There are two ways to interpret the three empty chairs that occupied the stage of the Paul Robeson Theatre at Detroit’s Northwest Activity Center last week. One view is benign, the other malignant.
As is often the case in politics, the truth probably contains a mixture of both.
The town hall meeting in residential Detroit featuring Democratic presidential hopefuls days before the state’s caucus had all the earmarks of a premier event. An overflow crowd turned out, filling the 250-seat theater and spilling over into an adjacent room to watch on a big screen. CNN was there to televise the event. According to organizers, front-runner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and two of his leading rivals, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark, had committed to attend. And then there was the Rev. Al Sharpton, a man with absolutely no chance of winning his party’s nomination, but one who vows to fight on in the hope he will garner enough support to force the Democratic Party to make an “urban” agenda — that is, an agenda that takes seriously the concerns of blacks and other minorities — a key part of its platform at this summer’s nominating convention in Boston.
But an unfunny thing happened on the way to the forum. Kerry, Clark and Dean all lost their way. Three empty chairs, each bearing the name of one of the missing candidates, were put on the stage to highlight the candidates’ absence. Dean was in Michigan earlier that day, but skipped out to campaign in Wisconsin. Kerry’s people say they never committed to the Detroit event.
In one sense, these no-shows are easy to justify. Polls showed Kerry holding what seemed to be an insurmountable lead in the state. With a victory here all but wrapped up, time could be better spent solidifying his position in other states. And with no chance of winning here, Clark, Dean, and all the other candidates for that matter, could employ the same political calculus, deciding to focus more energy on battles that offered at least some hope of victory.
It’s a matter of campaign strategy, pure and simple.
Except, in the politics of race, things are rarely pure and simple.
Last Thursday’s event was a very big deal for Detroit. The mayor came. So did the governor and the head of the state’s Democratic Party. The audience was filled with Detroit’s political shakers, state reps and county commissioners, union leaders and precinct captains and the loyal foot soldiers who make sure the vote gets out. They all turned out in force, all decked out in their finest.
So those three empty seats up on that stage felt like a big-time dis to people who feel they’ve earned much better treatment.
This in a city that delivered more than 273,000 votes for Al Gore in 2000; a mind-boggling 95 percent of the Detroiters who voted cast their ballots for him. These are loyal, die-hard, committed Democrats. And this was their moment, not just to listen to these candidates, but to be heard. To let them know through their questions what was important to them. Issues like insurance redlining and community policing and hospitals closing down.
The audience Thursday — composed almost entirely of African-Americans — expressed an almost universal sentiment that their vote is being taken for granted. The Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit branch of the NAACP and founder of The Freedom Institute, the nonprofit group that sponsored the event, equated the relationship between blacks and the Democratic Party to an abusive marriage. With no place else to go, the wife will continue staying with her husband. At a certain point, though, the situation will become intolerable, and before she heads for the door the wife just might be inspired to start boiling some scalding-hot grits to toss in the face of her husband.
Sharpton ran with analogy, saying that he had some knowledge of such relationships, having watched the way an abusive uncle treated his wife. Scalding water in the face isn’t always necessary to change the situation, he said.
“Sometimes,” noted Sharpton, “it is enough to just start boiling the water.”
Support for his campaign, he said, is a way to start turning up the heat on the party. Give him enough delegates, he pledged, and he would head into the Democratic convention with enough clout to force party leaders to listen to black America.
The problem is that Sharpton is, at best, a marginal player. He carries more than his share of baggage. Last week’s forum began with a question about a recent Village Voice article that exposed his campaign’s tight connections — both financial and organizational — to a Republican dirty trickster. The perception of Sharpton being a slick opportunist is a difficult one for him to shake.
In Saturday’s Democratic caucuses, Kerry (who showed up in Detroit the day after the forum to receive the endorsement of a group of black ministers) still took the two congressional districts that cover most of Detroit. Sharpton finished a close second, and is saying he might have done even better had there not been confusion surrounding a handful of caucus sites.
But compare that to 1988, when Jesse Jackson captured more than 54 percent of the Michigan vote. That is real clout.
Al Sharpton is no Jesse Jackson. But he obviously struck a chord Thursday night. By the end of the evening, some in the audience were waving fistfuls of bills, ready to contribute. That money will help him keep spreading the word as his campaign moves on to Atlanta, Oakland, Los Angeles and other cities with large African-American populations. The feeling of being marginalized and taken for granted runs deep among black Democrats. Imagery is often as important as substance in politics, and the symbolism of those three empty chairs last Thursday is something the Democratic Party needs to take seriously if it wants to beat George Bush in November.
In spite of his shortcomings, Sharpton is preaching a righteous sermon. His party would be wise to listen.Curt Guyette is the news editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org