June 11, 2015

The controversy surrounding the Obama Presidential Library


obama_jobs_ap_imgIf writing an autobiographical memoir is now de rigeur for any presidential hopeful; establishing a Presidential Library has long been the expected move for a departing incumbent. This May, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama announced the establishment of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, which includes his presidential library, on the south side of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s mayor and former White House chief of staff, declared the library would become “one of the most important cultural jewels in Chicago…a place for children to learn about Chicago’s history and America’s history”.

As the Guardian reported earlier this week, however, it is this history which the residents of the south side of Chicago feel the Presidential Library is ignoring. While “the most famous former community organizer in the world” announced his plans for a $500m presidential library (funded by the Obama Foundation), protesters marched in Washington Park, declaring “No Trauma Center, No Library!”

The issue is this: the Presidential Library will be affiliated with the University of Chicago, and as the library’s academic partner, the university has already helped obtain 11 acres of land for its consecration as well as provided administrative and staff support for the campaign. Yet despite growing need, the University of Chicago has stymied efforts to reopen its level-one trauma center which closed 27 years ago. The university stated expenses as the reason for its reticence.

The need for a trauma center is urgent. The South Side has a long and troubled history with racial tensions and gun violence, and as the Guardian reports, “Chicago has seen a 32% increase in shootings and a 30% increase in homicides in the last year, with an average of more than one gun-related death per day…”.

It is easy to understand the injustice South Side activists feel. The University of Chicago, one of the most important institutions in the city, refuses to look into a critically needed trauma center but readily agrees to go on President Obama’s $500m presidential library campaign. Despite President Obama’s hopeful words that his library would “bring to world to Chicago,” the stark reality is very few presidential libraries actually create significant positive effects for their host community.

Perhaps the underlying issue here is the sense of hypocrisy which come from powerful individuals and institutions who claim goals of revitalization, yet insist on defining that revitalization from outside the communities in question. It’s not that the South Side protesters oppose the building of a library. Libraries are wonderful establishments which can contribute much to a community. They protest the way politics work in our current climate which would make a trauma center less appealing than a Presidential Library, even when the former is direly needed. They protest the lack of say community members had on what was happening in their neighborhood.

Libraries, presidential or not, are ultimately community spaces where people can gather, learn, and discuss ideas. So at the very least, President Obama’s Presidential Library will provide a very beautiful space for that discussion to happen.