I can’t think of a better city to have been in last night than Oakland, the city of my birth.
Throughout the day I had tried to keep my mind off the race. I really did expect, despite all evidence to the contrary, for Obama to lose. The same way that African Americans and Palestinians and Chicanos and others have often been right, have often struggled valiantly, often performed brilliantly, and still mostly lost. And anyway, I had an Algebra class with an important review for a very difficult exam later in the week.
I didn’t expect anyone in the class to care. Indeed, I’d had to convince my professor to reschedule the test in the first place, because she had scheduled it for election night. We’d gone back and forth, and I reminded her that working students (and most of us are) might miss out on voting. It was uncomfortable, and no one backed me up. But she relented.
Of course, I was leaving for school just as CNN called the first two states for McCain, and the image of Obama with an electoral score of three to McCain’s eight burning in my brain. But I had to focus: radicals, radicands, quadratic equations and radical expressions, and no room for electoral formulations. And no internet umbilical cord.
Halfway through the class, my professor stopped and grabbed her buzzing phone from her pocket. “I’m sorry, I have to take this, my husband keeps sending me the election results.” That set it off. Everyone in the class grabbed their cellphones, which had apparently been vibrating all the while with electoral map updates. Florida was heading for Obama, Ohio had been called as well. A few people couldn’t handle the joy, and they left before the class was over to celebrate. In the last five minutes of the class, the woman sitting next to me leaned over and said, “Obama is our new president”.
On the way across the campus I was grinning ear to ear. I wasn’t alone. The night was lit with toothy grins. Just about two minutes after the official call, a laughing young African American kid leaned out the window and as our smiles met, he called out to me “Obama won” with a huge smile on his face. I was smiling too, everyone was. I’ve never experienced anything like this, everyone seemed to be feeling the same emotion everywhere. Granted, I was on the UC Berkeley campus, so I was still a bit skeptical of the impact.
As I drove home, I saw people on street corners, with cell phones against their ears just getting the news, and cheering. I passed by the Obama local HQ, and there was a good sized crowd dancing and jumping in the street in front of it. I only had to honk at a pedestrian to elicit a cheer; it was as if language, thought and action been become one, and a honk elicited joy, became a cheer, ignited a leap, opened a smile.
After Kristy and I listened to the acceptance speech, we went to the Smokehouse and had celebratory burgers (I, a double cheeseburger) on a picnic table on Telegraph as one car after another drove past honking and screaming at us. We drove around for the rest of the night with my girlfriend, and we videoed and honked and cheered and hooted and it was one of the most beautiful celebrations of my life.
The staccato trumpet of car horns created an improv music that never ended. One horn, elicited a dozen in return, and when one or another tired, they were replaced by three. Scattered celebratory crowds formed all over downtown. Traffic was at a near stand still heading down broadway to Jack London Square, but we didn’t care. We sat in our car, as people yelled and cheered at us, and we cheered and yelled at them. All people, of every kind and age you could imagine. A white woman came down the street waving a large American flag. It was the first time I saw that flag and did not feel a sinking sensation. It was my flag now, and the flag of all of us in the street.
We celebrated not only only because we had symbolically ended a horrible and horrifying era. Not only because we had moved as one to reject a loathesome discourse and world view that for too long had dominated because of our disillusionment and in our absence of unity. It was not only because we had elected a black man, an Arab man, a transnational man, a vast intellect, a proud scholar, a man unafraid to include gay people in his roll call of the American community during his acceptance speech. We celebrated because WE had done this together. Black, white, brown and everything else that is American, we had elected Obama for ourselves. But more importantly, we had done it for each other. That’s what we were all feeling out there on the streets of Oakland.
I have no delusions, I don’t think those other revelers did either. I know that in the weeks to come, President Obama will let us down in a number of ways. He will most likely capitulate on constitutional issues of privacy and habeus corpus, he will not likely end the war in Iraq very soon, he will most likely dedicate more soldiers to Afghanistan. Among other things. But I will wait for my cynicism to come in its own time. There’s just no trace of it for the moment.
Later on Telegraph, I saw a reveler put a cardboard cut out of Sarah Palin in the street. I thought of of her inflammatory rhetoric–muslim, terrorist, not like us. All the hate filled and dangerous words that she used, not because she believed in them, but because she hoped others would. I pulled a U turn, and drove back after the kid had gotten back on the sidewalk, and in a burst of incredible joy, ran it over. Kristy and I laughed until our stomachs hurt. I turned around and the kid threw it in front of our car so that we could run it over again. We did. And backed up over it too. It was perhaps the single most satisfying moment in the history of anybody or anything.