The 2001 riots, which were the single major political moment of my youth, have become an odd historical anecdote, shared by kids recently moved from Knoxville or Indianapolis—"Do you know where the last American race riots happened? Cincinnati. Look it...
I'd known Michelle Obama was coming to town today. It was the first day of early voting in Ohio, and she was coming to make a show of force. But I hadn't been sure what time she'd be speaking, and anyway I'd been drinking the night before, and I forgot to set my alarm. So it turned out that I was already running late when, at 12:55 PM, I called the office of the Hamilton County Democratic Party to see where and when I was supposed to show up. They transferred me over to a man named Jason, the campaign's press guy in Southwest Ohio, who told me that there'd be no problem so long as I showed up by 1:15 at the corner of Fifth and Elm streets, downtown, with my press credentials. This meant going to our massive, ugly, convention center—in the only part of the entire city that's at all hard to park in. That part of downtown is, at best, a 25-minute drive from my parents' house, and I still hadn't actually got any credentials from VICE. I said I'd see him there.
I couldn't say if this holds true nationally, but in Southwest Ohio it's sort of amazing to see how much better at their jobs Obama's press people are than their Romney counterparts. Twenty-seven minutes later, at 1:22, this Jason actually called me back to see how I was doing. I didn't take the call, because at the time I was using a paintbrush to apply polyurethane to a fake VICE press pass I'd just printed out. The poly worked surprisingly well as a laminate, but it smelled terribly. I called Jason back, at 1:27, to say I'd be there in ten minutes. He said that the secret service had closed off access to the press corral, but that he'd try to get me in through the general entry.
I got there at 1:52, eight minutes before the first lady was supposed to speak, and Jason led me through the general entry and got me through security and asked if I needed anything and I said no, he'd been too kind, etc, etc, and we shook hands and he left me. Though I had skipped breakfast, and I'd been hoping there'd be a buffet, like at the Romney events. Here there wasn't even coffee.
I'd missed the two speakers I most wanted to see—the Senator Sherrod Brown and Mark Mallory, Cincinnati's indecipherable mayor, but now they were both standing with the press, and I was able to watch them intensely. I've forgotten now what was happening on stage.
I spoke once with Senator Brown a few years ago, when I was in college, and I've admired him ever since. My grandmother flew planes during World War II, and we'd all been in D.C. to see her receive a Congressional Gold Medal for it, and Brown's office called us to ask if the Senator might be the one to escort my grandmother up to the dias to get her medal. She said no. They called back to ask if she might like to come visit the Senator in his offices. She asked how far a walk it was from the Capitol to the Senate office buildings, they told her, and she said "that's much too far for me." They called back to see if she was sure, and she said "Why doesn't the Senator speak to my grandson? He'll make the walk." They said they'd see if that was convenable, and the Senator said it was.
So I went, and we talked. He knew my college girlfriend, it turned out, and we talked about her, and about the differences between Northern and Southern Ohio, which in their own way are probably just as extreme as the differences between coastal and western Massachusetts, and we talked about how I don't feel any connection to the flat, northern part of the state, and he was gracious about that, given that he comes from the area up around Cleveland. An aide came in to tell him he was running over schedule, and he told her that was fine. We talked about how at any rate the greatest threat to our whole diverse Ohio way of life wasn't socialism but the sleek new global order, and he sounded for a minute like a French factory worker, which was a pose that fit him well. We talked some more, and he asked me if there was anything I wanted from him, something a only a Senator could do for me. I tried and couldn't think of anything, and I signed the guestbook and left.
Now he was standing off to the left of the desks where the other reporters had set up, and I was leaning on a garbage can taking notes on his demeanor. Next to him was a short, Jewish aide, who—if she wasn't exactly pretty—was at least the kind of girl I tend to go for. They started towards the exit, and I went to intercept them, thinking that, if I couldn't impress the girl, a few words with the Senator wouldn't be so bad of a consolation.
They crossed the press area, and, if you were watching as the Senator noticed, you might have seen him make a heroic effort at remembrance. He stopped walking, and looked away to give himself time to think, and he looked back at me. The aide took his arm and led him onward. I was sort of confused as to what to do. As they passed I heard him ask her: "Do you know who that is?" She looked back at me and shook her head. "I don't know that guy," she said, which was fair. They left.
This left Our Mayor Mallory as the one I wanted to approach. But now Jessica, the Obama campaign's press secretary for the whole state of Ohio, had come over to introduce herself, to see how I was doing, to see if I had any questions. They really are very good at what they do. And then Michelle was on.
You realize quickly that there's no point in recounting what these campaigners say in their speeches, but it was interesting to see that in person she's just as presentable as she seems on TV, which isn't, in my limited experience, at all true of Romney. And she might have spoken better than Romney. If she did it wasn't by much, and it wouldn't have mattered if she spoke half as well, either. But this had to do with the crowd, which will lead us back to Mallory, and hopefully tie things up.
It's been seven years now since I actually lived in Cincinnati, and it's been longer than that since I saw a mass gathering of liberals here, and—because Southern Ohio is liminal in character and not quite totally industrial and just doesn't share the history—they just aren't a common thing to see, the way they are in Chicago and Cleveland and how they once were in Detroit. But looking out on the crowd you were reminded that Cincinnati, in its way, is a Northern city too, and I'm just old enough to remember the last days of the great interracial liberal dream of the Northern industrial city. I remember big marches on Martin Luther King Day, and how the black men wore dashikis and graying dreadlocks and smelled of incense and the white women wore long cardigans and long unbrushed hair and smelled of cats and the talk was of building racial harmony and alleviating hopelessness in the "inner-city." Which, if you stop to notice, is a term we hear very rarely anymore. I'm actually just old enough to remember seeing people wear, earnestly, their Rainbow Coalition buttons, as though if only the Democratic elders and the New Hampshire primary voters would get out of his way Jesse Jackson might come back and really do something for this inner-city.
And now the dashikis and cardigans are gone, and the hair is trimmed short and no one smells like anything but deodorant. But you looked out on the crowd, 6,800 strong—thirteen times the number that came to the Romney event I'd just covered—and you saw the same people. They were older—on average the crowd seemed to be just as old as the Romney crowd—and everyone my age or above who'd come from the inner-city to be here had lived through the crack wars and a race riot, in 2001, that had finally killed any dream of finding racial harmony and alleviating the ancient hopelessness.
After that riot they'd succeeded, against impossible odds, at electing Mallory, a black man from the inner-city. And Mallory came back and told them that their struggle had been the wrong one all along. He bought himself slim-fit suits and brought in urban planners and told them that the way to fix the inner-city was to encourage investment and to bring the whites who'd left back from the suburbs. The people who—I'm just relating the sentiment, but the sentiment isn't totally unfair—had left five decades worth of white and black inner-city dwellers to die in ghettos and get shot by the police and dig out a living on welfare while the city built new highways to shuttle the suburbanites in and out of downtown and gave tax breaks to the corporations that employed them. But Mallory said they should forget all that.
He still might be right—it's one of the great political questions of our time. But the point I'm getting at is that the people in this crowd were people of the old-school Dream, who remembered the Million-Man March and numberless little political events that probably it won't do any good to talk about here. And these people knew—much better than the country at large probably knows—that Barack Obama had come up under the tutelage of people just like them. It didn't matter that now there was more of the Mayor Mallory in him than there was of the old Reverend Jackson. Michelle—everyone, even the press people, just called her Michelle—was finding herself unable to contain the energy in the room. They cheered for nothing, they cheered at her hand gestures. There were two separate times when I thought she couldn't possibly try to calm them, that she would just have to accept that the room was bursting and send everyone out to go vote, or be swept out with them. It became painful to watch her calm everyone so she could tell them that Barack Obama really wants women to get equal pay for equal work. They knew that. Again, it's impossible to watch the campaign from this part of Ohio without thinking that the—one hates to use this word—issues couldn't possibly matter less.
Michelle eventually did send everyone out to vote—abruptly, and without much fire, but it didn't matter. Sixty-eight hundred people cheered for five minutes and the music came on: Bruce Springsteen, and then the same Brooks and Dunn song they play after Romney appearances, and then more Bruce Springsteen, and the crowd debouched out onto Elm Street. There would be a march from the convention center across downtown to the county board of elections, where people would begin voting. The night before the local NAACP had organized a camp outside the offices, where people slept so they might start voting at the exact moment it became legally possible. It seems safe to report that—just tallying the ballots already cast—Obama is right now winning Ohio by a huge majority.
I stayed behind because I wanted to talk to Mallory. He was standing in the press corral with his police detail, in a navy iteration of his usual slim suit. He had the look of every politician from a nothing town who's just had the chance to introduce a national figure, half self-satisfied, half grim with the knowledge he'll never be the headliner. They managed a strange, stiff, smile.
The city has changed under him. The outlying whites gripe, but beneath their complaints like him much better than they'll admit. He's brought condos downtown for their kids to live in and he's brought a redeveloped riverfront, with plentiful parking, for them to come and visit and remember the downtown spectacles of their childhoods. The 2001 riots, which were the single major political moment of my youth, have become an odd historical anecdote, shared by kids recently moved from Knoxville or Indianapolis—"Do you know where the last American race riots happened? Cincinnati. Look it up. You'd never guess." And I'd wanted to talk to him about how both he and President Obama seem to have succeeded by taking the hopes of the old Dreamers and turning back and telling them their game doesn't play anymore, that the way forward need be glossy and palatable and involve public-private partnerships. That hope, essentially, must not be allowed to run too far ahead of itself.
Which, perhaps, is politics. But this was sort of personal. My mother chairs the board of a downtown homeless shelter that, to put it simply, private development interests have been pressuring Mallory to use his position to pressure out of its current, valuable, location. My mother has refused to move it, and once, a few years ago, our dapper mayor called my mother into his office and began a lecture with the words "Look here, missy." Which is the sort of thing a son doesn't easily forgive. I'd also once written an essay about Cincinnati that—although, seriously, very few people read all of that essay and I really doubt this mayor was one of them—I'm told he found spiteful and totally out-of-touch with the current tenor of the city.
And so I watched the mayor, planning my attack. I'd thought he'd go out the general entrance, so he'd be seen passing by the crowd, and I'd positioned myself to intercept his exit. And something unbelievable happened. He'd seen me watching, and he turned to the cop at his left, and gestured with his head toward me. I kept watching, and I could see him say the words: "do we know him?" The cop looked and shook his head. The mayor, satisfied that I wasn't a reporter he had to please, turned and walked with his security detail out the press exit, opposite from me, exactly as Sherrod Brown had done. I tried to catch up, but by the time I'd made it past security and through the doors he was in a car and gone.
I left and walked down Seventh Street, looking for a late breakfast. It was raining. I heard drums, and followed the sound. The traffic on seventh was backed up, I was passing cars on foot. I started running.
I had expected a march, and it's possible that a march really did pass before got a chance to see it. But now what was blocking Seventh Street was a troupe of black teenagers in uniform, ten girls dancing in front, ten boys beating a march behind. I saw one adult, a black woman carrying a sign that said "Follow Me." I was following, and the cars were following, but there was no one else. They went on, through the middle of downtown, in the middle of a work day. Workers on the new high-rise developments stopped and came down to smoke and watch.
The crush of cars behind the kids was amazing. They moved, six inches from bumper to bumper. Cars began piling up on the intersecting streets, trying to turn, and the streets couldn't hold them. People began to honk. Some men in a pickup began to chant: "Four more years. Of crap." There was this crush of cars because the eastern section of Seventh Street leads to a feeder ramp onto I-71 North, the highway that has for decades carried the wealthier commuter traffic between downtown and the eastern suburbs. This was just the easiest path from the convention center to the board of elections, but it also wasn't. We came to Broadway, where Seventh actually dead-ends into the highway, and the kids paused. The cars pushed forward. The honking was incredible. The men in the pickup appealed to the watching construction workers, and the construction workers refused to join their chant.
The kids turned, and then the moment became overwhelming. Because anyone watching who was old enough to remember—the drummers and dancers weren't, they did this by accident—saw them pass by the juvenile court and, while the tail of the group still blocked the interstate entrance, they came to the exact point where, in 2001, a group of black teenagers had overturned a hotdog stand and started a riot that would nearly destroy this downtown. They cleared Seventh Street. The cars positively ejaculated onto the highway. Now it was pouring rain. A police car appeared. The kids held the street. You sensed trouble.
I gave a cigarette to a black man watching. He said that he "did security" for the troupe, and this seemed appropriate, in the moment. They were soaked now. The police cruiser moved closer. It wasn't five feet from the last drummer. The man who did security watched it carefully.
And you could understand why they've accused this president of waging a class war, because that's how any Cincinnatian would understand this scene. This isn't a place where marches and a blocked highway entrance can be taken as just a bit of innocent spontaneous politics. Here this president speaks for people who've lost nearly every engagement of the last five decades, and you get the feeling we'll learn very quickly how little this city has actually changed, should he lose this election. But for now the police remain in the cruiser, and the kids have beaten out one last march. They parade into the county board of elections, to dry off and watch their parents vote.
Photographs by Liz Gorman.
Previously - On the Road with Obama and Romney - Part 1