The refusal of President Obama to commute Troy Davis’s death sentence, or even ask local authorities to postpone his execution, brings to a decisive end the faltering romance with the President among young Americans, freeing them to lead much needed justice movements on their own.
It would be a mistake to regard young Americans of this generation as politically passive. It was their energy and idealism that drove the remarkable and unexpected victory over Hilary Clinton in the Democratic Primary, and the history making campaign that made Barack Obama our first African American president.
It was understandable, given the atmosphere of that campaign and the idealistic, activist rhetoric candidate Obama employed to excite hopes of an American Renewal
( “Yes We Can”) that many young people relaxed after the election, assuming their future was in good hands and that the vision of a just society which drove them to participate in the campaign would drive the President’s policies.
Over the last three years, that expectation of moral leadership has been disappointed on many fronts. The huge expenditure to bail out the banks, the failure to mount an effective jobs campaign, the refusal to fight for a public option in the health care plan, the continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently, the acceptance of a budget compromise which eviscerated programs ranging from student loans, to public radio, to environmental projects made the President seem as though he lacked a moral compass, or worse yet, was unwilling to challenge policies which might jeopardize his election chances or hurt the interests of his Wall Street donors.
The President’s compromises and evasions, coming at a time when poverty rates were growing, the racial wealth gap was escalating, and young people, whether educated or not faced the worst job market since the Depression, left many young people confused and demoralized. Many could not believe what was happening to them economically; they were still hoping that the economy would correct itself, or the President they had placed so much hope in would find some way of righting the ship that was sinking around them
But while disappointment with the President was growing, the political warfare waged against him by the Republicans, particularly after the 2010 Congressional elections, left him with a residue of credibility. Weren’t the President’s opponents responsible for the tepid and ineffective policies coming out of Washington. Didn’t Republicans try to obstruct every positive initiative he tried to launch, from asking the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to rebuilding the crumbling American infra structure.
Enter the Troy Davis case. Here was a defendant who had been on death row for twenty years, insisting on his innocence, while the witnesses against him were steadily recanting their testimony. The thought of executing someone with this much doubt surrounding his conviction had created a worldwide protest movement involving millions of people around the world, not just because of the cruelty of capital punishment and the injustice of this particular case,, but because of the disproportionate application of the death penalty in the US to poor people and people of color.
To many young people in this country, and elsewhere, the execution of Troy Davis was a moral wrong of startling clarity, and given the hopes they had invested in Barack Obama when he ran for President, they expected him, at the very least to speak out against Troy Davis’s execution, and if possible, to use his power to stop it.
When the President did neither, and Troy Davis died, Barack Obama’s image as a visionary leader died with it.
But in this case, the cloud had a sliver lining.
While Troy Davis courage in the face of state murder inspired young people to fight harder against injustice, Barack Obama’s silence freed them to lead themselves. No longer could they expect someone in a position of power to stand up for the weak and powerless, to confront deeply entrenched patterns of racial and economic equality, or even insure that young people in this country would have a secure economic future
If there was going to be a fight on all those fronts, it would have to be led by young people themselves, in the streets as well as in the political arena, and they would have to fight harder than they had ever fought in their life.
The Wall Street occupation currently taking place is a sign that more and more young people have gotten this message
While they may- or may not- give their vote to Barack Obama in 2012, they most important thing they will be doing will be acting collectively to change the course of American and world history, and in doing so they will have lots of solidarity and support from young activists around the world facing similar problems
\September 25, 2011