Scenes from Grant Park: an energy not like any seen in politics in a long time
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Wed, 11/05/2008 – 10:24am
a shot of a Jumbotron screen during Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park
all pictures taken by me
Perhaps you watched Barack Obama’s victory speech with a group of friends. Maybe you watched it on the couch downstairs, sitting in your underwear eating a can of baked beans.
Or perhaps you were like me, and you watched it surrounded by thousands of people you hadn’t met. There was the shot of a huge crowd from Times Square in New York City.
But the place to be was Grant Park in Chicago. No, not the soiree behind the fence. I got to live the party that was – outside – surrounded by people having a very good time.
I’ve been in huge crowds before. The July 3 fireworks can draw a million people easily. And this crowd was happier and much better behaved.
The weather was stellar for that time of year, especially in Chicago. You would have the feeling that the crowd would have had just as much fun if it were a typical Chicago November evening. But it was more fun to be out in a light jacket even after the sun went down.
The city worked to evacuate those who were downtown who didn’t want to stay. But for those who remained, it was a chance to revel in the coolness that was the Obama rally crowd.
You could buy buttons and T-shirts galore. Some of the shirts commemorated just being there. Other shirts drew conclusions over how the evening would go.
If the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series, you would have as many people as I saw last night. But the vibe would not have been as cool as what I saw. There was a calm, a peace, people happily celebrating, and just wanting to be there – for history.
And while there were a lot of historical moments last night, being in a crowd such as that was history to me. This wasn’t fireworks or a champion baseball team they were celebrating – they were celebrating hope. And politics. People were gathered – for politics.
There was the family I met early in the evening. The young mother had random strangers (including yours truly) sign her copy of Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope.” She thought it would be wonderful to read years later the comments of those who were there that night.
The family had three young children, 5, 3, and 1. All but the youngest had the Obama O painted on their faces.
There were the two middle-aged African-American women, one from Chicago and one who used to live in Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood and now resides in Memphis. I took a picture of the Chicago woman’s daughters, and we got to talking. After awhile, I had to ask what this night meant to them. The one from Chicago talked about how the Obama campaign convinced her, after many tries, to change from within. But clearly, the night was emotional for her. “If he wins, I’ll cry. If he loses, I’ll cry.”
The Memphis woman was poignant when she said it wasn’t about black or white, it was about insurance, as in health insurance.
There were the two young women from Russia, exchange students who had been in our country for three months. They were carrying small American flags, a gift from someone in the park who was randomly passing out the flags. They asked very good questions about our political process. What a story they could tell back home about our democracy?
The crowd could follow the action, as it were, with huge jumbotron screens scattered throughout the park. The feed from CNN blasted rather loudly.
Even in doing the math, you realized that McCain’s path was difficult if not impossible. When Obama won Iowa sometime in the 9 p.m. CST hour, mathematically it was over. But the crowd waited for the right moment, counting down the last 10 seconds up to 10 p.m. when the West Coast polls would close, and put Obama officially over the top.
They knew this moment was coming for an hour or so, but the initial cry was pure joy not just of one night, or one political season, but joy after eight agonizing years, and a chance of something better, something they were a part of that night.
The victory speech was itself was enthralling, knowing we were close by, even if we could only see it on television. In fact, we could hear the echo of the Obama sound system, seconds after we heard his words on television.
The crowd was so into what was happening that the process of leaving was extremely orderly. It did help that the city closed Michigan Avenue and other streets. I loved walking down Michigan Avenue with thousands of others, and a friend of mine I found in the crowd, walking her bicycle down Michigan Avenue.
What I will ask myself many years from now is whether that spirit of the November 4 night in Grant Park carried on, and whether Obama got the help he needed from the people to make the kind of progress they want. I wanted to capture the spirit of the night, and release it during a tough vote in the House or the Senate for one of the major plans Obama will present before Congress.
In all the years I have followed politics, I have never seen anything like last night. Joy and hope well beyond anything I saw in 1992, the only year where I can compare in my lifetime. The only one we are going to get the things that really need to be done is to harness the energy from that night.
So last night was T-shirts and buttons, joy and energy, celebration and togetherness. On January 20, it needs to be hard work and sweat. At least for one night, there was the hope that the energy needed to truly change things actually existed. Given where politics has been in the last 14 years, this will be a change.