A Celebration That Defined a Generation: Grant Park, New Media, and Barack Obama's Historic Victory of the US Presidency

Article excerpt

From the earliest days of recorded history, people have celebrated for many reasons: to commemorate important events; to mark seasonal changes or the stages of human life; to honor endings; and to rejoice in beginnings.

(Joanne Taylor Hane and Catherine Holshouser, A Feast of Festivals: 10)

This is an excitement. This is a celebration. We're very proud that he [Obama] comes from Chicago and that this is a moment of celebration.

(Chicago Mayor Richard Daley)

Searchlights scythed through the night sky. Mr. Obama was blessed even by unseasonably warm November weather. It was a presidential victory party on a scale never seen before.

(Martin Fletcher and James Bone, Times Online)

It was a party like no other. On the afternoon of election day-November 4, 2008 - a crowd marked by its youthfulness began forming in Chicago's historic Grant Park, situated along Lake Michigan, for a celebration for presidential hopeful Barack Obama. As election results rolled in signaling Obama's lead, Grant Park swelled with people anxious to experience- firsthand - history in the making, as the first African American elected president of the United States gave his victory speech. At approximately 10:00 p.m. Central Time, when giant television screens on the lawn displayed CNN's report of Obama's apparent win over Republican rival John McCain, the crowd roared. Later that evening, by the time a triumphant Obama, his wife, Michelle and young daughters Sasha and Malia strode across the stage, nearly 250,000 people had assembled almost spontaneously, comprising one of the largest impromptu authences for a newly elected president, the first to have been born in the 1960s. Enthusiastic gatherings following elections are not unusual, but the size and intensity of the Obama party were extraordinary by all measures. The Chicago celebration that took place that night- not unlike the rejoicing in Times Square that marked the end of World War II or the Woodstock concert on Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York- proved pivotal in defining a large youth generation on the brink of assuming its social power and influence. The Obama camp understood this generation, using digital technology to create new forms of political mobilization attractive to these new voters. The Grant Park celebration functions as a microcosm of how and why some of Obama's campaign strategies worked in attracting a new generation of voters and sheds light on the mechanics of planning a momentous celebration in a changing political, social, and communication environment.

Grant Park on Election Day

By election night, Grant Park, which began filling up several hours earlier, was a veritable sea of people packed so tightly that individuals found it difficult to sit or move. A finite number of invited guests - such as Chicago talk show host Oprah Winfrey and film director Spike Lee- occupied a gated area in front of the stage. Others, who responded immediately to an online offer for tickets, congregated in a ticketed area, some after standing in line for hours to enter the chain-link enclosed park. While approximately 65,000-70,000 had tickets, the vast majority- nearly three times as many-assembled outside the lawn and clogged the surrounding streets, and most of them were youths. Attendees reported that they had never seen so many people gathered in one place, nor had they felt as cramped as they did on this warm, balmy November night. Those who wandered off from their group found it difficult to find their friends later. As Northwestern University party goer Cary Elza recalled, "[I]f you left to go to the bathroom, it was impossible to find your group again. At one point I had to get up on a friend's shoulders in order to provide a landmark for Brian [her husband] to find us again. Cell phone conversations went like this: 'We're near the big flag that's exactly between the left-side fence and the screen, if you're facing the screen. …