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Friday, May 16, 2008

Bonding With Obama in Outstate Michigan

Eye Witness to History: Surprise Edwards Endorsement of Obama in Michigan


Angela Teresa Haddad*

On Wednesday, May 14, 2008, at 6:30 p.m. at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids Michigan, history was made. After months of ranting and raving, hand wringing, and shouting about the Michigan primary and whether or not the state’s delegates would or should be seated, Obama demonstrated what Michigan meant to him and his commitment to Michigan voters. In one evening Barack Obama showed all Michiganders how much he cared about us and our issues. In one evening, Barack Obama joined with John Edwards to show the Democratic Party how to win a swing state. After this evening, there should be no doubt among Michigan voters that Obama understands and is ready to repair the devastation that twelve years of Engler followed by eight years of Bush has wrought upon on all of the hard working people of Michigan. This is my account of the events of that historic day.

At 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, I picked up two close friends who agreed to join me for the two hour drive to see and hear our pick for the next president of the United Sates. We three forged our friendship over many years of living and working in a place that was unkind to new or diverse ideas or people. In Obama, we saw a new type of leader that challenged the mean-spiritedness and divisions that had come to be typical of our politics, our country, and our everyday lives.

The day before the Obama rally, I emailed several friends about Obama’s visit but with only one day’s notice, only these two friends were able to take off nearly a day to go to Grand Rapids. On a cold rainy spring afternoon, at about 3:30 p.m., we rolled into a parking lot near the Van Andel Arena, the venue selected for the big event. Grand Rapids seemed an unlikely place for any Democratic event or candidate. It is not only the home of Amway, but also as the home of the Dick Devos, heir of the Amway fortune and one of the more conservative Republican politicians in the state. I suppose the Obama campaign could have been even more brazen and held the rally at the Devos Convention Center in Grand Rapids…. Maybe they did and were turned down?

As we walked towards the arena, we realized that we were going to find ourselves at the end of one of two lines that was three blocks long an hour and a half before the doors were scheduled to open. We took our place in line, behind a young mother in her early thirties and her four year old son. We greeted her and other fellow supporters on line and made “small talk” to pass the time. We said something along the lines of “wow this is exciting and where are you from?” In a lyrical Caribbean accent the young mom in front of us replied, “I cannot vote but I am here anyway because of my son. He loves Obama.” She opened the boy’s coat to show us her son’s t-shirt with Obama’s face, and she and the boy smiled. The mom told us all about how the boy chants “Obama, Obama…” every time he sees the candidate on T.V. and then she said, “even though I cannot vote I want him to have a chance to see him.” We all stood in line getting wet and musing about the crowd, the event, and our most hopeful expectations.

Sometime around 4:00 or so, the line began moving. Shortly before 4:30 we were escorted through the doors, the metal detectors, and into the auditorium. By the time we made it in, few choice seats were left. After some scouting around, we settled on the section immediately behind the press area and found three empty seats near the end of a row. As we sat waiting, we began talking and chatting with the people around us. To my left sat an African American man from Grand Rapids whose son was serving in Afghanistan. Next to him sat a blond white woman from Muskegon who had served in Desert Storm. They had both been in line since 1:30. In front of us sat a middle aged couple and next to them was an older African American woman from Detroit. Detroit is a two and a half hour drive from Grand Rapids. As we sat and marveled at the crowd and event, the 12,000 seat arena filled to capacity. In the crowd were people of every age, every skin color, and from every walk of life, and in the midst of it all, a party erupted. As some young teens began to dance on the floor of the auditorium, those of us in the stadium seats got up and down to form a wave around the auditorium. At about 5:30 the Desert Storm vet, who had been talking on her cell phone reported that her husband had called to say that CNN reported that Edwards was coming to the event endorse Obama. You could feel the electricity in the room created by the energy of our collective excitement.

At 6:45, came a loud and Obama took the stage. He said, I have a surprise for you Michigan and then the crowd went nuts. As Edwards took the stage the crowd cheered and laughed and hugged. My friends and I laughed and hugged each other too. It was unbelievable. We could not believe our good fortune. We were there when John Edwards and Barack Obama joined together to tell us that we could have back our government. Edwards took the stage first and then came Obama. Both were equally passionate in their message to us that “this election was about us” and that we deserved a hand-up and chance at the American dream. They talked about the health troubles of the uninsured, the homelessness and hunger of the poor, the continuing and shameful neglect of New Orleans, the broken promises to our returning veteran, and the growing gap between the richest few and the struggling many. We heard and most importantly we believed that we could, if we worked together, make a difference and make history by making our government work for us, the white, brown, black, and all of the hard working people of America. By the time the event was officially done, Barak Obama joined by John Edwards erased all the talk about who did what to break what primary rule, and super and non super delegates and got us back to what elections are supposed to be about: us, we the people.

As the event ended the crowd lingered inside the auditorium and so did we. The feelings inside that place were too special to just walk out into the cold night. One by one, the crowd dispersed out the door and we too meandered out into the night.

Outside the arena, a crowd had gathered around the back of the arena. They lined up along a police barricade hoping to catch a glimpse of the motorcade and we joined along. As the motorcade drove away with Obama and Edwards grinning from ear to ear and waving, we grinned too. As one of my friends said earlier that evening, this day, this candidate is about more than a political campaign. This is a movement from the ground up and we too have now become a part of what will surely be a historical moment. We the people, inspired by Barack Obama, are now part of something that cannot and will not be stopped.

* Joyce Baugh contributed to this article.

Angela Haddad is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Central Michigan University and a member of the working group. Joyce Baugh is a Professor of Political Science at Central Michigan University.

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