West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 18 | October 3 - 9, 2007

Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki

A sea of blue campaign signs for Barack Obama filled Washington Square Park last Thursday evening as the presidential candidate held a rally in the heart of Greenwich Village.

Thousands hear Obama speak in Washington Square

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

“I love New York. I used to live in New York, hang out in Washington Square Park,” said Barack Obama last Thursday night at a rally in Washington Square Park. “I know Greenwich Village! I know…” he started to say, then tapped the microphone as if it had lost power. “I was going to say, I know some of the bars around here, but I think my communications director was trying to cut that off,” he explained to laughter.

Obama employed his trademark mixture of genuine, seemingly off-the-cuff remarks and strong rhetoric as he walked around the stage in rolled up shirtsleeves, microphone in hand and sans tie and jacket.

Waiting for him to arrive, the crowd of thousands waved Barack Obama ’08 signs as excitement built. After pausing to shake hands to the Kanye West song “Touch the Sky,” Obama then strode on stage just to the west of the Washington Square Arch.

Before he had barely begun, someone in the crowd yelled out, “I love you, Barack,” and without missing a beat, he responded midsentence, “I love you, back,” to the delight of the park audience.

The Illinois senator started his speech by noting the diversity among the crowd.

“You’ve got young people and old people. You’ve got poor folk and not-so-poor folk,” he said. “You’ve got blacks, whites, Asians, Native Americans. You’ve got gay and straight. You’ve got people with disabilities. You’ve got Democrats and independents, and, yes, you’ve even got some Republicans.”

The campaign estimates that the event drew 24,000 people, although there is no exact count. Washington Square Park was packed, and spectators lined Fifth Ave. to get a glimpse of Obama through the arch.

The crowd had lined up to go through security checks complete with metal detectors. A group of small children with their parents were allowed to the front of one of the many lines in order to get into the playground. As a security guard rifled through a small backpack filled with homework and art projects, the bag’s 6-year-old owner explained to his father that it was “just like getting on an airplane.” One security officer confiscated an apparently fake, wooden handgun.

The security checks were provided by COBRA, a private firm of off-duty Department of Correction officers, though the Secret Service was also on hand. A sharpshooter could be seen on the rooftop of New York University’s Kimmel Center on Washington Square S. The park had been closed since noon when a security sweep was carried out.

Obama referenced the Democratic debate the night before, but did not seem to be “under the weather” as he had been at the debate. His performance at the debate, however, got him at least one vote.

“I knew I was coming here tonight, so I watched the debate to prepare,” said Simba Hinds, an N.Y.U. senior. “After that, I am definitely supporting Barack.”

The event, right in N.Y.U.’s backyard as it were, was targeted at a youthful demographic, and before Obama came on, his campaign manager instructed the audience to register with the campaign via cell phone text message.

A Chinese-American rapper named Jin, 25, warmed up the crowd, saying that Obama would get “his first-ever vote.”

The crowd was indeed young, and comprised of many students who are also planning on casting a “first-ever vote.” A loud cheer erupted when Obama asked the mostly college-aged audience: “Don’t you think it’s time we make college more affordable and accessible?”

Kendall Gill, 19, an N.Y.U. junior at the rally, said she was planning to cast her first-ever vote for Hilary Clinton, but acknowledged that she could still be swayed.

“I am planning on voting for Hilary because I want to see a woman in the White House,” said Gill. “But I came to see Obama because I want to hear what he has to say.”

Obama twice directly referenced the differences between himself and Clinton.

“Even your senator of New York wasn’t clear about the Yankees,” said Obama in response to Clinton’s comment at the previous night’s debate that she would divide her support between her hometown Chicago Cubs and the Yankees in the baseball playoffs. “Ah, I know who I am rooting for, the White Sox! I know my team!” Obama said to loud applause.

Later, Obama spoke out against his Democratic primary opponents a bit more harshly.

“It is not enough just to change parties in the White House if we have the same kind of politics,” said Obama. “It’s not enough to change parties if we continue to see the country divided. We have the red states and blue states, and we end up fighting the same petty, partisan battles over and over and over again.”

When Obama began to talk about hope, he quickly acknowledged that he has been attacked for this theme.

“People in Washington say, ‘He’s talking about hope again — he’s a hope peddler, a hope mongerer.’ ... I stand guilty as charged,” he said.

In response to criticisms by some who say he lacks the experience to be president, he began by referring to his “two decades in public service.”

“There are a couple of guys named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who had two of the best résumés in Washington,” he said. “Longevity does not guarantee good judgment. A long résumé says nothing about your character.”

He spoke about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and, in turn, President Bush’s response of invading Iraq.

“We remember 9/11. We remember the world rallying around us after the horrific events just a few miles away,” he said, pointing Downtown. “And we said to ourselves, we are going to change, and the world said, we are going to change with you to prevent such a travesty from happening again — and we frittered all that goodwill away.”

Obama closed his 41-minute speech with an anecdote from the campaign trail: A woman renowned in her small North Carolina town for her chants had whipped up the crowd at an Obama rally with calls of “Ready to go!” and “Fired up!” He had considered not even making the trek to the place, but afterward was incredibly inspired by the woman’s passion.

At the end of his speech last Thursday, he led the crowd in chanting “Ready to go! Fired up!” and called upon those present to help bring about change, here and in the world.

“I love his hype, what he’s got going, his energy,” said Oliver Fetter, 20, a volunteer firefighter and aspiring actor from New Jersey. “I was hoping to come here today to learn a little bit more.”

Fetter sat on the Washington Square fountain holding an Obama sign, as the crowd dispersed. His mother was sitting by his side.

“In my book, there’s no one else to support at this point,” said Robin Fetter, in her 50s, a solid Obama supporter. “I wouldn’t touch Hillary with a 10-foot pole. Just because she’s a woman doesn’t cut it. And John Edwards is like cheese — soft cheese.”

The addition of more than an estimated 20,000 people to the surrounding streets created a traffic jam as the crowd filled out.

“This is why I avoid Times Square,” said a passerby on Eighth St. “I wonder if there was some kind of event in the park.”

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson

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