Barack’s Hours in Austin: a Tale of Pickets and Tickets

“Fired up!”  “Ready to go!”   “Fired up!”  “Ready to go!”

12:30 and fifteen blocks from the University of Texas.  President Obama had likely landed in Austin just a half-hour ago.  Already a woman on her bicycle was starting up the election-year chant with a man on the street.  A block away, political dissidents dressed in doctor’s scrubs took pictures in front of a homemade sign reading “Go Home.”

With one of the most polarizing bipartisan political figures in years coming to Austin, one might expect more of a turnout from political activists.  Instead there seemed to be loners every several blocks.  Maybe the event hadn’t been well-publicized.  There wasn’t so much as an arrow on the roadside.  Gregory Gym, a single building in the vastness of the University of Texas, was hidden like a tree in a forest.

Dozens of police and volunteers eventually arrived and made the path clear.  Around several corners, the line appeared.  Some 2,000 people stretched around the courtyard and back again.  Only a dozen had brought signs.

The infamous mustache, scribbled on yet another iconic face.

The first to appear was a man in his 20’s with a tank top, crew cut and curly goatee.  “Keep Austin Mason-Free,” read his message to the world, with the Freemasons’ mathematical-looking symbol in the middle.  He told the sheepish guy behind me that every big political figure in America was part of the secret society– from Barack Obama to Ron Paul.

“Don’t vote, man,” he cautioned.  “In the end you’re just enslaving yourself.”

The next activists were Arab-Americans: not pro-Obama, not anti-Obama, but political.

“Occupation is a Crime!  Free Iraq and Palestine!”  Two of them waved flags for those countries.  The people to either side of them were anti-war in general, with a sign that read “No War is a ‘Good War'”.  “Money for Jobs and Education!  Not for War and Occupation!”

The only demonstrator who seemed happy to see the President was as older man with a giant “O” in his hands.  Each demonstrator seemed to ignore the others.  The quiet hundreds of people shuffled along, strangers walking slowly in line.

Most of them were UT students who’d stood in another line to get these tickets.  Since Friday evening, the tickets had been handed out to students who got a note at the end of one line, which qualified them to get the ticket itself in the next.  Several hundred tickets had also been given to people in political organizations– nonprofits and watchdog groups could see the man they sent so many petitions to.

“You skipping Genetics too?” one student asked another as they saw them in line.  The girl in question was an Iranian exchange student, starting Graduate School and already deep into her fifth year at UT.  Her sister invited her to the event, but had made it inside some time ago.

One hour later, the back of the line snaked past the booth handing out water in Coca-Cola cups.  The half-dozen news vans parked in front set up lights and cameras where their news anchors would stand.  As the last of the line fit onto the front steps, the bell tolled 2.  As the last people stepped through the Airport-esque metal detectors, the screams of women young-at-heart rang out.  Someone had arrived.

Like most of his less-than-nationwide speeches, this one was personalized.  He talked about education, about what he’d done, how that affected the students in the audience, and what “we” ought to aspire towards.

For everyone not standing in the front, he looked about as distinct as a fingernail at arm’s length.  All the features were there– hints of gray hair, ridge of his eyebrows and familiar hand gestures– but listeners in the bleachers could’ve gotten a clearer image from a smartphone.

He spoke the same way as he always had, albeit a little more tamed and less ambitious.  He poked fun at himself.  He had a fact for every minute of his speech.  He responded to just a few of his opponent’s accusations, and supported people and heads of Universities by name.

His standing ovation came earlier than he would’ve liked.  When a cluster of twenty clapping students rose to their feet, so did everyone else.  After several sentences of trying to speak above the crowd, he gave up and began waving.  Then he dipped into the crowd in front for handshakes.

The crowd flowed out afterwards, clusters of students staying behind to call or keep talking to each other.  The sense of political action was soon gone from the room.

Outside, the scene was a slightly more crowded and faster-moving version of the hour before.  Video cameras, for news and independent movie-makers alike, were out and interviewing.  Signs and soapboxes were out once more, not having missed a note.  None of them had tickets to get in the door.

The man with the megaphone was out trying to overthrow the New World Order with a dozen photocopies of Obama in Joker facepaint.  The back of his billboard said “9/11 was an inside job.”  Paired with the Obamas were Joker-painted pictures of Hitler and Bush, saying “Obama is a black Bush.”  A crowd of some thirty passersby closed in closely around him, and a police officer stood expressionlessly by his side.

Then came the last and most organized protesters yet: the ones with the Obama Hitler mustache.  If the Tea Party believes the Right isn’t Right enough, this trio’s conviction was that Obama wasn’t Left enough.  The Health care bill should’ve been a single-payer system and replace all HMOs for being “greedy middle-men.”  Rather than toting patriotism, they said all governments ought to cooperate to redesign the biosphere and colonize other planets.  They gave Obama the dreaded mustache for not “tearing down the monetary system”: something their Congressional candidate Kesha Rogers plans to do.

In the afternoon of blazing picket signs trying to redesign the world, two mellow girls with “Obama, Take Back the Gulf” signs seemed almost out-of-place.

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