Long line is fine for Obama faithfulby William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
Barack Obama's appearance created a spectacle not only inside the Xcel Energy Center, but also on the streets of downtown St. Paul. Officials estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 people stood in a line that snaked through the heart of the city. Many said they were drawn to the event because they felt it was a chance to be part of history.
St. Paul, Minn. — Esau Ikareth and his wife Charitte did not even plan to be in Minnesota Tuesday.
"We cancelled a vacation plan just to be here. We were going to go to South Dakota yesterday," Esau said. "When I heard about this, we just cancelled it."
"It's so energizing, said Charitte. "The feeling, the vibration of the people who are here is also in our heart and that's why we came."
That energizing feeling rippled through the crowd that was building a line through downtown office buildings just as those structures were emptying for the day.
One woman from Obama's home state had quickly arranged a ride on the Mega-Bus, an express vehicle that runs between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
"My name is Kim Onigbende, I'm from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and I came all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota, to see Obama."
Onigbende said Obama symbolizes the new America, and she felt compelled to be on hand as his presidential campaign made the transition from primary season to the general election.
The long lines created a captive clientele for the vendors hawking Obama t-shirts, caps, and buttons. Victor Brown travels the country selling such items at political events. Brown estimates he's worked 40 events this year and said sales typically peak after Obama speaks and inspired crowds are hungry for a memento.
"A lot of people, they'll buy now," he said. "But really, when they're coming out we'll really see it because he gives great speeches. Enthusiastic speeches. We were at a Hillary Clinton speech yesterday and maybe she was tired or something, but the energy level was really low."
This event did not suffer from low energy.
The crowd and its excitement might have upstaged the two high school graduations that were held consecutively in an adjacent venue, the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. Some family members of graduates felt inconvenienced by the throng of Obama supporters clogging the area, while others were impressed with how smoothly the events coincided.
Michelle Costello, an English teacher at Highland Park High School, saw a synergy between the political rally and the commencement ceremonies.
"It makes so much sense for one to compliment the other because these are the people of the future," she said. "And to have Obama, who hopefully is our president of the future, be here at the same time. These kids won't forget this. How could you forget this? It's awesome." Costello was hopeful that Obama might even favor the graduates with a cameo appearance at their ceremony but that did not happen. The most common logistical complaint among the Obama supporters was one voiced by Lula Muhammad, among many others.
"The biggest hassle was finding the end of the line," she said. "The parking was bad but finding the end of the line was a hassle. It was exciting to find the end of the line."
Line's end was a moving target that crossed streets, undulated around blocks and sometimes doubled back towards itself. Volunteers helped direct people, but tracing the length of the snaking line created a long hike for people like Derek Larson who parked across the street from the Xcel Center before embarking on a trek that led to Sixth and Robert Streets.
"At least 20 minutes, 25 minutes," he said. "I mean, it's like the Obama 5 k. The line was moving at the beginning, just to let everybody know. It'll never move back here."
Indeed, there was a sinking realization for some that lining up with fellow Obama supporters was as close to the candidate as they would get on this day.
The Obama campaign said 17,000 people were in the Xcel Center and another 15,000 couldn't fit and were left outside. Some left after getting a glimpse of the line. Ray Boyle said he brought his three boys downtown to see something historic.
"It's pretty wild to see this. I just didn't think there was any chance that we wouldn't get in," he said.
History was the prevailing theme among those close enough to gain entry to the speech. Stacy Duncan of Saint Paul was already formulating his description for his descendants.
"When you're older, and you're talking to your grandkids - I was there and I helped set this agenda moving forward," he said. "So you can say 'I was part of history and I was part of the will that got this moving forward.' So that's the reason why I'm here." Police said the event went smoothly, particularly given the short notice and the size of the crowd.