Yes We Can - The Obama Rally

Moving along

Yes, we could, and we did. Go to the Obama election night party, that is. Steve and I live in Chicago, and we’d both donated and volunteered for the Obama campaign. I’d received an invitation to the smaller, more intimate part of the Obama election night rally, which consisted of maybe 200,000 people, as opposed to the larger party across the street. So how could we not go? How could we tell people, yeah, we live there, but we decided to stay home and watch on TV?

By the time we leave for the rally, Georgia has been called for McCain, and Pennsylvania for Obama. A good sign, we are sure, as the most likely path for a McCain win is through Pennsylvania. An even better sign is that they called the state almost as soon as the polls closed. We hop on the L just after polls close in Colorado, New Mexico and other western states, but before the results are announced. There is still no decision in Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida or Ohio.

The state of the race is the same when we arrive at the designated entry spot on Congress about half an hour later, only to find a line three or four deep that sprawls away from the entrance. We head south on Michigan Avenue, searching for the end. We follow the line for blocks and blocks.

“It goes all the way to Hyde Park,” I joke. “We’ll walk down there, then all the way back.”
“By the time we get in,” Steve says, “it will be midnight. He’ll have given his speech, and everyone will be heading home.”

We covet a Blackberry. When the line stretched five and then six blocks, to Roosevelt, we consider giving up on the rally, and crossing Michigan to stop in at one of the bars, to find out the downstream senate and house results. Instead, we pull out our phones, and call everyone one we know, trying to find out if any races have been called.

Approaching the rally

A man walking alongside us hears us.

“He took Ohio,” the man says.

We cheer, elated. Even I, who was still worried after the Pennsylvania victory (couldn’t McCain still win all the toss-ups, and maybe Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada weren’t as solid as we thought?), was relieved. Obama would win, there was no question. And he took the state that was the sorest point of contention in the 2004 election. We pass he news on.

“He took Ohio.” It spreads down the line. “Obama won Ohio.”

We turn down Roosevelt, where the line continues, still with no end in sight. Yes, it was a line with all kinds of people. Young, old, Black, White, Asian. More young than old. You don’t know how lucky you are, I think, looking at all the young faces. You get your inspirational candidate without having to suffer through years of disappointment. I remember the—often mediocre—lost causes of my childhood, youth and middle age: McGovern, Anderson, Carter (the second time), Dukakis, Gore and Kerry. But even so, I am happy for them. Hopefully, this election will be the bedrock of their future involvement. Hopefully, this positive outcome will inspire them to remain active in their local politics, to continue to volunteer and feel they can make a difference.

Everyone is happy, and unfailingly polite. Conversations strike up as we try to get information: “What’s going on in the Georgia senate race?” “Hagan won in North Carolina, Dole is out.” Indiana, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina are still undecided.

We join the line on Roosevelt, and then another path opens to the entrance, and suddenly we move at a crisp pace. It takes only another few minutes or so to reach the entrance; it isn’t yet ten.

The speech begins

Yes, the speech area is as packed as it looked on TV. But we find a spot where we can see the CNN broadcast, and where we can hear the announcers. Behind us, people are still piling in. For November, it is a warm night; you couldn’t have picked better fall weather.

CNN announces Virginia for Obama, and the crowd goes wild. He won Virginia, the capitol of the confederacy, a state that hadn’t gone Democratic since 1964! A few minutes later, the west coast polls close, and pandemonium erupts in the park. I can’t even see the screen; so many arms are raised in the air.

“What are they saying?” I ask Steve.

“Does it matter?” he says.

In quick succession, Obama is announced President elect, and the Indiana results come in. He won Indiana!

McCain gives his concession speech. It is kind and generous and thoughtful. Everyone cheers. It goes a long way toward making up for the anger and hate he provoked while he was running. Why didn’t he run that kind of campaign? He might have had a chance. Some day the reasons for the decisions his campaign made will come out, but we’re not thinking about it now.

They do a sound check.

“Testing, 1. 2. 3. Testing, for Barack Obama, the next president of the United States.”

Yes we did

The crowd goes wild again. I’m glad we decided to go. Somehow it seems right to be celebrating with so many people who have worked toward a common goal, to share this moment with people who have the same pride in having worked for something they believe in, and the same happiness at the outcome.
There is a prayer, the pledge of allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem.

Then Obama speaks. It’s sort of weird, having heard him on TV so many times, it almost seems like another TV event. A lot of the phrases are phrases he’s used before. He makes a lot of the same points. He sounds—and looks—a little tired. His grandmother died within the last 36 hours. There is a sense that some of the sadness from that still hangs on him. But he hits the right points—that we are not Red and Blue States, that: “we are, and always will be, the United States of America.” When he tells the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106 year-old woman, a generation away from slavery, tears well in my eyes. Not only for her journey, but for my own grandmother, 95 years old this December, who also voted for Obama, and who, had she been able to withstand the crowds and the standing, I know would love to be at the rally.

And when he speaks of the progress we’ve already made, I think of a conversation I had on the El with a young African-American woman on Election Day eight years ago. I must have been wearing a button that said I had voted, because she pointed to it, and asked if I’d gone to the polls. I told her I had. I asked her if she had voted.

“What’s the point?” she said. “It doesn’t matter any way. Our votes don’t count. They just decide who’s going to win the election. We don’t have anything to do with it.” The degree of her disenfranchisement, her certainty that her vote couldn’t make a difference, was something I had never encountered before, and couldn’t imagine. As a teenager, I had looked forward to the day I would be able to vote. Even when my candidate doesn’t win, I love the feeling when I go to the voting booth and of participating in something larger than myself.  Even, as happened that year, in 2000, when many people felt their vote did not count, and that the election was, in fact, “decided,” I didn’t feel that my going to the polls had been a waste of time, or that my vote counted for nothing.

I think of that woman, as I had many times in the days leading up to the election. I wonder if she voted this year. I’m pretty sure she did. I wonder if she’s at the rally. I hope she is.

A surreal experience

Leaving the rally, we walk north down Michigan avenue. Groups of people who didn’t attend the rally line the street. They whoop as we come out. Every so often, a spontaneous cheer, like a wave at a ballgame, sweeps through the crowd. Yes, it is all kind of Kumbaya hokey. And yes, tomorrow there is the reality of the enormous challenges facing the country. And tomorrow all those young people will become aware this really isn’t the end, but the beginning. But for now, there is a feeling of euphoria. Of relief. Of pride. We elected a good man, a man who values intelligence, a man who didn’t run on fear and divisiveness. We elected a man who represents the best of our country. We did it. We really did it. We’re seeing history being made.

C. P. Bismark’s San Francisco Experience:

I was drinking wine in Corrie’s apartment and talking about proposition 8 when cheering erupted from the apartment next door and at least ten champagne corks popped in quick succession. My phone started to ring and I grabbed it, flipped it open, didn't even have a chance to say hello before Amanda started to shout: "McCain conceded! McCain conceded! Obama wins--" I answer her with a shriek. Hung up and pumped my fist in the air. Jumped up and down until the refrigerator shook. Had it been any other night, I would have felt sorry for the downstairs neighbors, but this night--the neighbors had something to celebrate with me. Suddenly, the entire nation was rebirthing, re-becoming American. It was live history, a moment that simultaneously existed in the present and in the future looking back towards the past: exactly where were you? How loud did you whoop? The tea water rippled every time I jumped.

Corrie and Annie were less excited. I can't understand why Obama's charisma annoys them. Why CAN'T we be excited about someone because he's a leader and intelligent and magnetic, because he makes us hopeful about our country? Why do they equate hope with false promises and accuse Obama of presenting himself as a second Jesus? So what, people feel deeply about him and, yes, they have faith in him--last I checked, that's what leadership IS--the ability to persuade and inspire trust, not just to think up really really ridiculously good-looking ideas. I agree that the most important part of a democratic election is the ideology each candidate represents, and that's why I voted for Obama--why THEY voted for Obama. But I also KNOW that the way someone communicates an idea is just as important as its substance. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it... Why reject leadership and charisma when they help your cause? And no one in my (albeit short) political memory has had as much charisma as Obama--listening to him you know you're listening to someone who not only has a plan, but who also has a place in history, a say in history, and stake in history.

Corrie, Annie and I decided not be classy. We poured the rest of our wine into a thermos (which I commandeered) and headed toward Union Square. On the way, we stopped at a bar to watch Obama's acceptance speech. We craned to see the screen through a window that looked onto the sidewalk; the bar was too packed to squeeze inside. Even outside, people were clapping and crying and chanting, "yes we can." Strangers weren't so strange. I wanted to join hands with every passer-by who paused to beside us. In fact, I did join hands once we got to Union Square. The Democratic Party set up headquarters in the Westin St. Francis hotel, and people were already starting to line the street outside. Every five seconds, someone would shout "Obama!" and ten more would answer "OBAMA! YEAH!" Traveling towards market, we passed Taquerias blasting mariachi and the Gold Dust Lounge with its doors flung open--no bouncers and no pretension. Inside, I caught a flicker of Grant park on the TV monitors, zooming onto close-ups of sloppy grins doused in tears and skin of all ages, all colors. I high-fived everyone who passed me.  After exchanging "gobamas" and a conciliatory "no on prop 8!" I hit both their hands with one of mine (the other was carrying my fast diminishing supply of wine).

At some point we realized we were walking against the flow--everyone was flocking towards Union Square, back to the Westin St. Francis. And the streets were steadily filling up. Shouts became the indistinguishable roar of thousands. Even the beggars were dancing--they chanted, "change for Obama" and shook their cups in rhythm.

We arrived back at the Westin, crossed the street, and sat on the steps of Union Square. A man began to break dance to Kanye West, slowly and gracefully twisting his body into impossible angles. He had perfect control and perfect pleasure while around him the crowd turned into a mob. We pushed across the street, Corrie and Annie documenting our progress with their cell phones. The cable cars couldn't move; bodies and signs and OBAMA T-shirts gridlocked the limos from the democratic headquarters. During a lull, a woman in a cashmere coat and six pounds of make-up tugged my arm. "It's too quiet," she said, "let's start a chant! Come on girls, do you want to start chanting 'Obama' with me?" She pumped her fist in the arm and I pumped my almost empty thermos and soon we heard our call splashing across the entire street, across thousands of people. Cable cars rang the bells in time to it. Limos honked their horns. A fire truck pushed past, and though people leapt out of its way, they kept hollering "O-BA-MA! NO-ON-8!" and the fire sirens seemed like a beautiful walking bass accompanying jazziest of jazz solos. Steely cable car tracks glowed golden and the skyscrapers, normally slate gray against the fog and the corporate coldness of downtown, even THEY seemed to descend to our level and breathe life into our celebration. "You are American," they reminded us. "You ARE San Franciscan. You ARE a world-class citizen in a world-class city. You are actually-in-reality MAKING HISTORY."

It's not some dream. It's here. It's this moment. It's us, together, joining the international call to a new era: YES WE CAN!

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