On Jan. 18, two days before the nation’s first black presidency was set to end, and on the day of Martin Luther King’s birthday, a crowd of roughly 40 people gathered inside of Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium to grapple with a dilemma of Barack Obama’s two terms.
The event was held in order to consider Barack Obama’s presidency in light of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. One of the most poignant moments of the roughly hour-and-a-half discussion was when the three-person panel tried interpreting the pardons and commutations the president had granted in his last few days in office.
On the day before the panel discussion, Obama had commuted the 35-year sentence of Army Private Chelsea Manning, who famously leaked sensitive classified material to WikiLeaks, and the 55-year prison sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, a 74-year-old Puerto Rican political activist who was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the United States government, among other charges.
Both Manning and Rivera are considered traitors or terrorists by some and heroes and political prisoners by others, depending on where the critics line up along the left-right ideological divide. Neither, however, are associated with the radical black freedom struggle that King embodies and which, in large part, made Obama’s presidency possible, the panelists noted.
Dometi Pongo, a news anchor for WVON 1690, said his radio station had polled its predominantly black audience about which political figures they would want Obama to focus his mighty presidential pen on.
Many callers, Pongo said, suggested the president pardon the late Marcus Garvey, the early 20th-century Black Nationalist who was sent to jail in the 1920s for mail fraud, a charge that many of his supporters believe was politically motivated. Others named notable former Black Panthers — many now either serving long sentences or in exile — like Mumia Abu-Jamal, H. Rap Brown and Assata Shakur.
That Obama seemed poised to leave office without pardoning or issuing a commutation for a single prominent Black Nationalist had some blacks “wondering where the vindication is,” Pongo said, an assertion that prompted some applause and approving nods from the audience.
Pongo credited the outgoing president with his late-blossoming stance on the issue of mass incarceration and the hundreds of pardons he granted imprisoned African Americans, but he wanted to know why the president’s mercy toward transgender and Latino radicals didn’t extend to black radicals.
“If he released some of these black nationalists, would there be too much political blowback?” Pongo said.
“It’s a calibration of political capital and what is considered suitable political etiquette,” explained Salim Muwakkil, himself a former Black Panther and veteran journalist, who was working for the Associated Press in 1973 when Shakur allegedly murdered a New Jersey State Trooper during a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike. Shakur was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison before escaping to Cuba in 1979.
“I knew Assata and I knew the specifics of the crime and I knew that she was absolutely innocent,” Muwakkil said. “At the AP, objectivity was the byword. You had to be objective. They had to assure the facts were presented as plainly as possible, but I began to see that objectivity was really a ratification of the status quo. In order for something to have veracity we had to say ‘the police said’ after every sentence.”
The mask of objectivity worn by the AP, Muwakkil argued, was also worn by Obama, whose position of authority constricted his ability to buck the status quo that put radical black figures like Shakur beyond the pale of political acceptability.
That marginalizing of black radical figures from the 1960s and ’70s echoed a much larger paradigm set in place by Obama’s presidency, Muwakkil argued, adding that Obama’s historic two terms “stalled the progress of the black freedom movement and disrupted the dynamics of a protest tradition that has framed black activism for at least a century.”
“This outcome is not necessarily Obama’s intention or even his fault,” Muwakkil said. “The rupture of tradition caused by his victory was simply inevitable.”
Historically, he explained, black activists like King, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Rosa Parks had cultivated adversarial relationships with political leadership. Over the last half-century, however, that relationship has changed.
“Obama’s victory represents the logical conclusion of a political strategy outlined 45 years ago … that designated politics as the next step in the Civil Rights Movement. Because of that strategy, I guess you can call it ‘black faces in high places syndrome,’ many of us have grown accustomed to conflating political campaigns with civil rights crusades.”
The result, the panelists and some in the audience seemed to concede, was a black presidency long on symbolism and hope, and short on political substance.
“I feel like every time it’s something with black people, it’s always, ‘That’s a little too far,'” said one panelist, a poet who goes by the name Authentic. “What’s not too far?”