The president’s annual State of the Union address, used each year to outline broad ideas and articulate the administration’s upcoming agenda, has been described as the “World Series, and the Super Bowl all rolled in one.”
But in this time of mass protest and discord, many are calling foul ahead of this year’s big game in Washington.
On the heels of several months of unrest sparked by the killings of unarmed African-Americans by police across the country and ongoing demands for federal action on police reform and accountability, activists have resigned themselves to the notion that President Obama is unlikely to address their agenda in any meaningful way.
“I really want him to say that he hears us or that he openly cares about us and what we’re fighting for,” said Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis, an organizer of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri last year. “But no, I don’t think that will happen tonight.”
"It’s not just about the president, pundits and politicians. It’s about the system."'
The State of the Union is just that, the state of the entire union, carved into bite-sized topical pieces often about the economy and jobs, immigration and tax reform. In recent speeches, the president has previewed some of the policies he plans to promote, including college affordability efforts that would allow students two years of tuition-free education at community colleges.
In what is certainly a nod to more pressing issues of American violence, one of the president and first lady’s special guests is Malik Bryant, a 13-year-old boy from their hometown of Chicago, whose letter to Santa asking for nothing more than safety from violence landed in the White House and earned a response from Obama.
But in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers last summer, the non-indictments of their killers, and a string of other killings of unarmed black men by police, many want a more robust outline of ways the administration will address state violence that disproportionately affects poor and minority communities.
Widespread protests since the summer have drawn a national spotlight and the attention of the White House. And while Obama has addressed the unrest in often heartfelt but general terms, acknowledging the wide chasm of distrust between the police and many in communities of color, he has yet to define many clear policy goals to address that abyss.
He recently signed an executive order calling for a review of the militarization of local law enforcement agencies and called for federal dollars to assist in the purchase of thousands of body cameras for police. And in December, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires states that receive federal funding and grants to report the deaths of people in the custody of law enforcement agencies, including those being arrested, detained or incarcerated in corrections facilities.
But many who’ve been organizing and protesting on behalf of the hundreds of black men and women who are killed by police officers in cities across the country, with little accountability, say the first black president is a president nonetheless and a cog in the machinery of the status quo.
Cherrell Brown, an activist and organizer in New York City, says that she has supported President Obama and even worked on his historic 2008 campaign, but lamented what she described as a system led by Obama that’s offered more of the same lip service and inattention to issues facing black and brown people in America.
"I really want him to say that he hears us or that he openly cares about us and what we’re fighting for."'
“No matter what Obama or the other party says, we need to address the true reality of the state of this country and not dress it up and address how we change that,” Brown said. “People say the system is broken, that the system is unfair, but it’s working as it was designed to work and that means incarcerating black and brown people and criminalizing poverty.”
Still, Brown said she’s hopeful President Obama will use his annual address to speak to their calls for greater equality.
“Black lives are devalued here in America. The system is egregiously racist and the badges of slavery ares still evident in the system,” Brown said. “It’s not just about the president, pundits and politicians. It’s about the system. I’m more interested in dismantling institutions and systems than I am in vilifying or putting my hope in these same politicians.”
To fill the narrative gaps that some expect to hear (or not hear) in the president’s speech, a collection of activist organizations plan on delivering what they’re calling a State of the Black Union address the day after Tuesday's State of the Union. Their address will speak directly to the systemic and institutional issues he says are devouring people of color and the poor in America, including state violence and unchecked abuses by law enforcement.
The group plans on releasing the pre-recorded address, featuring various speakers, online and via social media and will be disseminating information using the hashtag #SOBU.
“We recognize that some of the issues that President Obama is going to talk about, the majority of them are not going to be things that we are most concerned about or impact our lives the greatest,” said Dante Barry, executive director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. “We want to reveal and talk about those things that get to the heart and to the pain that we are all feeling in different ways.”
Barry said #SOBU is a continuation of ongoing protests and a call to action. He said he isn’t expecting the Obama to use State of the Union to broach the topic of race and racial inequality in any deep way.
“I think that he might throw a little something in there but not really go deep on how it impacts the country,” Barry said. “I think it’s going to be a very usual President Obama State of the Union, really appealing to the centrist, moderate folks.”