Left out of Obama’s dinner

April 4, 2011

NEW YORK--A recent Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraiser at the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem--with President Barack Obama in attendance--illustrated where the priorities of the Democrats lie.

It also drew a spirited protest. Some 100 people gathered outside the Adam Clayton Powell municipal building in Harlem to challenge the Obama administration, and call for an end to New York state budget cuts as well as various military occupations.

While entrees at the Red Rooster generally range from $14-$32, plates for the March 29 event were $30,800 a piece. In all, the event was expected to raise $1.5 million.

It was not only a flagrant display of wealth and power by the Democratic Party, but it highlighted the discrepancy between the working-class communities that mobilized for Obama's election and the affluent people who shape the Obama administration's policies.

The annual median income in Harlem is $25,000, well below what was needed to purchase a plate for the DNC dinner.

The restaurant, owned by Bravo's Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson, supposedly prides itself on providing food that celebrates "the roots of American cuisine and the diverse culinary traditions of the neighborhood." Contrary to the restaurant's mission, however, the DNC fundraiser financially and physically excluded most Harlem residents.

Instead, one report indicated that those in attendance included Tom Bernstein (cofounder of Chelsea piers), Michael Kempner (member of the White House Council for Community Solutions), and Andy Tobias (author and treasurer of the Democratic National Committee).

The financial and political clout of those on the list fits in with Obama's other excursions during visits to New York City--including a meeting with billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a party at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

In the midst of the current economic crisis, it was a particularly egregious choice to host the DNC fundraiser in Harlem, which is suffering from high unemployment and the depletion of public services, including cuts to Harlem Hospital.

The state of New York has also has proposed budget cuts that would diminish spending on Medicaid and other social services--ensuring a detrimental influence on the Harlem community. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is spending untold sums on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan each year, while county and state governments enact austerity measures.

These contradictions propelled various community members in Harlem to take action.

Seasoned and new activists carried signs reading, "Fund Harlem Hospital," "Tax the Rich" and "Jobs Not War." Antiwar and community activists spoke about the recent U.S. military intervention in Libya, with most stating that U.S. and UN intervention has impeded genuine democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. New York City Councilperson Charles Barron criticized President Obama's foreign and economic policies, and Nellie Bailey called for an end to the Libya occupation.

Demonstrators also spoke about the nature and extent of the housing crisis and gentrification in Harlem--where economic disparity has resulted in the displacement of low-income residents as a result of the increased cost of housing and Columbia University's expansion project.

As one protester stated, we should be fighting to stop both the wars abroad and the war at home.

The next time there is a dinner in Harlem, we should demand that everyone in the community--not just the wealthy--be invited to have a seat at the table and be heard.

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