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Election Reflections

Jeremy Thal Nov 12, 2008

Jubilation. Why is this emotion so rare in this country? I imagine it must have felt a little like this to be in Soweto for the fall of apartheid, or in Sao Paolo when the Brazilian team won the World Cup, or perhaps, in biblical times, when the jubilee year brought the forgiveness of old debts.  But in Philadelphia, where just a few years ago, the mayor burned down the MOVE house and a city block with it, where there are more than 400 murders a year, where America seems at times a broken and abandoned place?

I carried a borrowed mandolin into the street, another reveler had a guitar, and we launched into “America the Beautiful” with not quite all the right chords, and the crowd joined in. When we got through the first verse (who can remember more than that?), a simpler chant began: USA! USA!  For those of us brought up on the left, this was the kind of public patriotism reserved for the militant right.

The crowd moved to the main street, joined by hundreds of others drawn by the same invisible force. A young boy hung off his dad’s neck as he tirelessly beat rhythms on a pot with a screwdriver.  Cars horns pulsed in their own time, their riders leaning out of doors and sunroofs.  Two girls sang a new version of the civil-right era classic, now “We done overcome.”

I walked slowly and stunned. Is this still my country?  The simple talismanic salutation “Obama” elicited a high-five from anyone in the crowd, as if the barriers that keep us so far from our neighbors had melted in the common exuberance.  A friend and I paused at Malcolm X park to observe the scene and a new word formed in our head: Healing.  It wasn’t long, of course, until the vans full of baton-wielding sullen-faced police split the parade, heading off the truck blaring Obama’s acceptance speak from loudspeakers, quelling the batucada of improvised drums, and sending us all back into our homes to consume more TV.

Only a few days before, in celebration of the Philly’s World Series victory, a happy mob had burned cars, broken windows, and even looted stores.  Perhaps because these were mostly white folks, the event was not called a ‘riot.’  But the night of the fourth, this spontaneous celebration had no malice in it, it was a kind of joy that demanded sharing, a falling of a kind of Berlin wall of privilege.  I kept feeling that America had been slumbering for many years, and had been struck awake suddenly – perhaps what it meant to be American could be wrested from the hands of an old and undeniably American bigotry, and not reinvented as some multicultural fantasy world, but as the dirty, incomplete, wounded collection of humanity that is our neighborhoods and towns.

My pilgrimage to Philly had started on November 1, when I canvassed in Northeast Philly, a largely white working class neighborhood where McCain hoped to make a last minute stand.  My fellow pilgrims: Three women from Barbados via Canarsie and Prospect Heights, and a French-born pediatrician.  With myself the Jew we were not, perhaps, the ideal task force for the neighborhood.

But with faith in our belief, we felt we could walk through the fires of even the most hostile republican neighborhoods unscathed, and in fact encountered quite a few Obama supporters.  On this pilgrimage trail we found odd bedfellows in a pair of smartly dressed Mormons, who came to the same door to knock at the same time.  While the LDS proselytizing always struck me as befuddling and insipid, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of camaraderie with Elders Evans and Ulrich, as I knew they had faced some of the same door-slamming disgusted rejection.  Such is the bizarre nature of empathy – when we shared an actual experience, no matter how disparate the reason why, we couldn’t help but feel the problematic human desire to be part of a story that will define us, that gives us a reason to trudge into the wilderness.

The spell of Obama’s coming coronation was broken, briefly, as I talked with my anarchist friend and gracious west Philly host Ryan Kuck, who sees the frenzied idolatry as flawed by its centralized control and aggrandizement of personality. I ask, “Doesn’t it take organization to run a political campaign?” and he reminds me: “Anarchist aren’t opposed to organization, just hierarchy.”

So on Sunday, Nov 2, I took the day off the canvassing parade to join Ryan in his day-to-day revolution.  He is starting up an urban CSA farm near his place (the legendary Monster House), where we cleared mulberry trees and trash from one plot, until my office-softened hands blistered.  This is a rough neighborhood — the cops had recently dug up the corner of the garden, presumably in search of drugs or guns.  Afterwards we stopped by a nearby church to see if the farm veggies could be channeled to the weekly free dinners. The church leader held firm eye contact and seemed to weigh our words with a practiced Buddha-like intensity.  I saw, in him, another believer.

On the morning of the election, I woke up doubly happy as it was also my 29th birthday.  Ryan’s friend Tony came over with a huge amount of beans, onions, garlic, and bread, and we set to preparing food for the volunteers at a couple of Obama offices in north Philly.  Tony seemed to stride easily between the worlds of micro and macro politics, teaching high school kids to run community gardens as part of the U-Penn based Urban Nutrition Initiative (UNI), as well as volunteering in the Obama campaign.  After cooking the beans we picked up UNI kids Angela and Kenny, and Penn freshman Kakui, and headed to North Philly to deliver beans and do some last minute GOTV canvassing.  I couldn’t help but feel that the relationships we were building by working together were the essence of the struggle itself.

There is no reason that one cannot be politically involved on a local level, a la the anarchists, and still participate in the national elections. But our presidential election process is so carnivalesque it seems to draw attention away from our neighborhoods, chasing the pilgrims to other states in search of more fertile electoral votes.  Somehow the greatest promise of the Obama campaign is that the community networks that allowed Obama to win the “ground game” will not evaporate this week, only to re-coalesce in 2012.  Canvassing teammates Jackie, Emmanuel, Jen and I vowed to meet up again in Brooklyn for a reunion – but I knew this will only have significance if we a joined by a continuation of this cause that we deeply feel, but have yet to fully elucidate.  We knew we wanted a new president, but what next, where do we start? Shall we ask the anarchists?

Perhaps the answer will not come from the mind of any one person or group, but will be an collectively improvised action much like the joyous cacophony of the evening of November 4, 2008, on the streets of Harlem, Chicago, or Philadelphia, and countless other places here and abroad.  Here we can see the formation of non-economic relationships, based on a simple belief in our responsibility to care for one another and all that crawls and grows within this atmosphere.

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