The London riots are already being compared to the Los Angeles riots of 1992. It so happens that the nineteen-year-old L.A. conflagration also gives us a quick but intriguing glimpse into the beginnings of President Obama’s political career. About a month after the riots in Los Angeles petered out, Obama opened the public campaign for Project Vote, the voter registration drive he’d been selected to run in Chicago. This was just a year after Obama graduated from Harvard Law School. It was his first real political job.
The London riots have already kicked off the latest version of the seemingly never-ending debate over whether such events should be seen primarily as political protests by the powerless, or as out-and-out lawbreaking and vandalism. Back in 1992, Obama clearly leaned toward the former.
I found the press release Obama issued to get Project Vote rolling, in the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. (Obama worked closely with ACORN on this campaign, his later denials notwithstanding.) The release quotes Obama explaining the need for Project Vote by pointing to the rioting in Los Angeles. Said Obama in 1992: “The Los Angeles riots reflect a deep distrust and disaffection with the existing power pattern in our society.” That’s Alinsky-speak for “We’ve got to use the power of the angry underclass to put capitalism in check.”
Naturally, we’ll continue to disagree about whether Obama’s leftist past was a convenient pose, or something that guides his policies to this day. I certainly don’t think President Obama would openly speak about events in London the way he spoke about the L.A. riots nineteen years ago. What he thinks to himself is another matter. Of course, a quick statement like this is much less important than the context provided by a systematic look at Obama’s overall political development. Nonetheless, direct quotes from Obama’s early political past are few and far between. This one is particularly intriguing.