05 November 2008

Yes We Did!

November 4th came quickly this year, and I am still amazed that a day which had been built up skyscraper-high by a frenzied media still managed to surpass the impossible expectations everyday Americans - and our global neighbors - held for it. I recall my morning commute on the El, fingers smudged with newsprint as they leafed through page after page about Obama & McCain, and paragraphs of optimistic conjecture. Opening train doors let in the atypically warm fall breeze, and more people wearing Obama tee-shirts and buttons would step in the car, glancing around at a sea of red, white, and blue on the cover of the morning news.

Stepping off the train at Merchandise Mart, I felt overcome with exhilarated anxiety of the night to come. The cashier at Jamba Juice declared, "this is gonna be a good day," and I agreed. I had brought a large bag of leftover Halloween candy to get rid of at work, and offered her and her co-worker some after they finished making my Coldbuster, sharing it with the other customers in line. It sounds so corny in hindsight, but I was just feeling the most positive energy and wanted to give it to everyone around me any way I could. Once at the office, I found it hard to concentrate, but my workday went by much quicker than I had anticipated; the election was on everyone's mind. Soon enough, I was on the El to meet my friend Rachel at her work.

Having arrived a little early, I went next door to a small pub for a vodka soda. They had three televisions on with only the audio from CNN broadcast over the speakers, and everyone was glued to the results beginning to roll in. Obama was up by quite a bit already, but I flashed on 2004. Back then, after a disastrous first term which Bush didn't even technically win, I thought Kerry's victory would have been the painfully obvious outcome. I had a 40 ounce of Olde English and was wandering in and out of Olia's room in Williamsburg, periodically checking the poll results on her television. Of course we now know what happened, and the next day, the cover of Britain's Daily Mirror asked "How Can 59,054,087 People Be So Dumb?" But this time, it did feel different: not in the way that some conspiratorial fodder couldn't already be in the works, but that people all around me - those I would have never expected to become so passionate about the election - were suddenly self-appointed spokespeople for Change with a capital 'C'. I was getting text messages, mass emails, and hundreds of political links sent to me, and the suddenly ubiquitous "status messages" on chat servers, Myspace and Facebook were all about Obama.

Maybe that in itself - our continuing interconnectivity with technology and the embrace of omnipresent information - was at the core of making this campaign truly different, but it was so much more than that. One line stuck out to me, no doubt the inspiration for tee-shirts, pins, and blogs: "Give Intelligence A Chance." People really were paying more attention this time, and the transparency of dubious sources like Fox News was increasing, becoming less and less of a threat to the thinking viewer. Of course, I don't want to sit here and argue absolutely truth in journalism, and I clearly have bias; moreso, I felt that average people, the "joe six-packs" and "hockey moms," had so much more to say themselves this time around, and that's what revolution is really about.

When Rachel arrived, we quickly said goodbyes and made our way off for espresso and a ride back downtown to Grant Park. Initially, I had mixed feelings about attending the rally. My penchant for cynicism mixed with a healthy dose of paranoia, and I feared the worst. When you get millions of people in one place supporting a single cause, people against it will want to try anything they can. But, walking off the train among truly excited people that night, I shifted towards a comforting (but altogether dangerous) sense of invincibility. Vendors lined the packed streets, hawking their political paraphernalia with pride. The energy was intense: I couldn't tell if it was the espresso, but I was tingling with anticipation. I also found it amazing that, almost everywhere I looked, there was a smile. People were nearly shoulder to shoulder walking along Congress, but there weren't any complaints or irate comments if someone bumped into another. Instead, a pleasant apology, a grin, and even a high-five with a stranger: "Go Obama!"

We didn't have tickets, so we forged our way towards one of the bright jumbotrons. Helicopters hovered ominously in the sky, but all eyes were on the live footage of CNN as states became either red or blue, accompanied by the image of a smiling McCain (and boos) or Obama (deafening cheers). And the diversity of the people around me was really striking: Black, White, Yellow and Brown people of multiple generations stood eagerly and hopeful, their eyes illuminated in camera flashes like silent lightning before the storm. Some climbed trees to get a better view, and others scampered atop port-a-potties, heads above the veritable sea of onlookers.

Ohio was ours, and the crowd joined in a chant along with CNN's countdown until the west coast's count was announced: "Five, four, three, two, one..." Then, with a swirl of animated stars and "Breaking News," Barack Obama's face came on the screen. I couldn't see the entire screen, and so I asked Rachel if he had just won California. "Zak - he won the entire thing! Barack Obama is president!"

I couldn't believe it. It almost seemed too fast, and my head was spinning. The crowd was going absolutely crazy, waving flags and cameras, hugging strangers, friends, and lovers. And then the paranoia set back in. I thought of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. My heart started to beat a little harder and faster in my chest, and I again looked at the helicopters hanging in the inky darkness. Could they see everything they needed to? And, even if they did, what could they do from so far away? It seemed like forever before Obama walked onto the pier-like platform, but with each of his articulated thoughts, my fear subsided. I thought of Martin Luther King again, but not out of fear. Obama's "Yes we can"s echoed King's "I have a dream," and I felt I was witnessing something even greater than that march on Washington forty-five years ago. I was reminded of a quote from rapper Jay-Z, "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run." And there we were, as a nation on a night the world will remember - finally ready to fly.

To view photos from the rally, check my flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/caural/sets/72157608690721236/