Upholding Our End
The people have spoken, but that's not enough.
The people have spoken, but that's not enough.
The landslide election of Barack Obama represents something extraordinary—but not just because our president-elect has brown skin.
What is equally extraordinary is the rainbow-colored, mass movement that consolidated itself to catapult him into the White House.
Even as we celebrate the phenomenon that is Obama, let us not lose sight of an even bigger phenomenon—that of the American people, waking up and taking history into their own hands.
I will confess: This perspective can be hard to maintain. Sometimes a surfer is so brilliant, skilled and mesmerizing that one fails to even see the giant current that propels him. And yet as thrilling as the best surfers are, they ride massive, thundering waves that are even more awe-inspiring.
In Obama's case, the beautiful "wave" that he is riding is—us! The media see the massive crowds he draws and simply calls us "Obama supporters." We are. But we are also much more than that.
We are a massive "pro-democracy movement" that rose up to terminate the corrupt, authoritarian rule of George W. Bush's GOP. And Barack Obama himself would be the first to admit that our "people's movement" to rescue America did not start with his campaign.
And it must not end with his election.
Our movement was born in the dark and difficult days after 9/11, when national leaders twisted our sobs of grief into a cry for war. Some of us opposed the war drive from the beginning, but we were too few and our voices too faint to make a difference.
But we were the seed that blossomed into full flower as a global, anti-war movement, when the United States threatened Iraq with invasion. When we failed to block the invasion, that movement poured itself into the 2004 presidential election opposing Bush. We came within 100,000 votes in Ohio of unseating a wartime president—without a sophisticated Web site and with very little money.
After enduring the horrors and hardships of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our movement in 2006 finally ended one-party, authoritarian rule—giving the Congress back to the Democrats for the first time in 14 years.
Obama looked out and saw the transformative power of this broad, deep, determined and hopeful people's movement. He saw us struggling to restore the country's democratic principles, bring our troops home and revive the nation's standing in the world. He was insightful enough to see in our dynamism and momentum the basis for an audacious run for the highest office in the land. And he plunged in. The rest is history.
Viewed in this light, our movement's liberation of the White House is only the final act in a seven-year process of restoring the rule of law to the United States. We shouldn't only be proud of Obama. We should also be proud of ourselves.
Barack Obama did something more important and profound than make history: He gave an awakening American people the chance to make history—and we rose to the challenge.
Let's keep rising.
Just as the president-elect must now "transition" from being a first-term senator to the leader of the whole country, our movement must transition. Our challenge now is to move from eight years of opposition to eight years of proposition. We must shift from protest to governance. And it's is a tough challenge.
But it is one we can meet—if we stay engaged, stay informed, stay involved and keep pushing for change. We can't stop now—not with wars still waging, the economy still imploding, schools still failing and greenhouse gases still accumulating in the atmosphere. We will continue to need Obama. And Obama will continue to need us—now more than ever.
We can't go back to pre-crisis mode any more than he can. We would be outraged if he celebrated at the inauguration, thanked everyone and then just went back to his old pre-election life. We would all start screaming and say, "Hold on now! You have a lot of work you need to do before you get to sit back down. The election is the beginning, not the end, of our work of fixing this country!"
Well, we should say the same thing to each other and to ourselves.
The fact that our pro-democracy movement predated and made possible Obama's victory in no way diminishes the achievements, genius or promise of the once-in-a-lifetime leader. He has not even taken office—but already, he is a living legend, a defining American icon. He is destined to stand in the company of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, if not George Washington and Nelson Mandela. He is the only living person whose name is certain to be on the lips of school children 200 years from now.
But if we think back to the civil rights era, the movement could not have succeeded as spectacularly without Dr. King's particular gifts and contributions. And King could not have succeeded without the millions of unnamed civil rights workers and supporters who collectively broke the back of Jim Crow segregation. Dr. King and the movement needed each other and propelled each other to greatness.
It is my deepest hope and most fervent prayer that Barack Obama and the American people will, too, propel each other to greatness. Let's make sure that we, the people, uphold our end of the bargain.
Van Jones is an environmental activist and author of The New York Times' best-seller, The Green Collar Economy.