October 20, 2008 Orlando, Florida
I try in vain to pinpoint a dominant ethnicity, a task that is usually easily determined. But there is none. I can’t stop smiling. Nobody can. It is the longest, happiest line I’ve ever been in.
Black, white, Latino, Asian, college kids, senior citizens—60,000 strong.
A tall, lanky white dude named Matt with ice blue eyes and a boyish smile keeps us laughing with his mumblings as a security guard postpones our pack from moving forward. Then we look over and Matt has managed to maneuver to the other side of the gate. “Matt, how you gone leave us Matt!” I shout. He raises his palms, shrugs, and smiles.
The 50ish black man to my right is rocking a black t-shirt with the Obama photo from a recent Ebony magazine cover. On it, Obama dons black shades while stepping out of an SUV. So Mike Lowry. So sexy. Bold letters read: MISSION POSSIBLE. “I love that picture!” I tell the man.
“Ay, I ain’t no punk, but Obama is lookin’ good right here!” the man says. We nod in agreement. He looks around at the bottlenecked crowd at the gate and laughs, “I guess I shouldn’t have said that so loud, don’t want to offend nobody.”
My friend Keri, my sister Hope, and I catch up to Matt while embarking the final hurdle, the Secret Service tent. A meaty nonsmiling agent paws through Matt’s blue duffle bag. He fishes out a possible menace to society—a browning pear—and instructs Matt to throw it away.
“How ‘bout I just eat it before going inside,” Matt says biting into the fleshy pear as I set my purse on the table. “How ‘bout you just throw it away before you go inside,” says Sexy Secret Service man.
Once “inside” we are still “outside,” just in front of the Amway Arena in downtown Orlando, Florida. It’s 5 o’clock. We find a sweet spot a school bus length away from the side of the podium. Music blares from the speakers: soul, a little country. My sister and I can’t stop marveling at the incredibly mixed crowd. “Look up there!” I say, pointing to Secret Service agents atop every high building in the immediate vicinity. So that’s how Obama is able to do outside events.
Opening chords from an acoustic guitar vibrate through the crisp fall air. The jumbotron opposite of the stage springs to life. Everyone focuses their attention on the "Yes We Can" music video, which features celebrities singing and speaking the words of a famous Obama speech. The crowd is rapt. During the last 20 seconds of the video when Will.I.am and Common and John Legend begin to chant, so do the thousands around us: "YES. WE. CAN...YES. WE. CAN...YES. WE. CAN..." Fists pump the air. "YES. WE. CAN...YES. WE. CAN..."
I sigh as the song ends too soon. The white woman next to me presses her fingers to her eyes as tears glisten upon her knuckles. She blinkingly opens her eyes to see a young black woman with arms open wide. We embrace. “I’ve never felt passion like this,” Lani Van Petten, 58, says, wiping her reddened cheeks. It is her first political rally, as is mine.
The preshow begins, a trickling of local officials takes the stage for typical call and response (“Hello Orlando!” “You ready for Barack Obama!”). A young sister sings the National Anthem; we do the pledge of allegiance. A local pastor prays…a pleasant surprise. I’m glad that prayer is still okay in public, in America, in 2008, particularly at event of this size and diversity.
A guy from the campaign takes the podium and begins by saying that Floridians are very special, that each of our votes counts for 10 votes in relation to the rest of the country. Never heard it put like that, and it makes sense when I occasionally grasp the logic and numbers associated with delegates and the Electoral College.
People seem to be holding their breaths the ten minutes following the preshow. Senator Bill Nelson finally introduces Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The applause and shouts are deafening. They enter from backstage, smiling and waving.
It’s my first time hearing Clinton in person, second time for Obama. I’m always amazed that people look just as they do on TV; so seeing them in person takes on a surreal quality as if watching them on a giant television screen.
Clinton speaks first, with Obama to her left, his hands clasped in front of him, a brilliant blue sky their backdrop. “A democratic president did it before, and a Democratic president will do it again!” Clinton proclaims as she lays a hand on Obama’s shoulder.
“With your help, America will once again rise from the ashes of the Bushes!” she declares. Man, Hillary knows how to amp up a crowd.
And then the man. Obama mentions the gorgeous weather as he thanks local dignitaries and Hillary before getting into his speech. “We were thrilled yesterday when a great American statesman joined our cause—General Colin Powell,” he says of yesterday’s endorsement.
I analyze the speaking styles of the two senators. Both are engaging. Both are masters of the teleprompter, so much so you forget it’s there. Hillary is pep rally, which is not a diss by any means. Her role today is hype man. Her speech is tailored with a plenty of applause-triggering statements to pump up support for Obama.
Barack, on the other hand, manages to be concrete and laid back at the same time. With sleeves rolled up, he’s so comfortable that he can spit policy one minute and talk about not falling for the GOP “okey doke” the next. He commands the podium with brilliance and candor.
“Raise your hands if you make less than a quarter million dollars a year!” A sea of beige, sand, chocolate, and tan arms hit the sky. “Your taxes will not go up!” Obama cries.
For the next 30 minutes Obama talks policy, McCain, early voting, and coconut cream pie in Georgetown, Ohio, after which, the senators leave the stage and come into the crowd to shake hands.
Since there’s no chance of getting close enough to grasp their fingertips, the next goal is taking pictures on the stage in front of the “CHANGE” banner. Keri and I hesitantly follow my sister as she climbs over a guardrail. We hike up steep steps and arrive on the stage, triumphant.
Hundreds wait along the rail by the tents for another glimpse of Obama. We take turns taking grinning photos, and then turn our attention to the backstage area as well. Maybe he’ll come out and wave again.
I look around at the stragglers, the blazing lights, the bumper-to-bumper traffic that is building in front of the arena. I’m unsettled…but in a good way. It’s like, I don’t want to let go of this very cool moment. I can see it in the others that are just standing, lingering, not doing anything in particular. They, like us, are not ready to relinquish what happened this evening.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of this rally, or probably any of Obama’s rallies, without sounding like a fairy tale; clichés such as “warm” and “fuzzy” come to mind. But the hope here, the inspiration is tangible. It’s similar to the chill one experiences during moving Sunday morning praise. It’s goose bumps, hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff. It’s the kind of stuff that non-Obama supporters sneer at because it just sounds corny.
To some extent, I can’t blame them. There were moments during the rally when I too felt like, this is unbelievable--this unity, this peace, this inspiration. It’s unreal. It’s unprecedented.
And I’m glad to be a part of it.