Sahai, who attended Barack Obama’s November 4 victory rally
MY mom wakes me up and tells me that I will not be going to school today. There are tanks outside our house and there is a coup and curfew in place. It is August 19, 2001, in Moscow, then the capital of the USSR. The coup was short-lived, only three days, and yet it started a transition that was brewing for years. The transition brought a change which is still being felt across all of Europe and the world—the collapse of Communism and the split of the USSR into individual states.
I was fortunate to be part of such a momentous occasion. Who would have thought that in my lifetime I would get to experience another such occasion, although not as dramatic, with tanks and curfews, yet symbolic enough to go down in history books.
Flash forward almost 17 years into the current—present day of November 4, 2008—election day in the US. I started the day by sleeping in. Not a morning person, I decided that I would risk the long voting lines for a few additional hours of sleep. To my surprise, when I finally went to vote at around 9.30 am, there was no line and very few people. I asked the attendants about the lack of voters and was told that I was lucky. Until about 15 minutes ago, it had been a huge mess as everyone wanted to avoid the long lines and, hence, had come in early to vote, only to get stuck in one.
After voting, I took the subway to work. There was already a lot of euphoria at work. Since I live and work in downtown Chicago, everyone was excited about the results and the election. Companies had already been notified to let their employees leave by 3 pm to avoid the crowds of people that were planning to come into the city for the celebration at Grant Park.
Around 4.30 pm, a group of my colleagues decided we would also head out so we could catch some of the buzz. As I was leaving work—I got a call from a friend of mine—who surprised me by saying that he had got a ticket to enter Grant Park and I could be his guest. We decided to meet around 8pm close to the gated entry point. My colleagues made our way towards Grant Park and stopped at a few bars.
All the bars around the area had huge TV screens and were showing updated results of the elections. People would shout as predictions came in for Obama and boo as predictions came in for McCain. We stayed in a bar till about 7:30 pm, eating and drinking and then started walking and making our way towards Grant Park.
Despite the angst of the local public authorities, the streets did not seem to be that crowded (I owe this mostly to Chicago’s amazingly broad streets, something that is not visible when you visit other East Coast cities like Boston or New York).
The buildings in typical Chicago fashion were lit with the words USA. There were a few signs and posters of John McCain and Sarah Palin—poking fun of them. Street vendors from different states wanting to cash in on Obama mania were selling all sorts of Obama memorabilia. Some were passing out free flags and platitudes. News reporters from different countries and channels could be seen everywhere with their cameras and microphones, trying to capture the aura of the night.
I also bumped into an Indian politician from the UK, Sinna Manni. He had come all the way from London to take part in Obama’s victory celebrations.
He talked about how Obama’s win meant so much to him. How when he had lived in the US—coming from an average Indian background and being of colour (dark brown)—he had minimal opportunities to work and had to fight for basic rights. Obama’s victory was retribution for these experiences and a beacon of hope that America has come full circle and is, indeed, a melting pot and the country of opportunity for all.
As we got closer to the entrance at Grant Park, the crowd got thicker. I met up with my friend and stood in line to enter the gated community of 70,000 privileged attendees who were fortunate to get a pass into the section of Grant Park closest to the main stage. We had to get through three levels of security before we finally made it to the huge field.
From a distance we could see the huge TV posting the results and the stage. As we inched ourselves closer, we realised that we had been blocked and could not really make it all the way to the stage. Yet this did not deter people’s enthusiasm, and people took photos, cheered and bounced balls from one place to another.
At random my friend and I would talk to people just excited about being there and being part of the city. A lot of people had come from neighbouring states — Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin—to show their support. Every time the cameras from the TV would focus on the crowd at Grant Park, there would be a huge cheer and waves.
People were on their cell-phones connecting with friends and family. An Indian gentleman was calling all his friends who had voted for McCain, gloating about Obama’s chances of wining. He had on a T-shirt about being part of the change on this momentous day, and I could not resist taking another photo.
Around 10 pm it became apparent that Obama was winning this election and history was in the making. People started cheering, hugging each other and even crying. The next hour dragged on as everyone waited for Obama to come on stage, and when he finally walked up with his wife and kids, people cheered, whistled, hugged and shouted.
In his speech, Obama acknowledged that this victory belonged to the people and it didn’t end at winning an election. He was ready to take on the challenges ahead. Throughout the speech, people chanted and cried. As everyone filtered out of Grant Park, there was a sense of a new beginning.
Superman has always been considered an American cultural icon, and as many of the attendees at Grant Park will attest from their T-shirts, they have spoken, and have given him a real face and name. Barack Obama is the man of tomorrow.
And as I get another health care bill in the mail, that my insurance refuses to pay, and ‘count my blessings’ I can still afford, I hope Obama is more than just a man of words. I hope he really lives up to all the hype generated, and he is the Superman for real change. He has already broken through the race barrier, but I pray that he does not end there. I wish he shatters the old barriers of politics and follows in the footsteps of another American icon — Abraham Lincoln — and creates policies of the people, by the people, for the people.