Friday, November 07, 2008

Barackin' Out

I watched the election night coverage at home with my cousin (and new roommate) Andrew. I'd thought of watching at a bar to enjoy a sense of community on what I thought would be a triumphant night for we liberal Uptowners, but, per usual, my laziness got the better of me. After the networks called it for Obama, there were scattered screams of elation outside. They were few and far between, though, so I didn't think it worth the effort to go in search of a spontaneous shindig. But at midnight there was a louder, longer chorus of exultation. I put on my shoes, socks and jacket to check it out.

I only had to go a block, to 26th and Lyndale, to find the celebration. A few dozen people were standing on the corners with little, circular Obama signs, hootin' and hollerin' to beat the band. They were stereotypical Uptowners, like me, white 20- and 30-something hipsters without a care in the world, at least for a few more hours. A band of remarkably law-abiding celebrants was going around the intersection in an endless loop, always waiting for the walk sign to cross each street. As one guy said, "This is a Minnesota riot." (Of course, that kind of expression will have to be revised in the wake of the RNC.) Later on I learned they'd started off ignoring the traffic lights until the police showed up and told them to behave.

One of my best friends had called me 90 minutes earlier from Cincinnati, tearfully ecstatic over the outcome. I wasn't able to match her emotion, so I called her back from the impromptu street festival to give her a taste of the euphoria washing over Minneapolis, her previous home. She sounded emotionally drained, so I just told her I loved her and left her the rest of the night to come down.

I joined the neverending parade, not quite as jazzed about the election as everyone else seemed to be, but still very grateful for the victory of democracy, colorblindness and the possibility of less corporate control of the government. Each new walk sign was greeted with a cheer, and, even though crossing the street usually isn't a big thrill, the enthusiasm was infectious. I might've walked around that intersection for an hour, but it didn't feel that long.

Whenever monotony set in, people would introduce new elements to the ritual. A few folks began to walk against the current, holding out their hands for high-fives from the main group. The recent high-five renaissance may be growing stale, but this occasion was more than joyous and innocent enough to revive the tiny, childish ecstasy of slappin' five. One crew formed a side-five line, saying "good game" in mock-serious tones. That took me back to my glory days in youth basketball.

While we walked in squares, the crowds on the corners grew as people came out of the C.C. Club and the Bulldog to smoke, watch the festivities and, eventually, join in. A couple guys would often stand in the middle of the street, in flagrant violation of the traffic laws, and exhort the passing cars to honk their support for Obama. That may have been why the police cars kept sidling through the intersection every 15 minutes or so.

On the northeast corner, in front of Treehouse Records appropriately enough, a guy plugged his iPod stereo into an outlet on the exterior wall of the store and held it over his head as it blasted Kanye, OutKast and other toe-tappin' favorites. A dance party slowly grew around him, until the circuitous procession was drawn into a gravity well of block-rockin' beats. Cardboard was then duct-taped to the sidewalk for the small group of dancers brave enough to attempt a little unrehearsed breakin' in front of a large audience.

After the historic, world-changing events of that evening, I shouldn't be ashamed to point out that the best dancer was black, right? Well, he was. He wore a light blue, apparently homemade t-shirt with the sentence "I have a black president!" spelled out in letters of random fabric, like an American Apparel ransom note. He even led a bunch of us crackers in a line dance. Having patronized about three nightclubs in my life, I didn't recognize the dance, but it looked a lot cooler than the Electric Slide.

I wouldn't have to mention the guy's race if the gathering hadn't been almost exclusively white. A few black guys gravitated to the spot after it started jumpin', and some folks who looked like they had close ties to the Horn of Africa showed up later on, but generally speaking this was a collection of young, privileged, white people overjoyed by the election of an African-American president. The fact that a few people of color actually managed to share in the revelry only made the moment sweeter.

A few people I knew showed up, and we exchanged pleasantries. There was a guy offering swigs from his big plastic bottle of vodka. I recognized him from behind the counter at the Loon, where I often heard Immortal Technique boomin' from their mini-boombox as I bought my late-night snacks and wondered if a radical leftist heart was beating just beneath the surface of that dingy convenience store. The intensity of his vocal accompaniment to Rage Against the Machine that night seemed to confirm my suspicions.

The cops parked in the middle of the intersection around 2 a.m. and hauled off two people blocking traffic. Some of the congregants were displeased with the police presence, but cooler heads steered them back to the music and the festivities continued with nary a discouraging word. But no more than 20 minutes later a man got up on a tailgate and started lecturing us on police conduct during the RNC. By then I was getting tired and wasn't interested in "direct action" or whatever angry words he had to share, so I headed home.

That night I'd just wanted to get together with people who believed in the same things I did and celebrate the fact that, for once in a blue moon, the system worked. We'd protested, knocked on doors, donated money, written letters, made phone calls, e-mailed our representatives and generally harassed our government into doing what it's supposed to do, namely, responding to our wishes. And now we had a president who would listen to us. We hoped.

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