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Biking from Regime Bush to Regime Change

There are some days you just wake up and the sunshine dares you to have a unpleasant disposition. I think Inauguration day was like that for me. The energy was different. It was as if all the nation were rejoicing together, celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama. Everything felt full of potential, and everybody appeared to be a vehicle for Obama's message of "change" - some more than others.

"[I]t was spooky to see so many people gathered" explains my friend Ryan Bowen of Biking For Obama, who was among the droves of folks who despite feeling the squeeze of our shrinking job market and struggling economy, made their way, by hook or crook (or crank), to witness the event first hand - some by car, some bus, some by train. Ryan got on a a bicycle. "I'm like...its a takeover, of hope!" he wrote, reflecting on his first hand experience.

I can only imagine what it was like to be in our nation's capital on that day. Especially for Ryan, after having embarked on a 48 day nearly 4000 mile cycling tour from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. in order to attend this historic event. I haven't been back there in years, but even here in California January 20th was a heartwarming day - perhaps especially for folks Ryan myself and many of our mutual friends, who share Occidental College with our new President.

Catching up with him a few days after the inauguration via email Ryan wrote "I've always said Obama represents potential. Across the USA I met people who are all hurt by this economy (save Texas, where it hasn't hit so hard). Everyone was optimistic." This coming from someone who's own bid for Occidental College Student Body President in 2007, partly while he studied abroad in the Dominican Republic, could be seen as representation of potential. When Ryan told me he'd be bicycling to D.C. I was excited for him, not just because it would be an amazing feat, but because I immediately began drawing parallels between this man I'd grown to love at Occidental, and this President onto whom so many expectations have been placed. But even in that joy, I felt a tinge of concern, that Ryan's efforts might be reduced to him traveling to see Obama for somewhat superficial reasons - because he's black or because he's bi-racial. Based on what I know of Ryan, those correlations are true, and meaningful in their own right, but I know that this trip was largely due in part because he was deeply inspired by Obama's message and transformative leadership model.

For all of the arm twisting it takes to get most North Americans to talk about what our race issues are, it is a little bit ironic how much emphasis has been and will be placed on President Obama's "blackness." I remember getting a little peeved when I read in the paper on inauguration day about the millenials and the black people who flocked to Washington, D.C. Not because it wasn't important, and not because it shouldn't have been noted. I was bothered instead because there was so much done to keep this campaign out of the tricky entanglements that emerge when we talk about race, especially when we talk about "blackness."

But then there was the explosion - Jesse Jackson crying, the MLK Jr. allusions, the seemingly omnipresent sigh of relief - Yes, we did, elect a black man. We can only really talk about it when we are noting something presumed of worth, our firsts, and our breakthroughs, without ever really talking about the obstacles that belabor those events, or the obstacles that delay these successes. Never before has the race of a U.S. President been so often remarked upon, never before has it seemed pertinent. It speaks to the nature of what we are taught about race, "black," "white" and otherwise. The "white" identities of Presidents past have never been novel, they weren't "white" Presidents, they were Presidents. They had that luxury, that privilege if you will.

But I'm OK with President Obama not having that kind of privilege, even if he has others. He will be, and is, an imperfect President. But he is changing the tide of how we even see ourselves in the United States even if only by virtue of the symbolism in his blackness - and he knows it. The President was quoted a week before the inauguration saying, " There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American." He added "I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that." Neither would I Mr. President, neither would I.

When I asked Ryan about how he ended up running, he explained that he initially had no interest in running. "I never believed that formal leadership could effect change, I guess... I was just - not interested. Maybe even because I had never seen someone like myself holding those positions of power. So I doubted if it was even for me." But then he took it on as a challenge when another student asked him, in jest, why he wasn't running - and he couldn't come up with a legitimate reason. And then he won.

I think in the same way that Ryan's preparation for the trip reminded me of some of the Obama campaign, I think Ryan's journey could be metaphor for the road to come for our esteemed President. For example, when he sought advice on the best way to make his trek across the nation, Ryan was met with nay-sayers, saying some of the same things they said to President Obama. They told Ryan he was too inexperienced to ride across the country, and even FOX newscasters that interviewed him jived him on his choice to take a longer route in order to avoid extreme weather. I wonder what they think now. Ryan and his team documented the trip on his website, BikingForObama.com. And his efforts earned him an inauguration ticket, and one for the other six BFO team members who rode and helped document the journey, from Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Ryan's hometown of Portland, Oregon upon their arrival at the Jefferson Memorial on January 18th, 2 days ahead of the inauguration. Blumenauer rode with the critical mass of riders in support of BFO, who caravanned to the Jefferson Memorial.

As for our President, already the forecasts from some pockets are dismal - already so many are holding their breaths for Obama's imminent failure, and what some believe will believe to be his inability to deliver what he campaigned on, CHANGE. And while the road ahead is unequivocally steep, I think at least some of that pessimism comes from those who still believe he is incapable of serving simply because he is black. Still, they seem marginal in the face of a larger group of us, who empathize with the mountain of troubles Obama accepted when he took that fumbly oath of office. For me it was the final puzzle piece in a nationwide grassroots effort to see our government, literally and figuratively, take on a new "face." None of us know what lies ahead, but if we can handle eight years of a president, with whom I share a high school as well, I think we can give President Obama a fair shot. And there has definitely been a shift, even if our pockets aren't feeling any better. At least our conception power, privilege are changed, even if only symbolically now that our President is "bLaK."