Wednesday, November 05, 2008

DC on Election Night

Below I've posted a story by a DC friend, Emily Cohen. My experience of last night was fairly similar, save a few details. Emily has managed to capture some of the most beautiful and meaningful elements of what took place in this city on November 4th, 2008. Thank you, Emily. :

This is what democracy looks like

I wish you all could have been in DC last night.

We all witnessed history yesterday, but I wish you all could have been here, so that you could have seen what I saw. Here's what the Post said about it, to be concise: "From outside the White House to U Street, Obama's victory sparked one big street party that had folks honking horns, racing through the streets and chanting across the city, 'Yes We Can, Yes We Can!'"

I started off the night at Red Derby, a neighborhood bar near my house, where the energy of anticipation was intense. It was packed, with one projection of CNN on a wall. The crowd cheered with each state called for Obama, and when Ohio was called it got even better. When the election was called, we were standing on chairs screaming, jumping, and hugging each other. We went outside and for about an hour we cheered with every passing car on 14th street. Almost all of them honked their horns like crazy (DC voted 93% for Obama, but I'd say our honking ratio was more like 95%) while we jumped and cheered and yelled. Even metrobus drivers were honking their horns, and all the passengers were hanging out the windows cheering.

The thing I found remarkable about that first part of the night, and continuously throughout the rest of the night, is that amid shouts of "Yes we can!", "Yes we did!", "Obama!", etc., that we were also singing America the Beautiful and chanting "USA!". Now, the Left is often criticized for being unpatriotic, and frankly, we haven't had much to be patriotic about in the last decade. So I don't think I've ever heard genuine expressions of patriotism like that in liberal crowds in recent years. But last night, without irony (and you know hipsters do everything ironically), we sang songs praising our country because for the first time (for a lot of us) in our lives, our country accomplished something that made us deeply, undeniably, proud.

So at around 12:30, we thought our night was about over. The beer/tequila/whiskey/champagne mixture in my stomach was telling me it was time to go home. I'd taken pictures until my camera ran out of battery (I'll try to post them later). So Brad, our roommate Emily and I headed back to the house. As soon as we got home, though, we heard through text messages that there were masses gathering at the white house. We had to be part of it. So we raced back to 14th street and jumped on the last bus headed downtown.

As we approached U street, we saw a police barricade up ahead, so the bus driver had to divert his route to 13th. But over there it was the same - U street was shut down by the crowds. The sight was unbelievable. Masses of people packing the streets, people hanging out of their cars, honking, cheering, hugging, dancing... From there to the white house it was the same - huge crowds of people, screaming, running, celebrating the night together. I can't begin to describe the feeling it elicited in all of us, to see our whole city erupt physically with the joy we were all feeling.

Forty years ago, there were race riots on these same streets. Literally. In 1968, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, rioting broke out on U street and spread throughout the city. The neighborhood was devastated for decades. And last night, people of every skin color - and I'm talking huge masses of people of every skin color - walked out on these very same streets in the spirit of pure and utter joy. All the way down U street, at the very same intersections where windows were getting smashed and buildings were being burned in 1968. All of us - Black, White, Latino, Indian, and everything else - stood in these exact same places and CELEBRATED together. Perfect strangers, in the middle of the night, hugging each other, lifting each other into the air and screaming "We did it!" Standing on the exact same ground where 40 years ago it was desperate and sad, there were masses of people celebrating how far we've come.

In front of the white house, there were more gathered like a protest rally. People singing the "na na na, goodbye" song to Bush, people chanting "Whose house is this? Obama's house!", people just cheering and hugging and dancing together. I take for granted the fact that I work 2 blocks from the white house and it's lost some of its majesty for me. Standing in that place and expressing anti-Bush spirit is nothing new. But last night I felt something incredibly powerful, that brings me to tears just writing about it, to stand in front of the white house and declare with fellow Americans that we have put a black man in that house.

DC is one of the few (maybe the only) places in the country that has the right mixture of factors to have brought out that kind of fever. First, as I already wrote, in the District of Columbia 93% voted for Obama (That's right, 93%!) so there's not a huge risk of offending McCain supporters by yelling in the streets. Second, obviously, folks tend to be politically aware in this city. Third, DC is a predominantly African-American city (though the black population is declining, the 2007 census showed 55% of DC's population is African-American). DC is small, and although it's been mostly racially segregated by neighborhood, the physical segregation is starting to break down with the gentrification of poor, mostly black neighborhoods. Racial dynamics and gentrification are complicated here, as they are in all redeveloping post-industrial American cities. But the combination of these factors created the perfect storm for this massive eruption of joy to resonate throughout the city.

I live in a historically black, gentrifying, increasingly racially-mixed neighborhood (Columbia Heights/Petworth) in a historically black, gentrifying, increasingly racially-mixed city. Blacks, Whites, Latinos and others occupy the same space in my neighborhood, but we are not yet the same community. With many exceptions, of course, social groups in my neighborhood tend to be fairly homogeneous by race. One quick example: recently, there was a double homicide/robbery at an illegal Latino-run brothel and gambling house around the corner from my house. I didn't even know the place was there, but that's not surprising because I'd be one of the last people to know something like that. A friend of mine, an older black man who grew up in the neighborhood and hangs out at Red Derby, said something about the murder like "damn, I know a lot of Latins in this neighborhood and nobody told me about that place. I would've hung out there." What that said to me is that we're only letting each other into our respective lives so much. We might be friendly in passing on the street (and often times we're not), we might chat at coffee shops and bars (and many times we don't), we might know our neighbors, but when it comes down to who we feel closest to and who we consider "our people", our community is still as segregated as we've always been in this city.

So to see what I saw last night - all of us rallying together to celebrate the victory of a man we all believe in, and to celebrate the fact that we now live in a country that elects itself a black president - elicited a feeling of community I have never felt before in my life.

One of my favorite moments of the night was when we were walking down K street, towards the white house at about 1:30 AM. A black woman was standing on the sidewalk, holding a bunch of ballons and talking on the phone. Just as she was saying into the phone "I've never seen so many white people...", Brad ran up and gave her a huge hug. She laughed, as I ran up too, hugging her and yelling YES WE DID! She pointed the phone towards me and said "Here! Tell my mom!" so I yelled into the phone "We did it!" The woman put the phone back up to her ear and said "And mom, that was a white girl!"

Don't get me wrong. We still have a long way to go before we have true equity in this country. But I believe last night in downtown DC was one of the most beautiful moments in our generation's history and I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed it.

Videos of the night:


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