Aliquippa For Obama fired up, ready to go: Organizing in a hard-hit steel town

You knew something special was happening when the youngest, freshest face in the room got up, took charge and called the meeting to order — “Hello, I’m Scout Sanders, and welcome to the first meeting of Aliquippa for Obama!”

Sanders was a full-time Obama volunteer, a student from the University of Connecticut, and her bright smile and enthusiasm brightened up a room of about 30 residents of Aliquippa and a few other nearby towns. Those who came were all ages, from young teenagers to retired workers in their seventies, a little more than half were African American, about two-thirds were women.

Aliquippa is a severely stressed milltown in Beaver County, Western Pennsylvania. At one time nearly 30,000 people lived here, mostly steelworkers and their families. Now it’s down to 12,000, with 6,000 low-income African Americans hanging on in the central area, with the white workers living in the border neighborhoods. The home of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and other great athletes, it’s a tough, no-nonsense place in dire need of a hopeful future. The meeting was in a bright and well-cared-for church-run coffee house, Uncommon Grounds, on the mostly boarded up main street.

“As a young person, I was concerned for my future,” Scout explained, “and I saw a lot of social injustice around me. I wanted change, and when I heard about Barack Obama and his programs, I felt he was different, and he offered real hope for change. That’s why I’m here, but enough about me. I want to hear why all of you are here.”

It was a tried and true opener. One by one, everyone got to know everyone.

Some spoke bitterly about the past and present, but everyone was hopeful for the future and the prospects offered by this election.

“There’s a change gonna come,” said one young African American woman working a number of part-time jobs. “You can sense it in the street, you can feel it in the air. Lord knows it’s about time.” The whole room agreed.

“This young man, Obama, knows about us,” said an older Black man, a former steelworker in the now shut down mill. “His first job was being a community organizer among out-of-work steelworkers in Chicago. He knows about us first hand. When have we ever had a candidate like that? McCain? McCain don’t know nothing about us. He just hangs out with those who created this mess. We have got to put Obama in the White House, no two ways about it.”

A middle-aged white woman from one of the working-class housing “plans” on the surrounding hills agreed. “I’ve studied his positions, and they’re the best by far,” she said. “But I’ve also learned about Michelle. I even read her college thesis. I tell you, she is one smart, strong woman, with a very analytical mind. She will be a powerful partner and help to him, and we need a First Lady like her.”

“We know what has to be done,” said another older worker. “First, we have to stop this war, because it’s ruining everything else. Then we have to start on the country’s infrastructure, which is rusting away and falling apart. We can get some mills up again, and start on some alternative energy investments. Then we can get some jobs, some health care, some decent schools.”

“Yes, the war and health care,” says a women from Ambridge, a neighboring town. She gives everyone a “Healthcare Not Warfare” single-payer flyer from the local 4th CD Progressive Democrats of America. “And come to our vigil against the war every Saturday at the Beaver Courthouse, 1 p.m!”

“Obama can’t do it alone,” added another. “It’s got to start right here. We got to get some better people in office right here, and then every other level of government, all the way to the top. We know what happens when they’re not accountable to us.”

Nearly everyone had a sense of history about 2008. “We haven’t seen anything like him since Dr. King and Kennedy,” one man said. “Both Kennedys, Bobby too.” Aliquippa, Black and white, still has strong affection for the Kennedys. One Black woman describes how she met JFK just a block away from the meeting site, and how she tells her children about it.

“We are going to make history,” an older Black man says. “I have been waiting for it all my life. We are going to be part of something truly great.” One woman nearly brings everyone to tears. “You can see it in the faces of the children — five, ten, thirteen years old. Obama comes on TV and their faces beam, they stop whatever they’re doing, and they listen with quiet excitement. They know, they KNOW this is different.”

And so it goes, until everyone has had their say. Scout takes charge again, and the other volunteers are passing out lists. “Get out your cell phones. We like to make calls at all these meetings.” She gives quick instructions on how these are registered Democrats, and our task is to find out where they stand.

Next is program and organization. “Where are the best places we can register voters?” she shouts. “Giant Eagle, the supermarket,” says one. “The San Rocco Italian Festival next month,” says another. “That’s fine,” says one Black man, “but you white folks have to help us out in some of these places.” Everyone agrees.

Organization? One guy puts out a plan for running a tight ship, with people responsible for different tasks. Everyone likes it, but wants to think over who does what.

“This is a good start, but there’s people who should be here who aren’t here yet,” says one. “So next time every one bring one, no, bring two!”

They’ll meet again in a week, and they leave, fired up. It will be a tight race, with the right wing stirring up racism and religious bigotry out in the surrounding townships. But it looks like McCain is still going to have a tough fight in this neck of the woods.