The anti-Obama left was out in force. All 22 of them.
As the president stood on the South Lawn to announce the bombing campaign in Syria, liberal demonstrators gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue on the other side of the White House to protest the man they thought was their ally.
“When you were elected president, people had such hope for a change,” Malachy Kilbride of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance proclaimed through a handheld amplifier. “What we got was a government that continued the policies of the Bush administration! You are NOT the people’s president, and the voices of the people are not being heard.”
The liberal activists’ list of grievances was long: drone warfare, insufficient action on climate change and wages, “failed economic policies,” bending to corporate interests. But the roll call of activists was short: Obama starts a war, multiple antiwar groups schedule a joint demonstration with plenty of advance warning — and only 22 people show up?
It was the latest display of how Obama has neutralized the left.
He has disappointed liberal constituencies on immigration, on climate change, on Guantanamo Bay and targeted killings, and now on Syria. Yet this month’s Washington Post-ABC News poll shows him with 69 percent support among liberals, 87 percent among African Americans and 75 percent among Democrats. Liberals supported airstrikes in Iraq and Syria (64 percent and 54 percent, respectively), as did Democrats (67 percent and 60 percent).
“If George W. Bush were launching wars with Congress out of town, oh, it would be flooded,” longtime liberal activist David Swanson said, looking across mostly empty Pennsylvania Avenue “They would be screaming.”
Swanson, who voted for Obama in 2008 before switching to the Green Party, said liberals who condemned Bush look the other way when Obama does the same thing because “he’s more eloquent, he’s more intelligent, he’s African American, he bills himself as a constitutional scholar.”
Essentially, they view him as a lesser evil than the Republican alternative. “He can get away with some abuses and worse and be forgiven because he engages in wars more eloquently and reluctantly,” Swanson said, “but the people who die in the wars are just as dead and the people who suffer from the sabotaging of climate agreements have their climate just as destroyed.” (There were large climate-change demonstrations in New York this week, but those weren’t really anti-Obama.)
The 22 activists’ clothes and signs spanned the gamut of liberal causes: “Ground the Drones.” “Don’t Nuke the Climate.” “Don’t Frack with U.S.” “Stop U.S. Wars for Profits.” Some wore orange jumpsuits and black hoods, leftovers from the Bush-era protests.
Ubiquitous activist Medea Benjamin of Code Pink tried to give her small antiwar band a pep talk. “The American people were on our side just a couple of months ago,” she said. “The support is going to start evaporating. . . . We need to accelerate that.”
I asked Benjamin, who like Swanson voted for Obama in 2008 before turning Green, why so few on the left oppose Obama. “He’s totally defanged us,” she said, citing his party, his affability — and his race. “The black community is traditionally the most antiwar community in this country. He’s defanged that sentiment within the black community, or certainly voicing that sentiment.”
Benjamin noted that the two leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus split on last week’s Syria vote. “If it were under Bush, there would be no split at all and they would all be against this,” she said.
Instead, it was a sparse crowd outside the White House on Tuesday. The Secret Service, in a show-of-force after last week’s fence-jumping incident, closed Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House for a while, and the demonstrators were pushed back to Lafayette Square, where, they were told, they could not use their amplifier.
Finally, the restrictions were lifted, and the demonstrators returned to their previously scheduled street theater. They tried, and failed, to deliver a letter to Obama at the guard house. Then 10 of them pretended to die in a drone strike; a few covered themselves in “blood”-spattered sheets, and one moaned in fake pain.
But the Secret Service and Park Police, unimpressed, took their time arresting the die-in participants. During the wait, some of the deceased shifted positions and started talking among themselves, while others rose from the dead to grant interviews to reporters, who far outnumbered the demonstrators.
After nearly an hour of this, agents moved in calmly and cuffed the remaining five protesters — to the relief of the demonstrators. It was beginning to look as if a liberal activist couldn’t get arrested in Obama’s Washington.