THE BLOG
10/02/2007 08:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From the Obama Grassroots: Clinton and Obama Back-to-Back and Black-to-Black in Oakland

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Why is the Clinton Campaign trying to make their candidate blacker than Barack Obama? She's already leading in the national polls and she's leading in California. To be fair, I doubt that Hillary's campaign event planners consciously try to make her seem less white than she is, but that's how her campaign presented her Sunday supper time in Oakland.

When people think Oakland, they think black. That's why--let's be honest--when my husband and I are traveling and we say we're from the San Francisco area, people go "ah!" When we say we live in Oakland, people go "ah." (You don't have to come from Jena to know that racism lingers on.) For decades, however, Oakland has been slowly changing. According to the last census, our population is about 30% white, 34% black, 22% Hispanic, and 14% Asian. For young people in the vanguard, Oakland is a hip place to live. I love our city, too; but I'm cautious about its prospects. Since I've been here, the downtown has been on the verge of revival. How can a place be "on the verge" for thirty years?

Barack Obama has laid down his marker for revival (in more ways than one), planting his northern California field office not in San Francisco, but in downtown Oakland. The fact that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is a big Clinton supporter might have something to do with it. (Hillary's campaign office is across the Bay on Howard Street, in San Francisco's up-and-coming south-of-Market real estate.) Nevertheless, Obama has made a bold move in choosing the plain sister over the princess. And his California Campaign folk decide to open headquarters, and to celebrate with a block party on the same afternoon, on the same street, a stone's throw away, from a first-time-for-Oakland Hillary Clinton public appearance and rally.

The Obama party has started early by the time I arrive on the block of 14th Street between Broadway and Franklin, which sports that sure sign of gentrification, an art gallery. Next door is the Museum of African-American Technology; next, in an historic building with a restored Art Deco verdigris façade, is the Awaken Café, neighbor to the old but sturdy Central Building, new home to the Obama California Campaign. Campaign workers, the hip-hop guys from Blackalicious, who will perform later in the afternoon, and the merely curious wander in and out of the old office building, elevatoring up and down from the third floor campaign suite, not quite finished, hastily painted in red, white and blue. Out on the street, Obama volunteers, some of whom I know from my previous forays into Obama territory, mingle with friends and the press. Cameramen record the scene, even though not much is happening yet, unless you count the shake and shimmy of the kids' inflatable jump hut.

Eventually, a throng of maybe two-hundred-fifty people mill about the band stage, talking to each other, to cell phones, as a woman guitarist from Guam and various hip hop artists, not all of them Blackalicious, sing. A trio of white boys in preppy belted khakis stands next to a couple of skinny black boys with dreadlocks and gold teeth. I notice a ringer for John Lennon, with his girlfriend, and a couple of young Asian men with shoulder bags. In fact, there are many metrosexual bags, and even more backpacks. Many people are passing through, on bikes, with strollers, skateboards and scooters. Elderly Chinese ladies, sporting canes, are interested in what's going on. In fact, there are lots of canes. And tattoos, and dogs, and incense. A musician sets up his steel drums on the corner by the Walgreen's and begins to play. An older African-American lady in a beret harangues the crowd. At first, I think she's a street preacher; then I realize she's mentally ill.

Above the cacophony, Julie Lythcott-Haims, whom I recognize from an earlier Obama event as the freshman dean at Stanford, leads the crowd in her hallmark Julie chant for Obama. Natalie, the state director of Students for Obama, says a few words. Happily, all the speakers, mostly councilmen and and county supervisors, are brief. To date, no one in the first rank of California politics has endorsed Barack Obama. The most interesting speaker is the Oakland resident and novelist Michael Chabon, who says two sentences. "Guantanamo is not who we are. We elect Barack Obama president, and this is who we are." Reverend Mayberry of Oakland gives the blessing and prayer.

During the party, I ask Julie Lythcott-Haims why the Obama folk chose Oakland over San Francisco for the field office. "It's fitting for a grassroots campaign," she says. "It shows a person doesn't need money, influence or power to come to Oakland. This is not an elite enclave." Clearly, she is referring to San Francisco, but I'm thinking Palo Alto. I let it pass. "The headquarters sends a message," Julie adds. "Obama is for ordinary people."

I haven't walked two feet from the Obama block of 14th Street when I meet three Clinton women, the youngest carrying a Juicy Couture purse. She's a harbinger of the change in the crowd, only a block away, the other side of Broadway on 14th, where long lines are already forming to hear Hillary. Her party will begin an hour after the Obama party ends. Comparing the two block parties isn't quite fair, since the Obama event is largely in-house and doesn't feature the man himself. But I can't help it. The differences are too tempting. For Hillary, white middle class womanhood is out in force. Club 44 women and WASP-looking blonde college students organize the growing throng. Women in sensible shoes, carrying good leather purses, with short topcoats folded over their arms, stream past me to the end of the line, two blocks down Broadway. All of us are waiting to file past security before we can enter the party. The carnival atmosphere is more pronounced than at Party Obama. The prospect of Hillary has attracted a juggler, a man on a tricycle in pirate costume, a chubby guy in dirty jeans and a Dr. Seuss hat trying to sell his audience on the Church of Reality, illegal merchandise vendors, and a Whiffenpoof-like singing group for Lyndon LaRouche.

Waiting in line, I talk to an Englishwoman and an African-American lady, with a cane, who worked for Strategic Air Command in World War Two. Assessing the people around me, I note how varied, in fact, we are. Although Hillary's people are mostly older women, there are men and students among us. There are many many Hispanic women--a fact that surely is significant. Desultorily, we watch the dismantling of the Obama block party decorations. The contrast--that the Obama party has not been large--is obvious.

At one point, I asked Brent Messenger, the regional field director for Obama's California Campaign, why they had decided to have the office-opening party the very day Hillary Clinton was speaking a block away. "Mitchell Schwartz [California State Director, Obama for America] has been telling the press it's his idea," Brent said, implying it wasn't, really. He explained that they already had the lease, so they decided to go on and throw a party for their workers. The fact that Hillary Clinton was appearing nearby had nothing to do with it--except that they knew the press would come over to their party first (as they did) before heading across the street. But watching the Clinton eventers watch the few remaining Obama supporters disperse, I conclude that the timing was not a good idea. The huge difference in party size reinforces the perception that the Obama Campaign in California is puny next to the Clinton juggernaut. Nobody at the Clinton rally, standing in line for fifty minutes and watching the dismantling of the Obama block party, would know that it was intentionally small, for campaign workers and passers-by only.

Finally, my new acquaintances and I are admitted to the Clinton block party. I'm squeezed against the back barricade, an African-American guy in a doo-rag on one side, a Sikh gentleman on the other, ladies speaking Spanish behind, an Indian matriarch and a Japanese-American woman in a Burberry rain hat in front. A "hearing dog" settles on my right foot. Presumably its deaf owner is nearby. Snipers and spotters watch from the rooftops. There are a few children, but not many--it's getting late, and colder, and near supper time. Nevertheless, we are told that 10,000 people have shown up to hear Hillary Clinton.

Despite the hour, we wait, patiently at first, through the performances of an Oakland high school drumline band (African-American), another Oakland high school choir (African-American), D'Wayne Wiggins (African-American) of Tony! Toni! Tone! and the Glide Memorial Choir (not completely African-American), who sing "Jesus, Walk with Me." As the choir moves into livelier gospel, people, mostly white people, dance and clap--like at one of those Sunday Gospel brunches in Harlem that tourists enjoy so much. Six reverends take the stage, and the Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide endorses Henry Rodham Clinton before leading us in a moment of benediction and prayer. We aren't anywhere near benediction, and most of the crowd doesn't notice that the good Rev. mis-speaks Hillary's name. We grow restive, especially through the speeches and introductions of the luminaries who form Hillary's entourage: former HUD director Roberta Achtenberg, Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, state senator Don Peratta, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and Senator Dianne Feinstein. We are told that our crowd is now 14,000 strong. (From my viewpoint in the rear, this is likely wishful thinking.)

Finally, at 6:15 P.M., Hillary Clinton, wearing a navy suit with a navy striped blouse, takes the stage. The crowd cheers wildly, waving the signs passed among us. The enthusiasm for seeing her is in marked contrast to volunteering for her. For the past two hours, Hillary's people have tried to interest the crowd in text messaging "join," in signing up to give house parties, in logging on to Hillary.com, and in asking one of the volunteers with clipboards about being a "Hillstar." The response has been tepid. Clinton, herself, however, gives a passionate and beautifully-executed speech, with which none of the Democratic candidates would disagree. She talks about health care and the environment, the need for better-paying jobs and better education, rebuilding our infrastructure of roads and bridges, reforming government, finding common ground and values. Her remarks about education--helping students pay for college, the need for universal pre-school--are particularly well-received. She ends with the affirmation that she is "proud to be an American."

Clinton talks about "making America great again" and restoring our reputation abroad, but she doesn't try to rename the war on terror. She never refers to it, or Islamic fundamentalism. She hardly mentions Iraq. She never mentions national security. Earlier, in introducing Clinton, Dianne Feinstein says that Clinton will bring our troops home from Iraq. This is a revealing moment, both because Senator Feinstein seems not to know that Senator Clinton said something quite different at the Dartmouth Debate last week, and because the Oakland audience's response to Feinstein's assurance is not as vociferous as I would expect.

As I leave the party, I see a large Ron Paul billboard, red on white, which says "End the War." The billboard is sited so that we Hillary eventers can see it only as we exit. It's as if the Ron Paul folk knew what Hillary was going to say--or not say. And, of course, in some sense they did. I realize that the speakers at the Obama block party also only tangentially mentioned Iraq. I think about the merely appreciative response to Dianne Feinstein's remark on the subject. Whatever libertarians, leftists and peacemakers may wish, the American people at large--if Sunday's crowds are any indication--are becoming resigned to the war and moving on to other issues, problems like health care and schools, solutions for which they reasonably might have hope. By comparison, the 14th Street parties aren't much of a story.

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