Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Promised Land

I was lucky enough to attend the Chicago victory rally for Barack Obama last night. It was an experience I will never forget, and I must admit: I'm still in shock. But I feel it's important for me to record each detail, as I doubt I will experience anything like it in my lifetime.

After riding the El downtown from work, I met Val and a few friends amidst a wide assortment of revelers, including rally-goers, armed policemen with their horses and barricades, and sidewalk salesmen of posters, pins, and other memorabilia. We felt increasingly rushed as the huge crowds moved in waves toward Congress Blvd. and Grant Park. Once we made it to where the crowd had gathered, it took only a few seconds for the crowd to surround us. Once we'd been herded through the first security checkpoint, we had three more ahead of us, including a metal detector.

Once inside Hutchinson Field, we ran until we hit a wall of people, and as the crowd quickly surrounded us we realized that we had found our place for the next few hours. We could barely glimpse the stage and the podium itself, though the huge screen blaring CNN's election coverage and Obama's American flag backdrop were clearly visible.

We watched the election returns as they came in, state by state, sharing elation and disappointment even for states where the outcome was hardly in doubt. There was still a lot of nervousness in the pit of my stomach for the first hour, but once Ohio went for Obama I began to feel that anxiety - which had been there in different concentrations for almost two whole years since Obama announced his presidency in Springfield. Then, when they called Virginia, we all knew it was inevitable, and I saw several people with tears in their eyes as we all screamed. Even then, I felt the whole crowd holding back, unable to truly believe that this was happening until someone confirmed it for us.

And then, as we watched CNN count down the seconds until the polls closed in the western states - California, Oregon, and Washington - everyone began shouting down the seconds as if it was New Year's Eve. And then, at the zero mark, CNN suddenly displayed the words we'd waited so long to hear: "Obama Wins the Presidency." Finally - finally - we let it go, and the cheers erupted from every corner of the field. All seventy thousand of us, and the hundreds of thousands outside Grant Park, cheered for all we were worth. I've never been swept into something the way I was into that joy.

Only a few minutes later, McCain gave his acceptance speech, which was accepted by the crowd with nearly as much respect and courtesy as it was given. Only when Sarah Palin's name was mentioned did the crowd turn ugly - I heard more than a few boos and epithets. I must admit that it was hard for me to resist ridiculing the person who had come to symbolize the newest incarnation of the ignorance, deception, and superficiality of the last eight years - everything that was wrong with our political system. Yet to our relief, she was shunted aside, and McCain's final, sincere concession went along way to helping us forget all the negativity and hostility which had characterized that campaign.

And then we waited, impatiently, as Obama prepared to give his acceptance speech. As efficient as I'd heard the Obama campaign was, it seemed that they'd not expected the election to be called so quickly. Fifteen minutes of pop, rock, and even country songs later (all of which included the words "hope" or "change" somewhere), they brought out representatives for a quick prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the national anthem, which was sung with feeling - if perhaps without a few important words - by a black woman with a powerful voice. After the anthem, we waited through another four songs before the announcer came on for the last time for the President-elect himself, and the crowd let loose for the second time in anticipation of the man we'd all come out there to see.

Our thin view of the podium was immediately obscured by thousands of cameras and camera-phones. Unfortunately for us, one tall fellow with what can only be described as a white man's afro kept dancing back and forth between us and the podium. I managed to keep him in sight for several seconds, but for most of it, we watched the same big screen on which we'd watched the election returns. That was enough, however; the elation of knowing he was just a hundred yards away and speaking was enough. I can barely remember the content of his speech, only that he sounded solemn, clearly already weighed down by the enormous responsibility which had been laid upon him. We cheered as his family came out on stage with the Bidens, we cheered as they waved and vanished behind the stage, and we cheered as we made our way out, holding hands, through the throngs of people. I think I may still be cheering, I'm not entirely sure.

On the way out, we encountered another surreal vision of our town: the abrupt, joyous anarchy of the exodus from Grant Park. People could be found hanging from scaffolding and standing on fountains and monuments, screaming with the adrenaline from watching one's greatest hope become a reality for the first time. It was as if Obama had just taken control of Chicago in a bloodless coup, and the boundless enthusiasm of his revolutionary supporters could be felt in every corner of the city. They were waving their flags for something new, something that many of us had never seen before in our lifetimes: a leader in whom we truly believed.

I went into this event knowing full well that it would likely be a historic moment for me, the city of Chicago, and for my country. Only later, however, at the tail end of what turned out to be a 3am night, did I begin to understand what it meant that I had participated in such an event, and in such a campaign. The bonds which had held me somewhat tenuously to my city and my country and my fellow citizens was reconstituted last night into something much greater: I felt a real kinship for those institutions, and in all the people who believed in the same things that I did.

For those few minutes after the announcement, it was impossible to be cynical. And then, perhaps the most emotional moment of the whole night came for me just after CNN called the election for Obama: David Gergen read a familiar excerpt from Dr. King's "Mountaintop" speech, one of the very last of his speeches before his assassination:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

Last night, all of us in Grant Park saw it, too. I'm sure it looked a bit different to each of us - black or white, old or young, man or woman - but we saw it together in that man. We may never get there, but we're all just a little bit better for having seen it. And no matter what happens during the next four years, it is something that none of us will ever forget.