Yes, that Grant Park. The one that the world remembers from the 1968 riot that happened concurrent with the Democratic National Convention. It was defined by the Kerner Commission as a police riot, which infuriated Hizzonor The Mayor (Daley the First) and confirmed for much of the world that Chicago was still a frontier town. It also made for a stunning visual image of radical kids seeming to be connected to the Democratic Party. The spectacle assured doom for the Democrats for decades to come and Grant Park has been remembered ever since as the site of a riot.
I was of an age that I might have been in Grant Park on that dreadful August night in 1968. I wanted to be there, but I wasn’t. I followed a more conservative path, starting and running a business for 25 years. So, what was I doing in Grant Park this time?
Forty years can change a lot. Now, two generations later, the crowds were back – somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 in Grant Park on a November evening. There were no protests. There were no police in riot gear. There were, instead, police eating pizza. And police guiding visitors. The most aggressive show of force by the police was a phalanx of cops astride those gorgeous thoroughbreds just watching, as if to say, “We’re here if we’re needed.” They were never needed. Not this time. Not in this place.
This was a singular night of celebration. The energy was entirely joyous and periodically exuberant. It was a gathering of a long separated family, come from distant places to rejoin in a communion of belief. It had been so very long and the night so dark. And there we were, witnessing together the first rays of light to break across the sky of the future.
We’ve suffered the lies and wrong wars, from repeated attacks on the Constitution and from the crush of a falling economy and the nonsense of no accountability. This night the message of change was overwhelming and the energy in Grant Park felt like enormous relief. Hurray for the Obama house that fell from the sky and landed on the Wicked Witch of the West! Let the joyous celebrations begin and we’ll start the journey down the yellow brick road back to the America that has seemed lost in an eight-year fog. Ding-dong, the witch is dead.
And, of course, there was so much more. Did I mention that Barack Obama is black? Well, half black. Logic would suggest that he is also half white, except we probably still carry around the hateful “one drop” notion that helped to perpetuate racism for 400 years, so he’s commonly referred to as black. Setting aside the multi-layer stupidity of that, consider the messages we have delivered to ourselves and to the entire world: about possibility and hope; about belief in ourselves; about change that has taken not years, but generations, even centuries; and that we have put a stake in the ground to declare that something profound has occurred. The racial tectonic plates have shifted. Even the political hate mongers cannot sway us from taking yet another step in the direction of the true promise of America.
After Barack Obama won the Iowa (that’s the 95% lily white Iowa) primary, Rachel Maddow said it best: “This is the kind of America I want to live in.”
I never lost my 60’s idealism and still get a lump in my throat at the Memorial Day ceremony on the Village Green. I sing the National Anthem out loud at ball games and write letters to the editor over our government abandoning so many of our tribe in New Orleans. I still have stars in my eyes for America.
And so do several hundred thousand of my friends who gathered in Grant Park on a balmy November evening in 2008. This is the kind of America we want to live in.
Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
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