Today’s inauguration of Barack Obama will undoubtedly be the most widely watched political event ever. The media coverage runs the full gamut. rabble.ca is proud to bring you live coverage on rabbletv via our colleagues at Democracy Now!, whose pre-inaugural coverage featured a full program of excerpts from the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
At the other end of the media spectrum from Amy Goodman’s standard-bearer of independent journalism, all of the entertainment shows are also in D.C., reporting on the utterances and wardrobes of the Hollywood stars who are in town to perform at inaugural galas or just to bask in the Obama glow. Justin Timberlake offered this profundity, regarding the moment’s historical significance: "Hey America, we’re cool again!"
What a tragedy if the Obama administration were merely to bring sexy back to the image of the American Empire – it would amount to the greatest re-branding scam in history. But beyond the myopia of the star set, others are already looking to Obama with tears in their eyes.
At a demonstration for Gaza a couple of weeks ago here in Vancouver, near the end of the rally a middle-aged Muslim woman, overcome with emotion, grabbed the microphone and yelled, "Obama! Obama! Where are you, Obama?"
The reference was to the president-elect’s silence as U.S.-made weapons rained down on a hungry and besieged people. In other words, business as usual, with the U.S. (and the Harper government here) shamelessly backing the endless suffering of the Palestinians. How cool does empire look for the residents of the open-air prison that is slaughterhouse Gaza? Thirteen hundred killed and thousands injured; chemical weapons like White Phosphorus used on densely populated areas; schools sheltering civilians and UN facilities and aid workers bombed. So it goes …
But there are signs of change, and reasons for hope, in 2009. In Canada, and around the world, rallies against the Israeli war crimes of recent weeks have been amongst the largest ever held for Palestine. Some are suggesting that the massacre of Gaza could be a turning point for how world public opinion views the state of Israel.
Meanwhile, Obama has promised that one of his first acts as president will be to close down the notorious detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, and many are hopeful that Canadian Omar Khadr will finally be repatriated, after the child soldier was left for years – betrayed and abandoned by his own government – to face torture and abuse. Fifteen years old when he was captured, Khadr has now spent over a third of his life in a gulag. Canada is the only western country not to have demanded the repatriation of its nationals in Guantanamo. It is a disgrace to the current Conservative regime and previous Liberals governments that his fate now rests in Obama’s hands.
Amnesty International and other groups are not counting on Obama’s benevolent intervention in Khadr’s case; they are leading a campaign demanding his return to Canada. On Saturday, I participated in the Vancouver panel discussion and walk to Close Guantanamo and for Justice for Khadr, one of a series of actions across the country that coincided with events in D.C. demanding that the new administration ‘counter terror with justice.’
Whatever your views on Obama and his administration – whether you think he’s a genuine progressive constrained by the realities of power, or a centre-right rhetorical triangulator par excellence – the imperative for progressive-minded people is the same: organize. Without building, or rebuilding, vibrant labour and social movements, no substantive change in the right direction is possible.
Sadly, King’s "Beyond Vietnam" speech at Riverside Church in New York, delivered in 1967 one year to the day before his assassination, maintains its relevance today, if we substitute Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine for Vietnam. In the speech, King explains why he refused to buckle to pressure to remain silent on the issue of the war, and calls for activism until the role of the U.S. in the world is drastically changed: "These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest … [we will be] attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy."
Today is a day to watch history unfold before our eyes, and share in the profound joy than many in the U.S. and around the world will feel as an African-American family moves into the White House.
But today is also a day to think about the ongoing struggle to make history, to achieve social and global justice and to put an end to empire. We will need four, eight, many more years of ‘rallies without end,’ until we have achieved significant change in Canadian and American life and policy.
The campaign for the return of Omar Khadr is a good place to start. Amnesty has a webpage dedicated to the effort. While you watch the inauguration, send an email to Obama demanding Khadr’s sham trial be cancelled, and that he be returned to Canada. And don’t forget to cc all of our politicians in Canada.
As George W finally heads home to Texas, let’s all demand that Omar finally be brought home to Canada.
Derrick O’Keefe is the editor of rabble.ca.