Any event held to promote the idea that as Americans we are all deeply connected and in this together is an event that should be valued. Any occasion where community groups standing up for values and change that the powers that be wish us to discard or ignore is one to be proud of. But for me, opening up a dialogue with candidates as this was supposed to do wasn’t enough.
As a young white American student living in the Midwest, I have had zero discrimination brought against me. That is something to be thankful for. But I will not stand here and cherish it while others have to put up with the injustices and despicable policies that our government is responsible for or complicity allows to continue on a daily basis. I demand action and real policies from these candidates and will not let them get away with ignoring the truth that they must be a vehicle for change and not a vehicle for the status quo.
Watching the Heartland Presidential Forum, I could not help but think that many of these people were using the power of organization to stand up to a fear. The way the forum took over thirty minutes to begin was tiresome. I could not understand why they were spending so much time justifying their reasoning for convening this forum. Yet like a lawyer in front of a hung jury, various leaders including Barb Kolbach, Tony Boatman, Deepak Bhargava, and Rev. Eugene Barnes stood up and defended the forum which had been organized.
Before the candidates came out to speak, a community leader stood up and led what I could only imagine to be a self-confidence building exercise where people were asked to stand up if they believed their vote counts, if they believed they have power, and so on and so forth. Prior to that, a grassroots organizer led what could only be deemed a crude census taking procedure as she tried to get a feel for the demographics of the audience by shouting, “Where y’all at?”, trying to figure out how many people were in the audience from each area of America. All of this self-confidence building and all of this cheering and clapping to show all of America was represented in the audience seemed like a way to numb and sedate people to the fact that the presidential candidates who chose to speak at the forum (five of the eight Democratic presidential candidates and no Republicans although one did agree to show up but a lawyer frowned at the thought the forum might look it was endorsing this one Republican [and I say, why not? Do you really want to take a chance on electing another president who does everything domestically that Bush did? Why not break a few rules to ensure the lives of people all over America?] weren't really going to make any of their problems go away today or in the not-so-distant future.
In a “randomly selected” order, the Democratic presidential candidates stood up to speak and listen to the stories of those demanding to be heard.
Every candidate was asked the same question appealing to the candidate on an emotional level and giving him (or her) the option to respond back on an emotional level or cite a policy or accomplishment in his (or her) record. Some candidates succeeded in answering this question on whether or not they support community values while others failed. Regardless, every candidate, as was to be expected, answered “yes” signaling that they do support community values. In fact, John Edwards and Barack Obama are running for president because of community values. (One might argue they are running because they have been able to raise Big Money from all over America, but no, here today, Edwards and Obama declared they are running because of community values.)
The format of the forum was that each candidate would give a two minute response when asked a question and they would get to give around four responses to four questions given by two separate community groups.
Unfortunately, many of the questions were yes or no questions and few of the questions asked how or what would be done to fix problems which were discussed such as immigration, predatory lending, and the impact of farm factory corporations on agriculture, etc. However, some candidates (Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich) went to great lengths to make sure their answers accurately represented what they would do on these issues for Americans. And some felt comfortable just swimming in their rhetoric (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). And for John Edwards, in many cases, he just wanted to make sure government enforced the Constitution and laws as president, something that the federal government is already supposed to do. The only issue that had good questions asked in regards to it was the issue of health care.
Interestingly enough, two particular candidates were never asked about racism or gender discrimination. Barack Obama never had to answer any question about massive incarceration of black communities. Hillary Clinton never had to speak about what she would do for women as the first woman president. One question was asked on racism and it went to whom? John Edwards, not Barack Obama who African Americans most needed to hear from on this issue to know that he would not be Toby in Roots but instead Kunta Kinte.
The final question of each set was on if the candidates would hold a meeting with community values leaders in the first 100 days in office if elected. Each said they would by the first month. Many said the first week. Dennis Kucinich said he would allow people to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Barack Obama owned the question though by saying he would contact them in the months leading up to his inauguration so that they could “help” him dictate his agenda.
When I consider the fact that the people running this forum know he is polling first in Iowa polls right now, it is not a surprise to me that they had Barack Obama go last. It is not a surprise that it looked like a setup when Tony Boatman from Chicago stood up and read the introduction to start off Barack Obama’s speaking time in the forum. It is not a surprise that the moderator had a girl who went through a rare eye disease go up and hug Barack on stage after a story was shared with him. It is not a surprise that the one time the whole stage looked like everyone was having a good time was when Barack Obama was on stage (the worst time was when Hillary was on satellite with the forum).
So, it is for Barack that I reserve the harshest words---words that could be directed towards Clinton, Edwards, Richardson, or Biden (I think Dodd and Kucinich deserve to be exempt because I would be proud to vote for either of these individuals).
Barack, the people who spoke to you today were people who came to America for a better life. They were people who fought for civil rights in America for a better life. They were workers and farmers who make up the backbone of America. Their life and occupation does not make it easy to sustain themselves in the world we live in and so they need the government to help them. They need you to champion policies that will lift them up. We’re not talking about lowering the luxurious living of the rich to the levels of the poor. We’re talking about raising the poor up enough rungs on the class ladder so that they can live without fearing that they one day might be deported or live out of their car.