West Philly for Obama

October 12th, 2008 § 0 comments

Yesterday’s Obama rally in west Philadelphia had me thinking again about the anti-war protest I joined in Washington D.C last March, and the similarities between the experiences suggested that political rallies are akin to political protests. They both extend deep into our public conscious as our democratic right to support or critique the policies our government endorses. Certain rallies, as well as certain protests, stand out in my mind as some of the most over-played media clips, and they define the “public” mood of certain historical events. They are both also surrounded by the myth of an individual’s power when combined into a solitary voice of the masses, a myth carefully maintained through romanticizing the act itself.

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Taking part, however, washes away notions of romantic unison and brings forth the gritty character mobs or masses–in this case an estimated 20,000 supporters–inevitably take on. I recall a story about a town that used its citizens every year to create an aerial image of the American flag. One year the people decided it was not right that only the photographer could see the “real” image, and they demanded to be allowed to leave in groups to view the flag from above. The whole event rapidly fell apart, the people below could not wait their turn and gradually, though they were all running up stairs to view, without them there was no flag to be seen. The soft-spoken, college freshmen who volunteered for yesterday’s event, with their pleading voices telling us not to push and shove, that we would all get to see Barack, reminded me of that kind of futility. They were contrasted sharply by secret service men in suits with earpieces, looking ruthlessly self-important. All in all I was glad the crowd, despite the unprecedented turnout and frustrations, remained peacefully single-minded in their attempt to hear Obama’s speech and catch a glimpse of the man himself, and no fights (that I am aware of) ensued.

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What you miss by simply listening to the speeches are the finer points of who was there and why. Though west Philly appears to be a lower income/working class african american neighborhood, the crowd was still surprisingly diverse. Obama’s speech was good, parts were stock that get pieced into almost every speech I have heard, but the parts that were anecdotal or reactions to the shouts, comments, and temperament of the crowd made these repetitions forgivable. I was surprised by his choice of rhetoric at times, “we can’t screw it up any worse than they did”, and wondered if he was pandering to the crowd. It was interesting that he mentioned McCain very little, rather refreshing really, and it was a much happier crowd with less booing and cursing than the recent republican rallies. Toping it off was a nice Kennedy-like section that called us into action, asking us to “demand” and “stand up” and to take responsibility. Convincing people that we really do make a difference seems like a very clever way of getting people to vote on the 4th.

Standing up on the railing behind me, I searched for Obama on the stage. Somehow we expect “famous” people to be larger than life, and he seemed small and very human, white shirt blending with the white tents behind him. As always the idealist in me fights against the cynic–it might have just been easier to meet Barack back when I voted for him in Illinois. The rally, or rather this moment in history, however, is idealistic. For the first time I would say my generation has good reason to hope for “something different” in the future, although what that is at present is hard to distinguish. I think the optimism I have comes from simply knowing that America, as she has been, is no longer. The rally seemed to combine together a universal hatred of what has come to pass, and a hoping, against disbelief, in this man being president. The cynicism comes out when, looking around, the economic class of the surrounding people becomes so blatantly apparent: the secret service with their the huge SUV’s, the police maintaining order, the white middle class standing patiently and eternally in line, the working class pushing their children forward to see the candidate, and those that can’t vote or won’t vote, and who cannot be quiet for two seconds to listen to Barack Obama. In this light we seemed like mismatched products selected from a variety of department stores, and where our candidate fits in amongst us, became strikingly clear.

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