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For six months, the SEIU's local 32BJ unionan organization of local churches that calls itself Brooklyn Congregations Togetherand members of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church had planned a boisterous January 14 event.
The Manhattan Center rally was meant to draw attention to the union's campaign for better wages and health benefits for security guards, and also to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work during the famed Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968.
A location was secured, the speeches were written, the Brooklyn Congregations Together Joined Choir was practiced and ready. Then, three days before the big event, Senator Hillary Clinton's camp asked if she could take part. Clinton ended up speaking for 20 minutes to a surprised audience that wondered where she'd come from. ("She dropped out of the sky!" one attendee quipped.)
A detail of Secret Service agents quietly filtering into the meeting was, for most, the first indication that something unusual was happening. Meanwhile, onstage, Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood warmed up the audience and was greeted by three rounds of thunderous applause and whoops of encouragement.
"I say to all of you: Namaste," the pastor began, using the Hindi greeting that commences each of his church services. He compared the sanitation workers' strike of 1968 with the current plight of the security guards, noting that the workers back then were earning the equivalent of the $10 to $12 per hour that New York City security guards earn now. "It was sanitation workers yesterday, it's security guards todayit may be your turn tomorrow!" he thundered, amid affirmations from the audience.
Meanwhile, Senator Clinton listened from a small cocoon of support onstagesitting near her were Representatives Gregory Meeks and Anthony Weiner, Local 32BJ union head Mike Fishman, and Reverend Calvin Butts, who have all endorsed her. But as Reverend Youngblood made way for her at the front of the stage, she elicited only subdued applause accompanied by a sprinkling of boos.
Clinton said all the right things: Dr. King was a great man; the union's struggle is a righteous one; this is an important time for the nation. The substance of her speech had already been heard beforefrom the religious leaders who had spoken earlier with significantly more humor, color, and motivational skill. As Clinton waxed poetic about how she'd been "transfixed and transformed" at age 14 after hearing Dr. King speak in Chicago, a few elderly members of the choir behind the senator quietly slipped off the stage so they could sit down. Meanwhile, a large group from the middle of the crowd told a woman policing the exits that they had to catch a bus, and quickly bolted. Others simply sneaked away without explanation as Clinton reminded the audience that her candidacy was as historic as Obama's. "How many of us thought we would ever see the day when a woman and an African-American would be running for president?" she asked, to polite applause. "Right is of no sex and truth is of no color," she added, quoting abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
News reports the next day depicted an auditorium filled with black people seemingly there to support the senator. But the reality was different. Two artists who performed, slam poet Jennifer Falu and MC Keith Richards, had no idea that Clinton would be showing up, and described her speech as "too long" and disingenuous. Reverend Clinton Miller, who also spoke at the event, publicly endorsed Barack Obama just four days later. But what most perturbed a number of attendees were the subsequent media reports, which characterized the day as nothing more than a Clinton campaign stop, with almost no mention of the rally's actual agenda. "We were hijacked," said one attendee.
For Clinton, however, the meeting was an opportune one. She was attempting to limit the damage from charges of racial insensitivity, and the publicity from the rally certainly helped that cause. But to many of those present, she accomplished just the oppositealienating many of the very African-Americans she needs to sway in a historic contest between a leading woman candidate and her equally formidable black male opponent.
"She was looking for voters; she doesn't give a shit about those security guards," said Fredrecia Hartley, a 49-year-old Bed-Stuy resident who attended the meeting. "I was offended." Even those who proclaim their affection for Senator Clintonlike Bruce Booker, a retired NYPD sergeantsaid her presence may have done more harm than good. "She overshadowed the event," Booker said. "That may not have been on purpose, but she's larger than life right now, and [from the media reports,] no one heard about the living wage for security guards or their trials and tribulations." Voice interviews with 15 other attendees, most of whom said they support Obama, revealed a similar dissatisfaction.
It turns out that public bathrooms are the ideal location to take the political pulse of the people. In the ladies' room at the Manhattan Center, as women took turns applying lipstick and checking their cell-phone messages, it quickly became clear that Clinton's speech had done little to change the minds of undecided voters. "I'm torn," said Jestine Curmon, a city employee. "I really like Hillary, but my heart feels like I have an obligation to vote for Obama. . . . I would love to see a woman, whether white or black, as the president, but that's a minute part of it." Patricia Hoggard-Harrison, a St. Paul member, said Clinton "spoke the truth," but added that she was still undecided. It wasn't until laterafter those media reports that largely ignored the security guards' rallying cry and touted Hillary's appearance as "damage control"that the grumbling really started.
When about a dozen attendees gathered after a packed Sunday-morning service at Brooklyn's St. Paul Community Baptist Church to talk politics, most had nothing but complaints about Clinton. In addition to feeling that their rally had been used for political gain, many felt that Clinton's 20-minute speech eclipsed that of Reverend Youngblood, who is credited with the development of the Nehemiah Houses and providing much-needed hope and services to East New York. Youngblood, who calls Clinton "a friend to the community," said that he and other organizers gladly agreed to include her in the event. However, members of his congregation, who came to the rally by the hundreds, were less gracious: "We didn't need another keynote speaker," said Booker, the retired police sergeant.
In an interview a few days earlier, Senator Clinton had said that Martin Luther King's dream of equality "began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Some interpreted that statement to mean that Clinton believed LBJ was able to do something that King couldn't managea pretty cynical reading of what she actually said. The pundits salivated, and Obama's campaign, at least in South Carolina, took the opportunity to release a Hillary-is-really-a-racist memo, mostly composed of insensitive remarks made by Clinton's supporters. (The memo was later condemned by Obama, who said that an "overzealous" staffer had put it together without his approval.)
That blip in the campaign actually exposed little about Clinton's racial politics; her record clearly shows, as Obama himself said later, that she is "on the right side" of civil-rights issues. But the events did fuel a disheartening competition among supporters of both candidates over who has had it worse in this country, African-Americans or women. When feminist and Clinton supporter Gloria Steinem proclaimed in a New York Times editorial earlier this month that "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life," and told readers that black men "generally have ascended to positions of power . . . before any women," it struck many readers as a distasteful rationale for casting a vote for the lady in the race.
Clinton supporters have rightly claimed that they've been battling a sexist mentality: In just the last few weeks, a Fox News commentator told viewers that men won't vote for Clinton because her shrill voice reminds them of their "nagging wives," while in New Hampshire, a heckler greeted the candidate with a poster that read "Iron My Shirt." But for some black women still on the fence between Clinton and Obama, the uproar over her comment about King quickly trumped any sympathy they may have felt for her.
"I did feel the pull between voting for an African-American and a woman," said Michele Noble, a loan-mortgage officer and Obama supporter. But "to come there to try to save her assI don't think it's appropriate." To add insult to injury, Noble added, Clinton's speech ran so long that the choir didn't have time to perform its final song"Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," written more than a century ago to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday. It's also affectionately known as the "Black National Anthem."