Lessons Learned from My First Rally

With the memories of our meeting with Elizabeth Edwards fresh in my mind, it was with great excitement and expectation that I boarded the BART train to see Hillary Clinton in Oakland. Wow, another presidential campaign event! In a single weekend! How fun!

It turns out that expectations and reality were two very different things. In all honesty, we would have enjoyed ourselves much more had we known what to expect and been better prepared. To other campaign virgins out there, here are some lessons I learned:

#1. Whatever they might call it, it's a rally.
It was billed as a "family-friendly block party" with music, fun, food and entertainment. In my extreme naivete, I imagined a gigantic festival like the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts, with people strolling around, listening to music on several stages until Hillary came out on the main stage.

Welcome to the real world, bonggamom. The event was a political rally, pure and simple. Basically fourteen thousand people crammed together like sardines, with no room to do anything but stand up, patiently listening to the front acts (music and speeches), but basically waiting over 1 hour for Hillary to speak. Since the event was free and tickets giving closer access to the stage were only $20, I did expect a ton of people (Yes, we were naive, but not stupid). I just didn't expect them to try and fit all those people into a single city block. Maybe a spread-out crowd doesn't look as good on camera?

#2. Arrive early.
We had planned to arrive at least half an hour early so we could stroll around, find a playground for the kids, maybe get ourselves a snack at a food booth before the crowd started coming in (as I said, I was extremely naive). As so often happens when you have kids, the best we managed to do was arrive exactly on time. We found ourselves at the end of a security line, stretching out three or four blocks and growing every second. We spent forty minutes in line before reaching the security tables and entering the closed-off rally area.

By this time, of course, there was no hope of getting a good spot. Even with our $20 "VIP" tickets, the place was already so crowded that we barely managed to secure a crappy, faraway, squished-between-the-loudspeakers-and-the-lights view of the stage (which turned to no view at all once all the banners and posters were in the air).

#3. Do not bring your kids. Ever.
They said kids welcome, family-friendly. I wasn't expecting a bouncy house and crafts, but I did imagine some space to run around, ice cream vendors, perhaps a playground nearby. What I got was my children having to stand up in a sea of adults (claustrophobia, anyone?), loudspeakers blaring, for over an hour, with only a pen, paper, and three sheets of stickers to keep them amused.

My twin 3-year-olds in particular had no idea why they were there, no idea what to do and no idea how long it would last. When I hoisted one of them onto my shoulder, I was immediately reprimanded by a woman behind me who complained that she could no longer see. Wanting to be accommodating, I dutifully lowered him onto the ground where all he could see was legs and feet. After thirty minutes or so, he could no longer take it so we escaped to a spot with less people and absolutely no view of the stage whatsoever. But there was still the hunger (did I mention no food vendors?) and the boredom and the noise to contend with. Some choice quotes that he managed to scream into my ear:

Mama, I can feel my heart beating in my throat! (in response to the heavy bass)
Mama, I want to take the train home now!
Mama, this is never going to end!
Mama, I'm going to be here foreeeeeveeeer!

We weren't the only ones. All around I could see families who had fallen for the "Kids welcome" line. At best they were asleep in their parents' aching arms or slumped on the sidewalk with a bored expression, at worst they were having tantrums or panic attacks like my son. I suppose it was sort of a blessing to the adults around that no-one could hear them scream.

#4. Leave early. Especially if you did not follow Lesson 3.

That was the one thing we did right -- about three-quarters of the way through Clinton's speech, after we had had a chance to snap some photos, shoot some videos, wave our placards and cheer with the crowd, we began our retreat. We were still able to hear the rest of her speech as we moved to the back of the crowd, towards the train station, and we were able to beat the outgoing crowd. And our hungry, tired and sleep kids were able to get to bed a bit earlier.

#5. Do not underestimate the power of a great speaker or a huge crowd.
You'd think that under the circumstances -- after waiting so long, standing so close together that it felt like the Tokyo subway during rush hour -- tempers would be flaring. But the mood was generally upbeat. Everyone seemed content to wait patiently for Hillary to speak, ready to wave their banners and cheer. And the front acts were good, I'll give them that -- church choirs, singer Nya Jade, and political luminaries like Gavin Newsom, Barbara Lee, and Dianne Feinstein. The only people who looked disgruntled were the stressed-out parents and the anal woman behind me.

And Hillary herself did not disappoint. The woman certainly knows how to work the crowd. Edwards supporter that I am, I found myself cheering with the crowd. Her speaking points were so clear and concise that even my six-year-old daughter remembers what she said (On the way to school this morning, she raved, "Mama, she wants to end global warming! She wants the government to help sick people! And she'll be a good president because learned her lessons from her husband who used to be president! Can I vote for her?") At one point, she mistakenly referred to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as "Governor Newsom". Laughter, cheers. Quick and witty as ever, she quipped, "That's what he told me to say; I guess I can see why." The crowd absolutely lapped it up.

Which brings me to my last lesson.....

#6. Rallies can be fun!

Despite the difficulties we encountered, we're still glad we went and we'd do it again. Most of the difficulties we encountered came about because of our inexperience; next time we'll know better. We got to see Hillary Clinton, even though we had to squint to see her. We got to take her photo, even though the closest we came to her was having our photo taken with a lifesize cardboard replica of her. We got to listen to her and gather information that will help us make an informed decision next year.

Even though I've decided that children under ten don't belong at an event like this, it wasn't a total disaster. My six-year-old daughter was excited that she got to see and hear a potential woman president. My three-year-old son enjoyed rolling up his free Clinton poster to make a sword. Even his traumatized twin enjoyed raising his poster and waving it along with the rest of the crowd. And since ice-cream cones or funnel cakes were nowhere in sight, we treated them to the campaign button of their choice. And they are still raving about that train ride.

If anything, it made me appreciate even more the opportunity that I've had to meet Elizabeth Edwards with such a small group; how many people get a chance to do that without paying thousands of dollars? The experience leaves me raring to see the other candidates; preferrably at a more intimate gathering like the Edwards event (cmon, read out invite and meet with us!), but we'll settle for a huge rally like this Clinton event if that's what it takes. Just remind me to call a babysitter, okay?

Cross posted on the Silicon Valley Moms Blog

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