“I wish it was the sixties. I wish I could be happy. I wish, I wish, I wish something would happen.” –The Bends lyrics, Radiohead
Deep down, I have always been a bit envious of the 60's generation. Sure, today we look back at that era more as a caricature rendering of a hippy, free love, drug-addled cultural phenomenon. But they were more than that.
They were a generation whose youth stood up and demanded change. They strove for the ideals of peace, freedom and liberty in all aspects of life—and it was a rough road that brought with it the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr; a destructive Vietnam war, civil rights atrocities and fear mongering politicians.
But as I laid my head on my pillow last night and thought about my evening spent at the Obama Election Rally in Grant Park, I no longer felt envious of that 60’s generation. And, more importantly, the void in my soul made from the departure of that envy was filled with something that I—and likely many of the Gen X and younger crowd—have never felt: proud patriotism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always loved my country. I believe the United States is the greatest nation in the world. But I just never felt that connection with it. To me, it was like a distant second cousin—a shared bloodline, but little beyond that.
But I did feel that connection on November 4th, 2008, when I ventured out to my first ever political rally and witnessed and was part of an event that was truly remarkable in so many ways. To give you a full grasp of what I am talking about, following is a summary of my evening at the Obama Election Rally in Grant Park:
The train ride into the city was quiet. I’d discussed with my girlfriend Dana the news I was hearing about the rally. How people had stood in line for more than 13 hours; how Mayor Daley had basically called in the entire Chicago police force to handle the event; and even how the city had expected one-million people to show up. But as I looked around our nearly empty train car, I began to suspect I’d fallen for a bit of media hype.
But as we began to make stops along the route, the car began filling up. First, a pair of twentysomething males wearing ties. Next, a group of college-aged girls boarded with an introduction to our first “Obama!” cheers of the evening. After that, another college-aged group entered. All who boarded were beaming with excitement and giddy. But this being a work day—thus me already being tired—I attributed it to the typical energetic jubilance of youth.
As we’d exited the train, and worked our way up to street level, we began our walk over to Grant Park. As I looked around, I saw dozens of young Americans walking to the event as well. The mood: determined to get there as soon as possible. But with our first sighting of a police presence—four officers leaning on a parked squad car parked in the middle of Michigan Avenue—came the view of the spectacle of the event. Hundreds of people walking down the same, traffic free street.
Lining the street along the way were dozens upon dozens of vendors selling unofficial Obama merchandise—t-shirts, buttons, hats, rally flags and more. These street vendors were spaced no more than 10 feet from each other and lined our entire quarter-mile walk to the event. Some sold t-shirts that said “Yes We Did,” or “McCain-Palin: Same old Bushshit.” Some sold buttons that said “Obamapalooza.” All made me feel like the event I was to attend was more of a gimmick—a scene, the place to be—more than a potentially historic moment treated with dignity. (I was later proved wrong.)
The pure size and scope of the event wasn’t apparent until we crossed over Michigan Avenue and made our way up to the designated Congress Street entrance. Thousands upon thousands of people were crowding their way in. Think Taste of Chicago times a one hundred. The crowd of people were buzzing and eager, with their digital cameras out snatching images of every little detail signifying the event: a line of police officers on horseback, the lights on a nearby skyscraper lit up to spell out “USA;” a group of people cheering from atop a pillar.
Near a statue, a duo stood wearing masks. One, a pigs mask and another in a skeleton mask and both holding up anti-Republican signs. I’d thought to myself that this was the sort of tasteless and mindless approach that keeps this nation divided—and there’s no room for it. Luckily, they were the only two I saw taking that tack this evening.
We eventually weaved our way through the security lines and made our way to the event grounds. In front of our eyes were a sea of people, thousands deep—lit up by several high-powered floodlights. Dotting the crowd were several American flags waving in the wind. A large jumbotron with CNN tuned in sat in the center of the crowd, with five or so spotlights beaming out at an angle into the night sky.
We made our way into the crowd and got as close as we could to the main stage—which was basically about 800-yards away and out of plain sight—and knew we were going to have to rely on the jumbotron for our glimpse of the stage.
I have been to a number of high-attendance events such as Lollapalooza and sporting events where trekking through a crowd is like fighting an angry mob along the way. Don’t you dare step on somebody’s shoe or there may be fight! How dare you bump into that guy, you deserve an angry look! Or, "I’m pushing you out of my way because I’m more important than you" type of people.
But this crowd was not that way. Bumps were met with smiles. Toe steps met with courtesy. This was a crowd that saw past the minor inconveniences and agreed to just be content. It is something I have never experienced before throughout the many crowd-filled events I’ve attended through the years. It was a truly happy and peaceful event.
As we stood in the crowd, my proud patriotism was born. I was shoulder to shoulder with people whom I didn’t know, but they acted as if we were old friends or part of the family. We talked and shared in conversation. We exchanged smiles. We shared in our anticipation for an announcement. We were courteous, concerned with others in the group and peaceful. We were in this together. We were fellow Americans.
And when the announcement was made that Obama won the election, you could feel in the air a collective release of anxiety and stress from the years of frustration. People cheered, hugged, celebrated or stood in a silent awe to let it all absorb in.
The audience was made up primarily of people 30 or younger. The youth of the nation who decided to stand up—like that generation did 40 years ago—and demand a new way. History may look back at that moment as the time when the first African-American US President was elected. It should be remembered in that way. But this is an election that produced a biggest voter turnout in decades. It’s an election that substantially grew the first-time voter numbers. It’s an election that drew the youth back into the equation.
Well after Obama’s speech as we walked back to the train stop, I saw thousands of young people walking in their own makeshift parades down the center of the streets. Cheering. Clapping. Dancing. Waving to onlookers who viewed through their hotel windows. And, most importantly, filled with an excitement and drive to be a part of this great nation of ours. When we walked down those streets, I saw people who were proud to be Americans. Proud to be true patriots. Focused less on the “win” and more on the beginning of things to come. There were no chants of “we won!” There were chants of “Yes we can!”
And I can’t help but think, someday years down the road, I will look back at that moment and remember those people more than anything else. They are the ones that made all the difference. They are the ones that played the biggest role in looking past barriers from the past and demanding a change for tomorrow. They are the ones who helped make history while at the same time built a bridge of hope to the future.
They are the ones who made me feel for the first time how proud I was of my patriotism—something those storied tales from the 60’s were never able to do. And I feel truly honored to have been one of them.