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Election Night in DC

November 5, 2008

As I got off the metro last night to go into work (apart from my work at FCNL, I also host at Busboys and Poets–one of DC’s hottest bar-restaurant-cafe-bookstore-performance spaces), I turned the corner onto 14th Street NW to find a line that extended almost the full length of the block. I pushed my way forward only to realize that it was the line to get into Busboys to watch the election returns…and we had been at full capacity inside since before 5 pm.

Crowd control would be my job for the night.

The energy of the crowd was electric both inside and out. Almost everyone present was an Obama supporter (as Caroline pointed out, this isn’t much of a surprise as 93% of DC voted for Obama) and each time he won a state cheers and chants of “Yes we can!” or “Obama” echoed inside the building and onto the street. It didn’t matter that it was raining or that it was cold; over a hundred people waited outside in good humor, graciously accepting the hot cider we provided them at sporadic intervals. The owner and managers of the restaurant had wisely placed TV screens in the windows, so even from outside in the line people could keep track of what was going on.

Press from all over the world hustled in and out of the building to capture the moment. From those I remember I talked to The Washington Post, the NY Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, NPR, Channel 9, The Examiner, Caracol from Colombia, and other press from Denmark, Belgium, Ukraine, Spain, and France. Most of those I talked to couldn’t believe the diversity of the crowd that was gathered in one space: from infants and toddlers to elders with canes and wheelchairs, blacks, whites, latinos, asians, foreigners, men, women, gay, straight, trans, and queer. Everyone gathered together to watch a historic moment.

About half-way through the night I made an announcement that as soon as the electoral votes grew close, I would open the doors, shut down food service, and allow the people in the street to fill every possible space inside. When the “Obamater” set up in the restaurant tipped over 230 votes I started letting people in from outside fifteen at a time. I tried to space it out so that the people entering would have time to pack in. But as I started to let the fourth or fifth group in, I saw California come up on the screen and the crowd go mad.

That was it. Barack Obama had just been elected president of the United States.

I quit trying to control the entry of our guests and pushed my way up to the host stand to be with my coworkers. The flood of people coming into the restaurant was so strong that I got pushed up onto a chair along with another person to make space for more people. Every possible piece of floor space and furniture was covered with people. People hugging. People crying. People laughing. People holding each other. People screaming. (To get a taste of the emotions and jubilation that ran through Busboys at that moment, check out the front page of the Washington Post.)

Then the music went on and the celebration began. The original site of the 1968 riots danced rather than looted. People took to the streets parading to the beats of drums rather than raging to the beats of bats against windows and cars. The first African-American president. A president which inspires celebration around the world from Africa to Europe to Asia to South America.

People were in a state of euphoria. People cared. The significance of the living moment was evident on every face. In their screams of victory and in their utter silence as nearly a thousand people shut up to hear John McCain and Barack Obama deliver their final election speeches to the nation.

When we finally got the restaurant put back together around 2 in the morning, I went outside to find that the celebration continued. The streets were barricaded off and nearly impassable due to the massive numbers of people outside. Drum circles and chants, dances on top of bus stops and newspaper stands. It took me almost two hours to make my way back up the eight blocks to my house.

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I come away from last night being most excited by the passions it inspired and the global message it created. The United States people are not okay with the Bush Doctrine: the pre-emptive wars, the unitary executive powers, the “with us or against us,” the torture or rendition. We are not okay with running the White House by just white men.

The struggle for actual change has just begun. But it has begun. And from this day on, we must move forward. We must carry out the change for which we have had the audacity to hope. That is not to say that Obama’s victory is the magical answer. I in fact very much doubt that it is. But it is the people in Busboys and on the streets last night, it is the unprecedented number of people who turned out to vote and worked against voter fraud and intimidation who are.

My hope for Obama, and my excitement to be working on the Hill at this historic moment, is not that he will implement great change, but that he will facilitate the change the people desire.

Which means, by the way, that we have a lot of work to do.

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