Barack Obama, CC ’83, became the first sitting president to visit Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater Thursday night. But in his second visit to Harlem since taking office, Obama was met by fierce protests.
The fundraising event was closed to press, but 125th Street was overflowing with supporters of the Occupy movement, members of political action committees, and local residents hoping to catch a glimpse of the president. Hundreds of people turned out, but the majority of them were there to protest—a potentially troubling sign for Obama, for whom Harlem should be a stronghold of support.
“I’m protesting Obama’s policies,” Gilbert Rosa said. “He’s just as crooked as anyone. They voted for him because he had pretty rhetoric. At the end of the day, you can have different players. But if you don’t change the game nothing is gonna happen.”
Obama carried 95 percent of the African-American vote in 2008, according to CNN exit polls. But the heavily black community which W. E. B. Du Bois and Hubert Harrison called home hardly seemed well-disposed to Obama Thursday night.
Laurie Wen, a Morningside Heights resident and activist for Healthcare For The 99%—an Occupy Wall Street working group—said that Obama’s visit felt like a stab in the back.
“I worked 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for several months on Obama’s campaign,” Wen said. “I never thought he was a messiah, but he has really disappointed his supporters.”
Protesters broadcast their anger with signs and jeers, including Bob Nash, who came to protest from Cold Spring Harbor with a sign criticizing Obama for his relationship with Wall Street.
“Wall Street has been bailed out and the American people have been sold out because of Obama,” he said.
Others sang, “Obama is a Nazi.”
Passersby said they were angered by the protesters’ presence. One group of four encouraged protesters with signs to “use that shit for toilet paper.”
“They have a right to protest, but not to classify him as a Hitler,” Harlem resident Wesley Ward said. “He came in when the seat was hot. He ain’t kill nobody like Hitler did.”
Obama last came to Harlem in March for a $30,800-per-person dinner at the Red Rooster. Thursday night, for a sold-out fundraiser featuring the singers Al Green and India.Arie, tickets ranged from $100 to $25,000.
Some Harlem residents passing by the Apollo, who hadn’t known Obama was visiting, were taken aback by what they saw.
“I never saw protests in Harlem before,” resident Benjamin Carl said. “There weren’t protests when Bush was in office. Why now? Why in Harlem?”
Diane Sare, a Congressional candidate in New Jersey’s 5th District from the fringe LaRouche Democrats group, used the event to campaign against Obama. She insisted that his policies violate the Constitution.
“Sadly, Obama is the worst president we’ve ever had,” she said. “He bombed Libya without going through Congress, he signed NDAA [the National Defense Authorization Act] on New Year’s Eve when everyone was drunk, and he’s allowing U.S. citizens to be detained without a trial.”
A much smaller group welcomed Obama’s visit. Guy A. Surpris held up a sign thanking Obama for his actions following the earthquake in Haiti two years ago.
“I’m here because I want to thank the president for his help in Haiti following the earthquake. He provided help immediately and asked former President Bush to go help,” Surpris said. “On behalf of the Haitian people, and on behalf of those who passed away, I’m saying thank you.”
Harlem resident Gregory Gabson said it was “excellent” that Obama came to Harlem to campaign.
“Because he’s running, he needs to be in here letting people know he needs four more years,” Gabson said.