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Reed laughs when she hears some of the statements made by former campaign workers: "You'd think we were having two candidates running for the same position."
After Cabrera and Aqeel jumped ship, Joey Brite became the de facto point person for Rise Up for Obama. Brite had met Aqeel and Cabrera shortly before the fund-raiser at Geoffrey's Inner Circle. They'd seen her original T-shirts — colored crewnecks with the logo "Ba-rack My World, 2008" — and wanted to see if she'd sell them at Geoffrey's.
Before the campaign, Brite had told her friends that she'd do whatever she could to help Obama run for president. But when the time came, the self-described butch lesbian admits she had apprehension about working with straight people. She heard the Rise Up mission statement and asked if it "involved the inclusion of reaching out to gays and lesbians, and poor people." Aqeel and Cabrera managed to convince her of their group's integrationist sensibility. The three of them — a queer white woman, straight African-American man, and straight Latina woman — formed an improbable alliance, one that aptly symbolized Obama's vision of tolerance, Brite said. "It was an attraction again to the ideals of Barack Obama — working with people who I thought I normally wouldn't align with politically. These are people that I felt like we would have each other's back."
Within a few weeks, she too had turned against the official campaign. Brite, who calls Ganz' organizing model a "multilevel marketing strategy," believes that the campaign is dominated by a group of malevolent oligarchs who want to advance their own political careers. "I think there are still people in place that have been so off-putting to so many activists in the area, and they're still in their place and I'm not sure that they should be there anymore," she said. "My issues have been with Buffy and Brent and their intention and their idea of following or not following the words of Barack Obama — about his ideas of grassroots, about his idea of standing up to authority."
One thing is for sure, Brite is certainly standing up to authority. She is practically running her own parallel campaign under the Rise Up banner. She lists her cell number as the contact for all campaign events. She manages content for the Rise Up blog, and organizes most of the fund-raisers. She's planned several events for November and December, including a Thanksgiving dinner at Geoffrey's Inner Circle. At this point, the connection to Obama's presidential campaign seems to be purely cosmetic, in the form of T-shirts and window signs. Brite always gathers phone numbers of potential volunteers, but refuses to share them with headquarters.
She even has tried to lure people away from the official campaign. Brite started "wooing" Stanford Williams as soon as he offered up the first inkling of his own dissatisfaction with the campaign structure. A few days before his officially sanctioned "Fire It Up" party, he still hadn't secured a venue, and was complaining that the people at headquarters had done little to help. Brite asked a friend, Hazel Jones, to donate her house as a last-minute favor. Brite said she'd give it to Stanford on the condition that he set up a Rise Up table at the event.
Yet, on the very day of his East Oakland Obama party, just a couple months after fully committing himself to the campaign, Williams announced he was resigning. "You got a guy who's running for president and he talks about grassroots, and then you have people who run the campaign who have no respect for their volunteers," he explained. "Some people said, 'ultimately, inevitably, this was gonna happen to you, too.'"
When it did, Brite was waiting eagerly in the wings. The following day she posted a synopsis of the party on the Rise Up blog (RiseUpforObama.blogspot.com). It had been a success, Brite reported, attracting more than fifty guests, including city councilmember Desley Brooks. Thirty people signed up to volunteer. In the final sentence of her report, Brite swiftly co-opted Williams: "RISE UP FOR OBAMA: EAST OAKLAND has been born and Mr. Williams will be doing more to ensure the volunteer base in that community increases." She then listed Williams' phone number, naming him the new "East Oakland coordinator."
Williams declined the title. "I think she had the idea, sent me an e-mail, didn't hear back from me, and put it online. We never discussed it," Williams said. He didn't think Brite was being deceitful — it was probably a misunderstanding.
Still, a few days after the "Fire It Up" house party, Williams seemed remarkably sanguine. Having severed all ties with the Obama campaign, he now has time to go out to lunch and kick it with friends. He still supports Obama, and hopes to talk Aqeel off the roof.
Brite, meanwhile, is livid. She claimed the campaign issued an "edict" to prevent rogue elements of the campaign such as Rise Up for Obama from receiving official e-mail. "When the headquarters people talk amongst themselves, and there has been an individual who somebody has decided that they're too dangerous, too bothersome, or too high-maintenance, many times they just stop receiving e-mails that they used to get," Brite said. She said that Rise Up for Obama is sending a mole to get as close to the campaign's "inner circle" as possible.
"They keep pushing this concept of telling your story, telling your story, telling your story," she continued. "Well here's my story, headquarters: You didn't listen! And you lost a great asset."
In spite of the loss of supporters like Williams and Brite, Margot Reed was pleased with the results of Sunday's spate of house parties. "The parties this weekend were pretty darn good," she said. "The feather in the cap was that we had a substantial turnout in Castro Valley. That's huge." She cited the "cerebral, motivated" group in Albany as another success story, since Albany skews more conservative — definitely Clinton territory. "They may not be running around in the street with little beanies on their head jumping up and down, but they were listening very intensely ... You could have heard a pin drop. And you could see people nodding and shaking their heads."
As much as Brite and Aqeel might like for the Obama campaign to be about organizing for social change in the inner city, it doesn't necessarily work that way in the real world. After all, presidential campaigns are organizations that have to grow extremely fast, with a singular goal in mind, and not for nothing is "war room" a campaign metaphor. Obama has fewer than 100 days before the primary, and he's trying to get more votes than any other Democrat. That doesn't just mean Oakland, Reed assured, but also Castro Valley, Ashland, Fairview, and Cherryland. The candidate's rhetoric may skew populist, but he's not gonna win unless his volunteers put their social agendas aside and get with the program.
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