Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The Day Change Came: My Personal Account of the 2008 Election
The last few days have been some of the most emotional and powerful of my entire life. This Tuesday, the American people overwhelmingly chose Barack Obama to be the next president of the United States of America. After 20 months of organizing, blogging, volunteering, writing, arguing, and following the campaign from day to day, it finally came down to Election Day, and victory was ours.
It has been a long time since we’ve had a satisfactory moment in our presidential politics. After the razor thin margins in the last two elections, it is incredibly satisfying to finally elect a President with a mandate to govern. Make no mistake about it: with Over 360 Electoral Votes, 53% of the popular vote, and strong Congressional majorities in the House and Senate, Barack Obama has been elected with a mandate for real change. It was a remarkable victory, and for me, it felt like a personal triumph.
I love this country and was raised with a fierce patriotism that I preserve to this day. I love America because, despite its flaws, it still represents everything good and just about the modern world. I love it because of the freedom and opportunity it still affords millions of people, the same gifts it so generously bestowed upon my own family. I am a first generation American. My father was born in Havana, and was brought here as a child in the wake of Castro’s communist revolution. My mother’s family fled Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Both sides of my family originated in Eastern Europe. They were all Jews fleeing the oppression and violence of old Europe for the tolerance of America’s shores. In this country, my family found peace, freedom and opportunity. They started successful small businesses, raised families, and eventually sent their children to colleges. My family’s story is the American story. For us, this country was more than just a place to make a living. It was our savior. Without America, I would not be here today. My history would have vanished like the smoke up the chimneys of Hitler’s crematoriums, my very existence smothered in the ashes of Auschwitz or Treblinka. It is for these reasons that I remain devoted to America, to her promise, and to the hope she instills for shackled peoples across the world still yearning to be free.
In the last 8 years, my love for this country has been tested. At times, my ideals and beliefs about this great nation did not reflect her actions on the world stage. In the year 2000, democracy in America was strained almost to the breaking point. I am a Floridian, and remember the pain and disbelief of watching Al Gore win Florida, only to have it taken away, ultimately resulting in the election of George W. Bush in a manner I still believe was illegitimate. Yet I accepted the result, albeit begrudgingly, because I knew that in order for our country to heal, I had to accept the final word of our most sacred institutions (here, the Supreme Court), even if I fundamentally disagreed with their soundness. But it was a bitter pill to swallow, and my beliefs about the fairness, even the legitimacy of American democracy, were shaken.
Then came the intifada in Israel, and the attacks of September 11th. It was 2001, and it was a strange time to be coming of age in America. At 18, as an American Jew, I never felt more threatened and fearful of the world. I remember a speech a Rabbi gave at my school, where he said that as Americans and as Jews, we were the most hated people on earth. It was in this climate of anxiety and fear that I, like so many others, turned to my government for comfort, leadership and answers. Like millions of other Americans, I began flying an American flag from the window of my car, wearing an American flag t-shirt or pin on a frequent basis, and fervently supported our President and our troops as they justly took the fight to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Despite the terror of the times, I still had hope, principally because of the incredible power I witnessed in the unity and resolve of the American people.
But then our President betrayed our good faith and trust. He manipulated our country, using fraudulent intelligence, trumped up claims and fear tactics to take our country to a preemptive war with Iraq. During the run up to the war, I remember debating it with family and friends, remaining skeptical and nervous about this unprecedented use of military power without an imminent threat to our country at hand. “But he has weapons of mass destruction,” countered many family members and friends, “he’s close to getting nuclear weapons that he will use against us.” I felt torn and confused. I opposed the war, but not fully. I was young and naïve, and trusted my president, and when the bombs fell on Baghdad in March 2003, I will admit that I felt a perverse satisfaction despite my own misgivings and fears about the war and what it meant.
What I didn’t know then, but know now all too well, was that I was tricked, lied to and misled. President Bush and his callous Administration used our country’s unity and good faith after September 11th to wage a war that should have never been authorized and never been waged. By the time the primary season rolled out for the 2004 elections, the extent to which I and my fellow citizens had been snookered into this illegitimate war was glaringly obvious to me, and for the first time since the 2000 election, my faith and belief in our country was again tested.
I campaigned vigorously for John Kerry, working with fellow Democrats at Brandeis University as the Vice-President of the College Democrats. Yet on Election Day, the American people did what I saw as the unthinkable: they re-elected George W. Bush to another term in office. I saw it as a stamp of approval of the policies of his administration of his conduct of the war. Never had my feelings for this country fallen so low. I had flown down to Miami for Election Day to work the polls, and when I returned to Brandeis the following morning, I felt like a stone was lodged in my gut. Before going to a full day of classes, I stopped at my dorm room, took a large piece of black duct tape, and placed it over my mouth. After months of vigorous campaigning, advocating for Democrats in Brandeis television, radio, newspapers, and community forums, I never felt more silenced by my government. I wore that tape over my mouth until the end of my last class of the day at 6 pm. I didn’t eat, drink or speak; I couldn’t. It was my way of mourning, of showing my community how I felt without words. In my mind, it is still a powerful memory of how black my feelings for my country were at that low point in my life.
About a week after John Kerry lost the election, some students at Brandeis created a group supporting a little-known politician for president. He had recently made a splash on the national scene with his stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention. His name was Barack Obama. Intrigued by this inspiring black Senator, only the third African-American to serve in the Senate, I saw in this wunderkind a tiny glimpse of hope and progress in the general gloom of the 2004 election. It was only days after George Bush’s victory that I joined the group “Barack Obama for President.”
I won’t say I have the most incredible foresight – after all, I was convinced John Kerry would win the election in 2004. Yet for some unexplained reason, I always believed Barack Obama would win this election. Even when it seemed inevitable that Hillary Clinton would win the primary; even when the pundits said he would never be able to carry states like Florida and Ohio; even when Sarah Palin arrived on the scene, and the poll numbers suddenly put John McCain in the lead. Throughout this entire process, I maintained a belief that America was better than its recent history, and that in its election of its first Black President, a true progressive, an honest and idealistic young man with the passion and integrity to once again lead our country to greatness, it would redeem itself.
The real reason I write this essay, though, is not to rehash all of my feelings and thoughts about the last 8 years, but rather to relate to you my experience on Election Day here in Philadelphia. I am a law student at the University of Pennsylvania, and was told by some people in the campaign that I could best serve on Election Day by acting as an election monitor at the polls, ensuring the integrity of the process, answering voter’s questions, and make sure that every voter had an opportunity to cast their ballot.
As Election Day approached, I prepared for the day’s events. I attended training, studied the materials I was given, and obtained my credentials. The night before the Election, several volunteers and I placed reminders to vote under the doors of every apartment in my condominium – all 33 floors. All this was amidst ferocious studies in law school that I was putting off for the moment for this campaign. My 1L studies aside, absolutely nothing was more important to me than this historic election, and this exciting opportunity for change.
After four hours of deep sleep, I awoke at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day ready to serve. I made my way to a polling place in West Philadelphia, on 47th and Woodland: a recreation center near a local park. When I arrived at 6:45, I was excited to see nearly 50 people already waiting in line to cast their ballots at 7 a.m. People came out to vote early. They were motivated, and wanted to make sure their vote counted. This was an almost entirely African-American district, and it was likely 100% pro-Obama. I spoke to poll workers who had run this precinct in the past. They told me this turnout was absolutely unprecedented.
There was a snafu that morning. One of the four polling machines broke down, causing a huge back-up in the line. As we hurried to fix the issue, no one budged. These voters were resolute, and no malfunctions were going to get in their way. They wouldn’t take paper ballots either. These voters were savvy. They knew the issues that come with provisional and emergency ballots, and they wanted their votes to count. The good news was that by 8:15, everything was fully functional again, and the lines were moving.
We had 5 election monitors at the polling place to which I was assigned, so the official poll worker from the campaign redeployed me to a nearby precinct that lacked any coverage at all. I ended up at a church on 45th and Chester, one of the most Democratic and diverse polling places in the city. I arrived to a line at least 60 people deep. I almost shook with excitement and nearly burst with pride for my country. Here at this polling place, lined up at 8:30 in the morning, were seniors, the middle-aged and young adults; students with their backpacks, nurses in their scrubs; families toting babies, pregnant moms, fathers leading their young sons by the hand; the clearly affluent, and the working class; gays and straights, even a transgendered person; a wide range of ethnicities, not just black and white, but Indian and Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian; at this one polling place in West Philadelphia, it seemed like the entire rainbow of our country was represented. This was surely America at its best.
The story of the masses tells one story about this historic Election, but so do a lot of individuals I met. The first person in line to vote that day was an elderly African-American woman. It was the first time she had ever voted in her life. Indeed, many first time voters exercised their rights that day, and the poll workers engaged in a round of applause after each first time voter cast their very first vote. I was particularly moved by some of the elderly people that came out to vote that day. Three nuns arrived to vote, the oldest moving at a snail’s pace, a fellow nun at each arm. Despite her obvious struggle, she walked forward with a fierce determination, her wooden cross proudly swaying from her neck. In all these people, one detected an electric feeling. Change was in the air. It was palpable.
By noon, over 250 people had voted at this precinct, nearly matching their all time record for votes at that site, ever. By 7:30 pm, over 640 individuals had cast their ballots there, more than doubling the all time record that had been set there in 2004. More than 75% of the voters registered at my precinct voted that day, and if my perceptions are accurate, more than 90% of them voted for Barack Obama. When I finally left the polling place, I was feeling confident. If my polling place was any indication of the turnout we’d have for Barack Obama across the country, we were going to win this election in a walk.
When I arrived at my apartment, I sat down in front of the television with several friends and began watching the results come in. When we took Ohio, I knew the election was over; Barack Obama was going to win. Despite my utter exhaustion, I was suddenly filled with energy. I sprang up from the couch and began jumping up and down and screaming. “He’s done it! We’ve got Ohio! We’re going to win!” I hugged every person in the room. Finally, I settled back down on the couch to await the final announcement.
Slowly, my friends departed from the room. Knowing Obama was essentially the winner, they headed back to their apartments to finish the night. My roommate and I sat together, and then finally the moment came. CNN announced that Barack Obama would become the next President of the United States. My roommate and I congratulated each other and the country, and then he went back to his room to get some work done before the big speech. I sat alone before the television, dumbstruck, and suddenly a flood of emotion overwhelmed me. I crawled up into the fetal position on the couch and began to weep. My tears turned into loud sobbing, and as my chest heaved, I experienced the catharsis for which I had long prayed. Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. I could hardly believe it. I composed myself, and awaited the historic speech that was to come.
Outside my window, in the streets of Philadelphia, the celebration had already begun. After the announcement of Obama’s victory, cars began blaring their horns, and I could hear shouts of joy rising up from the streets. I peered outside my window to see people literally running towards Broad Street at the City’s Center. Then, as some time passed, the sound of a roaring multitude could be perceived from the East, and I knew that thousands were gathering in the shadow of William Penn to celebrate at City Hall.
I wanted to rush out to join them, but I knew that I would not want to miss McCain’s concession speech, and more importantly, Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park. When it finally came time for Obama’s address, my roommate joined me in the living room, and together we sat to watch history unfold. As Obama spoke, a remarkable thing occurred. The rowdy noises that had emanated from the city from the moment Obama was declared victorious suddenly ceased. It was as if the entire city momentarily paused to watch their new president address his people. As we listened to Obama’s magnificent words, we could hear them echoing. I walked to the window, and realized that we were hearing the echo of hundreds of other televisions across the city all tuned to the same speech. I was reminded of FDR’s fireside chats. It is told that when he spoke to the nation, whole communities fell silent, and you could hear the sound of his voice echoing throughout the nation, as the American people sat in attention. The historic parallel was an auspicious beginning of what Obama called “a new dawn of American leadership.”
I have a large old American flag pinned up on my wall in my apartment. It was once my fathers, and for the last six years I have taken it with me everywhere I go. After the speech, I knew I needed to join my fellow citizens celebrating in the streets, and I knew the flag was coming with me. The last time I had worn the flag was in 2004, when I wore it on my back protesting the inauguration of President Bush in Washington DC. At that time, it was a statement of protest and defiance, of claiming my country against those I felt were trying to take it from me. Now, as I carefully tied the flag to a pole, I saw it as a symbol of honor and triumph, and tremendous pride in my country. I carefully placed the pole in a backpack, got onto my bicycle, and began zooming down Market Street towards the city center. As I made my way downtown, the flag flew behind me. Passing cars honked and pedestrians screamed with delight as they saw the stars and stripes fly by. Some reached their hands into the street or out their car windows to give me a high five. Riding with the flag was all exhilaration and delight.
When I reached City Hall, I was confronted with an extraordinary sight. In a line stretching far down Broad Street, thousands of people were literally parading together, heading North towards Temple University. A person with a drum stood at the front of the line, and banged a three tone beat, bap, bap, bap, after which everyone jumped up and screamed in unison, “hey!” Shouts of “Obama!” could be heard, and everywhere you looked, people were holding up signs and posters, and proudly displaying their shirts, buttons, and other campaign gear. The people were in ecstasy, and once again, it was an extremely diverse crowd. I rode up in front of the crowd to great cheers and applause, and drove with them for about a mile up Broad Street. Then I stopped at the front of the parade, turned around, took the flagpole out of my bag, and began waving the flag triumphantly in the air before me, high above my head. The revelers streamed past me, and as they came by, most shouted in approval, many stopping to take my photo, or a photo with me. I was proud, not for myself as an individual, but rather to act as a proxy for my fellow citizen’s patriotism. I waved that flag until every person in the parade had passed by. Even some police officers wanted my picture. One officer whipped out his camera to get a photo, and said, “That’s a true patriot.” At that moment, I felt nothing but love for my country. My heart filled with American pride.
The night ended at the corner of Broad and Chestnut, where at 1:00 am, a large crowd was still cheering, singing and dancing in the streets. Someone had brought out a leftover bag of ticker-tape from the Phillies victory parade, and it glistened in the air around us as people crowded together shouting “Obama! Obama!,” “Yes We Can, Yes We Can!,” and the very appropriate, “Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, he-ey-ey, Goodbye!” to President Bush. There was even a giant group hug. When I made my way into the center of the crowd with my American flag, a great roar came up from the crowd, and suddenly, as if on cue, people began shouting in unison: USA! USA! USA! USA!” It is a cheer that has been recently appropriated by the right wing with its “Country First” sloganeering. To hear this pure expression of love for my country from this group of young Americans, many of them black, I realized more than ever that we, my generation, has helped Barack Obama take back our country.
What we do with this power and great responsibility remains to be seen, at this perilous time in our nation’s history. And yet, like our president-elect, I remain hopeful. In our precious American democracy, we can truly accomplish great things when we come together as a people with a common purpose and dreams. Now let us take the great promise of this historic moment, and use it to become the change we wish to see in the world. Yes We Can.