With the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, I have been thinking about exactly what to write and how to commemorate such a historic event. One of my best friends, Eric, sent me this piece that he wrote following his experience of attending Barack's celebratory gathering in Chicago's Grant Park. I have known Eric for over ten years now, and have read much of his writing, but this piece truly captured what I believe being there must have been like. Thanks, Eric, for the guest blogging!
Yes We Did!
On the corner of Madison and Michigan Avenues in downtown Chicago hangs a small brown sign designating historic Route 66. Depending on whether you are travelling east or west, that point is either the beginning or end of a journey.
On the evening of Tuesday, November 4, that point was both for Senator Barack Obama. It was the end of a grueling two-year campaign and the beginning of his tenure as President of the United States. It seems fitting that he began his next journey at the endpoint of the road that connects America – as Obama himself noted, “The road ahead is long.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, I received an electronic ticket for the Democratic party’s Election Night Event in Grant Park – the hottest ticket in town, and perhaps the country, reserved for only 75,000 people. Friends, family, city workers, and police officers all warned us to stay away. The City of Chicago had put together its largest riot response plan ever, not wanting to repeat the missteps of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in the same location.
Standing in line to vote on Election Day, my fiancée Jessica and I debated how the city and the nation would react to the results. We also decided that regardless of the potential for trouble, we wouldn’t miss what we felt was a once in a lifetime chance to be part of history. After all, we lived less than a mile from the rally site and had watched the preparations for weeks. By that point, our hour long wait to vote was over and we cast our ballots with high hopes for the outcome.
The gates to the rally were set to open at 8:30 p.m. so there was no rush to be first in line. But under the pressure of rapidly growing crowds, city officials began letting supporters in around seven. At the same time, east coast results were flooding the newsrooms and it appeared that Illinois’ junior senator was moving full speed ahead toward a win.
We grabbed our coats and headed into the night. With most streets closed to traffic, our neighborhood was eerily quiet For the first four blocks of our walk, we were totally alone. But as we neared Grant Park, we began to hear the roar of the crowd. Michigan Avenue’s triple-wide sidewalks were jammed with supporters, shoulder to shoulder, in front of a backdrop of the city’s iconic skyscrapers draped in red, white, and blue light. The crowd easily surpassed those gathered to gawk at the marathoners a few weeks earlier, with the electric mood resembling a New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
A shortcut through the south end of Grant Park landed us at the event entrance. Under different circumstances, a crowd that dense may have spelled disaster, but not this night. Pressed up against one another like books on a shelf, the crown calmly moved toward the entrance, taking an occasional opportunity to cheer on continuing election results reported from cell phones and Blackberry’s. Four security checks and 30 minutes later we entered Hutchinson Field, the center of worldwide political attention, if only for one evening.
With the crowd pouring onto the field, we wisely chose seats on grassy rise a few feet above the crowd, affording us a unique view of the entire field and a clear sightline to the stage where we hoped our next President would soon appear.
CNN continued to report election results over the next hour, with the crowd wildly cheering each Obama victory. Just after 10 p.m., CNN announced in rapid succession that Obama had taken the electoral vote in Virginia and California, making him the next President of the United States.
Covered in goose bumps, we knew we had made the right choice to attend. We shared the moment intimately with strangers who had travelled from around the country. Blue-collar men and women hugged the likes of Oprah Winfrey. Grandparents explained the social significance and shared high fives with their grandchildren. Whites, African Americans, and every group in between shared in tears of joy at the prospect of a new hope for America.
We watched John McCain’s concession speech intently on the jumbo-trons. While boos could be heard from the Arizona crowd nary a sour word was uttered by the Obama supporters. Kudos to the Chicago crowd for their respect of McCain.
A faceless voice from backstage announced, “Final sound check for the next President of United States,” and the elation started anew. And soon the crowd closely resembled a giant wedding as 75,000 people danced in unison to Stevie Wonder’s Sign, Sealed, Delivered and Sweet Home Chicago.
President Elect Obama and his family’s entrance was met with a welcome for the ages, something Jessica compared to what the coming of the second Messiah might resemble. I put my arms around Jess because she was shivering, but learned that she was shaking from nervous excitement rather than cold. Quite a reaction from someone who had never previously voted or cared to pay attention to politics.
The crowd grew pin-drop silent as the next leader of the free world began his remarks – the droning of the government helicopters overhead was the only background noise. His choice of “Hello Chicago” instead of “Hello United States” made the moment even more personal. As Obama reached his now iconic “yes we can” portion of his remarks, the crowd echoed him, as if in prayer – perhaps one for a better America where all men really are created equal.
The walk home was the exact reverse experience of our trip to the park – the magic of the evening dying into the quiet streets of our nearby neighborhood. By the time we arrived on our block, we were once again alone. As we lay in bed, having just been part of what is destined to be one of the country’s most historic moments, the only reminder of our participation was the sound of the helicopters, still overhead, late, late into the night.