Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sí se puede

A few years ago, I went to an immigration rally in New York City.  As a teacher in Brooklyn, I'd seen firsthand what it meant to be an illegal immigrant in this country, and what it meant to the children who were trying to pull together a future, and I was angered so by all the meaningless roadblocks that I went down to Union Square with an American flag in my hand and shouted, "Sí se puede!" until I went hoarse without even knowing what it meant.  To me, it meant that we were angry, that we needed to change whatever laws were causing discrimination, and we needed to make people who had lived in this country for ten years and whose children had been born here feel safe.

Turns out that "Sí se puede!" was the cry of Cesar Chavez and friends almost forty years ago, and it translated to something very simple: Yes, we can.

People ask me what it's like to live in Chicago during this, the most historic of election cycles, and all I can say is that if you do not live here, you cannot know.  What you are experiencing is only a sliver of the groundswell of feeling that surrounds us all.

I think I began to get an idea of what this would be when Barack Obama's New Hampshire speech was turned into a song by and people like Scarlett Johanssen showed up to make their voices heard in concert with him:

But that was Hollywood's reaction to this candidate, and as I watched this, I withheld opinion.  You see, I was a Hillary girl from way back.  I was in the strange position of having had both Democratic nominees as my senator, and frankly, I was more impressed with what Hillary accomplished.  A woman as president?  I couldn't ignore what that could mean to every little girl in this nation.  We've come a long way, baby, but we still make about seventy cents to every dollar that a man makes.

However, I also couldn't ignore what Obama's candidacy meant to the people around me.  In the city of Chicago, racism and poverty are so rampant that to ignore them means that you are being willfully blind.  I am not willfully blind, and neither is Barack Obama.  Here is a man who the national media dismissed as a "community activist."  Community activist?  What more can you want than someone who had enough money to lead a privileged life but instead chose to wade into the morass that is Chicago politics and actually get something done for the African-American community?

To say that I was torn was an understatement.  As time progressed and the Democratic choice became clear, I, like Eurydice, looked back a time or two, but in the end, knew there was only one choice.

Because: change.  After the last eight years, it was the only choice. 

All last week, I was nervous about Tuesday.  I couldn't stop thinking about the night I went to bed thinking that Al Gore was president and woke up finding that he wasn't.  Until they called the election, no matter how many polls and pundits put him ahead, an ocean of fear swelled up inside of me, and no matter what I did, I couldn't tamp it down.

I waited an hour to vote on Tuesday morning -- just one in a long line of bleary-eyed people who shuffled silently to the front of the line and held their collective breath as we said our say.  Then I went to school.

David popped into my classroom almost immediately.  "Did you vote?  Who'd you vote for?"

I told him.  I've had conversations with teachers about whether we should tell students our political leanings, and I've come to the conclusion that, although it's pretty easy to guess which way I lean based on my point of view, I won't volunteer the information but I also won't keep it from them if they ask me directly. 

 The second I told him, however, he let out a whoop.  "Barack, Barack, Barack O-BAM-a!" he chanted, and started dancing and jumping in the middle of the room.  "He's gonna win, you'll see," he said, and I told him I hoped so.

At lunchtime, the conversation about political leanings came up again.  Some of our seniors were finally old enough to vote, and one of our girls told a teacher that she'd voted for McCain.  Why? asked her teacher.  Because he was young and had a family, she explained, and she didn't want him to die.

David popped into my classroom a few more times during the day and did his song-and-dance routine a few more times.  By sixth period, he'd become so infectious that some of his buddies were singing with him.

But Tuesday wasn't over, and I had class on Tuesday night on the west side, near Gage Park.  To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous about this, because I knew from my brother the police officer that the police force was gearing up for trouble no matter who won.  Class would be over by nine, I knew, but I didn't want to be on the streets after that.  

To get home from Gage Park, I had to drive down Garfield Boulevard through Englewood and Washington Park.  These are not the best neighborhoods, and just about a block past Western I hit an area where the street lights were out.  Now, naive me always assumed in the past that when the street lights were out, it was the electric company's fault, but my kids explained to me not too long ago that the criminal element in an area likes to take them out right before they start shooting.  Makes it harder to track them later, don't you know.

Anyway, I drove through about a mile of almost total darkness before I got to the expressway and the lights were on again.  I breathed a sigh of relief almost despite myself.  I go into bad neighborhoods every day of my life, but this night?  I knew what this night could mean.  If he didn't win this night, rioting in my city was not impossible.

That's why I wasn't surprised when I got home and found a huge police presence.  Hyde Park Boulevard was completely blocked off, and the cop wouldn't let me through, even though I could see my building from where we were.  I had to drive down and up and over (all the one-way streets in the city can be a drag when things are blocked off) until I finally found a cop willing to let me in the back way.  I had to show him ID and proof of address before he'd let me through, and the closest I could get was a block and a half away.

After I parked, I walked up to an old man cop who was guarding one of the corners.  How long is this going to last? I asked.

"I don't know," he said.  "They haven't told us a thing."

They haven't even told you?

"Of course not," he said.  "The Secret Service is in charge.  That means the police are the last to know.  I feel sorry for you all, though.  It's hard enough to park around here."

Don't I know it.

He laughed.  "You know what I call Hyde Park?  Hard Park, because you can never find a spot."

He's right, too.  This is what every street leading up to my block looks like right now.  And parking?  You're lucky to get a little close.

After I got inside,  I snapped this picture of the alley.  Yes, they even have the alleys blocked off.  

I didn't leave the house for the rest of the night.  I was thinking about trying to go downtown at that point, but with the parking situation, I decided to watch the election results with just me and my television.

And even with the police presence, when the election was finally called for Obama, people in my neighborhood went out into the street whooping and hollering and shooting off guns.  Soon enough, though, there were helicopters in the air, sirens everywhere, and things quieted down.

I'm pretty sure I live in the safest neighborhood in America right now.  Two blocks from the President elect.  It's kind of fun to say, but less fun in reality.  The parking and security make me feel like I'm living in a police state.  It took five days before they figured things out enough where I could park on my own block.  I had to raise holy hell with my alderman.
When I woke up the next morning, all of Chicago seemed a little bleary-eyed.  The cop guarding my corner, a new one this time, said she didn't know when there would be a change.

My brother, a police officer in Englewood, sent me a cell-phone photo of a man who didn't make it back inside his house on Wednesday morning.  To tell you the truth, a lot of people were feeling that way on Wednesday.  

But Wednesday was parent-teacher conferences, and so we all got up and headed to work.  The first mother who sat across the table from me was beaming, just beaming.  "Barack Obama is president," she said, tearing up a little bit.

I know.  Just looking at her face made me want to cry too.

"You know what?" she said, "When I got my girls ready for school this morning, do you know what I told my five-year-old?  I said honey, you only need to know one thing today, and that is that Barack Obama is President."

I grinned back at her.  He sure is.

"And she said, 'Is he, Mommy?'  and I said 'Yes, baby. He is.  And if Barack Obama can be President of the United States of America, that means that you can be anything, anything at all.'  And she said, 'Can I Mommy?  Can I really?'  And I said, 'Yes.  Yes you can.'"