Preparations for what some called “Obamapalooza,” Barack Obama’s election night celebration, took more than a week to come together in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park. By the morning of Nov. 4, the stage was set, tents were lifted and Chicago was poised for the tens of thousands of supporters expected to attend.
Vendors lined the streets from Congress to Jackson, Michigan to State yelling sales chants, “Get your Obama T-shirts here, only $10. Buttons, 3 for $10.” Some rally-goers browsed. Others, in the spirit of support, reached into their pockets. Many in the crowds moving towards Grant Park adorned their newly purchased street wears.
Rodney Gratton, a Chicago resident selling shirts with Obama in front of a presidential seal, said he gives half his profits to the Obama campaign. “It’s a good feeling out here, being apart of history, being apart of change,” said Gratton, who carried his merchandise in a duffel bag, as he was told he could not sell along Michigan Avenue.
Outside DePaul University, Christopher Whitaker handed out small slips of paper with reminders to vote. He moved to Chicago from Texas to work on the New Voters Project run by student Public Interest Research Groups. The non-profit focuses on student-led activism and has successfully led the nation’s largest voter registration drive. “This is really the first year both campaigns have targeted the youth vote,” Whitaker said. “If you engage the youth vote, they’ll go out and vote.”
During the 2004 campaign season, the group registered a half-million new voters. Whitaker said he believes, once the numbers are counted, registrations will surpass that.
But many voters didn’t need reminding on this Election Day. Polling places throughout Chicago had lines out the door. The Associated Press reported that an estimated 136.6 million Americans cast ballots, a record-breaking number based on 88 percent of the country’s precincts counted.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) planned to visit all 56 of the polling places in his downtown ward on Election Day. Fioretti met first-time voter Ryan Minges, at the Spertus Institute polling place on Michigan Avenue. Minges, a Columbia College Chicago freshman and Texas native, said he voted for Obama. “I just like how he’s not attacking [John] McCain,” Minges said. “I also like his policies, especially the tax breaks for the middle class.”
University of Illinois at Chicago forensics student Adrienne Irmer came directly to Grant Park from class Tuesday evening. She too voted for Obama in the hopes he will raise funding for education. And hope she was not short of with her “Got Hope” T-shirt. “In the primaries, that was when I really decided who was for us and who was for these times.”
Terms such as “historic” and “relevant” were spoken by the mouths of many walking outside the Grant Park gates. Non-ticket holders came down just to be part of the experience. Others were drawn to downtown Chicago to document the events of the day.
Wendy Maslanka and Joseph Phillips, both recent Columbia College graduates, mingled within the crowds, not so much to show support, but more to realize their independent projects.
Maslanka was working with Carrie Mae Weems, an accomplished photographer, to document Grant Park rally goers through fine-art photography. Maslanka decided to wear her American flag ring for the occasion, which she purchased following 9-11.
Phillips, a broadcast journalist, is in the midst of developing his own non-profit online news entity, SC News Media. He was conducting man-on-the-street interviews to post on YouTube.com. “I do this because I love it,” he said, as he stood, microphone in hand, next to his tripod-mounted camera.
Also navigating his way through the crowds was Ralf Oberti, an international documentary filmmaker and cinematographer who was working on a piece for Al Jazeera English.
Peering out into the large swarms of people, at the line for ticketed rally-goers, at families holding hands and friends dancing and cheering, it seems everyone had a story to tell. Everyone had a reason they were drawn to Grant Park. Everyone, it seems, stood out.
You couldn’t miss the large groups of muscular men in bright orange T-shirts walking down Michigan Avenue – members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which endorsed Obama for President. “Obama represents change for the better,” said Chicago resident and union member Juan Munoz (right) as he stood with fellow union member Ladislao Juarez. “The economy, turn it around, bring it back for the working class.”
Just down the road, another union had representation. But this one is on strike. Unite Here Local 1 has been picketing the Congress Hotel for five years, ever since the company froze wages and cut benefits to its service employees. “I think the people on strike support Obama because he’s been on this picket line twice with us,” said boycott coordinator Jessica Lawlor. “He seems like someone who would support working people.” Obama also promised to return to the union’s picket lines when elected, Lawlor said.
Alex Hunt, a junior at Missouri State University, flew to Chicago to attend the Obama rally as well as draw attention to a cause he supports. Through MSU’s Christian Campus House, a relationship developed with community members from Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. Together they are building a hospital. Women from Guatemala handmade bracelets and necklaces with red, white and blue beads, which Hunt brought to the rally to sell. Their goal is $10,000.
As night fell on Chicago, the energy in Grant Park grew. Rally goers expressed themselves in different ways – some played music, others danced. One man walking with his family while carrying a camcorder, turned the camera on himself and said, “Forty or fifty years from now, I’ll be looking at this tape and say, ‘I was there.'”
Richard Ledford held an anti-war protest sign with members of The World Can’t Wait, a non-profit that does not agree with Obama’s defense plans in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ledford said he chose to support Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney over Obama because, “we need an alternative choice, especially in this city.”
It was about 10 p.m. when word spread through Grant Park like wildfire.
One woman on her cell phone cried out in tears of joy to the masses, “It’s over! It’s over! Barack Obama is President!”
The crowd of a quarter million people erupts in a thunder of cheers. Drivers passing by honk their horns, while passengers hang out car windows. News has reached the rally, Obama will be our next president.
The celebration takes on full force.