Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Throwback Onions: Grant Park 2008, Revisted

The following is an account of Election Night in Grant Park, Chicago, back in 2008, when Barack Obama was named the 44th President of the United States. This post is not meant to be political, but more of a narrative of history in the making. This was originally written the days following the 2008 election.

Reporting Live from Grant Park: Experiencing History
Jason Sacks

When I moved to Chicago on June 2, in the back of my mind I thought that I might be a part of a historic event within the next four to five months.  The Cubs were the best team in baseball, and I was moving in three blocks from Wrigley Field.  I couldn’t help but think how crazy the month of October would be in Wrigleyville as the Cubs ended the 100-year curse. Well, less than a week into October, Wrigley field went dark, and there went the historic event; “wait till next year,” as they say in these parts.  But less than a month after the Cubs were booted from the playoffs, that historic event that I thought about, would turn out to be something much more  than just a World Series in my backyard.

About two weeks ago, people started discussing an Election Night rally in Grant Park, where Senator Barack Obama would hopefully make his acceptance speech as the next President of the United States.  Details were still a bit unclear, but my initial gut reaction was that that rally was going to be absolute chaos.  I attended a free Stevie Wonder concert in the summer at Grant Park and ended up sitting on Lake Shore Drive (for those of you not familiar with Chicago, not the best seat for a concert).  The number of people present made it impossible to move, hear or see anything going on.  I could just imagine what this Election Night rally would be like, and didn’t think I wanted to be anywhere near there. I figured there’d be better views on television.

Then about a week ago, someone sent me the link to register for a free ticket for the Election Night Rally.  Word on the street was that tickets were good for you and a guest, and that they’d allow about 70,000 people into the park.  I filled out the registration form and figured it’d be worth at least having the option of going.  I quickly received confirmation that I had a ticket and that a ticket would be emailed to me a day before the event.  At that point, I was still on the fence on whether or not I’d attend.  The more and more I thought about it though, I wondered, how cool would it be to tell my friends, family and one day my children, that I was there to witness one of the most historic nights in our country’s history.  Done. I was going.

I'm in that crowd...somewhere
The tickets and information about the event said that the doors to Hutchinson Field in Grant Park would open at 8:30 pm (all times in this account are Central Time...I’ve converted).  We knew there’d be large crowds of people down there, so we (myself, Colleen, Brady and Brandi) arrived at the entrance to the event at around 6:15 pm.  We started to work our way through the crowds and entered through our first check point, showing tickets and IDs, disposing of any food, beverages, large bags, etc.  We then walked to another checkpoint where they checked tickets, and another checkpoint where they pretty much did the same thing.  At that point, we could see a row of 24 metal detectors and a large mass of people.  It took about 25 minutes to actually get up to the metal detectors. Luckily, while we were waiting, Brady’s new $15 transistor radio that he just bought at CVS was giving us up to the minute updates on…NASCAR and the Chicago traffic (Eventually Brady would find a news station with Election updates, or not). As we got closer to the metal detectors, I made sure that we went through the detector numbered 22 for good luck (you’re welcome, Barack).  As we made it through the final checkpoint, which was manned by TSA workers along with Secret Service Officers, we could start to see the open field where the rally would take place.

Our first glimpse of the park showed a few huge video boards showing live CNN Election Night coverage, a t-shaped stage w/ 25 American Flags along the back and a single podium at the front (along w/ panes of bullet proof glass along each side of the stage around the podium).  Opposite of the stage was the video camera tent, where hundreds of TV cameras were lined up waiting for the show to start.  To the right of the stage were mini-booths from each of the major networks, where there on-air “talent” was stationed.  We walked our way down to ground level. Hutchinson Park is made up of numerous softball fields, so we weaved our way around the dirt-infields and police barricades, and we eventually made it to the spot where we’d witness history.  We met up with a few of Brandi’s co-workers and friends that were rocking “Blondes for Barack” t-shirts.  Our setup was pretty sweet, as we were about 200 feet from the stage, and just to the left of us was the large video board showing CNN. 

It was probably around 7 pm by the time we made it to our spot.  CNN was talking about some of the East Coast polls closing, and starting making some predictions for what states each candidate was taking.  Brady and I let out a cheer when we heard Barack was going to take the great state of New Jersey (We would later find out, thanks to Brandi’s research, that Barack would also take Atlantic County).  At this point, my cell phone was about to die.  (Poor planning on my part, as I would not be able to communicate with any friends across the country about what I was witnessing.)  I sent a few last minute texts to friends and family telling them to tune into CNN, as there were periodic live shots of Grant Park.  I told them I was the guy in the gray winter hat, and black track jacket…should be easy to find me.

As I looked around at all the people that had gathered at Grant Park, it started to hit me.  We were going to be part of history.  It was going to be a “where were you when” moment.  Ever so often, Brady and I would look around and realize that we definitely made the right decision to attend the rally.  I then went on to ask Brady to get updates on his transistor radio (CNN was on the big screen), so in essence his $15 purchase was a waste of money. I let him know that too.  As polls started to close in the East Coast, CNN started to make their projections.  The best part of the projection was the big CNN graphic that would swoop in, the music and then the “CNN Projection” voice that Brady and I created…..and repeated every time there was a projection.  I think people around us had a love-hate relationship with our “CNN Projection” announcement.  When they gave a state to Barack, the place erupted; and when they gave one to McCain there were boos. 

I’m guessing that “Projecting States” is some sort of science, but I wasn’t totally sold on how they do it.  It’s definitely not as easy as playing with the large digital map, or looking at pie graphs of different voter groups (for those of you that didn’t see the SNL Weekend Update where Fred Armison played with the digital map, I highly recommend it).  So back to the projection of states.  Here’s what it sounded like:

Brady and Jason in announcer voice: “CNN PROJECTION!!!”
Blitzer: “Ok…CNN is ready to project the state of Pennsylvania will go to Senator Barack Obama.  With less than 1% of the vote counted, Obama will win Pennsylvania”

Huh?  Anyway…this was an ongoing joke we made throughout the night…”its November 1st, the polls open 3 days from now, but Obama will take Pennsylvania!!”

We also really enjoyed the hologram interview that Anderson Cooper did with You can insert your own Star Wars joke here.

As we started to see “Battleground States” shifting Obama’s way, we started thinking…”wow, this is really going to happen.”  Nine o’clock rolled around and the crowd counted down as another set of states closed the polls.  The electoral count was weighing heavily in Obama’s favor, and the mood started to change from “this is going to happen” to “wow, this could be a blowout”. 

When CNN would go to commercial, they’d run some sounds checks and they’d pipe in music throughout the park. People were dancing and singing, or just moving around to try and stretch their legs.  We had pretty much been on our feet for 3 hours so far, and the night was only half way done.  When we first got to the park, we all picked times (Price is Right rules) we thought Obama would actually come out on stage.  I had 11:53 pm.  We figured with the West coast poles closing at 10 pm, there wouldn’t declare a winner until about 10:30 or so.  Throw in McCain’s phone call to Obama, McCain’s speech, and then getting Obama to the park and on stage, I thought I was right on the money.

We were approaching 10 pm.  I looked around the park again.  It was absolutely packed.  The overheard shots they were showing on television were amazing.  It was hard to believe that we were in that crowd somewhere.  We were surrounded by all different types of people; men, women, young and old, all different races, all different shapes and sizes.  There was a couple standing near us that had brought their two kids with them; a boy probably around 7, and a girl around the age of 4.  I kept thinking to myself, “In a few years, they’ll be taking a Social Studies class or a History class, and in that text book, they will read about the first African-American President, and they’ll get to say…I was there.”  Pretty cool.  Past that was another couple, two high schoolers, who were making out most of the night.  I think they were just happy to be out of their parent’s sight, historic night or not.

It was now about 9:59 pm.  CNN put a huge map and highlighted all the West Coast states whose pools were getting set to close.  There was a clock that counted down, and the crowd counted aloud. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…everyone cheered.  The polls out West were closed. Immediately, CNN went to a “CNN Projection”, and I think they called Virginia for Obama.  Everyone erupted.  Then not a second later, another CNN graphic and sound effect.  This time though, it said, “CNN Breaking News”, and before you even had time to think, the screen read, “Barack Obama Elected President of the United States.”  At that point, as people started going nuts around us, I stopped and was almost in shock.  I didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  CNN surprised us.  Ready or not, history was made.  I remember giving Brady a double high five above the head, as if our team had just scored a touchdown.  People were hugging each other, people were crying.  Chants of “Yes We Can” turned to “Yes We Did”. 

I have described this paragraph to a few people in days after the election, and each time I got the chills.  I have had the opportunity to be at a lot of cool events over the past few years.  I have attended a Super Bowl Parade, and was courtside to see one of my childhood favorite teams win a National Championship.  This feeling was different.  It was a calming excitement.  I didn’t want to tackle Brady the way I would tackle my college roommate after Gerry McNamara or Carmelo Anthony hit a big three-pointer on Big Monday in the Carrier Dome.  To be honest, I didn’t really know how I should react.  I was excited though.  I was excited to be a part of history.  When people talk about this event for years to come, I will say I was there, I was a part of it.  And the best part about it, we knew Barack would be joining us shortly.

As CNN showed video of people around the country and around the world reacting, we all anticipated when the president elect would arrive.  One of the stagehands came out on stage, and gave one final sound check.  “Test, 1, 2. Test 1, 2.  Final Sound Check for the next President of the United States.”  The place went nuts again.

We watched John McCain give his speech from his Election Night party in Arizona.  Many of us, my friends, agreed that it was the best speech he had given in the last 6 months. 

Then we waited.  We wanted Obama.  We wanted Michelle, Sasha and Malia.  We wanted Joe Biden and his grin.  First came a pastor to provide a prayer for the evening.  Then came someone that led the Pledge of Allegiance.  Then a voice came over the loud speaker and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” and they announced the woman that would sing the National Anthem.  The crowd grew restless.  We were quickly cheered up by an interesting rendition of the National Anthem, where a few words were changed or just left out.  Whoever’s job it was to secure the Anthem singer…better luck next time.  After the anthem, they played 3 songs over the loud speaker, including “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”  As they showed pictures of the crowd on the big screen, we saw Jesse Jackson shedding tears, and Oprah Winfrey leaning on some random dude. 

After the third song was played, we knew he was coming.  Over the load speaker we heard, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the next First Family of the United States”.  Out walked Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia.  They waved, they smiled and they hugged each other, and then they left the stage, except for the man of the hour…or should I say the next four years.

We listened closely to his first speech as President-elect Obama, and not Senator Obama.  I switched between watching him on stage, to watching him on the big screen.  As he spoke, I started to get excited about what he could do in office; it was hard not to.  I am sure this speech will turn into a something that we will see and hear for many, many years, while our children will learn about it while they go through school.  Once he finished speaking, Joe Biden joined him on stage; and then their families joined them.  I remember watching the big screen, and seeing Barack standing with Malia as she mouthed, “We really won, Daddy.”

It was about 11:35 pm when everything wrapped up, and started heading for the exits.  It took us a while to get out of the park and back to Michigan Avenue.  We walked towards the El and headed back to our neighborhood.  It was still wall to wall people wherever you walked.  I read the next day they estimated 240,000 people in the area of the park for the rally.  It was the most peaceful gathering people I had ever seen or even imagined.  Everyone was so happy.

And exhausted.  I don’t think my feet have ever hurt more in my life.  It was a small price to pay to witness history.  When I arrived back to my apartment at about 1 am, I plugged in my cell phone and had about 10 text messages from friends and family explaining how amazing things looked on television.  I turned on tv and watched part of the ABC coverage that I had DVRed.  I can’t believe how many people were there!  At that point, my body had had it.  It was close to 2 am, and I had a flight to catch to Florida at 7 am the next morning.  When I woke up 3 hours later, I went downstairs to get the Chicago Tribune.  A full page cover with Barack Obama waving to the crowd at Grant Park, as the first African-American President of the United States of America. And I was there to be a part of it.

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