lessons from America

Cambridge Uni hosts first public screening of ‘Dollar and a Dream’ doc and campaign memorabilia exhibition

Back in mid June, Meghan’s documentary following my US election experiences had its first public viewing. ‘A Dollar and a Dream’ was screened as part of the America Week (sponsored by the US Embassy) at Clare Hall, Cambridge University.

I only saw the film for the first time that morning … and it (and scarily I) looked different projected onto the big screen that evening. Over 50 people came for the screening. Meghan kicked off proceedings with an intro about the film and then everyone sat back to watch twenty minutes of footage which wonderfully captures the mood of America the week before the election.

The film is much less about politics and the election, and much more about the interaction between me and Americans, and a glimpse of what life was like campaigning in the American suburbs.

My role may initially have been as chief protaganist, but thankfully I am certainly not the star of the show: it is the people I meet along the way who are (as well as Meghan, who did so much running with heavy camera equipment to try to keep up with me and also skilfully pulls together all the disparate footage to weave a coherent and meaningful narrative as all good story-tellers do).

The reaction from the audience was generally very positive and also included some good feedback which will help make the final version even better. After people had had a chance to question Meghan, I was brought to the front to sit on a panel of eminent academics and commentators to discuss ‘Obama: 5 months on’. Fascinating contributions from the other panellists, especially a guy who had been a senior McCain foreign policy advisor.

Thanks to sponsorship, there was a drinks reception afterwards. American wines of course! But also a chance for people to look around the college’s new temporary exhibition: a display of Obama and US election memorabilia collected by yours truly. The organiser did a superb job of displaying a selection of my buttons, trinkets, flags, posters, newspapers and more collected from my various trips to the States.

August 12, 2009 Posted by | global perspective, On the Campaign Trail | Leave a comment

My DC political pilgrimage

It was has become something of a post-election tradition of mine, I spend a day walking along the Washington Mall: visiting monuments to past presidents and the current seats of political power; reflecting on the election results and what it means. 


This year was no exception.  Like last time, glorious sunshine accompanied my stroll through DC’s famous sites.  But unlike 2004, the political climate was substantially changed for the better.  Then I was coming to terms with the depressing reality of not just 4 more years of Bush, but extended Republican control of both Houses of Congress, and a Supreme Court that was likely to become more more conservative.  I was looking for glimmers of hope where ever I could.   This time, hope seemed to be radiating brightly: from the steps of the Lincoln Monument, all the way along the Mall, and even to the railings of the White House. 

And not just hope, but progressive activism too.

Overlooking the Reflecting Pool, on those famous steps, Avaaz had set up their boards for people to write their “yes we can” messages of goodwill to Obama and reminders of the global change that hopefully his victory will herald. 

Less than 3 days before, and apparently spontaneously (and without precedent), a crowd of over a thousand DC residents had gathered by the famous White House railings to celebrate Obama’s victory.  Now outside the White House, students were marching up and down the street calling for American foreign policy to be more proactive in halting genocide in Darfur.   And at the far end of the grassy Mall, by Capitol Hill, a ‘tent city’ had sprung up.  Again the issue was Darfur – which has far greater prominence than here in the UK; where the Aegis Trust and its student groups are some of the few who are very active on it.  These tents had been bought and decorated by groups across the US and were to be sent on to provide shelter for families in the Darfur refugee camps that have sprung up for those forced out of their homes and villages.


My pilgrimage was a restorative one.  It was also a chance to marvel at the historic achievement of Barack Obama and everyone who had supported him.  Everywhere I went, to slightly misquote Tony Blair, “the hand of history was on my shoulder”.  Here were the memorials to the great Presidents and one day Obama might join these figures. There were two really emotional moments for me.  The first was sitting on the Lincoln Memorial steps, close to the spot where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech.  The second was at the railings of the White House, thinking that shortly an intelligent guy, an inspirational speaker, a pluralist – and yes – a black man whose father was African, was about to become President and occupy this building, a seat of global power.  “Yes we can”. “Yes we did”. Indeed.

However, there was one thing that did trouble me on my trek through DC.  And it was the same in 04 too.  The Lincoln Memorial.  The secular, pluralist nature of my political pilgrimage clashes against the religious and authoritarian symbolism of the building.  The Memorial is treated as a  ‘holy of holies’, a venerated shrine, a temple.   You ascend these vast steps to pay homage to a towering figure seated on a throne.  Lincoln as god’s presence here on earth, it almost seemed to be saying.  The ultimate in (non)separation of church and state.  Try unpicking that one!  But the aspect that made me feel most uncomfortable is the hallowed, reverential atmosphere inside; the closed, dark interior; the relative lack of space (physical and metaphorical) or light for questioning, for different views. 

If the Lincoln Memorial seems to represent one major strand of America, then the Jefferson Memorial represents another.  A more democratic building in every sense: rounded; open on many sides; light streaming in; different paths, entrances and perspectives for people to take.  The building, and the words of Jefferson inside, convey and inspire the tolerance and pluralism of the nation. 


Fittingly, as the sunset over the unmistakeable DC skyline, my journey came to an end.

NB. A slideshow of all these photos and more can be viewed here

November 18, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Political pilgrimage

Yesterday in DC was very much a political pilgrimage, walking to the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the White House and along the Mall to Capitol Hill.  A lot of walking (DC is such a great city to explore on foot) and to time to reflect, and to see people’s reactions to these hallowed sites in the light of Obama’s victory.  I’ll write more on that shortly.  And finally today, the pilgrimage ended on a cultural note: going to an art gallery and seeing one of the original, iconic Shepherd Fairley Obama ‘Hope’ pictures.  

While I was doing that (and attending a Green Festival here in DC earlier today), Meghan was at a Sheffield film festival doing a workshop in which she showed ten minutes worth of clips from the many tapes she shot in Ohio and Chicago.  I look forward to hearing how that went and what people’s reactions were. 

Shortly, I will board a plane back to London: back to cold, grey weather; back to work; back to a post-election life.  But there is plenty I still need to write up from this trip – both diary entries and more analytical pieces too.  So stay tuned. The journey is not yet complete.

November 8, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | Leave a comment

Buying a piece of history

The [unofficial] merchandise sellers were in full force in the streets surrounding Grant Park. And I picked up some great stuff: Obama beanies (hats), a big button with Obama’s image and the words ‘thank you’ on it; another which simply says “yes we did”.  But this was all tame compared to the scenes the following day.  Everyone wanted to get their hands on the special editions of the Chicago newspapers – the Tribune and the Sun Times.  All the newstands and stores had long since sold out by the time I got up.  And I wasn’t the only one scanning every sidewalk and metro carriage for one. 

The Tribune rose to the occasion though.  They started churning out extra copies and distributing them across the city.  The trouble was, as soon as a delivery arrived they were instantly snapped up.  A van was arriving every 30mins or so straight from the printing presses to the Tribune HQ in downtown Chicago.  I joined the queues outside the building waiting patiently to get their copy.  Some people were just buying a couple; others more for friends and family; and budding entrepreneurs were buying up bundles of 20 to sell on the streets for many times the cost price.  In the end I bought 5 copies, plus a few souvenir posters as well.

Update:  As I passed through Baltimore Airport to fly back to London, I noticed the newsagents there were still selling copies of Wednesday’s election special edition of the Washington Post.  Needless to say, I purchased a copy; along with the Newsweek and Time magazine specials.  Those two magazines embed reporters with each candidate and every four years, immediately after the election, produce a wonderfully rich and insider account of the each of the campaigns.  Worth getting hold of a copy, especially Newsweek.

November 8, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | Leave a comment

Halloween with the Clintons

So Halloween has been a hoot.  As I roll into bed at 5am, I quickly reflect on what has been a crazy busy day.  Hillary’s been in town, so we went to her rally.  It was a relatively small affair, with only a few hundred people.  Before that it was an Issue 8 debate (the ballot intitative on electoral reform) at Cincinnati University.  That got ugly, nasty and negative – or rather that was the no campaign taking it to that level in a mean-spirited pitch.  And before all that kicked off, it was to the local Halloween costume store to goggle and to pick an outfit for the night’s activities.  There was barely enough time after the Hillary rally to change into that costume then it was out to do Trick or Vote.  An absolutely brilliant concept … and so much fun.  And finally it was a case of hitting the bars and dancefloor to top off a true American Halloweeen experience.

Some little teasers of the photos from today.  More will go up later.

And some sad news to end this little bulletin.  Studs Terkel, one of my heroes alongside the great Woody Guthrie, has died.  He was a great chroniclor of 20th century America as seen through the eyes, words and stories of working people and those struggling to survive.

November 1, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | 1 Comment

The man behind the news

Hunter and Tyler are cool guys and great hosts.  When I was in Denver in August, I was invited to have dinner with Tyler’s parents.  This time it was Hunter who suggested we have dinner with his folks.  I had briefly met them in a bar the previous night, but the loud music prevented real conversation.  So I was excited to get the opportunity to chat properly to them.  Doubly excited because Hunter’s dad is Ernie Bjorkman, a very well known and highly respected local TV news anchor in Denver.

The hospitality and the conversation were both fantastic last Sunday, and I learnt a lot.  Amongst the many things we talked about, two points that Ernie mentioned that really stood were:

1) This parallels between Jimmy Carter’s candidacy in 1976 and Obama’s now: the outsider status; the running outside / against Washington to the same extent; the optimism of the message; the calmness from the candidate; and the heights of passion and energy of the activists.  Certainly, ordinary people hadn’t been as fired up since the 1976 campaign.

2) The difficulty in keeping journalists reporting the presidential race in as completely balanced and fair way as possible.  This wasn’t necessarily because of any inherent bias or sloppy reporting. Instead – as Ernie described it in his news room – the younger journalists especially were more likely to get swept up in the rhetoric and huge crowds of the Obama campaign and so lose their objectivity.  He was the one who had to sometimes rein them back in and ensure the balanced reporting that was expected of the news team.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | Leave a comment

An early vote for Obama

When I was in Denver, I fulfilled a long-held ambition …..

Sadly – and to clarify – no, I did not vote.  This isn’t my ballot paper and nor did I get to fill it in (despite asking very nicely).  This Denver ballor paper belongs to Hunter, who showed it to me over the weekend; before he completed it and early voted in a polling station near his work. 

My ambition though had been to see an actual ballot paper close-up and just get a sense of it.  You can read the instructions as to how to fill it out, and also the beginning of the list of presidential candidates in the state of Colorado, by clicking on each of the photos below.


The ballot paper starts with the presidential race, then the Senate, then the local Congressional one.  And then the countless local council races and locally elected positions, like judge.  And that’s just on the first ballot paper ….

As modelled by Hunter below, there are in fact two large ballot papers for the voter to fill in.  

The second ballot paper is for the ballot initiatives – the referendum on specific measures amending the local/state constitution or mandating the local authority in charge to do something or spend money in a certain way. 

Despite the fact that I am about to stump for one of these ballot initiatives, I have my scepticisms.  Especially in a presidential race as hard fought and epoch-making as this one, local issues rarely get any kind of prominence or generate wide debate.  Voters often will not know much about what the candidates stand for; or even who they are.  And these initiatives often (and the Cincinnati one is a happy exception) end up being exceedingly negative; with the campaigns trading negative adverts and mud being flown everywhichway.  It doens’t have to be like this.  But as things stand I’m not sure what good it might do to export this ballot paper featue – and the strand of greater direct democracy it entails – to the UK.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | counting votes, On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 3 Comments

Oh me, Oh my, Ohio

It’s Thursday evening so I must be in …. Ohio.  Just flown into Cincinnati airport.  For the pedants amongst you, the airport is actually just across the river, in Kentucky, so actually I haven’t yet set foot in the state of Ohio.  But I will very shortly. I am making use of the free wifi – that’s a first in a US airport, certainly that I’ve experienced.  And Meghan has just arrived, video camera in hand.  And so it starts: that added dimension to my trip of fliming, as well as a welcome and fun travelling companion and fellow political animal. 

Incidentally, I don’t know whether its my Obama buttons, my British passport, something on my immigration file (my days as a G8 summit protestor are behind me, honest guv) or the fact I booked my flight in the UK, but each of the two Northwestern flights I’ve flown have included a little excursion beforehand at the security point to have my bags and myself additionally checked.  They’ve been swabbing all my electrical equipment and testing it (for chemical residues of explosives perhaps).  They’ve also given me some lovely pat downs.  Thankfully no strip searches yet.  And I can’t really complain: it’s only a minor inconvenience.  And I’ve had friends much worse treated when flying into Israel.  

While I recover from my flight and Meghan from her long drive from Pennsylvania here, a ‘ballot measure 8’ meet up is happening on the other side of Cincinnati.  A chance I believe for students and first time voters to find out more about the electoral reform ballot initiative here in the city.  My colleague Lewis has just flown in from London and is fighting back jetlag to be there, so I should get a report of that later.  It’s all going on actually tonight, as Swing Semester Cincinnati (the same cooll outfit that I spent time with in Denver) are hosting a film night later.  They are going to be watching a special documentary on the Florida recount fiasco of 2000.  Very apposite to Ohio’s own ballot problems of 2004.  Hopefully they won’t encounter more of the same this time, but I guess it pays to be prepared.  Moreover, it is a great way to fire up activists, should they be flagging in these final days of the campaign. 

So expect more from both the ballot initiative and Swing Semester in the coming days, as I get stuck in to both.  Though tomorrow morning I have a more prosaic challenge: trying to find any kind of costume for Halloween and the ‘Trick or Vote’ fun in the evening.

October 31, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | Leave a comment

A volunteer’s view of an Obama rally

Lightening does strike twice.  Denver has now been the venue for two record-breaking Obama events: the first the nomination acceptance at Inveso stadium, and now Sunday’s campaign rally which attracted a staggering 100,000 people.  And I have been there both times.   For the Convention I was part of the audience.  This time I was that, plus – along with a thousand others – an event volunteer as well.

We gathered in our designated group at 8am and were given our final instructions.  We were tasked with being some of the first points of contact rally-goers would have, as the made their way towards the park and the back of the queue to get in.  


The aim was to give everyone “sign in slips” to complete as their ‘ticket’ to get in.  But this wasn’t just a passive data gathering exercise, though it served that purpose too.  But it went further.  The idea was to engage people in a conversation and encourage them to sign up as volunteers for the campaign: willing to door knock and phone bank in the final week of the election, and – preferably – to take some or all of election day off to help with the crucial Get-Out-The-Vote activities. 

That wasn’t even the end of the key messages we were asked to get across.  For this event was primarily a push for people to early vote.  Colorado opens up certain designated polling stations the week before election day, and allows its citizens to vote in any of these locations in their county.  We had lists of early voting places in Denver County to give out to locals.  Moreover – and this is the really clever bit – a government office (the William Webb building) was open that Sunday, including the hours after the rally, just one block from the civic park where Obama was speaking.  So it was also a case of letting people know they could early vote straight after the rally, when they were all fired up.


So those were my tasks from 8am til about 11am.  I did have a short break and wandered along some of the ever-growing lines of people waiting expectantly and excitedly to get in to the rally site. 


And along with the crowds of supporters, inevitably there were people trying to promote various local / state ballot initiatives and also a handful of anti-Obama protestors. 


By 10.30am capacity had already been reached and so people were spilling over into any available spots. I took the chance to walk up to the State Capitol building, which was the highest point nearby and offered a great view of the crowds gathered below.  Numbers of people were taking advantage of its position and were viewing the rally from there, even if Obama must have only been a tiny dot to them.


At 11.30am all the volunteers gathered again at our original meeting spot and made our way over to a special entrance where we could still get access to the event.  Security was tight, with airport-style scanners and even things like apples and other items that could potentially be lobbed at Obama were conviscated on entry.   On the plus side, it gave me ample opportunity to chat with fellow volunteers in the queue – including one woman who was really putting her heart and soul (and virtually every waking minute) into the campaign; and a veteran who was proudly wearing a ‘Republicans for Obama’ t-shirt and happily defied sterotyping.


It was taking so long to get us through, that the last groups of volunteers – myself included – only just made it into the park in time for Obama’s entrance.  And for the first few minutes of his speech I was stuck miles from the main stage, unable to make my way through to the area reserved for campaign volunteers.  Some of the other volunteers were cursing the disorganisation of the campaign at that point and it was very frustrating. 

Thankfully, though, everything worked out and we were able to make our way much closer to where Obama was speaking.  So I ended up having a much better view of proceedings than I had done that night in the stadium at the Convention.


Obama’s speech itself was – by his standards – fairly perfunctory.  There were some longer segments on the economy, but otherwise it was a standard stump speech.  I guess I had the luxury of having heard him live at the Convention.  My favourites parts of his speech at this rally were his riff on “there are no red states or blue states, only the united states of america” and an emotional bit towards the end giving some historical context to Obama’s candidacy and welcoming new generations and new immigrants to these shores.  And he gave his useful powerful closing lines, rallying the army of footsoldiers and voters stretched out before him. 

(NB. You can see the short clips I took of parts of his speech here)

As to be expected, there was plenty of cheering and shouting both during Obama’s speech, and immediately afterwards … which was all happily lapped up by the media.


As the crowds started dispersing, I wanted my own mementos of the day; of having been there for another historic occasion.  So cue some cheesy shots:


My thanks goes to the two girls who took some of those photos of me, and whose placard I borrowed.

Exiting the park, my duties done, there were other more energetic and hard-working volunteers who were doing that all important task: signing the way to the early voting polling station and encouraging people to make that few minute detour to do vote there and then.  I gave the sign-holders a deeply felt “keep up the good work” type comment, as I was impressed at their stamina and enthusiasm after such an early start to our volunteering day.  


October 30, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , , | 2 Comments

Minneapolis quick update

I’m sitting in a cafe taking a quick break from phone-banking.  Did three hours this morning and my next shift is starting in a couple of minutes.   I’m based in the Minneapolis downtown Obama office and its busy: maybe 20-25 people plus more coming and going.  There’s a dedicated call centre a few blocks away, but there’s a wider variety of activities in the office I’m in.  I’ve been put to work calling older people (more likely to be in during the day) to ensure they know where their local polling station is and to encourage them to vote not just for Obama but also for Al Franken for Senate and Keith Ellison for Congress.  I’ll update on my progress later.  And on the positive reactions I’ve got from other Obama volunteers.

October 29, 2008 Posted by | On the Campaign Trail | , , , | 2 Comments