Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What a Difference 4 Years Can Make, Let Alone 40

On August 28, 1968, inside of Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois, what took place came to be known as the “Police Riot.” The day began with 10,000 protestors rallying in a youth festival set to coincide with the Democratic National Convention that summer. Different interest groups were there supporting causes like the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Details from the actual day are sketchy at best, but what ensued was a brawl between the mob and the police, tear gas administered into the crowd, and an assault in front of the Hilton Hotel for 17 minutes captured by network television. Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy were still battling to see who would win the nomination for the presidency, in large part because Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in June. The Democratic Party was divided, it was embarrassed, and it was about to be routed three months later in the general election by a former vice president, Richard Nixon.

That year, 1968, was a turbulent year in our nation’s history. There was a lot more bad than good that occurred in the United States. For one, Americans were still thoroughly engaged in the war in Southeast Asia and the Tet Offensive had failed that winter, probably the main reason that LBJ decided not to run as the incumbent in November. Then Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead in a Memphis hotel in April, followed by Robert Kennedy two months later in Los Angeles. Rioting, protests and arrests transpired repeatedly throughout the year. It was a revolutionary time.

Four years ago today, I spent the entire night drinking tea and coffee trying to ward off sleep in order to find out who was going to run the country for the next four years. I was in my dorm in the Netherlands doing a semester abroad and because of the time zone difference I passed out at close to 8AM and they were still counting votes in Ohio. When I woke up and turned on my computer I realized that I was going to have to endure another four years of an imperious, yet bungling Bush administration. I had spent the weeks leading up to the election reassuring my newly-made international friends that Americans couldn’t possibly be naïve enough to reelect an imbecile. But it turned out that I was the naïve one; I was the imbecile.

Two weeks earlier, I was in Brugge visiting the quaint town in the Flemish section of Belgium. I decided to check out one of the local bars and try some of Belgium’s renowned beers. On a line to get some food, a couple of locals heard me speaking English so they decided to initiate a verbal tirade against me including every disparaging word they could think of about George W. Bush, but that was per usual. Then later at the bar, I met an American girl who was visiting Belgium, but was coming from Paris where she had permanently relocated. Curious as to why someone would come to study in France and decide to just stay in the country for good, I inquired as to the reason. She told me that the conservative trend in the US terrified her. I asked her if she would ever consider moving back and she told me that it was looking really bleak, but the only hope for that was the black man running for senator in the state Illinois. She said that if Barack Obama ever wins the presidency, she would come back to this country. I had heard of Obama because of the convention speech. But in my mind, my thought of randomly meeting this girl again in the US went from improbable to non-existent.

Last night, I fell asleep at approximately 10PM when Obama hadn’t clinched the election; however, he had a commanding lead and it was all but a certainty that he would win. I woke up two hours later at midnight to the booming, rhythmic voice of the new president-elect. CNN was broadcasting his victory speech from Grant Park in Chicago, Illinois. His speech was fabulous as always, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the irony that the same exact spot that had seen the riot that ripped apart the Democratic Party 40 years earlier was hosting the victory speech of the most unifying presidential election for Democrats in 32 years. Not since 1976 had a Democrat won more than 50% of the popular vote in the country. This was an outright slaughter. Only 46 years ago, they had to ratify the 24th amendment to the Constitution to prevent states from disenfranchising black Americans and keep them from voting in elections. Now a black American had won the presidency.

I’m not one of the “Yes We Can”, Ra-Ra Obama disciples. I don’t pretend to know that he will just kick his feet back in his chair in the oval office with a White Sox jersey on and his I-pod on shuffle and fix the country’s many distinct crises of today. What I do know is that yesterday’s result was a significant step for racial relations and a quantum leap in the right direction for the future of government in this country. And even if you’re a skeptic like I am, you have to ask yourself this question, what a difference 4 years can make, let alone 40? Four years ago, I barely knew who Obama was. All I thought I knew was that a black man couldn’t win the presidency. Forty years ago, pioneers for peace like Dr. King were being shot in the street. In January, Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States. So how far can we go in the next four years, let alone 40?


1 comment:

Chris Meehan said...

This is great writing and a great point... we need some more from E-Man