Reporting by Benjamin Wachs
The bedraggled homeless man in a ball cap and a long green coat stares at the 20 people in the park clustered around a small card table with an “Obama ’08!” sign taped to it, tossing in the wind.
“Hey, fuck you!” he shouts. “You can’t tell me what to do! You can’t tell me what to do! Do you hear me! You can’t tell me what to do!”
He keeps it up for maybe five minutes. Finally, someone shouts back, “Vote for Obama!”
Strangely, that shuts him up.
It’s Asian Day for Barack Obama’s Northern California campaign. Today groups of Obama volunteers are going out into heavily Asian neighborhoods to spread the word about their candidate’s record on issues Asian-American’s care about — everything from immigration, to opportunities for English language learners, to the minimum wage. I won’t go into details about his stands on these issues because, to tell the truth, most of the volunteers don’t really know. They’re just carrying around voter guides in English and Mandarin and spreading the warm feelings the candidate inspires.
And what a crowd of volunteers it is, led by Maggie, a bright energetic Caucasian in her mid 20s, and Wayne, an older Asian man so laid back he’s staring at clouds even when he talks to you. Together they’re explaining to a very diverse group – in age, race, and temperament – how to go knocking door to door (“Canvassing” is the term) and encouraging Democrats to vote for Obama in California’s Democratic primary.
This being Oakland, the perennial murder capital of California, these instructions include a few details usually left out of canvassing guidelines.
“It’s probably safe – it’s daytime,” Wayne tells his recruits. But everyone’s going in pairs, and “never go inside the house, I don’t care what the circumstances are."
Meanwhile, as Wayne explains the value of face-to-face contact with voters who probably won’t kill you, Maggie gently “encourages” the volunteer groups – currently clustered by ethnicity – to split up and pair off with someone. Mix it up, meet new people — and she inevitably pairs the canvassers together into mixed race couples. An Asian and a white, a black and a white, an Asian and a black — it’s never explicitly said what’s going on here, but the end result is obvious; they’re trying to create mixed race teams without actually saying “let’s make mixed race teams!”
That same approach is taken by Obama’s entire California operation. Outside of the four “first primary” states, the first campaign office Obama set up anywhere in the country was here in Oakland. It was one of the first places he traveled to after he announced in Illinois. When I asked campaign spokesman Debbie Mesloh why that decision was made, she gave me a whole list of reasons — but never mentions race. Is Obama black? What a coincidence!
“The demographic there (in Oakland) really aligns itself to the vision Obama has laid out,” Mesloh said. “There’s a strong and engaged community there around ending the war in Iraq, and his stance and his foresight on being against the war in the first place really resonates in Oakland. Also he really embodies the American experience in a way that resonates with the people of Oakland.”
Right. Of course. That’s why every anti-war candidate is flocking to Oakland. You can’t keep Denis Kucinich and Ron Paul out of there (Mike Gravel got shot).
Obama has pledged not to make race a defining issue in his campaign, and this rhetoric matches that promise — but in a race-charged area, you can only go so far before you stumble over it on the ground while your eyes are on the sky.
Hence, it’s Asian Day. “Senator Obama is the *only* candidate who has a platform specifically for Asian-Americans,” a white volunteer says enthusiastically. “He’s the only one who recognizes this group and their issues.”
“We’ve already canvassed a lot for the African-Americans,” volunteer Ayana Day – a young black woman – tells me later. “This is our first one targeting Asian-Americans. We’ve had one targeting the youth voters, and we’ve got one coming up targeting the LGBT community, and one for women over 50.”
Even if Obama isn’t going to make race a central theme of the campaign, it’s obviously a central part of his strategy. And it’s attracted volunteers who are okay with this contradiction – who embody it, in fact. Asked to talk about the candidate, nobody brought it up.
Carl and Rosalind Holland are an African-American couple from Oakland who have been volunteering to canvass for Obama for several months.
“He strikes me as a very forthright candidate who has a good vision,” said Carl. “I like his slogan: ‘A change I can believe in.’ Some people say he’s not experienced enough. Well, haven’t the state’s rights people been saying all the important work is done at the state level all this time? He’s had ten very productive years in a state senate, I say his experience is great.”
Like most of the volunteers, Rosalind first discovered Obama through his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. She was inspired by it. “It struck a chord with me.”
The same chord it struck, presumably, with first time Oakland volunteer Rocky Choi. “I liked him back then. Then when he was in San Francisco last month, I liked him even more. He was very accessible to people. He told me things I wanted to hear and things I needed to hear.”
Like what? What did Rocky need to hear?
“He wanted people to be proud of being American, and it sounds cheesy but most of my life I haven’t been. That’s something I need to hear.”
He gives me a look, one ironic hipster to another. It says, “You know, patriotism, right? That’s okay?” He won’t stop until I give him a nod. Sure, bro: it’s okay to be patriotic. I won’t think you’re a loser.
Ayana Day just wants “to make change. It’s not politics as usual.” People either “have a love or hate relationship with Hillary. He’s more of a unifying candidate.”
Maggie Fleming spends over 20 hours a week as an Obama volunteer for the Oakland office, time she really can’t afford to spend this way. But she asked for it: after seeing Obama in person she volunteered to attend a “Camp Obama,” where volunteer leaders are trained in how to create a grass roots movement. High on the to-do list is learning how to express your “story of self,” just the way Obama does when he connects with audiences through his biography. Maggie gave it a try:
“Right after college I went to teach English in Japan for three years,” she said. “While I was there America went to war in Iraq. And I saw everyone go from being so supportive of America to thinking we were awful – that memory is what got me involved at first, the fact that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning.”
Maggie pairs up Ayana and Rocky (they’ve never met before) and they’re given a list of addresses where registered Democrats live in and around the neighborhood. Then they’re sent off into Oakland. This area (around Lake Shore and 18th) isn’t the projects, but an awful lot of houses are completely fenced in, with no access at all.
At their very first door, they learn that a campaign that strategizes by race can die by it too. The woman who lives there is a registered voter, but she’s Vietnamese and speaks no English. But the only other forms they have are in Mandarin.
“I should have brought my girlfriend,” Rocky says. “She’s Vietnamese.”
“Actually,” he says after a moment’s thought, “I think most of the people around here are Vietnamese, not Chinese.”
Much of the day goes like this, and it quickly becomes apparent that Oakland is not San Francisco, where everybody wants to talk politics. Here, people – even the ones who have a language in common – give the impression that they have something better to do. Cleaning. Eating. Even people who say they’re leaning towards Obama would rather be watching TV.
It’s also clear, watching volunteers like these, that they, oh, how to put this nicely — have no idea what they’re doing. They make tons of rookie mistakes from not asking the people who are gung-ho about Obama to volunteer for the campaign, to referring to themselves as “supporters” rather than “volunteers” – a term that gets you a lot further with people who suspect you’re a campaign flack.
“I had no idea what ‘canvassing’ was,” Rocky admits. “I tried to figure it out: I thought maybe we’d be out holding a giant mural saying ‘Asian Americans support Obama Barack.’”
The Obama volunteers have no idea how this works. But that’s the amazing thing: this campaign is appealing to people like these, who haven’t been mobilized before. People who previously just watched a speech are now coming out – stumbling, but coming out – to walk streets and deliver signs and come up with a “story of self.”
After one black man on the street says he doesn’t want campaign literature or to register to vote he tells them, “I’m confused about politics. It seems like they lie a lot.”
“That’s how I used to feel,” Rocky tells Ayana as they walk away. “That was me. I pushed Kerry’s name because I hated Bush, but I’ve never had a reason to be political before.” Now he does, even if he, let’s be honest, doesn’t know that much about what he’s doing. The fact that he’s mobilized – the fact that the Obama campaign can mount a full fledged ground game with only six paid campaign staff in the state, is extraordinary.
The candidate’s message, or lack thereof, about race probably has something to do with it. Has any other politician ever set up shop in Oakland and then NOT talked about race? It’s an audacious move that fits the zietgiest of his supporters. Ayana and Rocky agree with each other firmly that no one should vote, or consider voting, for Obama just because he’s black (or Asian, or whatever he is). That doesn’t seem right to them. At the same time, they talk a lot about how impressed they are with the diversity of the volunteers he’s bringing in: that says really good things about his candidacy. One minute race doesn’t exist as a factor for them, the next it does.
In Oakland, Obama’s campaign uses race much the same way. But the fact is that if he weren’t using it, somebody else would be: it’s the most formidable, terrible, weapon in all of politics — and it’s never been anything other than destructive.
His volunteers might not say that, but they know it. And it’s not Obama’s position or strategy or idea of race that lets him walk into Oakland like he’s the new sheriff in town – it’s the fact that he’s comfortable with it. His personal ability to defang the issue is what really, really, has them impressed.