Wednesday, November 05, 2008

resolution revolution

I fell asleep during Barack Obama's victory speech last night. I really wanted to hear it live on television, but I was exhausted. I got up before the sun, shortly after five a.m. on the morning of November 4, 2008. I had to get to the polls of Philadelphia's Ward 11, Division 16 on Venango Avenue in North Philly before they set up the voting machines. I was an official poll watcher for the Barack Obama campaign. I spent the entire day gathering and transmitting names and numbers and watching for possible voter intimidation and suppression. Pennsylvania was a battleground state, and my job was to make sure that if Pennsylvania turned out to be the 2008 version of Florida in 2000, the Obama campaign would have a detailed record of Election Day's voting process at my assigned polling place.

What a day. I met other volunteers - three election observers had come down from New York City just to help. My polling place had two Divisions, and the volunteer from Division 15 was a nice woman. Then there were the people from the Board of Elections who operated the machines and administered the sign in process. By the end of the day, we had broken bread together and we all felt like old friends.

The polling place was in a building where mostly old people live, and most of our voters were old enough to be my grandparents. The oldest voter who came through my Division was 108 years old. We had octogenarians come out of the booth saying that it was the first time they had ever voted. We had baby-faced teenagers voting for the very first time with pride. By seven o'clock in the morning, when the polls opened, we had dozens eagerly waiting to cast their vote. By eight o'clock in the evening, when the polls closed, we had record turnout for the division, and there was a sense of anticipation like no other. As we shut the machines down, the pundits projected Pennsylvania in favor of Senator Obama and the room erupted with joy.

I took two of the out-of-state election observers, a husband and wife team, "home" to their hotel on my way home. One of them was old enough to remember when John F. Kennedy was elected and said that this election reminded him of that victory. We talked about race relations, foreign relations, and by the end of the conversation, I finally allowed myself to speak optimistically about the possibility of Barack Obama being elected. I imagined traveling down to D.C. in January for the inauguration. The Audacity of Hope is infectious. It took me until Election Day to really allow myself to let go of the pessimism about American race relations that kept me from believing that Obama could win. At least I did so long enough to enjoy watching the returns on TV that night. I had lived through the nightmare after the 2000 election, where we didn't know if Bush or Gore had won for several weeks. I still harbor the belief that that election was stolen, and my impression of voting in this country has been marred ever since. I had to really work hard to be encouraged while watching the results.

Sometime around ten o'clock, I called home to Virginia to talk to my parents, who I knew were eagerly anticipating the results. My mother answered the phone saying that she couldn't sleep. She tried, because she was exhausted from not having received a good night's rest the night before. But she just couldn't relax until she knew the Obama had won. Mom told me that she voted early in the morning after waiting in a line for an hour and a half. I thanked her for not giving up and leaving to get to work on time. She assured me that nothing could have made her leave that line. I know, from having lived in Virginia, that their electoral college votes are usually for the Republicans, and my Mom and Dad's votes could possibly have been outnumbered by Republican John McCain devotees' votes. As Mom and I talked, the television stations were saying that Virginia was "too close to call." Suddenly, NBC called Virginia for Obama! I let out a few hollers! My mom hollered - she wept, she laughed, she sighed! I did along with her, as she burst into the bedroom to wake my sleeping Dad, whose glad words I could hear in the background.

And then, shortly after eleven o'clock, I saw it.

CNN called the ENTIRE election for Barack Obama. I interrupted my mom's rejoicing over Virginia to let her know that he won the whole thing. We were almost silent for a moment, as someone being aroused from sleep would be. I felt as if I was being aroused from sleep. I felt like I was dreaming. I asked my mom if this was real. She didn't know what to say, as we watched people of all colors and ages in Chicago, California, New York, and Kenya jumping up and down, crying, and screaming. Then we followed suit. Tired as I was, I was up off the couch, tears streaming down my face, hopping up and down, babbling like a fool! My mom then announced that she'd seen what she'd stayed up for, and it was time to go to bed.

So I called my grandmother. She'll be 75 this weekend. She's kind of a night owl, so I was surprised to find her in bed. But I got to be the first to tell her that Obama won. Her response sobered me up a little: "I believe it... I believe that. Now all we have to do is pray that he stays safe." There is nothing like the words of the elders for providing perspective, is there? I assured her that I would pray, not long before Senator Obama appeared on television to give his victory speech, and I drifted off to a deep and satisfying sleep myself.

But I don't want to end this re-telling of history on that note. I want to talk about what's really important, starting with a young lady who came into my polling place yesterday evening about an hour before the polls closed. She couldn't have been any older than 21 years old, and her friend, who had already voted, drove this young lady to the polls when she said she hadn't voted. Her reason? She had moved, and she didn't register in her new neighborhood. We told her that her vote would have a better chance of being counted if she voted where she had been registered before. But she didn't want to go to her old polling place, even though her friend and other poll workers volunteered to escort her there. She said she would rather stay at our polling place and vote with a provisional ballot, because at her old polling place, there was, "Trouble there. People shooting."

If Senator Obama is right, then "Yes, we can," make it so that young people can vote without fearing for their lives. We, not "someone," not "them," not "the government," but We, The People. On this, the morning after my countrymen surprised me by picking a biracial black man for President, I am thinking about that young lady, who ultimately chose a paper ballot rather than risk her life to elect him by machine. We all should be thinking about her. We all should continue to use the energy, money, and time that we have donated to get Barack Obama elected in order to get the change that he has been promising us. Because it was We, The People who got him elected, not Obama himself - he couldn't have done it without us. And if we can do that, we can do anything. We can change our communities. We can save our children. We can change the world. As long as we remember that November 4, 2008 isn't the end of anything, but rather, the beginning. I am crying silent tears as I am typing this.

What's your Yes We Can resolution? If you don't have one, make one, and keep it. Resolve to continue being the change you want to see in this world. Be specific, and get to work.

Yes We Can!