The following is an extract from the Steve Zacharanda's excellent book, Obama and Me: The Incredible True Story of a Youtube Sensation, in which Zacharanda (unfortunately not his real name) tells the story of how he followed the Obama dream all the way to Florida, and joined the campaign trail. You can buy it here
The phone rang in the Miami South Beach Obama office - the ring tone was the familiar Ode to Joy, which seemed to be continuously playing - and Mark answered.
“Yep...Ok...great...yeah we’re off Ocean Drive...really? Ok, well we’re open from 10am to 10pm.”
Mark put the phone down and uttered the immortal words:
“He’s the Jewish Elvis.”
My ears perked up: “He’s the what?”
Mark answered like he’d had a conversation with a Jewish Elvis a thousand times before. “Yeah, he said he was in New York and wanted to fly down and help out, then said he was the Jewish Elvis.”
Now, God love Barack Obama, and I really do hope he makes the world a better place, but campaigning with The Jewish Elvis is my kind of politics. The first time I met the Kosher King (real name Willard Morgan) was the day I returned safe and sound from the Obama rally. I knocked on the office door to find out where Mark and Kale had gone for a beer and he opened it. I gasped; perhaps because I was worse for wear; I thought it was Dustin Hoffman.
Willard had been the rally and had had more luck than me. He told me that Mark and Kale had gone off to a sports bar, so still dazed I joined them to watch their basketball team, The Oakland Warriors, lose. “I’ve just seen a Dustin Hoffman lookalike at the office,” I told the pair. “Nah, that must have been Jelvis,” they replied.
I should have known, he had a certain star quality.
The next day, after spending three hours in HSBC begging some idiot in their Indian call centre for my money to be transferred, I went to work determined to help Barack Obama get elected. After eating some humongous beef sandwiches, dropped off at the office for the troops, I hit the phones. My success rate was not as I’d hoped, mainly due to those answering the phones not understanding a word I said, but I carried on regardless. However, this would be the day I would get my first taste of campaigning on the front line.
Again Beethoven’s ditty went off, and Mark picked up first. He asked: “Is there anyone free to go to the polls? We’re outnumbered.” Before his question had even finished I’d volunteered. After all, I wasn’t setting the world alight on the phones. In Florida voting had started two weeks before the vote, because of the controversy over voter exclusion in the past, and the interest was so high people were queuing for hours to cast their vote. To give Obama supporters, who were more likely not used to voting, encouragement we needed volunteers at the polls to prevent harassment from Republicans.
Mark explained that the Republicans pay people to stand outside the polls all day waving placards and shouting slogans, whereas the Democrats don’t. Florida’s role in the disputed 2000 election was never far from the mind of any Democratic volunteer because of all the dirty tricks, the disenfranchisement of poor blacks and voter intimidation that lead to Gore losing the state. No-one wanted a repeat of that monumental injustice, and everyone was doing everything in their power to stop that happening again, be it the hundreds of lawyers who flew to Florida from across America to act as witnesses at polls or volunteers like me who just wanted to help.
When I arrived, there were hundreds of people snaking around the building waiting to take part in the biggest election in a generation and the average wait was well over an hour. Mark said: “Go and find Ophelia - you can’t miss her. She’ll tell you what to do, and don’t take no shit. Thanks for helping, buddy.”
three Republicans cheered and shouted ‘Baby killer’ at me too. I suppose I should have been shocked, hurt or otherwise upset, but I was delighted. This was the campaign experience I wanted
In front of the town hall there were six or seven Republicans and other groups I didn’t recognise shouting slogans and waving placards. There was only one visible Democrat, a light skinned black lady in her fifties who wore her hair in pigtails, and she was delighted when I introduced myself. “I’m Adam, what can I do to help?” She said with a smile: “Wow, what an accent. I’m Ophelia, and we’re being outnumbered.” We walked over to what looked like a changing area for political activists, a walled flowerbed filled with countless placards with different slogans, bags full of badges and different flags. She dug out a big ‘Obama – Biden’ sign, handed it to me and told me to stand on the corner of the intersection outside the town hall.
“Is that it?” I asked. “Yeah, at the moment that’s all you need to do. It’s all about visibility, it’ll be a great help and it will stop them lot getting fresh,” she said, pointing to the Republicans. She whispered in a conspiratorial way: “They get dropped off and picked up by the same guy in an unmarked SUV every day. They’re paid, so watch them like a hawk, they’ll try anything. They aren’t supposed to have that flag on that lawn, but they’re being allowed to. I’ve already complained about it to the electing officer.” No political paraphernalia was allowed on the town hall grounds and even some voters with Obama t-shirts were being turned back, so the McCain flag stuck in the front lawn pissed Ophelia off. She smiled at me and said: “Here’s some water. It’s going to be hot.”
I walked to the corner of the intersection and held up my ‘Obama – Biden’ placard. No longer than 10 seconds later there was a chorus of boos and hisses. I span round and for the first time took a long look at the three Republicans standing about 10 yards from me. They were a funny looking bunch. A man and a woman in their sixties and what must have been their special needs son. He looked about thirty but his mom and had dressed him up as a teenager and though handicapped was singing his heart out for McCain: “MA-CAIN, MA-CAIN, MA-CAIN HE SO GOOD”.
They all had McCain placards and wore so many pin badges they would have fetched a pretty sum at a scrap dealer. The father had a Cuban hat and the mother a Cuban t-shirt. I was shocked at the booing and hissing but I wasn’t going to let anyone know they’d got to me, so I gave them a big smile and said: “Hello. Nice day for it.” They bit, the special needs son frothed at the mouth and shouted something which I couldn’t understand, the dad whistled and the mother shouted “traitor.”
I was over the moon. This was proper front line campaigning.
Before I could shout something back a car drove past me, honked and the driver gave me the thumbs up. I waved back. He got a load of abuse ten yards up the road from the Republicans. For the next few hours we tried to get people to beep us, and Americans being Americans, there was lots of beeping. When you’re on strike, campaigning or protesting and someone beeps at you, though a small gesture, it means a lot and that’s why I always beep strikers. The difference between me and the world’s weirdest political dynasty was that if someone beeped them I didn’t boo and hiss - I’d just smile.
I comforted myself that I was a good representative of the Obama campaign: young, enthusiastic, happy go lucky and giving my time for free whilst the Republicans were old, a bit weird, being paid and had a nasty streak. It was about five beeps to one in favour of me and people were hanging out of their cars cheering for Obama. Old, young, black, white, gay and straight, the diverse nature of his supporters was an inspiration. The only people jeering me were all over 40-years-old and white or Cuban. Then a middle-aged woman with thin lips drove past in a Buick and yelled ‘Baby killer!’ at me.
The three Republicans cheered and shouted ‘Baby killer’ at me too. I suppose I should have been shocked, hurt or otherwise upset, but I was delighted. This was the campaign experience I wanted. I wasn’t going to be abusive but I enjoy the wind up, and they were fair game. It was a license to be offensive for the right reasons, and there was no way I’d lose my temper - everything I said and did would have a smile attached. That’s why I put two fingers up and mouthed: “Two babies! I’ve paid for two abortions, just couldn’t afford any kids. Easy peasy.” Then I mimed giving birth and kicking a baby across the road - ensuring only those three saw me. It seemed a quite funny at the time. I’d just like to point I’ve never got anyone pregnant, let alone paid for an abortion, but I just wanted to wind the bad guys up. And it worked.
The woman came running over, her face contorted with anger, and started shouting that I would go to hell and all Obama fans were ‘baby killers’. I thanked her for praying for me and but told her that a woman’s body was hers to do with it how she pleased. I added: “How can an atheist woman be denied an abortion because someone who believes in a God passes a law? It’s bonkers bab.” This very reasonable argument was greeted with one of the strangest insults I’ve ever been treated to. “You scum, Cuba hater, you hate Cuba, you scum!” By this time the special needs son was covered in dribble and shouting ‘Kennedy, Kennedy!’ and the dad was calling me ‘Kennedy scum’ too.
How do you reply to that? I start a nice debate about abortion, then I’m compared to the iconic JFK. What would the next insult be? That I sing like Elvis Presley or play guitar like Hendrix? Something clicked and my mouth was off. “How the fuck can you blame me for the Bay of Pigs? I wasn’t even born then and I could hardly help out from England, could I?” They all crossed themselves at the same time when I said the word ‘fuck’ and spat on the floor when I said Castro wasn’t all bad.
The worst thing about it all was that the special needs son was now covered in spit, sweating buckets and looking on the verge of tears. In the last ten years I’ve done fundraising for disabled groups, set up Sutton and Erdington Disabled Against Charges (SEDAC) and worked with Sandwell and Dudley Vulnerable Against Cuts (SADVAC) and carried out investigative journalism on behalf of the disabled in Birmingham.
That’s why it made me sick that this poor sod had been dressed up like a neo-con mascot, indoctrinated with generational hate and forced to stand in the boiling heat for hours on end for cash.
I was getting angry at the parents because of their poor son but kept my cool and said: “Look, piss off over your side of the grass and leave me alone. Oh, and Obama is going to win.” They hissed and retreated.
The whole Cuba thing had got me thinking and I was glad I was pretty up to speed on the different political battles in Florida. This is when I realised that Ophelia and I were really outnumbered. Because though there were only six or seven overt McCain supporters there were other groups campaigning on right wing issues or for local Republican candidates. One strange looking and extremely vocal bunch were campaigning against an amendment in the Florida constitution to allow same sex marriage in the state. I tried to work out exactly what I was for and what I was against in case I got in a debate at the polls. Saying I’m an Obama fan just wouldn't cut it.
I start a nice debate about abortion, then I’m compared to the iconic JFK. What would the next insult be? That I sing like Elvis Presley or play guitar like Hendrix?
So I had a chat with Ophelia.
“Right, obviously I’m a pro-Obama Democrat, I’m pro-gay without being gay so that means I’m pro-amendment 10. I believe in a woman’s right to abort a child but do I really have to say pro-abortion - it’s not as if I’m going to go round demanding more abortions is it? Pro-life sounds better, doesn’t it? They won the PR battle on that one.”
Ophelia laughed: “Baby, you’re pro-choice.”
“Ok, what about Cuba? I’ve got a bit of sneaking admiration for Fidel Castro but obviously don’t agree with repression, but think its two faced for America to deal with China and not Cuba when there are massive human rights issues.”
She laughed: “In Miami, just keep any thoughts about Cuba to yourself baby.”
I replied: “And am I also supposed to be supporting (Democrat) Raul Martinez in the Florida race, the bloke who’s on that advert every night beating someone up?”
Ophelia laughed again and rolled her eyes about the advert, but said: “It’s a dirty fight that one, but yes you are for him, and you’re for Tapia, right?”
I said: “Tapas! Yep I’m starving.” Unfortunately it wasn’t lunch - Tapia was a Latino lady standing in the local elections.
I chatted more to Ophelia. She’d been suspended from her job as a waitress because an argument with a colleague about Obama. Being suspended, however, had given her time to volunteer for the campaign and she was happy with the outcome. So for two weeks she turned up every day at the town hall to hold up her placards and encourage people to vote. Ophelia had been the target of some abuse but she was determined to do her bit to help Obama win. And that’s what I loved about the Obama campaign. So many people just decided to help out and picked a job that suited them and got a lot of satisfaction from trying to change the world.
Ben was another volunteer who made a difference. He was a cool dude in his late thirties who’d seen Ophelia outnumbered and when he’d cast his ballot asked if she needed help. He phoned his wife to explain he’d be late, then spent the next five hours doing a visibility shift, and was back again the next day with his wife in tow.
So many people just decided to help out and picked a job that suited them and got a lot of satisfaction from trying to change the world.
When I asked why he was helping he gave a great answer: “I want to be able to sleep at night. I mean if McCain wins and I did nothing to help Obama then I couldn’t forgive myself, the last eight years have been a disaster.” I told him about the ‘baby killer’ row and he laughed and said he’d been called ‘nigger-lover’ twice the day before.
It got me thinking about what I’d say if someone called me a nigger-lover. Being a fan of the tan I’ve been it called a few times before, so I was looking forward to being ultra-offensive to some racist twat. I got my chance a few days later. I’d had it shouted at me from people in a car but that’s no fun because you can’t look in to the whites of their eyes and give them grief back. An unpleasant man, white and aged about fifty in brown trousers and a beige t-shirt came wandering towards me while I was on my corner. I offered him an Obama badge. He didn't say a thing, just looked me up and down.
I was wearing my yellow Obama t-shirt with Caribbean flags on it, which must have been like a red rag to a bull. He was about five yards from me and in a low voice so no-one else could hear him - probably because 20 yards away there was the ballot queue with a hell of a lot of black faces in it - said: “You make me sick, you fucking nigger-lover.” Quick as a flash I smiled and replied: “You’re right mate, I am a nigger-lover. My missus is black and I love her. (Which was true.)
“And you know what? We’re a hell of a lot closer since she got over her third abortion, we couldn’t afford a new TV if we had kids.” (That was untrue)
His face was a picture after the first line but the second one brought an absolute look of disgust and he let out a gasp. He was losing his temper and not very originally he called me a ‘nigger-lovin’ baby-killer’. Now I was ad-libbing, unlike the first line which I had ready when Ben told me he’d been insulted in racial terms. I’m fairly quick-witted, but sometimes surprise myself what comes out my mouth when under pressure.
In a Brummie accent I asked: “So you wouldn’t let Beyonce or Naomi Campbell suck your cock?” Not bad eh? Then I followed it up with: “So you’re gay then right? I should have known wearing them trousers, have you come to back the same sex marriage amendment? Good on you, I’m not gay but what two men in a locked room do with two erections is no business of mine. But I’ll let you know when I have got some black-heads on my bum need squeezing.”
Which I figured was about as offensive as you can get to a highly strung racist homophobic anti-abortion fundamentalist Christian with bad dress sense. His face screamed hatred and he was bigger than me, so I instinctively stepped back as I figured he was about to ‘get physical’. As I retreated I used my wits and the oldest trick in the book. I pointed behind him and said ‘Police’.
There were a few officers around, not taking any notice, but I’d sensed my opportunity. I didn’t want to get into a fight because as a foreigner I’d probably be nicked, so I learned forward and said: “Fuck off or I’ll tell the police you called me a nigger-lover.” He stopped in his tracks and said something like ‘I’ll see you around’, then stormed off. It was a sweet moment. Using playground tactics from Perry Barr I beat an American arsehole all ends up.
Yep, as you may have guessed I was the annoying kid at school who’d keep on teasing someone until they grabbed me, at which point I’d beg for forgiveness or feign an asthma attack. Then when they let me go and I was out of reach I’d start all over again. Anyway, hopefully he went home and told his wife, if he had one, that “I met this nigger-loving, homo-loving, baby-killing Australian Barack Obama fan today who accused me of being a fag, then tried to get me arrested. This country is going down the pan.”
Yep, as you may have guessed I was the annoying kid at school who’d keep on teasing someone until they grabbed me, at which point I’d beg for forgiveness or feign an asthma attack
It was great fun at the polls. It was tiring and sometimes a bit boring standing on an intersection but I loved it because it felt I was making a difference. Lots of people came over for a badge after casting their vote and I had fascinating conversations with Americans fresh from the ballot box. The biggest enemy of politics is apathy and it was so refreshing hearing people over the moon because they had been given the chance to take part in democracy. It was as if so many people didn’t believe they would get the chance to vote because of political corruption. Amazing, really, considering America is a superpower and not a banana republic. I particularly loved chatting to black voters who had given up on their country after being denied the vote in previous elections but had proudly voted. Although I wasn’t working as a journalist I still noted down interesting stuff because I was still sending copy back to Birmingham most nights.
At the end of my first day something weird happened. The Republican family packed up their McCain signs, calmly walked past me and, nice as pie, all said: “Goodbye, have a nice day, see you tomorrow.” I was flabbergasted, and even more so the next day when they all said “Hello” when they saw me walk to my corner, but as soon as I picked up my Obama sign started booing and hissing. I don’t know why but it all seemed to make sense, like two boxers beating the hell out of one another then embracing after the bell.
When I think back of campaigning for Obama those days outside the Miami Town Hall were some of the happiest, whether it was seeing Ophelia scold the Republican family for taking her water or when she pulled the disabled son out of the road then shouted ‘Don’t call me a baby killer again, I’ve just saved your son!”. So many wonderful memories - it was political campaigning, but not as we know it! If I thought all that was strange, though, nothing could have prepared me for the call: “Are you guys still outnumbered? Jelvis is coming down with 20 dudes from Denmark.”
I was the only Brummie in the Miami Obama campaign and that made me proud.
In fact I’ve yet to hear of another one even now, anywhere in America, but I’ve no doubt there would have been some crazy ex-pat Brummie helping out somewhere.
I love educating people about Birmingham, whether it’s telling them the city has more trees than Paris and more canals than Venice or that Brummies are up there with the Greeks, Persians and the Romans because the industrial revolution started in Brum. We changed the world. But anyway I was the only Brit I’d met on the campaign at that time; I’d heard there was a delegation from the Labour Party knocking about but I had no desire to meet any fellow Brits, as I see them every day of my normal life. Karim was the only Belgian I met. There were other European students who passed through the campaign, but when Jelvis turned up at the polls with a minibus full of strapping Danish Obama volunteers my jaw dropped to the floor. I mean individuals like myself, from all over America and abroad, were common enough but a job lot of Scandinavians? Madness.
All of them were beautiful looking in that clean way people from that part of the world are; both the men and the women seemed over six foot, all with blonde hair, blue eyes, and carefree smiles and seeming to be in their early 20s. They looked like they’d just walked out of a Gap advert. The Obama campaign was certainly winning the beauty contest anyway. The strange Republican supporters’ faces were priceless when they saw the Danes picking up Obama gear - they were dumbstruck. Jelvis, who was in his civvies, waved goodbye, winked and said: “About 20 of them have turned up to help in North Beach. I heard you guys needed to help so I thought I’d drop some down. Have fun!”
I’d heard there was a delegation from the Labour Party knocking about but I had no desire to meet any fellow Brits
The Danes bounded over and told Ophelia and I they were here to help. Ophelia was like the cat that got the cream. She chatted to three of them and before long she was in a deep conversation about the Miami Beach Town Hall Republican flag conspiracy.
Meanwhile I spoke to the other two.
“What do we have to do?” said a Claudia Schiffer lookalike wearing shorts and a khaki top, standing next to what looked like her identical male twin.
Scratching my head, trying to look cool in a European way but realising my trainers were falling apart and reeking in a way only tropical heat sweating feet can, I picked some posters up and said: “Hold these and just stand around, it’s all about the visibility bab.”
“Wow, are you Australian?” she said.
“No, I am a fellow European. I’m English, from the city of Birmingham,” I replied.
“Awesome,” they both replied.
We had a nice chat. It appeared there were about 25 of them and they were in Miami anyway on some trip or another and wanted to help out and be part of history. They were so optimistic and enthusiastic.
The Danish were set for day in a non-descript office so were delighted the call came to help out at the front line. I don’t think they believed me when I told them about the nigger-loving and baby-killing jibes; they seemed so innocent so I didn’t tell them about me miming drop kicking babies. I didn’t want them to think I was weird.
Needless to say they were getting a hell of lot of honks and beeps. Ophelia was over the moon, she just kept on coming over and hugging me and counting all of us and saying we’d outnumbered the McCain supporters, the other Republicans and the anti-gay protestors put together. Standing on my corner I had time to think, something I never really get chance to do at home. My journalist radar was twitching. I was thinking about what I could write about the campaign.
You can buy Steve's excellent book here: Obama and Me: The Incredible True Story Of A YouTube Sensation
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