Sunday, January 18, 2009


January 18, 2009 - 11:45AM, smh

For the tens of thousands gathering to see President-elect Barack Obama at a pre-inaugural rally in Baltimore, the mood was buoyant despite a long wait in bitter cold.

"What cold?" said Nicole Harris, 32, smiling under her winter hat.

The African-American flight attendant showed up at 7.30am to make sure she got a front-row spot for Mr Obama's late afternoon rally in Baltimore, where his train will stop on its symbolic journey to Washington.

"From the first time I heard him speak I was so deeply moved. I just thought he was the person to help us move in the right direction," Ms Harris said.

"I've been electrified since then."

The queue to enter the event began forming before dawn. By early afternoon the line snaked up to 16 city blocks, with a carnival atmosphere keeping the crowd warm as they filed through tight security enforced by police and army reservists.

With temperatures well below freezing, chants for Mr Obama broke out among the diverse crowd filling up the War Memorial Plaza, decorated with huge American flags and red, white and blue banners. The chants were often accompanied by spontaneous calisthenics to fend off the cold.

"I'm starving, cold and my feet are numb," said Dyone Watson, 20. "But it's definitely worth it."

Even along the train route from Philadelphia to the capital, thousands of exuberant supporters gathered to cheer and wave the vintage railcar on its historic journey, carrying Mr Obama three days before he is sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States.

"It's just beautiful. It just makes me want to do more with my life," said Will Moore, 22, as he stood with his two-year-old niece.

"It's just a joy for everybody. It's about time that we needed change ... He [Mr Obama] is showing us we can do whatever we put our minds to. Just keep on trying, never give up."

"Everybody's very excited and seems to be enjoying themselves," said Walter Massey, 54, an elementary school teacher.

Mr Massey was first in line for the Baltimore rally, having showed up at 4.30am.

"I've got about 12 layers on," he joked, stamping his feet to keep warm.

Like others waiting in the cold, he said he had come to witness history.

"This is truly a historical moment. This was an opportunity to see him, be involved in it. It's probably the most historic thing that will happen in my lifetime," he said.

Mr Obama's victory in November had restored his faith in his compatriots, he said.

"I did not think America was mature enough to elect an African-American as president," said Mr Massey, who is white.

Authorities blocked off a whole section of the city centre for the rally, with buses parked across intersections amid a heavy police presence.

After the event in Baltimore, 57 kilometres from Washington, Mr Obama's train was due to make its way to the US capital.

While the train tour was meant to echo former president and Obama hero Abraham Lincoln's rail ride from the Civil War era, Mr Obama's stop in Baltimore at a rally in daylight marks a break with Lincoln's experience in 1861.

The threat of assassination forced Lincoln to slip through Baltimore at nightfall on his way to Washington, and his train made no stop in a city that at the time had strong Southern sympathies.

For many residents of what is now a predominantly African-American city, a chance to hear Mr Obama speak only days before his swearing-in was the event of a lifetime.

"I came to see history being made. I wanted to see our first African-American president, right here in Baltimore city," said Mrs Harris, 32, sitting on a portable chair with a blanket wrapped around her legs.

"It's just absolutely wonderful, really it is," she said.

With the economy in deep trouble, she said Mr Obama had his work cut out for him.

"It's going to be extremely hard for him. But he's not a man who's going to leave a task undone. I do believe change is going to come," she said.

"We've got to be patient. We've been patient all these years so we can be patient a little bit longer."