It was truly a great day in Harlem.
The election of Democrat Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. president was celebrated the evening of Nov. 4 in the largest, grandest display of exuberance and hope in the Black community that this 30-year-old reporter has ever seen.
The crowds began gathering early at the Harlem State Office Building for an outdoor screening of the election results as they occurred. Major and independent media with video cameras interviewed people every few feet, asking why they were there. Most replied that they were there to see history being made. A rally at the site featured local politicians and musicians.
WW photo: LeiLani Dowell
The crowd swelled by 8 p.m., when the results first began coming in. While some focused on the huge screen displaying CNN and other news networks, a drumming circle was busy performing to the side, along with chants of “Power to the people.”
When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared on one of the networks, the crowd loudly booed and demanded, “Change the channel!” News visuals of simultaneous rallies taking place in Times Square in New York as well as Chicago, where a million people attended, gave the feel that one big party was happening throughout the country.
Down the street at the world-famous Sylvia’s soul food restaurant, a man with a chainsaw was carving “OBAMA” into five large blocks of ice, one for each letter. Street vendors sold commemorative t-shirts, buttons and posters.
An overwhelming sense of camaraderie filled the air. One man remarked, “It feels like everyone is your brother here today.” While the crowd was overwhelmingly African-American, Latin@s, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and whites were also present to show their solidarity. Among these were a number of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.
When the final projection was made that Obama supporters had defeated the reactionary John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket, the crowds went wild, augmented by new ranks of people who left their nearby homes to join in the revelry. The cops tried to keep people on the sidewalk on 125th Street, then had to open one lane of traffic to the throng, and finally closed the entire northern side of the street to vehicular traffic.
It was a spontaneous street festival, with chants, clapping, dancing and singing every few feet, horns honking everywhere, people sitting in the windows of cars as they drove by, waving. A brass band led an impromptu parade down 125th Street, with people chanting and singing, “We did it!”
People who had never met warmly hugged each other; one woman ran up to this reporter, gave her a hug, and said, “We did something tonight, didn’t we?” A young man ran through the streets, passionately yelling, “WE DESERVE THIS!”
A victory despite the odds
Obama’s win reflects a movement of people throughout the country who fought right-wing attacks against voters of color and who repudiated both the outright racism of the McCain-Palin campaign and the barely concealed racism of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign. It also reflects a desire to end the policies of endless war at home and abroad—despite how Obama himself stands on the issues. That so many felt the compulsion to be in the streets for that victory is a testament to the legacy of slavery and continuing oppression and repression faced by the Black community—and the tenacity of that community to survive and resist.
According to exit polls listed at nytimes.com, 95 percent of the Black vote, 66 percent of the Latin@ vote, 62 percent of the Asian vote and a remarkable 43 percent of the white vote went to Obama. Sixty-six percent of voters aged 18 to 29 and 69 percent of first-time voters chose Obama as well. Sixty-two percent of voters said the economy was the most pressing issue in the election.
Even a multifaceted onslaught of voter disenfranchisement throughout the country—including the purging of voters from the registration rolls; threatening and/or misleading phone calls, text messages and leaflets; legal action to prevent polling places from staying open longer; and a serious attempt to prevent students from voting from their campuses—couldn’t prevent the sweeping number of votes in Obama’s favor. Determined voters lined up for hours throughout the country. Lawyers and legal observers traveled across the country to assist the process. Many people voted days in advance in an attempt to ensure that their vote wasn’t stolen as it was in the last two presidential elections.
The election also reflects a response to eight disastrous years of the Bush administration—disastrous not only for working people, but also for U.S. imperialism and its relations with the rest of the world.
As of this writing, Obama has won 349 electoral votes, versus McCain’s 162. For the first time in 44 years, Virginia and Indiana ceded victory to the Democratic candidate. Of the five battleground states—Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio—Obama took Florida, Indiana and Ohio and is in the lead in North Carolina, while McCain is leading in Missouri.
Solidarity in struggle
Such an outpouring of the masses, particularly oppressed people of color, warrants the full solidarity of the movement. The Democratic Party is a party of the capitalist imperialist system, and Obama is now its main spokesperson. Despite this many see hope in his election—not that Obama will create an end to war, poverty and oppression so desperately needed in this country and the world, but that the people who fought so hard for him to be elected will be increasingly motivated to act. As all working-class victories come from the movement of working and oppressed people fighting for their rights, this is a tangible ambition.
At the same time, the racist, reactionary forces that supported Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and particularly vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, still exist and can be called into play. Their actions will likely take the form of racist attacks on Obama during his tenure as president. Revolutionaries should be aware of this and prepared to intervene against racism. In this time of increased economic crisis, the attempt by bigoted demagogues to divide working people along lines of race, gender and sexuality—the classic “blame the victim” tactic—must be attacked head-on.
In the end, only the complete destruction of the capitalist system will ultimately create the real change needed in society. However, the election of the first Black president, and a movement of the masses to accomplish it, is a historical moment that cannot and should not be ignored.
Further analysis of the U.S. 2008 elections will appear at workers.org and in the next issue of WW newspaper.