Choose sides — or the sidelines

Oct 20, 2004 at 12:00 am

Remember that image of the Rev. Al Sharpton sitting on the stage at the Northwest Activities Center all alone? During the presidential primaries, long before the race had narrowed down to the current field of two major party candidates, you may remember a February town hall meeting, sponsored by the Freedom Forum, at the activities center in Detroit. All of the Democratic candidates then in the race were invited to interact directly with Detroit voters and discuss issues particularly important to us.

Only Sharpton bothered to show up. Not Sen. John Kerry, not Sen. John Edwards, and not former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, all of whom had confirmed their intention to be there within 24 hours of the event. But between the time when Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president and Freedom Forum founder, announced to a gathering of journalists that the candidates were coming, and later that evening when the event took place, all except Sharpton had suddenly found a reason why they couldn’t make it.

The primary purpose of this meeting, aside from removing the filter of professional journalists, was to press the candidates for an urban agenda. Up to that point in the primary race, Sharpton was the only candidate who had actually spelled out his plans for struggling urban centers such as Detroit, and for the struggling African-American populations who live in them. During an earlier candidate forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, all nine of the candidates then in the race showed up, yet only Sharpton seemed to realize he was in Detroit and not in Any City, U.S.A. It was an opportunity for each of the candidates to take advantage of their location and speak directly to a predominantly black audience that voted over 90 percent for Al Gore during the last election, and has voted overwhelmingly Democratic for decades, and tell them why this depth of support was important and what they intended to do to reward such faithfulness.

Didn’t happen at that first forum, and it didn’t happen at the neighborhood forum either.

That incident alone motivated me to encourage Detroiters to say the hell with the other candidates and to vote for Sharpton. I knew Sharpton would never win the primary, but it was the one time I had grown tired of “being realistic” about who could win and “playing the game” to support the lesser of two evils. I felt it was time to send a message to the mainstream Democrats who could so comfortably ignore us with no worries of repercussions. Maybe it was time for something else.

Sharpton didn’t do nearly as well as he needed to in Detroit, or in any other urban center where he was counting on significant black support. Not long after his appearance in Detroit he flamed out, then dutifully supported the Democratic ticket and went on to deliver one of the most memorable speeches at the Democratic Convention. A high point of that speech was when he recalled that black folks were promised 40 acres and a mule after slavery. We didn’t get the land or the mule, “so we decided to ride this donkey for all it was worth,” he said, the obvious point being that, despite its flaws, the Democratic Party — and the ticket of Kerry and Edwards — was still the absolute best hope for African-Americans.

Since that time — when he wasn’t preoccupied with defending his military record — Kerry seems to have worked harder to prove he really is sensitive to black folks’ issues. His campaign has pointed out how many African-Americans are playing key roles on his staff, and I read one wire story which actually said that he can’t win the election without the black vote. He has consistently said that he supports affirmative action because discrimination (obviously) still exists. His economic plan and health care plan also include a number of items that, if actually implemented, would directly benefit African-Americans.

So it’s good to see Kerry making the effort, and judging by the overwhelmingly pro-Kerry response of most black leaders and civil rights organizations, it seems that his efforts are generating the kind of support that will bring black folks to the polls. Here in Detroit we’ve seen record numbers of residents registering to vote, and the vast majority of those voters are likely to vote Democratic.

I’m still a bit sore about the Freedom Forum snub, and, as is the case with most politicians who find themselves in a tight spot, it’s hard to know for sure how much of what Kerry is promising he will actually deliver and how much he is promising just so he can move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And if the Republican majority retains its grip on both the House and the Senate, then he will find himself crippled at the starting block before his administration even begins.

I’m sure I’m not the only black Democrat who believes that the Democratic Party has been taking the black vote for granted for far too long but who could never vote Republican. Our obvious dilemma is deciding whether it makes more sense to sit this one out and wait for a better choice — or to say a long prayer before going to the polls and hope that maybe this time will be the charm. Or even if this time isn’t the charm, at least we can be certain that Kerry can’t help but be better for us than Bush.

Among the more prominent black intellectuals, Cornel West is taking the lesser-of-evils approach and urging votes for Kerry; Trans-Africa founder Randall Robinson is saying forget the two major parties, he’s for independent Ralph Nader.

Others have spoken about the need for a black political party, but despite the merits of consolidating black voter clout, a party seriously interested in having any influence would eventually be forced to accommodate itself to the two-party system; a candidate running for president as a representative of a black political party could never be elected.

And while I can understand the frustration that would lead some to sit on the sidelines, the simple fact is that those on the sidelines never get to put points on the board. Furthermore, those who think that if we wait long enough then we will eventually be blessed with the perfect candidate will die waiting. Candidates, to a certain degree, are like clay; they are who and what we make them.

In other words, if Kerry does manage to pull off an upset, and he just might after the way he mopped the floor with Bush during the debates, then our job in repairing the wreckage left behind by Bush doesn’t end after Election Day. Our job begins each and every day throughout his presidency as we hold Kerry accountable for his promises.

It’s not an easy job, and in some ways perhaps it’s not even fair, but the life or death consequences of “sitting this one out” just to make a point, or of permitting Bush an additional four years, don’t leave us much of a choice.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]