Oakland erupted Tuesday night, from fireworks bursting up from East Oakland, firecrackers exploding on Foothill Avenue, to mobs of people skipping down Broadway and cheering while cars wailed on their horns and people danced in the streets all the way west. Downtown in Jack London Square, a block party outside Everett and Jones’ barbeque brought hundreds of people together to celebrate this country’s first black president.
Inside, people of all colors watched President elect Obama’s victory speech, laughed, danced, cried, drank, debated, embraced each other and just hollered his name. Everett and Jones’ barbequed ribs and chicken outside and served huge five-dollar plates to a massive, ecstatic crowd.
On the street stage, following speeches by leaders like Barbara Lee and performances by D’wayne Wiggins and LaToya London, deejays blasted old-school funk and R&B and Oakland hyphy poets. Older and younger folks grooved to Zapp and Roger and Keak da Sneak, wearing Obama buttons saying “He’s black and I’m proud,” Obama t-shirts glittering with rhinestones and shirts recalling the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It felt like a dream, a jubilant Oakland block party that for the first time was a monumental political victory party too. Resident Sam Burns, 29, was overjoyed.
“It’s overwhelming, it hasn’t sunk in yet. I’ve been waiting for this time all my life,” said Burns, who is black.
Bill Hallendale, of San Francisco, shared the disbelief. “I’m still amazed. It’s been reported for a couple months that it’s inevitable, but I still believed the Republicans would steal it,” he said.
“Nine months ago I didn’t think it was possible [to elect a black president]. I think it will empower both black people and minorities,” he said.
Many felt hopeful that American race relations will become more equitable with black leadership in the White House, but stressed the importance of the grassroots “rainbow” coalition that brought Obama to this office.
“It’s not just a black or white or yellow or brown issue, it’s a people issue, it’s an American issue,” said one Oakland woman who gave her name as Uganda. “You have to remember that all colors and all cultures make up this great country.”
“I feel the energy of the people, it feels very positive,” she continued. “We need a leader that is going to bring everyone together, the previous administration was more about division and they capitalize on that. This country can be greater when all of us stand together as one.”
Obama’s appeal for national unity was a theme that resonated with many Oakland residents. Cornell White, who celebrated his 27th birthday that night as well as Obama’s victory, felt the change would not just be for African Americans but for the American people.
“That’s why I voted for him, not based on ethnicity because we have the same ethnic background but because I like what he stands for,” White said.
Many also felt the change Obama has brought is the upsurge in civic participation, which showed in his mainly small donor-funded campaign and this year’s record voter turn-out. “In terms of creating the kind of community we want to live in, I think Barack Obama is really going to charge people into doing whatever it takes to make our country a fulfilling place for all people,” said Jaleah Winn, of Oakland.
“I think it’s up to us to respond to the charge,” she said.
Reco Bembry, an anti-violence consultant for the city of Oakland, spoke of the empowerment of youth in this campaign. “It’s about young people accessing and realizing their ability to be the power, not to attack or challenge power but to be what that is,” he said.
Bembry looked forward to a real dialogue between groups that have been pitted against each other for so long. “That my neighbors teach their child that their children are greater than my grandkids, it’s not true, so I teach their grandkids that they’re not greater than my grandchild, but that they’re amazingly powerful together.”
“We’ve got to have the ability to divorce ourselves from the old language, from the old leadership, from the old dynamics that created this mess,” he said.
Bembry remembered the feeling as a child of seeing news reports of Malcolm X and Dr. King’s assassinations. “My dream was deferred,” he said.
“It felt like being amazingly hungry standing near the kitchen and getting no food, it felt like being sleepless for three or four days standing near the bed and getting no sleep,” he said. “Now it feels like standing in those same places and having the food delivered, having the 400-count sheets laid upon,” Bembry said.
While the older generations praised the passion and mobilization of the youth, young black Oaklanders looked back on generations of their ancestors’ struggle with pride.
“I knew he was gonna win, but once he won, I just didn’t expect it was gonna be like this,” White said. “Things just seem so different already because I never thought this day would come.”