The Obama Express - 1/17/2009
War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore
19 degrees Fahrenheit
I have never been in such a joyous, beautiful crowd in all my life…marches, protests, music festivals…never experienced anything like the energy in this crowd. Joy is not a vibe that is easily faked, especially in a crowd of 40,000 people. The joy was palpable. And for Baltimore , a city hard to accuse of pretense, the usual rawness was replaced with an infectious up swell of hope and happiness. Hell, I was even dancing to country music, celebrating how “we dream in red, white, and blue…”
The crowd looked very much like Baltimore—predominantly African-American, but completely diverse, with whites, Asians, Latinos, young and old, children, old folks, hipsters, hippies, religious fanatics, PETA pamphleteers, and entrepreneurs selling everything Obama (including hats, buttons, shirts, and, my vote for most creative, Obama cologne, so we could smell like the new prez—no joke!) We got in line (or on line for you Jersey folks!) around 11:20 AM at Calvert & Lexington. We met some lovely women in line, and did some great people watching, until we went through the metal detectors before 1:30 PM . I have to say, I was totally impressed with how organized and how smooth this whole process was: the security, the volunteers, the attendees, were alert, calm, and perfectly helpful. There didn’t appear to be any glitches (although we did see someone turned away at security for having a backpack). A secret service officer from Minnesota checked us in (even she thought it was cold) and there were ample metal detectors and scanners for our bags (yes, this was high tech!). If this is any indication of how Tuesday will go, I am surprisingly optimistic, although I realize that 40,000 is not 3 million.
Once we were in front of the War Memorial, probably 50-75 feet away from the podium where Obama would be speaking, we chatted with folks around us, many from the city, but some from DC. Kathy struck up a conversation with the woman in front of her about Turkey and the divided Cypriot city of Nicosia , and finally the recent turmoil in Gaza . The conversation moved to lighter topics, as we commiserated about the cold, the amazement of this election, and where the sharp shooters were on the rooftops. In a city that understandably has a contentious relationship with its police force, it was interesting to note that all of us felt much better knowing our man Barack was so well protected.
Staying warm was a greater challenge than any of us had anticipated, especially since we counted on the body heat generated by the crowd to warm us. But regardless of how close we got to each other (and believe me, we couldn’t raise our arms we were so close), the wind still cut right through us, and I mostly couldn’t feel my limbs. A nice older woman next to us proceeded to rub my mom’s hands, shoulders, and arms in an attempt to warm her, as if my mom was a little old woman and she wasn’t (they both were, in fact). She was decked out in a purple scarf, several layers of coats and gloves, and my mom helped her zip her coat. It was those kinds of simple, very human interactions that made the day so special. How often do we embrace perfect strangers?
Kath and I had toyed with the idea of going to the Creative Alliance’s “Obama’s IPOD dance party” on Saturday night, but aside from being way too tired, we’d already done enough dancing while waiting for Obama. That’s right—dancing. They played music on the loudspeakers all day— from Will.i.am’s “It’s a New Day” to U2’s “Beautiful Day” to some hip hop I didn’t recognize but everyone around us seemed to know. Crowd favorites were “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Higher and Higher.” In the section in front of us several young women appeared to have organized a line dance to “Respect.” And it was impossible not to dance—not only because of the cold, but because we were in such close proximity that if one person swayed or shook their hips, well it was a chain reaction.
A personal trainer for the Ravens came out to literally warm up the crowd (twice) by leading us in calisthenics, and reminding us “ Baltimore —drink water, eat vegetables, stay alive.” It was quite remarkable and amusing that the majority of us obeyed his instructions to “work those abs” and “raise the roof.” Jumping rope proved more difficult since we didn’t have the space, but simply jumping helped me regain feeling in my toes.
The official program began sometime after 3/3:30, when the Morgan State University Choir took the stage. I had seen them perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this year (Bernstein’s Mass—it was awesome!), but nothing prepared me for this. Not only were their voices amazing, but the energy of the crowd— the majority of whom appeared to know these spirituals and were singing along—had shifted; no longer were we the increasingly impatient citizens making the best of the cold while waiting for our new leader, we had became this huge, connected group of people, singing, dancing, holding hands. We were moved by these words of struggle, joy, hope, humility. It was then that I realized that I could never even come close to imagining what this moment must be like for the older African-American woman holding my hand. It was enough to make a believer out of a non-believer like me.
“I bet you haven’t been able to see anything down there except for the back of people’s coats. How tall are you, anyway, 5 foot 2?” asked a very big man in front of me. When I replied that I was actually 4’10, he whisked me away from my companions to stand in front of him and get a much better view of the choir, next to a sweet older woman who proceeded to protectively place her arm around my shoulder. I overheard a woman behind us remark “you’re a good brother” to the man, a perfect stranger, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see. The day was filled with such moments of goodwill.
Elijah Cummings and Martin O’Malley made brief remarks, but I really couldn’t hear them. The crowd was restless for Obama and had little interest in what these gentlemen had to say. Sheila Dixon was notably absent, as was appropriate. If you pocket money intended for the poor you really shouldn’t have the privilege of introducing Barack Obama.
Every time the disembodied female voice announced “Ladies and gentleman……please welcome…” the crowd held bated breath which turned to utter disappointment when it wasn’t Barack. So we almost missed it when we heard “Ladies and Gentleman……… Dr. (groans from the crowd)…Jill and Vice President Elect Joe Biden! (followed by rapturous applause). How can you not love Joe Biden, he’s from Greenridge ( Scranton ), and Jill was lovely in her flowing purple scarf. Then we heard “Michelle and President Elect Barack Obama!” I couldn’t see or hear a thing from the stage, for this crowd of 40,000 became electric—screaming, shouting, cheering, waving, jumping up and down, embracing their companions & neighbors, caressing their children, crying. (And I thought the crowd was joyous during the Morgan State University Choir—clearly I had never experienced true jubilance before). Barack made his way to the podium, and I was very pleased to see him wearing gloves. Michelle and the Bidens sat behind him while he spoke. I have to say that Michelle is a beautiful woman—all poise, confidence, and tall, quite stylish in her purple gloves and high boots. I know there’s more to her than that, but what a pleasure it is to have a cool first lady, too!
The teleprompters unfortunately blocked Obama’s face while he spoke, but we could see him on his way to and from the podium. The previously raucous crowd was completely silent. All you could hear was Barack’s voice and the click of digital cameras. We were captivated. Obama spoke carefully and passionately of the struggles past and the struggles ahead, the importance of Baltimore (historically and currently), the importance of unity, hard work, commitment. His remarks were brief (~15 minutes), but he stayed and worked the crowd— shaking hands, posing for pictures, waving to those of us too far away to get close— “I love you back” he shouted. And then he left, leaving the crowd cheering, dancing, shouting “O—Bam—a…!” We kissed and hugged each other and our neighbors in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like it, the true melting pot of America embracing one another in celebration.
It was those moments of human connection that made standing 6 hours in the freezing cold worth it. As Obama said himself, this was never simply about him. Yesterday it was about the experience—being in this joyous, hopeful crowd in my city. A city that he didn’t have to come to either time (he was always guaranteed our vote), but that was symbolically important for him to visit. His visit doesn’t erase the history of slavery, or the racism that still exits, or the 250 murders of young black men in Baltimore in 2008— this election doesn’t change national or global inequities overnight. But it’s not just the historic nature of this election that has everyone excited—it’s the man himself, an unflappable pragmatist, who is exactly what we need right now. It’s such a joy to have hope in one’s leaders again. More than that, it’s a joy to have hope in one’s neighbors again.
I get impatient with friends on the far left who accuse me of drinking the Obama Kool-Aid. No one expects the man to walk on water (except maybe my mother). I think equating hope with naiveté is not only dangerous, but plain wrong. The best McCain bumper sticker I saw said “Nope”—with the Obama symbol being the o. What a huge miscalculation that was, running on the platform of “no hope”! If there’s one thing I’ve learned working at the Kennedy Krieger, it’s that hope is never false. Hope is what gets people out of bed in the morning even if they’re trapped in a completely broken body. There’s nothing naïve or clichéd about that. And it certainly doesn’t mean we don’t expect real change in this country. Obama’s going to piss people off (he already has with Rick Warren— hell folks even got mad about hottie Rahm Emmanuel). I’m sure he’s going to piss ME off. I disagree with the notion that just because we’re hopeful somehow we’ll give him a free pass. On the contrary, as Cornel West said during the election, once he’s elected we’ll be watching carefully to make sure he does what we’ve elected him to.
Over the last 8 years, many of us not only felt beaten down, but horrified and embarrassed by things done in our name. And, most significantly, we felt powerless. I yelled an expletive out loud in a completely silent movie theater while watching Fahrenheit 9/11. I never want to feel that hopeless again. The day was also a reminder of the things we have done right. Our union is imperfect, as Barack says, but it works nonetheless. World reaction to this election was telling—our European neighbors who we find so progressive have been forced to do some soul searching. Could they, too, anytime soon elect a person of color as their leader? The answer appears to be a resounding no. Hell, France has something like 1 person of color in their entire Parliament. And while those in Obama , Japan may be celebrating the election of Barack, the Japanese would rather create robots than open up their borders to immigrants (and they treat their own buraku as second class citizens). We are a very flawed nation, and atonement for Gitmo and Iraq will not come quickly or easily. But yesterday we literally were those tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Listening to the soloist from the Morgan State University Choir sing the national anthem, I felt a completely foreign feeling. Pride.
It was a gift.