Black America waits anxiously as race re-emerges in the US election

In Florida, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

After the hustle and bustle of Washington DC and Virginia, the eve of election day in St Petersburg, Florida has a more laid-back feel to it. But the naturally relaxed mentality of the Sunshine State does not hide the fact that the state will, once again, be the focal point of a presidential election which hangs on a knife-edge.

In the last 48 hours, Floridian politics has got ugly. Democrat party accusations that state Republicans have changed voter registration rules to make it harder for poorer people to vote have been bubbling just below the surface for months. But on Sunday, the Florida Democrats filed a law suit to keep polling centres open until election day to allow an estimated four million Floridians hoping to vote early more chance to vote. Since the administration of elections is all decided at state-level, there is nothing to stop state Republicans from making it harder for supporters of their opponents to exercise their democratic rights, whether by changing voter registration rules or having few and inaccessible polling centres in areas where opposition support is high. Given that these tactics make it harder for the poor to vote, and African-Americans account for nearly 25 per cent of the country's poor, the Democrat charge is that Republicans are trying to stop black people from voting.

It is interesting that race has suddenly emerged as a campaign issue at the last minute. Indeed, with the media's intense focus on the US economy and then the devastation of north-east America caused by Hurricane Sandy, one aspect of the race - perhaps even the elephant in the room - has barely been mentioned. Namely, can a black President be re-elected in a country that has become increasingly racist during his term?

For her part, Avis Jones-Deweever, director of the Washington-based National Council for Negro Women, thinks that Obama's re-election would be a bigger achievement than his win in 2008.  For Jones-Deweever, who describes "an amazing feeling of peace and unity" that she and the African-American community enjoyed at Obama's inauguration, the backlash started immediately after he took the Oath of Office.

There is also increasing evidence that levels of racial prejudice in the US are on the increase. A poll by Associated Press in October found that over 50 per cent of Americans held racially prejudiced attitudes.

So how has American politics changed to reflect this growing racial tension? DeWeever lays the charge of racism at the Tea Party movement which she says "has very overt racial overtones". She questions the Tea Party mantra "let's take our country back" - from whom, she asks. It is a fair question, particularly of a political movement that is overwhelmingly white. At the Republican national convention in August many observed that there were more African-Americans on the stage than there were in the audience.

She reserves particular ire for the thinly veiled racism of the 'birthers' who, despite conclusive evidence, still dispute Obama's US citizenship. Several weeks ago, billionaire Donald Trump launched yet another predictably self-serving broadside on the President, demanding yet further proof of Obama's birth certification.

"There is always an extra reason for you to show you belong", Jones-DeWeever says, commenting with frustrating that "black hands built the White House".

In a sense, conservative Republicans are right to feel anxious. It is expected that 2046 will be the year that America will no longer be a white-majority country, with the Hispanic and African-American populations on the rise. But Jones-DeWeever lampoons Republican attempts to stop African-Americans from voting, rather than changing their policies, insisting that conservatives across a number of states have attempted to enact laws making it harder to register to vote. There has been "a blatant attempt to reduce access to vote for non-white people", she notes.

Although there has been widespread criticism of Obama's record specifically as a black President, DeWeever insists that the African-American community is still very supportive of the President and have registered to vote in their hordes. Twenty four per cent of African-Americans live in poverty. Civil rights will certainly be eroded by a Romney presidency, she says. Meanwhile, the budget slashing plan of Vice-Presidential candidate and Tea Party darling Paul Ryan is "trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor".

DeWeever says that it was "fairy dust" to expect Obama to pursue a specific 'black-focused' agenda but defends his record on job creation programmes that would disproportionately benefit poor Americans. Meanwhile, the Obama presidency has changed the nature of political discourse. Black people are "new to 'insider' politics", she says, "now we are in the the Oval Office we need to up our game".

But if there has been a mistake in the Obama strategy, a "lack of vision had been potentially the fatal flaw". There needed to be a Democratic version of the Reagan-inspired "morning in America" theme to this election campaign. It is certainly true that much of the gloss of the 2008 Obama wore off long ago, but there are few indications that black and brown-skinned Americans will not back their president enthusiastically on Tuesday. This time, with the national and Floridian opinion polls showing a statistical dead-heat, Obama will be more dependent on their votes if he is to cling on to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, with American politics as divided as it has been for a generation, black America must watch and wait anxiously for one more day.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer.

Supporters listen to Barack Obama during a campaign rally at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage