Barack Obama supporters are, among other things, a punctual group. They’ve been dismissed as being too young and certainly too idealistic, some would say not unlike the senator himself, but on a recent Thursday morning in an uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, just two days after Mardi Gras’ last call, they arrived not only in droves, but also early. A rare thing for the young and idealistic, was rarer still for the young and idealistic of New Orleans. By dawn, crowds of civilians and what appeared to be all of Tulane University had managed to roll out of bed (ok, maybe they hadn’t yet gone to bed, but let’s assume for their parents’ sake that they had), shuffle across the quad, and line up in front of the school’s gymnasium.
By eight thirty a few thousand latecomers were being told they wouldn’t make it in. Volunteers with LSD strength smiles promised to simulcast the speech using a video projector, but compared to the real thing it was hardly a consolation. A man waiting in line with his young boy decided it was time to go. “But I want to see Barack,” the boy cried in a shrill voice as his father dragged him off. Not a minute later and they were back. The boy in his father’s arms, his face buried in Dad’s sweatshirt, mumbling over and over, “Barack Obama, Barack, Obama.”
“Can we have our spot back?” the man asked. Of course they could. Meanwhile an expensively dressed woman scanned the line for potential cuts, “I’ve lived here my whole life and I don’t recognize any of these people.” She shook her head at witnessing what was supposedly a social faux pas of sorts, announced a need for coffee and walked off towards Magazine street.
The woman had a point. Obama’s crowd did seem a little unrecognizable, if not a little out of place. There were no twirling parasols or men in stiletto pumps, and for the first time in months, a gathering had formed and not a bead was to be caught. But of course all of that could have been expected. It was, after all, a political rally, not the Bacchus parade, and the strangest thing to be found was the fact that anyone in New Orleans, student or otherwise, had shown up in support of a politician. Usually they only come to protest. In a town where civil distrust can be measured by the increasing popularity of concealed handgun licenses, expressions were overwhelmingly awestruck in the face of government; more Des Moines than Big Easy.
Inside the gymnasium thirty-five hundred people stared intently at an empty podium. Tech crew workers checked microphone wires, security detail lined the room, and rounds of ‘Yes We Can’ chanting erupted in waves, died down, then started up again. Soon enough there was a hush, a few guitar chords strummed over the PA system (think AC/DC or U2), and Obama ran on stage. What followed went something like this–
Obama: Thank you. Thank you all so much.
Woman in the crowd: I love you!
Obama: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Woman in the crowd (maybe the same woman, maybe a different one): I love you!
Obama: That’s wonderful. Thank you again.
If his voice had a ring to it, it was old time New Orlinean. Vowels rolled around in his mouth and his sentences stopped short of actually finishing, with a defined, matter of fact, southern kind of wit and twang. The first thing he did was ask if Eli Manning had one more brother who could play for Chicago. “Now we need a Manning real bad,” he pleaded, getting things rolling the deprecation of Illinois football. Then, of course, came the Mardi Gras puns. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t here,” something, something, “Incriminating photographs,” that kind of thing. All very down home and local like.
After that it got serious and also a bit familiar. “Be the change that you want to see in the world,” was reintroduced as, “You are the change this city seeks.” And “Ask not what your country can do for you,” was sculpted into the pronouncement that the government can not rebuild the Gulf Coast for the people, only with the people. Not to say that Obama is a plagiarist, or as his competition suggested, that the change has been Xeroxed, but he does know a good thing when he hears it. Where content and experience may fall short, he unashamedly imparts charisma, and so far that’s worked well enough.
But this essay isn’t about Obama, or about Obama compared to his competitor. Not really. It’s about Obama in New Orleans, and the fact that people in New Orleans actually seem to like him, and (judging by the Louisiana primary) would actually go so far as to vote for him, which is surprising because two and a half years ago, well we know what happened two and a half years ago. And because we decided it was worth remembering, it became not unlike what happened six and a half years ago. We will never forget, again. Two things so incomprehensible that we mark them by anniversaries and decide that all future tragedies be gauged against their magnitude. Except that it’s New Orleans as a city; as a day to day city operating with only the practical intentions of keeping on and making progress here and there, that’s now vulnerable to not being remembered. And that; not being remembered, or considered or given a fair shake, is a fear of everyone here.
Among other things, Obama promised that the wetlands would be restored, the levees rebuilt and improved, and that the schools be given the resources they need. His promises involved long shots and best case scenarios, but in the context of what they were, campaign promises, they were also clear and tangible. For New Orlineans to react positively to that, after having solutions (both tangible and otherwise (floating houses, anyone?)) dangled in front of their faces and then backlogged into a local and congressional hiatus that’s left the city structurally unsound and more or less paralyzed on a number of other fronts, could be Obama’s achievement in and of itself. Can he lead even the despondent into his realm of Hope? Or did despondency never have a chance in New Orleans? In some ways, probably both. Despondency always has a chance, even in those who would like to think otherwise, but in New Orleans Obama found a place not just shouting for Change, but also genuinely deserving it.
After the speech the crowd filed out of the auditorium. The Tulane campus, one of the more picturesque spots in an already impossibly picturesque city, was framed in the midmorning shadows of live oak trees. Everywhere was tranquil and green, and looked and smelled like it was already April. That’s New Orleans. Obama’s words seemed misdirected, like he had gotten the pages confused and read them in the wrong place and to the wrong audience. Everything here was fine. No one needed help. Where was the crime? The weakened infrastructure? All the racial tensions and the homelessness? They were, unfortunately, all still there, just momentarily forgotten.
PETER ZINN is a graduate student living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org