Even now, as the memories of the Democratic National Convention are starting to fade, the crowds and cameras have left, and the speeches turned into expired sound bites — I’ve come to understand that history is served best when it is not regurgitated back as a spectator sport.
On the day Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was to give his acceptance speech for his party’s nomination, I was at Denver’s Invesco Field with more than 80,000 people. Exactly one minute before Obama came on stage, I laboriously moved through the crowd on the stadium floor, jockeying for a better position near the stage.
I was just one of 15,000 members of the media who had come to witness and record the day. I ducked and weaved, stealthily slipped past some and overtly smashed into others. I narrowly avoided cameras, lights, TV anchors and sensory-overloaded delegates who wandered around in a zombie-like euphoria under waves of flashing lights and patriotic music.
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I had decided I would be with the people when this event happened, not emotionally and physically removed like the day before — and it wasn’t easy. I felt like I’d been beaten with mallets. I moved within a stone’s throw from the main stage, when the stadium suddenly erupted in a deafening roar. The time had come.
It was only the day before that I sat in the nosebleed section at the Pepsi Center in a crowd mixed with journalists and the public. I couldn’t have been farther away from the action if I’d been watching the DNC on cable — in Borneo and inside a cardboard box. To my immediate left sat a reporter who spoke in broken English and slept through most of the speeches. To her left were two French journalists who frowned during most of the event, reserved seats next to them that were never filled and texted the entire time, looking up only to tell people the seats around them were already taken. Directly behind me sat a group of enthusiastic Japanese reporters who gleefully booed and cheered with the rest of the massive audience.
Seating had become an issue, and mild arguments were breaking out around me. After Bill Clinton’s speech, the French immediately left, and I helped fill their newly vacated seats if only to alleviate some seating tension.
After the event let out, I got back to the shuttle that would transport me back to my car in Lakewood. As I sat half dozing, a woman encrusted with buttons and signs leaned over her seat and aggressively asked a man and woman speaking Cantonese if they were members of the media. The man nodded politely and smiled.
“What did you think? Did you like it?” she asked, referring to the speeches and musical performances.
He again nodded politely. “Good,” she blurted out and slumped back down into her seat with a plop. The two reporters gave each other a satirical look that anyone could read without having to speak a lick of Cantonese.
So far it had all been terribly exciting, but I felt oddly removed from the events that were taking place. That’s not how living through history is supposed to be. It was like listening to the best of Phil Collins on tape instead of attending a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. I was determined the next day to get as close to the action as I could. At the time I had no idea what I’d have to do to get there.
The red, white and blue balloons buffeted back and forth in the current of the hotel lobby’s air conditioning. It was the next day, and it was also the last day of the convention. Several delegates sat quietly in the comfortable lobby furniture waiting for the shuttle to appear. It wouldn’t be long before I was riding the convention’s merry-go-round of madness.
On paper, 80,000 people seems tangible, but reality paints a picture of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, vendors inexplicably not serving hot dogs and incredibly slow lines. When I got to my assigned seating section, I was again amazed how far away from the action I was. In order to experience the speakers, I’d have to rely on the JumboTron. A reporter from Boulder and I decided to do everything in our power to find out how we could get closer to the action. To do so, we needed to find out how to exchange our passes for “floor” passes. This was something theoretically possible but several long steps and a jump away from practical.
We started out by making our way through the impossibly long lines to ask official-looking officials if they knew where the press needed to go for the floor-pass exchange. After many misses and confused looks, someone yelled out something about going to the fifth floor.
We made our way over to the elevators and found they were stuffed with people — so much so that the doors kept opening and closing as they shut on someone’s arm or leg. An elevator opened behind us, and I pushed myself in, tight as a sardine. The greeter on the fifth floor said we needed to be on the fourth, which resulted in another awkward elevator ride back down. On the fourth floor we asked around just long enough to find out that we had to go back to where we started.
After my kidneys got vigorously tenderized by a series of elbows, we headed back down to the first floor and back to where we started. There was still nothing in the way of how to get our passes exchanged. The other reporter and I went our separate ways without a word to sit in our assigned seats. In the blaring sun, I watched with envy the spectacle taking place on the floor of the stadium. Determined not to give up, I got back up, making everyone in my row stand to let me out for the umpteenth time and by chance came across a plainly dressed man in a suit clandestinely handing out floor passes like he was on a foggy street corner in East Berlin with a pocketful of microfiche.
After crawling, fighting and negotiating, I made my way to the floor to experience history firsthand. For the next four hours, I avoided getting caught or trampled in the constantly moving crowd despite the fact that security told me to keep moving four different times. And then it happened. The rest is history.
That night I fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow, but on the second I didn’t fall asleep right away, and every time I closed my eyes I saw people — thousands of them taking part in the active sport of democracy. It’s like they’d been burned into my retinas, an image tattooed to my brain that no amount of cosmetic surgery could remove. It’s one tattoo I don’t mind having. It’s not every day you get to see a page firsthand from the story of the United States of America.
Ian Neligh is a news editor for Evergreen Newspapers.