By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009
On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters thronged to the U.S. Capitol to angrily accuse President Obama of taking the country in the wrong direction.
A day later, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, many participants at a much smaller gathering -- the 24th annual Black Family Reunion -- said the level of hostility toward the nation's first African American president had little to do with policy differences over health care or taxes and everything to do with race.
"It' s not conducive to the coalitions we need to build in this country," said Vera Hope, 60, of Mount Rainier as she left a booth promoting health prevention. "I'm disgusted and upset by the hostility. Let's call it was it is -- it's just a disguise for right-wing racists. They are fomenting a climate of violence to provoke people."
From its inception, the two-day event has focused on healing and uplifting black families. This year's theme was "Renewing, Reviving and Reconnecting the Family Community." It featured musical performances, health screenings and motivational speakers.
Although less animated than Saturday's protesters at the Capitol, the reunion participants were just as heartfelt as they talked about the change they want for America.
Hope, for instance, is a teacher in the District. She grew up during the tumultuous 1960s and said health-care reform is a must. She takes eight medications a day and would not be able to afford health care without insurance. "The health-care situation in the United States is deplorable," she said. "You have people who have to choose between eating and paying for their medications."
Those sentiments starkly contrast with those of protesters who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday with signs that said "Liar Liar Pants on Fire!" and "Hey Obama Here's a Tip for You -- Keep the Change." As they left the rally, many of those with opposing views walked through the Black Family Reunion, some stopping to eat at the booths. Protesters at the "tea party" protest were mostly white; the reunion crowd was nearly all black.
Dorothy Height, president of National Council of Negro Women, which holds the reunion, said that although she was pleased that the protesters and the reunion participants coexisted peacefully, she was disappointed that some marchers were so crass.
"They are a bad sign for democracy," said Height, 97, who supports health-care reform. "I've never heard anyone say that they wished the other presidents would fail," she said. "President Obama has shown courage and leadership in trying to tackle various problems."
Since taking office, Obama has taken heat from the right for pushing what some call a socialist agenda. Critics on the left contend that his plans are far too moderate.
But Colleen Freeman, 50, said many of Obama's critics are motivated by race. "A lot of people are protesting, and they don't even know what they are protesting," she said. "Some of these folks are getting Social Security, and it's because their grandparents put in the work for it. Now they won't give Obama a chance to work. Some know they need health care but don't want it to be Obama that gives it to them."
Alan Sims, 38, is a home improvement contractor. He supports Obama and the changes he's advocating, but he said criticism comes with the job. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, he said, was judged harshly by black Americans because he is white.
"Race is always," Sims said, "going to be a factor in American politics."