by Jeff Johnson
Sparks flew Tuesday during the Congressional Black Caucus “For the People” jobs tour that took place in the town hall in Detroit, Mich., as Black caucus members told the mostly Black audience to “unleash” them in confronting President Barack Obama on the issue of jobs.
During the sometimes heated town hall, peoples’ frustration over their economic conditions overwhelmed decorum and order.
California Rep. Maxine Waters expressed her and other Black Caucus members’ dilemma of having to walk a line. As representatives from communities that have had great love for President Barack Obama, it can be anywhere from difficult to impossible for Waters and the other members to be as critical of the president as she wanted to be.
“We don’t put pressure on the president,” said Waters. “Let me tell you why. We don’t put pressure on the president because y’all love the president. You love the president. You’re very proud to have a Black man (in the White House), first time in the history of the United States of America. If we go after the president too hard, you’re going after us.”
“When you tell us it’s all right and you unleash us and you tell us you’re ready for us to have this conversation, we’re ready to have the conversation. The Congressional Black Caucus loves the president too. We’re supportive of the president, but we’re getting tired, y’all; we’re getting tired.
“And so, what we want to do is, we want to give the president every opportunity to show what he can do and what he’s prepared to lead on. We want to give him every opportunity, but our people are hurting. The unemployment is unconscionable. We don’t know what the strategy is. We don’t know why, on this trip that he’s on in the United States now, he’s not in any Black community. We don’t know that.”
Detroit was the second stop in the tour, which launched in Cleveland with a series of job fairs and community town hall meetings hosted by African-American members of Congress.
People who gathered in the auditorium at Wayne Community College, some who said they have been out of work for up to three years, shouted at CBC members and myself as the moderator, as they attempted to communicate their struggles over the responses of the panel.
But those passionate Detroit citizens, whose desire is simply to work, were not the only ones whose patience seemed to be hitting a wall. As community members provided call and response, it became apparent that many in the room were also frustrated by their perception that the president has been less than responsive to the issues of the urban poor.
“The Congressional Black Caucus must meet immediately with the president of the United States of America. No ifs, ands or buts. And I mean soon,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers. “We should be in front – three to five-six thousand people, the day before we open our 40th conference on Tuesday, Sept. 20 – in front of the White House, demanding jobs.”
Referring to jobs resolutions the CBC has attempted to introduce in the House of Representatives, Conyers said the president “hasn’t gotten behind any one of these programs yet. He’s got to come and go for mine, yours, hers.”
This sentiment of taking the president to task over issues of the poor and unemployed, especially in places like Detroit, was exacerbated by the fact that at the same time the CBC Detroit town hall was taking place, the president was in Iowa dealing with the issues of rural Americans.
Many in the audience complained that the president has not come to Detroit at all during the worst days of the recession. And with real unemployment in the city at almost 50 percent, one community member stated, “Where else is there for him to be?”
It is worth noting that the tone coming from the audience and from some of the members on stage, including Reps. Waters, D-Calif., and John Conyers, D-Mich., did not seem to operate out of the same energy coming from the Tavis Smiley-Cornel West movement, which focuses personal attacks on Obama. Citizens and members alike at the Detroit town hall spoke of their continued support for the president. But they said that support was becoming challenging, because they don’t feel adequate support coming from the White House as it relates to the double digit unemployment rates facing African-Americans and urban citizens.
The five-city CBC tour is called the “For the People” jobs tour and it lived up to its branding, as even people who were angry felt heard by the time the meeting came to a close.
Designees from both Rep. Conyers and Rep. Hansen Clarke’s offices joined with Detroit City Councilwoman Joann Watson and others to form a local jobs taskforce that will continue to meet beyond the tour. Congressman Clarke stated, “This community can no longer act like being poor means that you’re powerless.” He challenged the city to engage in mobilization around the Black Caucus’ jobs policy recommendations.
Congressman Clarke stated, “This community can no longer act like being poor means that you’re powerless.”
It was clear that for the audience, the concern over the president’s lack of engagement of the urban poor is growing from a whisper into a steady buzz. The challenge for the White House will be: Can they hear the buzz over the president’s 80 percent approval rating among African-Americans?
The reality is that many who are a part of the “community of skeptics” creating the buzz do not disapprove of the president, but they want to feel as if he fights for them. It will be interesting to see if the tone from the CBC town hall meetings is similar as the tour – which also includes a rolling job fair – moves from Atlanta and Miami to Los Angeles on Aug. 30-31.
As the country gets closer to the November 2012 elections, it is these very citizens showing up to town hall meetings who were part of Obama’s base in 2008. The “hope and change” message that rallied support from African-American communities in Detroit and beyond is long gone. Many are unclear what message can motivate this base to the polls again, while so many are suffering under a devastating economy and the reality of unemployment.
So, the question is no longer, “Does this base approve of the president” or “Do they like Barack Obama.” The real question is can the president’s relationship with the Caucus and the community be repaired enough for them to show up on Election Day?
Jeff Johnson, senior correspondent for the Grio, where this story first appeared, is a political expert and activist who earned his reputation as a positive force among youth and young adults through his Black Entertainment Television shows, “The Jeff Johnson Chronicles” and “Rap City.” He has worked for People for the American Way, the NAACP and as vice president of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.