Eve of the Election

Jonn Elledge attends an Obama rally in North Carolina filled with passionate and unlikely Democrats.

It takes a certain strength of character to vote against just about everyone of your skin colour because of something you see as a moral issue. So to go to an Obama rally with your mouth covered with red duck tape bearing a slogan accusing the senator of killing babies must take a quite colossal nerve.

I almost admired the young black man waiting inside the rally enclosure, staring fixedly at the crowd as it filed in. But still, the guy was wasting his time. We'd already been confronted in the hour long queue by four anti-abortion campaigners, standing silently holding posters of aborted foetuses, while the ring-leader harangued us through a megaphone. But all they got in response was a rousing chorus of, 'Yes we can'.

'Oh yes we can murder babies, you mean?' he yelled, but someone shouted back, 'You need a bigger speaker man, we can't hear you.'

This wasn't really his audience. The night before the election, in the brand new swing state of North Carolina, this was a crowd of true believers who just wanted to catch one last glimpse of their leader before the campaign ended.

They stood for an hour in the driving rain, listening to a succession of lesser speakers explaining the need to get the vote out or running through the roll call of local Democratic candidates.

These guys would have waited through anything for that moment when Obama finally appeared on stage. The girl next to me had driven three hours from Georgia, on her own, just to see him in the flesh. When the rain began, the hundreds in the queue surged forward, breaking through the first line of security barriers. Once close enough to see, they stood waiting patiently, just like everybody else.

In the crowd I spotted a woman with a buggy bearing a sign reading, 'Obama rocks me - born Democrat 2008.' There was a boy in a t-shirt reading, 'Obama is not a muslim, but I am - and I approve this message.' There was a girl telling her friends that her mother in Alaska had been handing out bumper stickers reading, 'Wasila moms for Obama-Biden.'

There were hundreds of young black men and women, who the numbers say would not normally be voting at all. Yet when one speaker asked the crowd who had cast their ballot, almost every hand went up.

The Senator spoke for about twenty minutes. He talked briefly of his grandmother, who had died the previous night, and for a moment seemed to be crying. But otherwise it was the same stump speech I'd already heard a dozen times on the TV and radio over the last fortnight.

The words weren't what mattered, though. What mattered to these people was that Obama had come far enough to be able to speak to them: Democrats who had lost hope that anyone who wasn't called Clinton could ever beat the Republican machine and African Americans who had never really believed they would see this in their lifetime. Without complaint, they put up with the queues and the cramp and the protesters and the rain, just to see him speak.

Before the event, my photographer had told me that he was so thoroughly sick of the whole thing that, were he an American, he wouldn't vote for either of them. As we drove away from the rally, he admitted that he'd changed his mind.

Once it was over, without so much as a second's pause, the crowd turned to leave. A few lined the nearby roads, on the offchance they would see his car pass by, but most were happy just to go. They'd got what they came for.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.