By: Jake Heller
Sitting on a folding chair in front of her towering, federally-subsidized brick apartment building in Staten Island, Rebecca Jones was holding late afternoon court.
It was a Saturday, and some other Liberian women were carefully packing up their wares at a local market across the street. On either side of 68-year-old Jones were two younger women, also Liberian refugees. Two middle-aged men stood around them, listening, while other men walked by.
These Liberians, who live in the projects of Park Hill, Staten Island, may be poor, but they don’t blame President Barack Obama for America’s economic woes. Instead, they blame Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and the Republican Party.
“[Obama]’s a scapegoat,” Jones cried. “He inherited the problems from Bush.”
“Mr. Bush messed everything up,” agreed Rose Berkley, 54.
“When Clinton left, the economy was in great condition,” explained 20-year-old Abdul Sow. “Then when Bush left, the U.S. was in debt.”
Jones and her companions feel as though the Republican Party has stopped at nothing to stifle Obama’s agenda.
One woman, a 60-year-old home health aide, believes that the Republicans are guilty of an obtuse obstructionism that is fuelled by racism.
“They [the Republicans] don’t like blacks,” she challenged. “I think that racism is going on.”
Jones concurred: “Our people were brought here as slaves. We have no voice at all.” She went on: “Black Americans have no say. They came here working in chains…”
The health aide posited that the legacy of American slavery inhibits blacks from speaking out in America in the same way that the legacy of Liberia’s civil war has stunted the West African nation’s rebuilding process. “Because we are black, we are afraid,” she said.
“In our country,” she continued, referring to Liberia, “we pretend not to see what’s going on.”
The Republic of Liberia was founded in 1847 by ex-American slaves, at the behest of American political leaders. The descendents of these settlers, known as Americo-Liberians, controlled the country’s political apparatus until a 1980 coup saw Sergeant Samuel Doe assume the Presidency.
Doe’s leadership proved erratic, however, and in 1990, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia took over the capital. Years of infighting among rebel groups and the Liberian army consumed the country after Taylor’s coup, but in 1997, he was elected President.
Two years later, President Taylor faced an insurgency himself. The ensuing civil war, which ended with Mr. Taylor’s resignation in 2003, resulted in around 250,000 deaths. Thousands more fled the country, many to New York. In fact, New York City has the largest concentration of Liberians outside of any Liberian city.
In 2005, Liberia established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds inflicted by its violent history. The Liberians on Staten Island contributed their stories to the commission through the Minnesota-based NGO The Advocates for Human Rights.
As a Liberian, Jones’ story is intertwined with the historical hardships of slavery in America. And because history has been so hard on black Americans, Jones says that she is proud to have a black President. She feels that President Obama has done enough for the black community, despite black unemployment sitting at 16.2 percent, 7.1 percent above the national average. “I never knew in my lifetime that I would see a black man in the White House,” she beamed.
Still, the group concentrated at the corner of Sobel Crescent and Bowen Street does not expect that Obama will improve the nation’s welfare anytime soon.
One middle-aged man argued that Obama will never change the political culture in Washington. “A system of any nation remains constant,” he avowed. “It will not change.”
Even though Obama’s campaign slogan was ‘Change We Can Believe In’? “I have news for you,” the man said, “when you campaign, that is totally different.”
Sow, who at 20 is looking to the future, agreed. While he is pleased with Obama’s overall performance in the Oval Office, he has no illusions about his life in Park Hill improving anytime soon on account of the President.
“I don’t see no changes here,” he said.