Wednesday, November 5, 2008

11.04.08 at Grant Park

From Amy:

I have never seen such a huge space so completely filled. The entire park was jammed, and it is a big park. There were something like 8 jumbotron screens spread through the unticketed crowd. And thousands of cell phones and digital cameras waving in the air at every second. I only saw one lighter held up, compared to maybe thirty thousand shining cell phones with their flashes going off constantly.

I walked downtown alone around 5pm because the people I knew that were going had tickets and I didn't. There was basically nothing to do but watch CNN en masse for 5 hours, and I kept thinking there would be fights or problems but people were mostly content to just stare at the giant screens and snap pictures and scream their heads off every time they projected a win for Obama. Seriously, when Pennsylvania and Ohio were called, the crowd went insane. I almost left after that because I was worried about getting home. But then they fucking CALLED VIRGINIA and I was like, okay, as soon as polls close in on the west coast there is going to be a concession, so I stayed through Barack's speech.

I have 250 new texts on my phone from last night, sent and received from my parents, Lara, Alissa, you, Gale, the people in the ticketed area, my friend Nina who was sitting at home crying and like most black Chicagoans not really believing it was going to happen. When they called it for Obama she texted me, "I'm so scared." I couldn't text her back (or anyone) for half an hour because literally everyone in the crowd was trying to use their cell phones at once. It was like a weird reverse image of 9/11. Nobody could get through because everyone wanted to get through to everyone else they knew in the world.

One thing I didn't anticipate was a certain shift in the crowd once the election was called. I don't know quite how to put this, but there was literally a collective surge of pride and emotion among the blacks in the crowd. Everyone in the crowd was ecstatic, but in the black spectators it felt like something was unleashed that they had been holding back during the race. In addition to the crying and the hugging and the cheering there were statements like "They better just try to fuck with us now." It wasn't violent, but it was definitely aggressive - like there was a new level of visibility and recognition, like the balance of power in the crowd shifted. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was exhilarating. Instead of melting away racial lines, Obama's victory seemed to make them suddenly visible; young "post-racial" white voters had seemed to own the campaign at the beginning of the evening, but by the end of the night the African-Americans in the crowd had claimed it for their own.

The most exhilarating part of the evening was the mass exodus from the park into downtown after Obama gave his speech. They had corridors marked off downtown with police lines, which could have been extremely unsettling since it was clear they were anticipating possible riots. But everyone was so blissed out - people were literally skipping through the streets. Blacks and whites were sort of marching side by side in the same direction, not really together but headed in the same direction. I heard a white guy comment to his girlfriend in this blissed-out voice, "I guess they just want to keep an eye on us tonight". Later a black woman asked a black policeman standing in the line to pose so she could get a picture of him "on this day", and he broke his stance and mirrored her huge smile back at her. It was like being in a parade. I haven't heard about any problems, which seems like a miracle given how many people were there, and I got home on the blue line around midnight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My election night.

At first we went to one bar in Rice Village - and there was a somber mood and some trivia. The waitress switched the televisions to Fox News, and we decided to move onto another bar across the street. Using the presence of some black people as our guides, we stayed to watch the final results of the election.

The television with CNN competed against a Rockets game . . . and as half of the bar cheered when the Rockets evened out the score against the Celtics, all of a sudden there were whoops from the other side of the bar - Virginia goes to Obama . . . seconds later . . . CNN runs the banner - Obama as President Elect! Cheers erupted! A rush of blood and adrenaline flooded into my head, and everyone leapt to their feet, cheering. But, this being Houston, a few very vocal guys in dress clothes started yelling "Where's my welfare check?" "Spread the beer!" "Socialism!"

After McCain's fittingly honorable concession speech, we left, preferring to hear Obama's remarks at home rather than with the angry and moderately drunk McCain-ites.

To me, the most lasting image was the sight of the thousands (hundreds of thousands) of people gathered at Grant Park. It speaks to a renewed kind of patriotism, a coming-out-of-the-closet for many Americans who have felt the need to change the channel when the President comes on television to speak. It also represented an urban president, facing the skyline of Chicago, a crowd representative of the diversity of the city, the country, the world. The lines in his speech about America's genius - its ability to change and to move - is right out of any American historian's book. David Brooks suggested that this event will be the opening of a new chapter in future U.S. history textbooks, and I think that might be one of my favorite lines of the night. Obama will face challenges, he will disappoint us, he won't be able to make everything right, but the optimism, excitement, and motivation he has brought to politics, to government, and to the idea of service is inspiring and, I think (I hope!) will last beyond this particular moment of historical import.