Rapture in the Streets as Multitudes Cheer Obama and Celebrate America
It felt like Berlin after the Wall was breached. Something that had been imagined for so long, yet seemed impossible, just . . . happened. It felt like the American promise, fulfilled.
At the foot of the Key Bridge just after midnight, hundreds of Georgetown University students poured off the campus. "White House!" they shouted to one another, and off they ran, along M Street NW, down Pennsylvania Avenue, picking up pretty much the entire student body of George Washington University on their way.
I followed the car horns and the kids, and soon we were at the White House gates. There was no event, no speaker, just the triumph of American optimism, the happy counterpoint to the solidarity we felt after the gut punch of 9/11.
"Everybody's here," marveled Tim Nunn, 23, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He was recording the scene on his video camera, narrating as he edged his way through the crowd: "Not just black people, not just white people -- everybody." He'd been at home in Mitchellville, watching the returns on TV, and "I just had to see. This changes the way I look at myself as a black man and what I can accomplish in life."
Through the small hours yesterday, young people who grew up in a world of possibility and older people who lived through too much disappointment tumbled onto the streets of the city, jamming the plaza in front of the White House, releasing balloons that the winds carried straight toward George Bush's bedroom. Up on U Street NW, they gathered by the thousands, strangers exchanging high fives and fist bumps and hugs and a single word that suddenly morphed from an unusual name to a greeting, an exultation: "Obama."
In unison, they chanted, "Yes, we did!" and "President Obama!"
By himself in the massing crowd outside the White House, Jonathan Campbell, 34, took a long pull on a cigar. "I needed to be here to be alone with my thoughts," he said. "Four years ago, after Obama's speech at the Democratic convention, my boss down in Louisiana, a white guy, Republican, told me, 'You know what, I would vote for that guy for president, because he's what America's all about.' America's a place that would take people from any place and accept them if they work hard. As a black man, I believe that, and still, the fact that the First Family is a black family is absolutely flooring to me, because 40 years ago, you and I couldn't have a drink together in the same establishment."
The skies opened, and the pouring rain did nothing to dampen the crowd's joy.
At the north end of Lafayette Square, 35 people jammed up against Daniel Gimbe's taxi. The driver, an Ethiopian immigrant, had pulled Pleasant Cab 19 to the curb to listen to Obama's victory speech, and within seconds, strangers begged him to crank up the radio. Rain pouring down their faces, they pressed up against the cab to hear their next president.
"This is a great country," Gimbe said. "Only in America, right?"
At 14th and U streets NW, the last time this many people came rushing onto the streets was the night Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. On this morning of hope, there were reminders of fear, of a despair that lasted too long. A dozen people told me that if this election had gone the other way, they would have been here too, doing things they were too ashamed to mention.
Back in '68, "they were burning it down," said Kevin Rooney. "My parents told me stories about seeing the smoke rising from right here. Nobody here that night could have imagined this."