Yesterday’s celebrations over Donald Trump’s election loss were a rare moment of unalloyed joy in what has been a miserable year. But the happiness was tempered with fear for a bitterly divided nation, writes New York-based New Zealander Tess McClure.
It is 11.31am when Harlem erupts. Down the street, I hear a woman scream.
A moment later, floors above where I stand, queueing for coffee, someone begins hitting a pot with a spoon. The sound rings down the road. Then a man in a Gucci t-shirt and sweat-shorts rushes up the steps from his apartment, onto the footpath, arms raised above his head. “WE WON!!” he yells. “We won. We won!!”
The wave of sound builds as the city realises: it is over. After three long days of counting, wondering, hoping, the vote tally reached a point of certainty, and Joe Biden has been declared winner of the 2020 election. Car horns blare from Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. People are laughing, clapping, embracing. A woman in blue pajama pants strolls down the road, singing “we are the champions”. Down the block, a young woman thrusts her fist in the air: “Donald Trump is fired!!” she yells, “Get that racist ass outta here boy!” From a balcony above, someone with a speaker starts playing Nipsey Hussle: Fuck Donald Trump. Outside the brunch spots, people are dancing in the street. At the crosswalk, a woman walking her dog turns to me. “Thank God, right?” She shakes her head. “It’s like everybody smiling for the first time in four years.”
Fireworks pop, barely visible in the bright sunlight. From a rooftop, I hear a woman yell: “Amen! AMEN!!!”.
As night falls, the party continues. For deep-blue New York, the night arrived like a pressure valve releasing; a moment of mass celebration in a year that has offered little else to celebrate. The streets swarm with people. In Washington Square Park, a crowd of thousands – too many to count – has gathered. On a park bench, a man and woman pop bottle after bottle of champagne, pouring out cupfuls for passersby. Outside the LGBTQ bars in west village, people block the street with dancing, singing Britney Spears. Every few minutes, a roar goes up somewhere in the crowd, and spreads like ripple, expanding outward across Washington Square.
The news of Biden’s win broke after three days of simmering anxiety. The day after the election, in the late afternoon, I’d taken a bike and pedalled to the centre of Manhattan. It was unseasonably warm, a last blast of mild air covering the city before November turned frigid.
Outside Trump Tower, police had parked five police-branded trucks and one NYPD bus. The sidewalks were lined with metal barriers, shop windows blanked out with plywood. Even the ornamental conifer trees had been wrapped in a thick layer of blue protective cling-film.
Around 25 police officers gathered outside the entrance, with more thronging on the sidewalk.
Someone had chalked the sidewalk in colourful pastels: Trump Triumphs! Four More Years to Make America Great Again!
“What are you doing here?” an officer says.
“I’m biking around,” I reply.
“Well, you can’t stay here,” he says.
Two blocks away from Trump’s eponymous tower, I come upon a small group of his supporters trailing down 55th Street. At the head is a blonde woman wearing the signature Make America Great Again hoodie, a yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flag draped over her shoulders, Guy Fawkes mask dangling from her fist. They pause for a round of drinks in the courtyard of an Italian restaurant, BiCe Cucina.
“I think there’s some frickin election fraud happening,” one of the women tells me. “Definitely.” She is African-American, wearing an embroidered Blue Lives Matter cap, and refuses to give her name, but says she’s from Queens – President Trump’s childhood home, where his support trends slightly higher than most of the city.
She taps through her phone screen, which is showing a series of results maps, reeling off vote counts. “That’s how I see it. They’re doing whatever they can to not let him into office, and it’s a total sham, it’s a sham.”
She says she voted Trump in the last election too, for the same set of reasons often relayed to reporters by Trump voters. Because he does what he says he’ll do, because he hustles, and because she was sick of seeing no results from Democrats.
“Democrats just want us to be dependent on them like, they’ll give us a little bone and we’ll just take it,” she says. “They want us to stay on the plantation. The Democratic plantation, as I call it.”
She looks away, back to refreshing her screen.
“Is there anything else,” I ask them, “that you would like to get across about tonight – about your hopes for what happens next for this country?”
“Yeah,” the blonde turns to me. Until now, she has been mostly silent. “I think once the election is final and if the Democrats cheat and say that Joe Biden is our next president, I think for the next four years, Republicans need to do what the Democrats have been doing for the last four years. And riot and loot and burn shit down and beat up Democrats and kill Democrats.”
I try to examine her face for a hint of tongue-in-cheek, a glimmer of amusement, but I don’t see one.
Biden spent months campaigning on the idea of an ending.
He invoked it over and over: “I’ll end Donald Trump’s chaos and end this crisis.”
“Together, we can put an end to the last four years of darkness, division, and chaos.”
“We can end this era of division. We can end the hate and the fear.”
But the banner that Trump has spent the last four years unfurling will not be stuffed back in the box easily. The vision that he presented is both new and old for America: threaded through with racism, patched with lies and conspiracy, stitched with resentment. Even if Donald Trump disappeared from public life, there will be no shortage of others seeking to carry the banner forward.
For the America that voted for Biden, the joy and relief is laced with anxiety and a bitter aftertaste. Those who hoped 2016 was a kind of political freak accident, an aberration, a correctable blip, have been disappointed. President Trump’s support has endured – even increasing in some Latinx communities, and among Black men. Millions more people voted for Trump in 2020 than did in 2016. Despite near-endless scandals, an impeachment inquiry, multiple sexual assault allegations, the death of more than 230,000 fellow citizens, and a catastrophic economic meltdown, 70 million Americans wanted four more years.
In his acceptance speech, Biden promised he would be “a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States.” He will have a difficult road ahead of him. Surveys last year found round 42% of American voters (both Republicans and Democrats) believe that those on the other side “are not just worse for politics — they are downright evil.” Around 1 in 5 agreed that that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”
And as Biden’s lead solidified, so did Trump and his supporters’ insistence that the election was being stolen. Outside vote-count centers, Trump-supporters have clustered, some heavily armed, some holding tiki torches and pitchforks, some chanting “Stop the Count”. Women in MAGA hats knelt and swayed, praying for divine intervention. The President has repeatedly claimed that the election is being illegally stolen from him On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr tweeted: “The best thing for America’s future is for @realDonaldTrump to go total war over this election.” For this small cluster of Trump supporters in Manhattan, that call sounds exactly right.
On the left, too, many believe the battle is far from over. Even in the midst of the celebrations at Washington Square, I see signs overhead:
“Kids are still in cages”
“The War Goes On”
I think back to two nights ago, before the celebrations began, when I stumbled across “count every vote” protesters a few blocks from this park. That night, the sound of celebration was replaced by an automated voice blaring from a speaker. “This is the New York City Police Department,” it said. “You are unlawfully in the roadway.”
In front of me, a solid wall of officers stood, gripping batons in hand. I watched between their uniformed shoulders as across the road, the line moved forward, forcing crowds off the street and onto the footpath. The police were “kettling” – a technique they had spent past months practicing on Black Lives Matter protesters. The strategy is named for the old-fashioned water kettle. It accelerates water to boiling point by trapping steam inside, heat and pressure building.
Groups of demonstrators are trapped within a perimeter of riot police, and detained en masse.
Across the street, the line of police surged forward suddenly. There was nowhere for protesters to go: they hit the boarded up shop windows of a Wells Fargo. Teenagers toppled over in the crush. People started screaming. People were face-down on the concrete. I watched a young man look up from where he lay on the ground, officer cuffing his wrists, cheek pressing into the ground.
This particular vision has become a familiar scene in New York. Enormous protests denouncing the killing of unarmed Black people by police have surged through the city for months. Tonight, as Black Lives Matter protesters mix with “count every vote” demonstrators, some of the slogans are different, but the overall picture is the same. And this, too, will be the inheritance of the Biden administration, both in New York and across the country: a country streaked with conflict, unrest, long-festering inequalities, demanding a reckoning over racial injustice.
Biden is not a radical change candidate. Even if he was, winning the presidency but failing to flip the Senate will see the Biden administration struggling to produce the kind of comprehensive legislative reform – on criminal justice, on healthcare, on climate change, on immigration – that the left has been calling for.
Hours after a Biden win is announced, I talk to a woman who is standing outside a subway station with a sign: “Let’s put Joe and Kamala to Work,” it reads, “Make American Antiracist Now!”
I ask her how long she’s been standing there. “Five hours,” she says.
Hope you get a chance for a break, I tell her.
“I hope we get change, is what I hope,” she says. “But right now, this is a win. I celebrate this as a win.”