This week I became a grassroots follower of Obama. I haven’t been politically active since 1972 when I went door-to-door doing voter registration with a very pregnant belly for George McGovern. I haven’t been ‘fired up and ready to go’ since then, although truth be told, I loved Bill Clinton for his brains and audacity.
But something different is happening now, and it seems it took a community organizer to do it. The difference is palpable, and the victory-to-come seems obvious, now that I’m an ‘insider’.
Last Thursday, the day of the Austin debates between Obama and Clinton, I joined a group to welcome Obama to the debates. We started out at Scholz Garden – a typical Austin, retro-hippy type of beer joint and garden – where we met each other and orginized before our parade. Old and young, white and black, well-dressed and not. We all spoke and laughed and shared. It was more than just a gathering where folks stayed with ‘their own kind’ and went to the parade together. It was young and old seeking each other out. It was white and black and hispanic asking each other life questions, as if for the first time we had permission to speak, and our curiousity finally had a place to find answers. One of the folks there was a journalist often seen as a pundit on the news shows. He said he’d met Obama eight years before, and knew at the moment he met him that Obama would be president one day. One of the folks was an old, wobbly, large black woman who couldn’t walk, but wanted to come cheer us on. Six of the folks were young college kids – white, black, and hispanic – who were excited to be in the middle of something they believed in. It was heady, and exciting.
And then the band came. About 120 young folks from a local high school, all dressed in blue and white, with big, loud drums and tubas, short-skirted majorettes, and audaciously loud beats. They led us through the streets, as we carried paper plates – hand-painted by local passers-by of all ages earlier in the day with the red and blue flag-like logo that Obama uses. Indeed, there were no “Change we can believe in” signs til later on – and they came to us, literally, hot off the press. Still warm…
We eventually got to the street where we were to wait for the candidates as they arrived for the debate. One one side the Hillary supporters – HILLARY signs up high, and mostly women – chanted chants like: “O WHO? O HILLARY” and “YES I CAN IS NOT A PLAN”. We were on the other side of the street, looking like what Jessie Jackson used to call the Rainbow Coalition, carrying our ‘charming’ hand painted paper plates in one hand and CHANGE signs on the other, chanting “FIRED UP AND READY TO GO”. Intersting how Obama signs don’t have his name visible (it’s printed in small type on the bottom); he’s actually branded as CHANGE, and not by name. Indeed, at the rally the next day, some of us, as volunteers, went through the audience of 20,000 to make sure that no one carried a sign with Obama’s name on it. Having Obama’s candidacy be about the CHANGE and about US rather than about ‘him’ is a core value of the organization’s effort: when you see photos in the news, you see signs saying HILLARY and MCCAIN and CHANGE.
Here is the point when I realized that Obama is going to win: some of the women from the ‘other side’ came over to ‘our side’ with their tall HILLARY signs, chanting HILLARY chants. We stared at them – they were coming to ‘enemy territory’ as it were. Those standing near these women grumbled a bit, rolled our eyes, and moved over to make room.
That gave me the idea to go see what the ‘other side’ felt like. After all, I’ve been a feminist for all of my life, and indeed felt a pang of guilt for not supporting the first woman candidate – not to mention that a couple of my feminist friends were not particularly happy with me. So I decided to feel what was going on in the ‘other camp’.
I grabbed a couple of other Obama supporters, took our paper plates and CHANGE signs, and crossed the street. We were met with open hostility! What a shock…. all Democrats, all eager to make a difference in the world, but the women were openly hostile. Within moments, several of the women began pushing us to the back. Then others came by with very large signs and put them over our faces and our CHANGE signs so we wouldn’t be visible. “Hold on!” I said, in my most commanding 62-year-old voice. “What are you doing? We opened up a space for you on our side.”
“SO WHAT?” came the response. So the few of us from the ‘other side’ started to push back to get closer to the front – just the sort of struggle that politics as usual seems to embody, we realized afterwards.
But the final nail in the coffin came when a young man was handing out water bottles. He started handing me out a bottle, and as I went to take it, he saw my sign, and realized I was from the ‘wrong side’, and pulled it back. “EXCUSE ME??” – again, my commanding voice rang out (turning 60 gave me great power, I must say). The young man looked at me with an annoyed, pitying look. I put my hands up, implying “What the hell are you thinking?”, and he rolled his eyes in the deprecating way that only the young can do, and grudgingly handed me a water bottle.
And there you have it. One side BOTH/AND, one side ‘EITHER/OR’. One side finding ways to get people together and make room for each other, to create a collaborative dialogue that will make the world better, one side getting it right and taking sides. One side being inclusive, one side being exclusive. (Have a look at this blog that explains how this difference is played out in the diplomocy the candidates would encourage http://jayderagon.com/blog/?p=726 )
I think American is now looking to be inclusive, to figure out what needs to be discussed, and how to make it work with ANDs, not with BUTs. Obama is leading us on a mission – a mission to talk to each other, make room for each other, and create relationships that will start the type of dialogues we haven’t had in a long, long time.
And I know what side of the street I’m on.