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A Few Days in Hyde Park, a Lifetime in The Empire

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Chicago

Standing outside for five days in the Windy City under skies of lead and the thermometer below freezing provides an opportunity to make certain observations. Standing three blocks from the home of the next president of the United States the day he leaves for a new home in Washington, D.C….well you can’t help but observe certain things.

Hyde Park, where the Obama family lives(d) on Chicago’s south side, is a study in contrasts. Victorian and turn-of-the-century estates, broad tree-lined boulevards and the University of Chicago occupy one end of the spectrum; vacant commercial lots and takeaway restaurants that don’t sell coffee to better discourage the homeless from hanging out, occupy the other. More women wore fur coats -- some pristine and some clearly threadbare -- than I’ve ever seen.

Maybe Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha weren’t regular customers at the caffeine-free food joints, but they were familiar with them. They may not have camped out in the bushes of Drexel Park, but they could see where others had. They no doubt went to the markets and restaurants along the margins where the two worlds intermingle. As one Hyde Park Good Samaritan put it as she gave me a ride to the library in her Jeep Grand Cherokee, "It’s good to have a President who knows about and experienced my world."

Yet, as a military helicopter hovered over the motorcade rushing the soon-to-be-president to a waiting jetliner, you could sense the immense transition taking place. To be sure, Barack Obama is a Harvard-educated attorney and he spent a few years in the nation’s Most Exclusive Club, the U.S. Senate. Still, how many presidents-elect have lived anywhere near a neighborhood where the waitress at Shark’s Seafood and Chicken talks to you through bulletproof glass and where poverty limps by in the cold, with rotten, chattering teeth?

Before our eyes, a mere mortal is whisked away to America’s version of royalty, surrounded by multiple layers of bodyguards, advisors and staff, to where waitresses do not talk through bulletproof glass; where fragrant, hot coffee, perhaps served with organic cream in real china, will flow at any hour; where motion sensors replace used diapers and broken bottles under the bushes; where the slightest sniffle concerns the house physician; where it will be considered normal for a nod of the head to rain hellfire missiles on brown people half a world away, but where a Herculean effort is required to rebuild bombed-out water purification plants or healthcare for their siblings in this country. And these shivering, heroic people keeping an 18-day vigil in Camp Hope will no longer be just a stone’s throw from the President-elect but half a continent and political light years away from the President of the United States.

How will they bridge such political distance when it’s considered success to get a motorist to roll down their window at a red light to take a flyer and a "thumbs up" elicits a round of applause or a dozen students coming by for the day is to date the pinnacle of involvement? How will holding signs here under the overcast skies of Hyde Park, urging "Yes We Can: Bring the Troops Home," "Provide Healthcare for All," "Stop Global Warming" or "Save Our Homes from Foreclosure" bring any of those goals closer to reality?

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What can possibly shake enough Americans out of their nation’s collective sleepwalk to make a difference? What can give these vigilers the determination needed to continue? What will it matter if they don’t and how many of their fellow citizens will have to interrupt their somnambulance before the motorcades, the helicopters, the advisors, the trillions of dollars will change direction?

There never seem to be good answers to those questions, but never have they appeared so starkly illuminated than here in Hyde Park yesterday.

Today I’m writing this from the office of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, the group that organized Camp Hope, that group that violated U.S. law and defied sanctions for seven years by taking medicine and school supplies to Iraq, and where, as I type these words, all else is being set aside to see how they can focus the nation’s attention on the slaughter in Gaza.

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Mike Ferner is a writer from Ohio, former president of Veterans For Peace and author of "Inside the Red Zone: A Veteran For Peace Reports from Iraq." (Praeger)

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