I am writing this blog entry on a London-bound plane which has just left Chicago. Ostensibly the election journey is complete, but the last 36 hours have been such a whirlwind that I am not sure I have processed it all. I hear from some Obama supporters that there is a hesitation in their celebrations for fear the results are not really true, that maybe there has been a mistake and that a recall is right around the corner. From others I hear a sense of contemplation as to what this historic outcome will really mean – how will it directly affect their lives, their country, their world?
Malcolm and I were at a polling station in Hamilton County, Ohio at 6:15 on Tuesday morning. The doors had not opened yet and already I would guess there were 60 eager people in the queue/line. Malcolm did some volunteering as an ‘outside inspector’. Because of the controversy surrounding the last two American elections there had been a considerable focus on the whole voting process this year.
The outside inspector’s job was to essentially greet people and make sure they had the right form of identification. As I mentioned in another entry, each state – each county in fact has their own set of rules. Another job of the inspector was to make sure no one was wearing any campaign buttons or t-shirts as these are not allowed within a certain distance from the polling centre. I was very surprised then to find a television right inside the front door loudly broadcasting election news. At least it’s not Fox, Malcolm said! When we asked about this, we were told that officially the lobby, and therefore the TV, was part of the nursing home in which this particular polling centre was housed.
The inspector was also to make sure everything was okay as people exited the polling station – ie did they have any problems operating the voting machines, in this case the optical scans. I felt envious that I had voted by absentee ballot and wasn’t part of the whole collection activity on Tuesday. I had really wanted to test the new technology and be part of waiting in the longest lines in recent history. Yet even if I hadn’t voted by absentee ballot I would not have been allowed to vote in Hamilton County as every voter can only vote in the precinct in which they’ve registered, and I was far away from Queens, New York.
I overheard, and luckily captured on film – one man in the line/queue saying he didn’t vote early specifically so he could be part of the energy on Election Day, which he sensed was going to be historic. ‘It has been 8 long years,’ he told the woman next to him.
Malcolm had a few other volunteer activities lined up for that day – mainly hanging ‘Remember to vote for Obama’ flyers on peoples’ front doors – so we spent a good deal of time in the car. The radio was full of stories of people calling in to report their voting experiences and I found this piece particularly moving.
It seemed that by Election Day, all partisanship disappeared and there was a massive sense of empowerment all around, generated by people’s recognition of the tremendous privilege which is their right to vote. Ironically the large number of people Obama drove to the polls were probably not only just his own supporters, but those Republicans and other McCain supporters who felt they had to do their job in neutralizing the effects of his massive mobilization efforts. I was talking to my friend Liz, who has followed this blog religiously (thanks Liz!), and we both agreed that some of the photographs of the voting queues coming out of America looked more like the photographs we are used to seeing from election days in developing countries.
I certainly have shaken off my political apathy and hope that this surge in political activity from Americans across the country and around the world will continue and that we will find ways to hold our government accountable and make our voices heard.
Malcolm and I left Cincinnati around 12:30 Tuesday afternoon and began our 5 hour drive to Chicago for what we had both hoped would be a massive victory party for Obama. After the 6th or 7th U-turn en route we both officially declared that American roads are more poorly signposted than ones in the UK. Along the way we had brief conversations with people who noticed Malcolm’s Obama t-shirt and my VOTE! t-shirt and Obama sticker.
When we were just outside Chicago, Indiana and Kentucky had closed their polls (they closed at 6 o’clock Eastern Standard Time) and had been called. Obama’s victory seemed to come in no time at all.
Was it at Grant Park that everning that somebody said that this was one of those ‘Where were you when’ moments?
Before Malcolm and I became part of the masses in Grant Park that evening, there was a pit stop at the apartment of my old friends Carina and Steve and their two young boys. Carina later told me the next morning that it was like a whirlwind when Malcolm and I entered, all fired up from our experiences in the ‘battleground’ state of Ohio. Living in Chicago was like living in London, or New York, or San Francisco, because it was rare to find yourself in a crowd which did not support Obama. The race had seemed less tenuous to Carina and Steve. To illustrate just how removed they were from the election mania and anxiety, they said they had only received one ‘robo-call’ – apparently Obama and McCain knew their money would be better spent elsewhere. It was almost like a foregone conclusion Obama would win. Whereas Malcolm and I had encountered some of the 46% of Americans who did not support Obama in our travels and so the race seemed less sure to us.
If you are not American and ever have a chance to be in the States before a general election, go! From what I can tell no other country becomes quite so obsessed come election time. Campaign signs sprout up on front lawns in neighbourhoods across the country, often wedged between extravagant Halloween decorations. And the politics that surround these signs often makes for good comedy. My mother told me the story of her neighbour who had an Obama sign planted in his yard while he was away on vacation as a prank, and I overheard a man at the Bill Clinton rally in Pennsylvania say the only way he could keep people from stealing his Obama signs was by spreading dog poo around its base. There’ll be a deluge of political ads on television and you’ll hear Americans moan about ‘robo calls’. I’ve heard expressions of relief from people who say they can now go to dinner parties again without feeling anxious that they might discover that the political opinions of people they’ve known and loved for years are radically different than their own. Growing up I was told that it was extremely impolite to ask adults who they had voted for and that broaching the topic of politics was a sure-fire way to kill an otherwise enjoyable gathering. It still seems to be a somewhat taboo subject and it has been refreshing on this adventure to find people who were willing to share their political opinions with me – thank you once again to the people who agreed to be interviewed and featured on this blog.
One of the institutions in American society transmitted around the world through our media is the American high school. I can’t recall how many times I’ve had people ask me if my high school was really like the one they had seen on television shows like Beverly Hills 90210. And there are elements of this microcosm of society that is American high school which has resonance in our politics. Political rallies feel like pep rallies held before a school’s football game – everything from the merchandise to the warming up the crowd with ‘theme songs’. In Obama’s case, it was ‘Signed, Sealed, Delievered, I’m Yours’.
I could never find out John McCain’s theme song for his rallies but I was told his equivalent of Obama’s ‘Yes we can’ chant was ‘Drill, Baby, Drill.’
Listen here to the song which I recorded when it was played in Grant Park on Tuesday night.
On this trip I started to think more about why and how America had become so divided along party lines, and about America’s long history of political violence. On the trip I developed my theory – that recent tensions between the parties really started around Clinton’s impeachment, then over the 2000 election, then around the government’s actions following September 11th, and finally around the Iraq war. One question that has intrigued me for some time is why people consider themselves Democrats or Republicans and how these labels are often not translatable in other countries where the political spectrum is often shifted either to the right or left of the country which is the point of reference.
Malcolm and I followed the crowds to Grant Park Election Day night and it was so hard to believe that the election of a president could have brought so many people out to wait for the results to be announced. Malcolm waved his flag that he bought in a Kentucky country store on our Saturday excursion and we were both fielding calls from friends and family. My father texted to congratulate me – ‘my guy had won’, signing off the text ‘God Bless America!’ And my brother sent this message: ‘Words cannot describe. Tell Malcolm ‘mission accomplished.’
Mission accomplished indeed.
Here is my recording of Barack Obama's speech from Grant Park in Chicago on Election night:
Cincinnati voted Democrat for the first time in years proving Malcolm’s and the other volunteers’ efforts certainly made an impact.
There had been two issues that both candidates agreed on this election season – that our country and the world was in crisis and that change was needed.
Taken from John McCain’s very gracious and moving speech, ‘the people have spoken.’
The following morning, after another Big American Breakfast with my friend Carina and her 3 month old son Gabriel we popped into a T-Mobile store so Carina could buy a charger and the woman behind the desk asked if we were exhausted from the night before. It seemed all of Chicago, and perhaps a large portion of America, was nursing a headache of some kind Wednesday morning.
I have been on the road since 23 October, traveling on trains, planes and automobiles. So why stop now?
Soon after landing in London, I’ll be on a train to Sheffield for a documentary film festival. On Saturday night I’ll show 10 minutes of rushes/dailies from what I’ve shot with Malcolm this past week, which I hope to be able to add to the blog soon. Stay tuned as the blog morphs into a new form now that election season has ended.