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2008-09-10

Following Disparaging Comments at RNC, Community Organizers Respond to Republican Attacks on Their Profession

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John Raskin, Works at Housing Conservation Coordinators and organizes around affordable housing and tenants rights in New York City. He is one of the founders of Community Organizers of America and the website OrganizersFightBack.wordpress.com

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During their speeches at last week’s RNC, both vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani mocked Sen. Barack Obama’s background as a community organizer. We speak to John Raskin, one of the founders of the newly formed Community Organizers of America. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to national politics here in this country, Senator Obama responding Sunday to Republican attacks on his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. The Democratic presidential candidate was speaking on ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. He said he was “puzzled” by the criticism.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Understand what I — what I did as a community organizer. When I got out of college as a young person, twenty-four, twenty-five years old, I had moved to Chicago and worked with churches, who were dealing with steel plants that had closed in their neighborhoods, to set up job training programs for the unemployed and after-school programs for youth and to try to deal with asbestos in homes of poor people. Community service work, which John McCain has been talking about putting country first and extolling the virtues of national service, that’s what I did between the ages of twenty-four and twenty-seven, before I went to law school. I would think that’s what we want all our young people to do.

AMY GOODMAN: During her speech accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination in St. Paul last week, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin undermined Senator Obama’s community organizing experience.

    GOV. SARAH PALIN: I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening. Now, we tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also made fun of Senator Obama’s community organizing background during his convention speech on Wednesday.

    RUDY GIULIANI: On the other hand, you have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer — what? — he worked — I said he worked as a community organizer.

AMY GOODMAN: The Republican attacks have also upset many community organizers in this country. Some have demanded an apology, founded a group called Community Organizers of America and launched a website called organizersfightback.wordpress.com.

John Raskin organizes around affordable housing and tenants rights here in New York, one of the founders of Community Organizers of America, joining us here in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN RASKIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response?

JOHN RASKIN: I cringe whenever I hear Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani say that. I mean, it’s frustrating that, on the one hand, they would extol the virtues of national service and say this is — you know, in America we want people to be involved in their communities, we want people to do something productive, and then, when a bunch of folks, I mean, you know, my colleagues and people around the country, go out and do that and actually work as community organizers, they mock it.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what community organizing is.

JOHN RASKIN: Sure. Community organizing is kind of the antidote to big money lobbying. It’s the way that ordinary people come together to hold the government accountable to what they actually need. So the job of an organizer, someone like me or what Barack Obama was doing twenty years ago and other folks do around the country, is bring people together. You know, you knock on doors, you go to churches, you go to synagogues, you go to mosques, you have meetings. But people come together around what they need in the community.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how community organizers have responded, overall, as you set up — when did you set up Community Organizers of America?

JOHN RASKIN: So, that was in response to these attacks. You know, I was watching the convention with a group of my friends and said, “Uh, us?” And, you know, the phones were abuzz that night, and then, by the next morning, you know, a bunch of us had gotten together, and we had this website, organizersfightback.wordpress.com. And when that happened, we had probably — I think we’ve had about 800, 900 comments from people who came to the website and were upset enough about what the Republicans had been saying that they wanted to give their two cents.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece by the Associated Press about New York Governor David Paterson, who said there are racial overtones in the Republican presidential ticket’s criticism of Obama’s work as a community organizer. Paterson said at an event here in New York City, "There are overtones of potential racial coding in the campaign." Of course, he was talking about McCain and Palin, who haven’t directly talked about race, but says it’s strongly implied in Palin and others’ comments about Obama. He said, "The Republican party is too smart to call Barack Obama 'black' in a sense that it would be a negative. But you can take something about his life, which I noticed they did at the Republican convention."

He said, "A 'community organizer,' they kept saying it, they kept laughing, like what does this mean?” He said, “It means that an individual who could have gone to Wall Street and made a lot of money, and then run for office because he could buy media time, chose to go back and work in programs in a neighborhood where he thought he could make a difference and became an elected official based on his involvement right in his own community.”

JOHN RASKIN: Earlier in the campaign, I think they had a deliberate effort to call Barack Obama a “street organizer.” That was the quote they used. And I thought that that was very suspicious. Community organizer, you know, I’d be surprised if they were trying to use that with any racial overtones, just because so many people, you know, in such a diverse crowd in America are community organizers and work with community organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more about what community organizations are. You hear Barack Obama in his interview on ABC saying, “I worked with churches,” dealing with closed factories.

JOHN RASKIN: Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, there are all sorts of community organizations. But when you’re doing community organizing, you’re bringing people together around some shared need that’s not being addressed. So the idea is that people come together to fix a problem that they can’t fix as an individual or on their own.

So, in Barack Obama’s case, you know, this is neighborhoods where steel plants had closed and there weren’t jobs, and they wanted job training programs. People have organized around the exact same thing here in New York, you know, of course, job training programs, something that people need in the community.

But beyond that, people organize around, you know, if seniors need bus service maybe in a rural area where they can’t get from place to place. That’s not something that one senior citizen can go out and provide, a bus. But together, they can make sure that the government is actually doing its job and providing the services people need.

AMY GOODMAN: In your “Community Organizers Respond to Republican Attacks,” you point out that former Governor George Pataki, the governor here in New York, said, “Barack Obama was a community organizer. What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.”

JOHN RASKIN: I swear it’s a job. I’ve been doing it for five years. I know a bunch of other people who have the exact same job. But it seems a little bit insincere to me that Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani would say, “I don’t even know what that is. Is that even a job?” because I know that here in New York they dealt with community organizers, not always in a friendly way, but they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Certainly, Governor Pataki dealt with the remarkable organizing of the William Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice around overthrowing, overturning the Rockefeller Drug Laws, for example. Perhaps some of his more embarrassing moments had to do with that. Your thoughts?

JOHN RASKIN: Well, that’s absolutely an example of what a community organization would do. If there are unjust laws on the books, if there’s something that people need to come together to change, they would go out and challenge that.

AMY GOODMAN: I also thought it was interesting, given what’s happening with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, where you have — you have Senator McCain saying that — talking about how the reason they have gone on and this failed has to do with their lobbyists in Washington, though his campaign is run by lobbyists. This — what it is that politicians do in this country, where they come from, what they become, who they surround themselves with, is so much about high-powered, behind-the-scenes lobbying and lobbyists, as opposed to community organizing. It is true, Barack Obama is very unusual in coming from a community organizing background.

JOHN RASKIN: Yeah, I think that’s true. There are some elected officials, just a handful, that come from an organizing background. But it — I mean, it strikes me as this is kind of the — you know, the ultimate definition of our democracy is who the government is accountable to. And it is who has access to power and who the elected officials are listening to. And very often, too often, they’re listening to people who can afford to hire lobbyists, who can afford to hire the people with access, you know, to kind of do their democracy for them. But that’s not something that ordinary citizens can do. So, community organizing is how ordinary people come together. You know, people who can’t afford lobbyists, people who don’t run corporations, come together to make sure that the government is listening to them, not just to the people who do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us. John Raskin works at Housing Conversation [sic], coordinator —

JOHN RASKIN: Conservation.

AMY GOODMAN: Housing Conservation.

JOHN RASKIN: We do have conversations, but it’s Housing Conservation Coordinators.

AMY GOODMAN: Housing Conservation. The website, organizersfightback.wordpress.com.

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