Thursday, April 17, 2008

Report from Beaver County

Mill in Old Aliquippa

Bitterness, Hope

And Obama

In Western PA

By Carl Davidson

When I heard Hillary Clinton and John McCain claiming, against Barack Obama's recent observation, that there was no 'bitterness' among working-class voters in Western Pennsylvania, I burst out laughing, 'they've got to be kidding!'

Unfortunately they weren't, and now the cable news punditry and right-wing talk radio has a new diversionary cause of the week to dump on Obama in lieu of serious discussion of policy and programs.
I'm born and bred in Beaver County, Western PA, which, in 1960, was the most blue-collar county in the entire country-steel, strip mines, and everything related to both. My grandfather died in the mill, Jones & Laughlin Steel, crushed by a crane, and another cousin met the same fate a few decades later. My parents are both in the Pennsylvania Bowlers Hall of Fame (and Barack would do well to stick to basketball!). After a long stint in New York City and Chicago, which were irresistible in my youth, I'm now back home, living in Raccoon Township.

Take it from me. There are a lot of bitter voters in these mill towns and the townships outside them. If they don't express it to the coiffured media, they do to each other. It's easy to see why. The towns are mostly empty, ravaged by deindustrialization. And the brown fields where the mills once stood are so poisoned grass won't even grow. After sitting empty for years, the first new structure to go up not too long ago on one near here was a new prison.

Does this mean it's a clear path for Obama? Not at all, it's a rough climb, full of difficulties. But he's doing better than anyone expected. None of the polls are that trustworthy, because some tell the pollsters the 'right' answer, while others, such as new youth voters with only cell phones, are hard to find. Obama's closing on Clinton, now by a five point spread. The more people see him, the more they like him. But both Democrats run neck-to-neck against McCain in November. This is not a 'safe state' for anyone, anytime.

'White male identity politics' is the unpredictable elephant in the room. I've talked with older blue collar voters who claim John Edwards was their runaway favorite, but are now leaning to John McCain, in spite of their hatred for the war. White workers generally split three ways, roughly proportional, between the three candidates.

Younger working-class voters, male and female, white or Black, are not so caught up in it, and they are Obama's ace-in-the-hole. If his campaign can get them to the polls in droves, he can win it. That's the long and short of it, and if you can get here to help, please do so. Everything counts.

The bitterness runs deep, favors no single candidate, and comes in several varieties. Retired steelworkers here had their pensions stolen by speculative capital, winning only part of them back by hitting the streets. There's also another kind of bitterness in Pennsylvania's demographics. It's now one of the oldest population areas in the country. My young nephews and nieces, even with some local college degrees or courses behind them, have a hard time finding work. Many young people have moved away to Florida or California, leaving older relatives behind.

Here in Raccoon, they're now shutting down the elementary school, claiming 500 pupils doesn't justify the expense to keep it open. It means an hour on the bus for youngsters from a perfectly good school, and, yes, many parents are bitter.

Aliquippa is the nearest town to me, known as home of Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett. In my youth, it was a bustling blue-collar town of 20,000-some 10,000 workers in the mill, a mixture of Serbs, Italians and African-Americans. Now it's down to 6000, mostly poor and Black. They were the hardest hit of all, lacking the rural family homesteads to fall back on. Now joblessness, crime and addiction take a very bitter toll on the families still there, with nowhere to go.

Does this mean it's all bleak? No, not at all, although Hillary Clinton is just dissembling, or worse, to assert that there's no bitterness, only resilience and hope, in these towns. People here like to pull themselves up independently whenever they can, like the Scots-Irish and Germans who predominated here in the 1800s. Their class solidarity means they'll accept a hand-up, and offer one, too.

But they don't like hand-outs at all, unless you're at death's door, which is why their anti-'Fat Cat' populism also contains antipathy to some features of liberalism. It's also why Obama gets a standing ovation when he tells college students he'll help, but challenges them to give back, with community service work.

This blue-collar populism runs the political gamut-left, center and right. You can get colorful examples in the hot debates in the interactive pages of the online edition of the largest daily paper, the Beaver County Times. Pick any topic or candidate-you'll get fierce denunciations of the rich man's war for oil, combined with warnings against Hillary' 'socialism', claims that Obama's a secret Muslim, and despair that McCain's a clone of Bush.

In this lively public square, Obama or any candidate would do well to discern the main themes. Don't get me wrong. People here are open and friendly. They don't expect you to agree with them, or vice versa. But they do expect authenticity, so when you get out organizing, speak from the heart, and don't put your head higher than anyone else's, and expect the same in return.

At the top of their list is stopping the war now, since it's preventing any solutions to anything else. Next, do something about health care-single payer is best, but either Obama's or Hillary's plan rather than nothing. Then debt relief and fuel prices, although no miracles are expected here.

Finally there's creating new jobs and new wealth. This is probably most important strategically, but people have been spun so many promises, they're cynical, and Obama was right to point it out. Still he should look deeper here, and more often.

What gets people's attention are 'high road' programs like the Apollo Alliance, new 'green' industrial jobs building the infrastructure of energy independence. All those wind turbines and wave generators and whatnot have to be built somewhere, and what blue collar Pennsylvania, white and Black, knows how to do very well is build things that create high value and new wealth.

This is what gets people's attention, not rebates, handouts and McJobs. Obama's a natural on this subject, and he'd best spend less ad money on how's he's not in thrall to lobbyists, and spend more as an advocate of green industrial policy that would give these mill towns real hope for change.

[Carl Davidson is a peace and justice activist, a 'Solidarity Economy' organizer, and webmaster for 'Progressives for Obama' at]


Anonymous said...

Brother Mumia exposes the fraud Obama

The Politician and the Preacher
by Mumia Abu-Jamal [written 3/15/08]

The recent quasi-controversy over the comments made by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of the United Church of Christ, to which Sen. Barack Obama (D.IL), both belongs and attends, has shown us how limited, and how narrow, is this new politics peddled by the freshman Senator from Chicago.

Although first popularized via the web, the Reverend’s comments caused Sen. Obama to say he was “appalled” by them, and he has repudiated such remarks as “offensive.”

Just what were these comments? As far as I’ve heard, they were that Sen. Hilary Clinton (D.NY) has had a political advantage because she’s white; that she was raised in a family of means (especially when contrasted with Obama’s upbringing); and she was never called a n*gger.

Sounds objectively true to me.

Rev. Wright’s other remarks were that the country was built on racism, is run by rich white people, and that the events of 9/11 was a direct reaction to US foreign policy.

Again — true enough.

And while we can see how such truths might cause discomfort to American nationalists, can we not also agree that they are truths? Consider, would Sen. Clinton be where she is if she were born in a Black female body? Or if she were born to a single mother in the projects? As for the nation, it may be too simplistic to say it was built on racism, but was surely built on racial slavery, from which its wealth was built. And who runs America, if not the super rich white elites? Who doesn’t know that politicians are puppets of corporate and inherited wealth?

And while Blacks of wealth and means certainly are able to exercise unprecedented influence, we would be insane to believe that they ‘run’ this country. Oprah, Bob Johnson and Bill Cosby are indeed wealthy; but they have influence, not power. The limits of Cosby’s power was shown when he tried to purchase the TV network, NBC, years ago. His offer received a corporate smirk. And Oprah’s wealth, while remarkable, pales in comparison to the holdings of men like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet.

Would George W. Bush be president today if he were named Jorje Guillermo Arbusto, and Mexican-American? (Not unless Jorje, Sr. was a multimillionaire!)

In his ambition to become America’s first Black president, Obama is in a race to prove how Black he isn’t; even to denouncing a man he has considered his mentor.

As one who has experienced the Black church from the inside, politics and social commentary are rarely far from the pulpit. The Rev. Dr. Martin L. King spoke of politics, war, racism, economics, and social justice all across America. His fair-weather friends betrayed him, and the press condemned his remarks as “inappropriate”, “unpatriotic”, and “controversial.”

Rev. Dr. King said the US was “the greatest purveyor of violence” on earth, and that the Vietnam War was illegitimate and unjust. Would Sen. Obama be denouncing these words, as the white press, and many civil rights figures did, in 1967? Are they “inflammatory?”

Only to politics based on white, corporate comfort uber alles (above all)” only to a politics that ignores Black pain, and distorts Black history; only to a politics pitched more to the status quo, than to real change. Politics is ultimately about more than winning elections; it’s about principles; it’s about being true to one’s self, and honoring one’s ancestors; it’s about speaking truth to power. It can’t just be about change, because every change ain’t for the better! –(c) -08 maj

[Thanks to Prison Radio for making this available. Mumia Abu-Jamal's Radio Broadcasts, Higher Quality Audio files available, copyright 2008 Mumia Abu-Jamal/Prison Radio recorded 3/16/08, 1) 3:01 Radio Essay - short - Mp3 2) 3:36 Radio Essay - long - Mp3 Mr. Jamal's recent book features a chapter on the remarkable women who helped build and defend the Black Panther Party: *WE WANT FREEDOM: A Life in the Black Panther Party*, from South End Press (http://www.southendpress

Carl Davidson said...

At least Mumia and I bother to sign our names to our posts and reposts, 'Anon,' so we can be accountable.

And with all due respect to Mumia, I don't think it's fair to say of a Black man, under fire from racists, that he's 'trying to prove how Black he isn't.'

And for activists who aren't Black, it's not only unfair, it's wrong to do so. In that case, your main task is to aim your fire at those spewing white chauvinist venom, such as Fox-Hannity and crew, however Obama or choses to deal with 'Blackness, and whether it's to Mumia's liking, or that of other minority nationality radicals, or not.

It's called the 'division of labor' in dealing with the chauvinism among the 'Great Nation', including its workers, and the nationalism among the oppressed nationalities, including their workers. If you're not familiar with it, Google Lenin on the topic.

And as for Mumia and his defense team, who need to unite the many to defeat the few more than most of us, it might help to ponder tactical advice from a wiser source than me: 'Wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage, and with restraint.'

Anonymous said...

Petreaus & Crocker, Obama & Clinton: No Matter Who Wins, the War Goes On
Current rating: 0
20 Apr 2008
by Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report
Reply to this comment
Both Clinton and Obama get big aplause from Democratic audiences pledging to withdraw combat troops from Iraq. But do either of them intend to end the unjust, illegal and genocidal war in which more than a million have perished? The questions Obama and Clinton asked, and failed to ask of Crocker and Petreaus, America's civilian and military satraps in Iraq, as well as the published statements of their advisors illuminate their actual intention --- to continue the war and occupation under a Democratic administration in 2009. Read more: ( )

Anonymous said...

Defeat Obama Now!
Obama is the main danger, because he fools the most people.

Carl Davidson said...

'Anon', this doesn't cut much ice here, save for revealing how wimpy and 'left' chauvinist the netizens of IMC are. Bruce Dixon and I have communicated directly about this work, and he's welcome to comment directly on it at any time. But thanks for the traffic. Every little bit helps raise the ratings.

Michael Fisher said...

Hey Carl.

This is where you are now?



Carl Davidson said...

Yes, Mike, I've 'retired' from Chicago, and moved back here, to my old home grounds where I grew up. Hardly inactive, though, busier than ever, plus I plan to spend a good part of the year travelling the country in a pickup with an RV camper in the bed, as 'field organizer' for the solidarity economy network.

Michael Fisher said...

Damn, it's been what? Almost 30 years?

Well, I still talk to Harry on the regular and even get the occasional e-mail from Yo.

Give me a holler on, I'll send you my cell number. Be nice to talk.

Miss Shona said...

Wow Mr. Davidson; a very insightful post. I am one of those young people who moved to Florida -- and has now returned. There is definitely bitterness here -- all of which is not totally unjustified. Keep up the good work.

Carl Davidson said...

Thanks Miss Shona. Have you seen our main site for this work,

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