I admit there was a part of me that felt reluctant to join the throngs in Grant Park on Election Night. In part this was due to the reactions of many people who heard we had tickets, including some who had tickets themselves. I got stares. The crowd will be too big. I hope it’s safe. I heard there might be a million people down there. It’ll take you hours to get home on the El.
But it was one of those things that I just had to do – without over-analyzing it. Similar to sending the Obama campaign and the DNC more money than we could technically afford over the past year. And a lot like the moment when I was in Michigan in July, alone in the vacation house, and saw the email announcing the Jeff Tweedy/Barack Obama fundraiser and bought those tickets within 30 seconds because there was no way we could not go to that. If I’d paused to wonder if Matt was going to be on a business trip that night or to consider that we might not get a babysitter, I’d have missed out on the tickets. If I’d worried too much about crowd control or the possibility of violence (particularly if our man had lost) on Tuesday night, I’d have missed out on one of the most incredible events of my life and our life as a nation. So I went, and with great enthusiasm. Carpe diem.
I was not able to get to the park until 8pm, later than I’d hoped since the gates were to open at 8:30. As soon as I emerged from the Jackson stop on the Red Line in the Loop, I was impressed by how many people were walking towards Grant Park. I began to pass concession stands that announced Obama’s win on buttons, posters, and t-shirts, hours before CNN called it. I had a lot of hope that he would win, but I was still a bundle of uncertain nerves. I think I will always remember seeing my first “Yes We Did” t-shirt at one vendor’s stand, because the phrase was so incredible and new to me, and it was a shock to see in print before hearing anyone say it. Matt captured the sounds of the pre-rally streets (including an “Obama” chant) on a short audio file, which you can listen to here.
I found Matt right away because he is quite tall and was standing on a statue platform on Congress Avenue near the park entrance. I was thoroughly satisfied with the organization of the event as we passed surprisingly quickly through a few check-points (we were never frisked nor were our bags checked, despite notices posted to the contrary, which really made me wish I’d brought the video camera or our SLR) but we did show ID a couple of times. As we crossed the footbridge into the park, we had a perfect view of the Chicago skyline lit up especially for the event. Office buildings spelled out “USA” or created an American flag with their lights, and the John Hancock building flashed red and blue lights on its spires rather than white lights. It was a beautiful sight, and I turned to take it in behind me a great many times that evening. I was flooded with emotion, feeling that we’d chosen exactly the right city at the right time when we moved here two years ago.
For much of the evening, we watched CNN on an enormous screen just as I’d left Baxter doing back at home. (And let me add that it was difficult to leave the kid behind, when he was literally bouncing off of his beanbag chair, waving his current electoral prediction map, saying things like, “Yeah, we knew McCain would get that state,” “Why are they projections now and not predictions?” and “This is good stuff! Good stuff!” Try tearing yourself away from that.) The show on the big screen was turned off for periods of time so that we could listen to music, and then was back on each time a state was called. The crowd booed the states that went to McCain with frequent screams of, “You can have him!” but went wild each time Obama won another state. People around us were nervously checking their iPhones and Blackberries for online election results at all times. Cameras were flashing non-stop and enormous flood lights blinded our views. We always knew there was a TV camera heading our way when the screams of the crowd drowned out the sound of the music or CNN. We were not above screaming and waving in hopes of being on TV.
We were close in that crowd, and could not move around easily. When I pulled my phone out of my handbag, I elbowed the woman next to me every time because there was simply no room to move. But I loved it because we were surrounded by people of every race and walk of life there in Grant Park; there were two women in burqas, a group of young African-American men, middle-aged white yuppies, and a couple groups of college students close by. On the train ride downtown, people were conversing in so many different languages, but I heard a steady stream of “Obama” the entire ride. It was really beautiful.
What truly stood out for me, however, was the mood of this crowd. From the moment I got off the train until the end of the evening, I was struck by a certain measure of calm around me. There was emotional excitement, sure – tears and cheering and screaming, depending on what was happening at any given moment, but there was something else that was impossible to describe at the time. The next day, Matt and I both came to it on our own, using the same word to describe it: the crowd in Grant Park on Election Night was reverential. Respectful of one another, not pushing to get to the front, not behaving in any way that was rude or dangerous or unpleasant. Even walking through the closed off streets of the Loop at midnight, people walked slowly and even seriously, as if considering the monumental event we had just witnessed. When someone let out a whoop of excitement, many of us answered it loudly and happily before settling back into quiet. In fact, the tone of the crowd mirrored the tone that Barack Obama himself had set for us – the way he ran his campaign, and the serious tone of his acceptance speech that night.
I now have a deeper understanding of the delays in emotional processing the children I work with experience. Yes, I cried quite a bit that night, starting with the “Yes We Did” t-shirt and then again when Obama took Virginia, and certainly culminating with the actual announcement that he had won, and seeing Obama and his gorgeous family appearing on stage still later. But it was like a strange dream, standing for all those hours and being among 100,000 people to see him win the race and then hear him speak so eloquently. Talk about sensory overload. It wasn’t until the next morning that the truly weepy stream of tears started and seemed that they would never stop. Trying to tell the kids about this historic event and their new president was extraordinarily difficult for us both, because our emotions about it were so overwhelming.
Matt has posted a short sound clip here of Kim Stratton’s gorgeous National Anthem in which you can hear the entire audience singing (another “Oh, wow!” moment – just try not to get goosebumps), and tomorrow he will post a clip (on the same blog) from Obama’s speech, recorded live [edited to include the link: here is the Obama speech audio clip]. My photos are here and Matt’s are here. (Quite a few of the photos posted here were taken by Matt.)
There is a great deal more to say about how I feel about this election and its outcome, but there’s been such clamoring for me to get a post up here about the rally that I have to do that first. It was one of the most exciting nights of my life, and I am so grateful to have been there. I hope it serves as a reminder to me to always, always seize the day.