On Clinton’s ‘Poverty Tour’ – and Leonard Peltier

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As summer baked the land, American President Clinton began his poverty tour, the first of his presidency into the poorest pockets of American life, where American dreams sour into grim nightmares.

The president of the wealthiest nation on earth visited the Appalachians, the southern California neighborhood of Watts, and, among other poor and depressed areas, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux Nation.

For most commentators, the Clinton trip was proof of his compassion for the poor, as his tour attracted intense media attention to some of the nation’s poorest communities. For others, it is striking that a man who ran his first presidential campaign using the line, “I feel your pain,” took almost eight years to show that he knew such places as Pine Ridge Reservation, Watts, and the Appalachians even existed.

Perhaps the “pain” he felt was that of the bulls and bears of Wall Street.

Further, other than one day’s media fascination, of what use is the attention of a lame duck president who has less than 20 months in his office left?

What will he do to these depressed and ailing communities of red, black, and poor white folks to bring them up to scale? What does he propose to do that will transform the 75 percent unemployment among the Lakota people on Pine Ridge?

In a word, nothing.

His effort was little more than a White House photo op, and an appeal to U.S. business to exploit the natural and human capital of the areas. But this is also the president of the NAFTA agreement, the international trade pact that opened the door to capital flight south of the border, where labor is cheap and plentiful. Would business choose labor that must be paid minimum wage, or opt for those who will accept only pennies to work?

There is another reason why this a-day-with-the-poor tour was a travesty. The trip to Pine Ridge was made by an American president, and nary a word was said about its most famous former resident, Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier.

Were it not for his fervent supporters, who shouted from the periphery the proud name of one of the Lakotas’ bravest warriors, Leonard Peltier would not have been mentioned.

For Clinton, the president in search of a legacy, a simple signature on a piece of paper setting Peltier free would have been an act that spoke for generations. Instead, ever the politician, he issued words and walked away, ever in search of another handshake, another crowd, and yet another photo op.



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