Tuesday, January 24, 2017

From the Archives: Belafonte criticizes Barack Obama on civil liberties in Charlottesville

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on Examiner.com on January 24, 2012. The Examiner.com publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016. I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to Examiner.com since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

Belafonte criticizes Barack Obama on civil liberties in Charlottesville

Harry Belafonte in Charlottesville - January 2012
Harry Belafonte – actor, author, singer, and political activist – appeared in Charlottesville on January 24 at a screening of his autobiographical film, Sing Your Song, as part of a community celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a close friend and colleague of Belafonte’s in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

In a discussion led by University of Virginia history professor Julian Bond at the historic Paramount Theatre, Belafonte reflected on his life and career, offered his thoughts on politics, culture, education, and other topics, and criticized President Barack Obama’s record on protecting civil liberties.

‘Critical of the president’

Replying to a question posed by a member of the audience, Belafonte prefaced his remarks by promising that he would vote for Barack Obama’s re-election and would campaign for him this year.

“But recent utterings,” he cautioned with a smile, “have unsharpened my dance card to come to the White House for the next ball.”

Turning more serious, he added, “I’ve been critical of the president and I’ve let that go public.”

Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which had been drafted by his friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1940s, Belafonte pointed out that the human rights record of any country “becomes the first litmus test of how we create policy in relationship to the country under examination.”

That litmus test, he suggested, has to be applied to the United States as well as any other country.

‘Patriotic treason’

Paraphrasing Theodore Roosevelt, Belafonte argued that “if a citizen finds himself at the crossroads of a moment when the people, who have been invested with the power to lead this nation, begin to betray the Constitution of this country and betray the citizens of this country, it is not only the right but the responsibility of any citizen and all citizens to raise their voice against this evil, and anyone who does not do that should be charged with patriotic treason.”

In that context, he said, Barack Obama had “laid out his mission, not with complete clarity” but with enough substance “for us to linger with hope.” Obama had promised, upon taking office, that he would end the wars – yet they continue.

In addition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Belafonte identified something else of concern.

“More important,” he said, are “the homeland security laws, which were written to such extremes that they defied imagination that anyone could have thought of those laws.”

That those laws made their way through Congress and were signed by the President, he said, “was an absolutely stunning experience for all of us, and certainly for some of us who saw it in the depth of its villainy.”

Looking out over the audience, Belafonte painted a darkly dramatic picture of the effect of laws like the USA PATRIOT Act and the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed on December 31 by President Obama.

“Anyone who is sitting in this room tonight,” he said, “could walk out of that door and be whisked away by strangers, people who you’ve never met [and] don’t know, whose task it was to apprehend you and never tell you why you’re being apprehended, never tell you what you’re being charged with, never ever give you the right to make a phone call or get the benefit of a lawyer.”

‘Deeply wrong’

If someone is willing to surrender his rights, he said, or “willing to surrender all that is precious” under the framework of the Constitution, then “something’s wrong. Something is deeply wrong.”

Belafonte then explained the importance of the system of checks and balances found in the American constitutional system.

“The House watches the Senate, the Senate watches the House, both watch the Executive, the Executive watches the House and the Senate,” and the Supreme Court is “the final arbiter” for what becomes “the law of the land.”

When that system is out of balance, however, it needs “a leader who is made of such moral courage and strength to step into this frame and put himself on the line.”

By his tone of voice, Belafonte implied that Barack Obama lacks that courage and that strength.

“It is said by some,” the activist pointed out ruefully, “that Barack Obama’s second term as President will reveal all these mysteries [and] will reveal all these good deeds. He just needs to get the second term.”

Unfortunately, Belafonte added, “I’m not quite that optimistic. I’m not too sure that what we saw in the first term will not be” much different from “what we see in the second term.”

Even with that note of pessimism, he concluded, he is “infinitely more prone to devote all of my resources into his camp” than he would be willing to support any of the potential Republican candidates seeking to unseat Obama.

With that, Belafonte left the stage so he could autograph copies of his new book, My Song: A Memoir, for several dozen local fans.

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