we wanted, what we needed, what was right, what was wrong, what was fair, what was oppressive, what was unnecessary, what was required.  It was the beginning of participatory democracy.  It was the beginning of we the people saying what should be done and what shouldn’t.

Can we enjoy the victory for a few days?  Can we enjoy the end of the reign of terror? Sure. Can we savor the end of an administration that would terrorize us into giving up our rights?  Can we bask in the glow of taking back our country?  Sure. Can we smile at the lame duck congress and the retarded duck executive?  Yes.  And then?  And then? And then?

Folks.  We made Barack Obama in our image, and we’re not done.  We need to lead the country.  We need Barack Obama to follow our lead.  We need to define what should be done.  We need to be present. And active.  And speaking.  And demanding.  And explaining.  We made him.  That means we need to continue to inspire him.  That means we need to continue to speak and argue and debate and think and express.

This is democracy.  This is what it looks like.  Our leader follows us.  Our leader follows the people.  He listens to what we say.  He responds to what we demand.  He enacts what we tell him to enact.

Folks.  It is bottom up, not top down.  He is president, but he responds to us.  Not to lobbyists.  Not to arms merchants.  Not to failed bankers.  Not to those who are really “special interests.”  To us.  To you.  To me.  To the people. He is our president, and he is responsible to us.  We made him president, we gave money, we made calls, we knocked on doors.  This is not, this cannot be US business as usual.  He is there to listen to us.    

I will wipe my tears now.  Because I know what’s ahead.  And that is that we have to lead and continue to inspire the nation.  We have to make it clear what should happen.  We have to be the people who dictated what should be done, what should happen.  It’s not the lobbyists.  It’s not the industrialists.  It’s not the union leaders.

Folks. It is us.  You and me.  The People of the United States of America. We need to step up and assume our place as the voice of the United States.  We need to speak.  And our elected leader needs to respond.

Update:  A companion piece to this is An Open Letter to Barack Obama by Alice Walker.  Her piece is a must read.


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    • davidseth on November 7, 2008 at 4:10 am

    Thanks for reading.

  1. Has a nice ring to it.

    Amazing story, David.  Thank you for sharing it.

  2. a point that I was thinking about earlier.

    I have read that Obama will have a website where people can post opinions: is it up yet? what is its url? and how can we coordinate our response for maximum impact?

    I don’t know the answers.  (I sure hope you do!)  But imho, this is how we should be thinking.

    I trust Obama…to an extent.  But it is up to us to make him more liberal than he tends to be.

    Also, while the idea of “fireside chats” is very quaint and 1940s–I do think it’s in his best interest (and ours) to start doing something similar immediately after Jan. 20.

    What do you think?

    • RiaD on November 7, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    for all you do/have done.

    i always love your essays & return to wallow in them, covering my mind in their goodness.

    thank you


    i’m reminded of these prophetic words…and how far-fetched they seemed at the time

    Things are moving so fast in race relations a Negro could be president in 40 years.  There is no question about it.  In the next 40 years a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.  Prejudice exists, and probably will continue to, but we have tried to make progress and we are making progress.  We are not going to accept the status quo. ~RFK

    and you may enjoy this article mishima brought to my attention today.

  3. I just read the Alice Walker article, and it is truly amazing. For Obama to stay grounded in his soul…yes, that is my wish too.

    Great essay all around. Thanks.

    • OPOL on November 7, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    BTW I once spent a weekend at the Warden’s house at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, toured the prison, hung out with a bunch of the prisoners and sat in the gas chamber.  It was a pretty interesting visit.  The guy who was warden then had been warden at Draper when I started doing my time there.  He wanted me to come work for him at Parchman…but I didn’t like the place all that much.  🙂

    • kj on November 8, 2008 at 12:23 am

    for everything, for all the years, for all the loss, for the effort and all the tears.

    i’ll pop for as many rounds as you want, brother.  i’m glad to know you.

  4. Such a long, long battle.  Thank you for sharing your experience.  I can relate to a great deal of it, myself.  

    Alice Walker’s letter is eloquent!

    Yes, our job is cut out for us.  More so than ever before in our history!  Thank you for bringing your insights to the “podium!”

    It’s going to be a long, hard pull upward!  

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