« Festus Mogae of Botswana wins significant reward. | Main | The international task ahead. »

New York on election night

I was lucky enough to be in New York over the end of the election period and in Times Square on election night itself. Normally I write web logs on issues that matter to me but rarely do I produce a personalized piece. This time is different. To have been in the city on election day was very special. I am not a citizen and could not therefore vote but this country being what it is I could participate as an observer and even a discussant, socially and in class when the occasion arose. The streets and avenues of New York, on election day, were a good location for observation and participation. Times Square proved ideal later in the night as the results came in. What was the mood on the streets?

As you walk around a city, particularly an area like Manhattan where the city folk are used to tourists and are, on the whole, welcoming towards them, exposure to the heartbeat of city life is unavoidable. New York seems to draw you right in a very direct way. The mainly black-Americans who were acting as volunteers to the find-raising drive for the city’s homeless were happy to give you an opinion (sometimes solicited, sometimes not) on Obama’s chances early in the day. There was expressed a mixture of confidence and hope. Up near Election Plaza (an outdoor broadcasting site at the center of the Rockefeller complex) I passed a person, probably a recent migrant worker, holding a larger advertising pole and sign for some hamburger place. I caught his eye as I passed. He pointed to a very small Obama portrait about two thirds of the way up the pole, a portrait so small it could hardly be seen. He grinned. I grinned back and asked him what he thought the results would be. With his free hand opened as a whole he pointed skywards as if to say “God willing?. To see hope in such an unexpected way and in such an unexpected place as an ordinary street corner can only be described as delightful. The interaction did not take more than a few seconds but it seemed to matter. In a nearby café where I stopped with my companion for a quick snack, an elderly, and highly educated, African-American could not help share his excitement as the prospects of a victory for Obama and for the Democrats. His democratic credentials were strong. He showed with pride a photograph of himself and his wife together with Bill Clinton at a recent Democratic fund raising event. He was bubbling over with excitement and sharing his hopes in a gentle way with anyone around who would listen. The sense of democratic change and expectancy was everywhere even as the city pursued its fast-paced, every-day life.

The unabashed populism of Times Square proved to be the perfect location to witness historic change. Election Plaza at the Rock felt slightly more constrained, perhaps more middle-class, though the atmosphere there was also heady with excitement. Times Square buzzed with life. The Obama and McCain condom sellers continued their cynical trade (‘?get screwed either way?) with good natured New York style-banter. The crowd was mainly young, pro-Obama and pro-change. It was a multicultural New York crowd made up of people of all colors and creeds. It was excited, good-natured, high spirited and entirely non-threatening.

A young mixed-race couple stood nearby where I was in the crowd. They said very little but their faces simply shone with the purest delight at the prospect of a President who shared in his own family history the background of their young son in the baby stroller. An Obama victory button seller standing behind me kept saying over and over again as the final victory was announced “I never thought I’d live to see the day?. In countless ways throughout the crowd, and not simply in the African-American community, there were sights and sounds of delight. Strangers embraced, a few wept for joy. Chanting and singing accompanied every announcement or every large passing vehicle along Broadway. It was one in the morning before I could, with considerable reluctance, make myself leave.

Nobody in the square needed the media to tell them that this was an historic election bringing with it a new sense of civic community and, of course, a new sense of civic responsibility, a new sense of what democracy in the United States could be about. The tendency towards political dynasties (a Bush or a Clinton) and the same old Washington elite, has been reveresed, the mold smashed by ordinary citizens of all walks of life, making a decision for change focused by Obama in a brilliant and statesman-like political campaign in which he looked every inch the President throughout. The problems of the Bush years have not gone away but the sense that a new approach domestically and internationally is possible was real and palpable on the streets on New York. Voting across the nation confirmed that Obama had correctly and consistently articulated the desire for change. This sense of reconnection was manifest on the streets on New York. Winston Churchill said that America could be relied upon to do the right thing after it had tried everything else first. This election result represents a huge leap forward even if the product is still to be tried and tested. Congratulations America!


Terrific report. The delight and sense of hope shine through.