By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 6, 2008
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."
Charmaine Ravizee has spent the last year imagining it. She's a graduate student at Howard University, writing her dissertation on how Barack Obama uses language to transcend race. Now she watched whites and blacks hug one another, and she offered her conclusions: "It's about brilliance and nurturing. Brilliance is something we can all respect. And we need a nurturing effect right now. We all need to feel included."
These are the people who didn't get it when John McCain made fun of community organizers. They're the Americans who thought politics was about inspiring people to do better, not just about ripping the other guy. Some are naive. Some are putting too much faith in one man. But from Washington to Lincoln to FDR to Kennedy to Reagan, that's what we do. We search for someone to embody and carry our idea of who we are right now. Looks like we've found our symbol.
Drummers kept up a steady beat, and drivers turned their horns into trumpets of revelation. College kids who just hours earlier might have recoiled from the chant shouted "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
Inside Ben's Chili Bowl, the crowd sang along with "My Girl" on the jukebox, changing the lyrics as they went: "What can make me feel this way? O-bama, talkin' 'bout Obama!"
Mike Zigler of Bowie, soaking it all in with LuChiea Grissom and her two boys, told the kids it was time "to thank white America. White America finally stepped up and crossed the bridge. For the first time in my life, I can really believe we can be equal."
"I am an American," Grissom said. "Tonight I've seen it, what that really means. A proud American."
Her son Andre, a student at Phelps Career High School in Northeast Washington, recited King's words from memory, the part about how people would someday be judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
"We're here," his mother said. "We're here."
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