In The Park With Obama


By late Tuesday afternoon in Chicago, you still couldn’t find a Democrat prepared to call it for Barack. Although many expressed relief that the Republicans had run out of time to alter the course of events, vivid memories of 2004 kept fears of a shock defeat alive.

The rumour of up to a million people attending Grant Park was enough to dissuade many a hardcore Obama supporter. As part of one of the many election night parties in Chicago, a panel of experts at Chicago music venue Schubas (in the standard shape of academics, writers and think tankers) discussed the election and its likely consequences in front of a giant screen. As they weighed the depth of international disaffection with the Bush administration, CNN declared Pennsylvania officially for the Democrats. Leaping, yelling celebration instantly cancelled the discussion.

Although it wasn’t over, it was close enough that many were thinking of a certain park downtown where the man himself would soon appear.

Before leaving we noticed one woman in her 20s. She was quietly crying and shaking her head as she stared at the screen which now announced Obama’s solid and growing lead in Ohio. We went over to assure her that it was indeed real. "I just can’t believe it," she said, and carried on happily crying.

Once the networks had officially projected a Democrat victory, tens of thousands who had sensibly been elsewhere for the election count suddenly needed to be in Grant Park for the acceptance speech, scheduled for 11:00pm.

As the human tide swept through gridlocked traffic towards the park, John McCain’s concession speech sounded from car radios. Fists thrust high in the air, people ran to cars to high-five drivers and men wrapped their arms around unsuspecting women, spinning them in the air. A black woman rising out of a sunroof, her substantial booty just covered by tiny black shorts, was instantly lit by camera flashes as she writhed and wriggled. T-shirt sellers spruiked new "I was there" t-shirts, and sold campaign shirts at two for $5. All verbal communication was drowned in a cacophony of car horns.

This being the 21st Century, teams of officers kept people on the sidewalks, somehow stopping the surge from immobilising traffic altogether. Reaching Grant Park, we were greeted by temporary fences 100 metres outside the ticketed event at the centre, where 65,000 ticketed spots had been claimed within hours of them being announced. City officials corralled supporters into parkland where big screens were waiting, technicians adjusting the volume to boom out over the park.

Across the site’s undulating landscape, late arrivals stuck in the low points struggled for higher ground. Groups clustered beneath the small screens of handheld video-cameras people were using like periscopes, holding them high above their heads to relay the images playing on the jumbo video screens around the park. Above the crowd, these digital eyes shone white like lighters at a rock concert, awaiting Obama’s imminent arrival.

On-screen, shown pressing up against the barricades with the rest of the masses, was Chicago native Oprah Winfrey, clad in a "Hope Won" t-shirt. "What’s she doing in the crowd?" exclaimed one horrified Chicagoan, who thought Oprah deserved better.

When their new president-elect strode to the podium, cheers came with a force. Even people relaying the event on mobile phones were silenced as Obama began to speak.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy — tonight is your answer."

The raucous cheer that erupted from the crowd was equal parts elation and relief — relieved that electoral fraud hadn’t taken this win away, and elated that what had seemed far-fetched just 12 months ago was now reality: America really had an idealistic, intelligent, inspiring black president.

In 1968, the nation had looked on in horror as Grant Park hosted a bloody clash between police and young anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention. This time, 40 years later, with two wars in progress and a shattered financial system, Barack Obama used the midtown park to call on his fellow citizens to help him restore the nation, "the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand".

Then, as he told the story of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old voter from Atlanta, Georgia, the significance of the moment registered. That the rights we now consider inalienable had once seemed impossible. "So tonight, let us ask ourselves, if our children should live to see the next century — if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper — what change will they see? What progress will we have made?"

And with that, America became a nation officially mobilised by hope. From Grant Park the masses gushed up and over bridges and swarmed through Chicago’s Financial District. As the crowd marched between its skyscrapers, periods of relative calm were interrupted by euphoric cheers that would roar from the back, travel like a Mexican wave to the head, and dissipate again.

Anybody with a half-interesting sign, notably the "I Love The Shit Out Of You America" holder, was rushed by punters brandishing digital cameras, cursing low-light capture delays as they were engulfed by the fast moving crowd. The big memento grab was on, and would continue. (The next morning, Chicago newsagents reported customers buying the Chicago Tribune ten copies at a time, and by 1:30pm, any hope of our taking a couple back to Australia was gone.)

Aboard one of the last specially scheduled late trains out of downtown, most looked exhausted, mustering raised but hardly clenched fists at each stop with a chant of "O Ba Ma". Bob, in his late 50s, had been volunteering until that afternoon. He’d been there from the beginning. "Right from the start he had that quality, and I thought we’d seen the end of that with Kennedy."

Bob knocked on doors for months when Obama was running for the Senate in 2004, helping his precinct to a record 86 per cent victory. A psychotherapist, Bob can’t resist the narrative of Obama’s rise, and believes the power of Obama’s story played a significant part in his momentum. "Barack embodied that character of ‘inspirational unifier come to lead the people against new challenges’," Bob reckons. He’s glad that Obama’s sense of humour and obvious emotional attachment to his family distinguish him from the martyr role that has claimed so many of his predecessors.

Bob is one of an army of activists that Obama has enlisted. A feature of his acceptance speech was his call to commit again to "service and sacrifice". By insisting that change has now become possible rather than already accomplished, it felt like he was keeping a lid on the "mission accomplished" sense of euphoria. The celebration was tinged with an awareness of the impending workload. Just for a second, the spectre of actual sacrifice and work had caused the crowd to pause. Then he linked this effort with pride in community, of belonging to one great nation, and the air again pulsed with "Yes we can, yes we can".

It remains to be seen whether this massive team of active supporters will heed the call. It has been Obama’s genius to involve his supporters in a way that now binds them in a promise of ongoing commitment. In this way he has made all future success theirs, as well as any failures.

Emerging from Montrose station into suburban Chicago, we waited at a stop light with a handful of straggling punters. Cycling by, a well-built Asian-American sat up in his seat, raised his arms and called out: "Tomorrow we wake to a brighter day".

It was possibly the only time yet in our lives when this sentiment did not sound trite at all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.