The Lesson of 2012? It Was Never About Obama, It Was About Us

Manuel Pastor and Gihan Perera consider a year in which the racial justice movement surged.

By Gihan Perera, Manuel Pastor Dec 20, 2012

On Florida’s last day of early voting, I was visiting polls making sure things were running smoothly. When I arrived at the the North Dade Regional Library, 850 people were patiently waiting in line, and many more were rushing to join before the poll shut down. With two minutes left before closing, poll workers made their way to the end of the snaking queue to stop anyone else from joining. A woman pulled up and pleaded with poll workers to give her time to find parking, but they said it was impossible. We looked at each other–and even though we were complete strangers, she threw me her keys and scrambled to join the line without looking back. I jumped in and drove off to find parking. Later, I found her in line to return her keys. We said nothing to each other, but we didn’t need to–we knew what this was about. One of our organizers gave her a card, and she called the offices of Florida New Majority two days later to report that she voted at 12:34 am. And she asked us: what’s next?

In a sense, the results of this year’s presidential election were perplexing. How could a president with an economy in the doldrums, an energized opposition, and an approval rating that had been sagging for years actually pull off a re-election victory? Was it the early branding of Mitt Romney as a vulture capitalist? Was it the Latino reaction to an anti-immigrant tone? Was it the sophisticated data mavens in Chicago who combined behavioral science with "big data" methods to facilitate a remarkably accurate approach to voter targeting?

All those reasons make some sense; all contributed to President Obama’s victory in November. But there was something else happening on the ground that all these analyses miss–and by missing it, fail to capture a reality that we need to understand in order to push the racial justice movement forward in years to come: this time, it wasn’t just about Obama.

People did not stand in lines for hours in Ohio, Arizona, and Florida simply because they liked Democratic policies or thought "gifts" might be coming their way, as Romney suggested following the election. They stood because they realized that what was at stake in this election–and in the relentless attack on voters that preceded it–was their right to be seen and heard at all.

Many of the most noxious voter suppression laws were successfully challenged by the time Election Day came, but the message still resonated: someone did not want young people, people of color, unmarried women and other occasional voters to actually show up and register their opinions. And there’s nothing like taking away a right for people to realize how precious it is. So while the right unleashed efforts to intimidate people from participating in our democracy, it inadvertently ignited a deeply-rooted anger and steely determination that turned into action–action that movement builders need to carry way past this year’s election.

On Election Day, I was going from precinct to precinct, gathering vote totals and checking on any problems. When I rolled up to my fifth precinct, where a predominantly black crowd was waiting in line to vote at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church, what I unfortunately found was a problem: a Romney poll watcher was looking over voters’ shoulders as they cast their ballot, an action that went beyond monitoring and straight to harassment. Mr. Carswell, the poll clerk, insisted that he leave. The Romney guy, who had a good 60 pounds and at least four inches on the clerk, refused–but Mr. Carswell did not back down. While the Romney guy called his higher ups, Mr. Carswell looked at me and pointed to his skin, suggesting that this was the reason why this man thought he could come into the polling location, act as he wanted, and assume that no one would know and enforce the rules. Mr. Carswell explained that he had been in Vietnam, and reckoned there was likely another coup d’état taking place in Florida. And while it might just happen in the state, he said, it was not going to happen in his precinct. He held his ground as if it were holy ground. And in a sense, it was: he was fighting for the basic democratic impulse to have one’s vote counted and one’s voice heard.

Like other Southern states, the history of disenfranchisement runs deep in Florida. Elders in north Florida still remember the stolen election of 1876 when, as UC-Riverside Professor Mason Gaffney describes, Rutherford B. Hayes won through a corrupt deal "to end Reconstruction, abandon the black freedmen, and turn the South back to its former masters." Today’s willingness to stand up strong is based on a profound sense of the past. The tradition of remembering ancestors and historic struggles was key to birthing the civil rights movement and core to its resilience. And as it was then, today the vein of honoring history is being blended with an emerging voter engagement model that combines deep community organizing with electoral mobilization.

This renewed model and the mass consciousness around voter suppression makes this last election–and this movement moment–different from electoral cycles in the past 30 years. Far from swooping in to just garner votes in "swing" states or districts, the emerging approach is based on nurturing grassroots community contacts before, during and after elections. With roots in the deep leadership development work of Ella Baker, it knows that it’s not about the thin coalition building that can win a single contest but about the thick organizing for the long haul that can fundamentally change the electorate as well as the way in which policy and political change take place. It simultaneously recognizes that electoral mobilizations, like the big marches of the civil rights era, can benchmark a movement’s power, and in that moment it can actually shift power and policy.

Taking this approach, Florida New Majority, an alliance composed of labor and community groups, contacted 300,000 voters in the Sunshine State, key in an election in which the margin for the president turned out to be about 74,000 votes. In Ohio, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative has been working to build a powerful statewide alliance of community, labor, faith and policy organizations–and, during this election season, registered nearly 41,000 new voters and made one-on-one contact with over 92,500 voters. And in Virginia, where the Obama margin was only about 150,000 votes, Virginia New Majority registered 15,000 new voters across the state–many of whom are newly naturalized citizens.

The integrated voter engagement approach also played out significantly in a state that had no "swing" status at all: California. There, organizers associated with a group called California Calls have worked for nearly 10 years to bring together grassroots groups around the state under a common banner: the need to develop a fiscal reform agenda and mobilize the troops to make it happen. It was California Calls that helped persuade the governor to alter his own tax initiative to reduce the burden on working people and raise the hit on millionaires–and then went on to turn out over 250,000 voters to raise taxes on the rich, turn back an assault on union voice in the electoral process, and elect a swath of new progressives.

But wasn’t November a long time ago? Why is all this important as the clock takes us to 2013?

I remember the feeling of the first victory in 2008. I was the director of the Miami Workers Center and we decided to project CNN on to our metal hurricane gate, something that caused hundreds of people to gather in the streets of Liberty City. When victory was declared, we commandeered an old bread truck and fitted it with a set of speakers and a few bullhorns. Soon there were 2,000 people following the truck and banging pots and pans in celebration. After a night of cheers, fireworks, and dancing, almost nobody went to work the next day. But we should have. In the wake of the victory, funder dollars, attention, and some of our best talent made their way from our communities to Washington as folks thought the battle had been won, and now it was time for policy change from the top. And with the ground left less tended, the tea party emerged, touching a real and authentic anger that flipped Washington in an entirely different direction. There was no ground force independently pushing for the change we expected and had fought for. We had squandered our most precious asset: the base of people who had been deeply engaged and profoundly moved by a campaign that had touched hearts.

In the immediate aftermath of an election, it would be easy again to forget the basic lessons of social movement building and community organizing. In the wonder at the effectiveness of the Obama campaign’s vaunted micro-targeting, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that someone had to keep talking to those voters. With the widespread recognition of a multi-racial seismic shift in the electorate, it’s easy to think that demographics have now determined a progressive political destiny. In the excitement of success, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s not a moment but a movement that will get us over the line to more durable social change.

Like Mr. Carswell guarding his polling place, we cannot cede the ground that we have gained. Demography may have played a role in this election, but demography is not destiny: there is no inherent reason why immigrants will stay progressive, black voters will turn out, and young people will swing left. That requires continuing conversation, mobilization, and coalition-building around a new political vision. It requires, in short, organizing.

Affecting the shape of fiscal policy, determining the nature of immigration reform, and rebooting the battle to slow climate change are big opportunities. Progressives will be right to jump into Beltway policy debates right away. But the lesson from 2008, and from history, is that this should not mean a drift away from the basic movement building that make these moments possible.

So we propose a New Year’s resolution for 2013: let’s leverage our inspiring victories over this past year–not just the reelection of a black president, but the shift in immigration policy triggered by a youth-led DREAMer movement and the battle for worker rights being waged by brave Walmart employees–to keep building our movement. Let’s really hold President Obama accountable to the grassroots communities that got him in office in the first place–and in the process continue to build grassroots power through voter engagement and good old fashioned organizing.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, five weeks after the election, Florida New Majority convened over one hundred community members in Central Florida to discuss a simple question, the same one posed by the eager voter who had trusted me with the keys to her car: what’s next? The room was filled with volunteer leaders from Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, Sanford, Orlando and Palm Beach, all of whom had knocked on doors for progressive candidates up and down the Florida ballot in November. They were union members, community leaders, organizers, DREAMers, ex-offenders, and many whose first political experience was this year’s campaign. The group raised every issue you could think of: poverty, youth violence, worker rights, mass incarceration, immigrant rights, marriage equality, gentrification, affordable health care, and more. But it all boiled down to one thing: restore our rights and expand democracy. By the end, the excitement in the room was infectious, but it was a different spirit from four years ago. People were not patting themselves on the back for the election they just won; they were both tempered by the fight and pumped up about their plans to organize in the months to come. Very few people believe that there is a miracle waiting to happen from D.C. or Tallahassee. After all, it wasn’t about Obama, it was about us–and this year’s victories are only the beginning.

Gihan Perera is co-founder and executive director of Florida New Majority and Florida New Majority Education Fund, which is a 501c4/501c3 collaboration that brings together social movement actors, community organizations, and progressive labor unions. FNM organizes, educates, and mobilizes in key areas of the state to increase the civic participation and political power of African American, Latino, new immigrant, and working class communities. 

Manuel Pastor is professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and Director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), a research center that works with social movements on issues of environmental justice, regional inclusion and immigrant integration.