WASHINGTON – On the eve of the presidential inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, about 800 people gathered Thursday to celebrate and applaud President Barack Obama on his last day in office.
An energetic and diverse crowd gathered at the Arena Stage for an evening full of music, dancing, artwork, food and drink to show their gratitude for the country’s first black president and the legacy he will leave behind.
First popularized by an Internet meme, the phrase “Thanks Obama” had been widely used by Obama’s critics to sarcastically thank him for anything ranging from health-care reform to personal troubles.
The Thanks, Obama event organizers sought to use the non-sarcastic, sincere meaning of the phrase to bring Obama’s supporters together “to show appreciation and gratitude to the nation’s 44th president on his last day of office,” according to the Thanks, Obama website.
“These past eight years have meant a lot to me, and gave me hope,” Georgia McElroy, 41, of Baltimore said. “I’m happy to be here and celebrate his legacy.”
Several people traveled across the country to show their gratitude for the outgoing president.
“I’m here to show my appreciation for, I think, one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had,” Caroline Howard of Los Angeles said. “I think that he was very admirable and gracious in all the things that he did in the face of all the criticism and all the negative and disrespectful things that were said about him and to him.”
Most guests heard about the event through Facebook, but some found it through different means. Dan and Trevi Housholder of Seattle discovered it through Google searches.
“We had two goals,” Dan Housholder said. “One was to go to the Women’s March and the other was to figure out some way to thank Obama…. We just wanted to find some way to deal with the [2016 presidential] election results.”
Halau Ho’omau, a Hawaiian band and dance troupe, kicked off the evening with a traditional Hawaiian performance as a nod to Obama’s upbringing in the Island State. The dancers wore long red skirts and pukka shell necklaces, their hair fastened with leaf barrettes, and hula-ed to the music.
Washington-based band Jus Paul played several songs, including a cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” but changed the song’s lyrics to better fit the occasion. The crowd joined in as the band sang the song’s chorus, “Obama, no cry” and “Obama, goodbye.”
“We were trying to figure out how to contribute and how to really honor Obama through a song, and there really are no songs out,” Jus Paul band member Paul Spires said. “We just got creative and came up with it.”
The evening concluded with a “clap-out” that began with a minute-long roar of cheers, claps and screams, and soon turned into one minute of chanting such phrases as “Thanks Obama” and “Michelle 2020.”
“It was amazing. I saw a lot of people crying, getting emotional,” Naeema Butt, 26, of Arlington, Virginia, said.
Butt moved to the United States from Pakistan six months ago and said she has been fascinated watching the transition of power between Obama and Trump and said she doesn’t know what to expect now that Trump will be in the White House.
The idea for Thanks, Obama came to Bejidé Davis, one of the event’s organizers, in May of 2016. She said it began somewhat as a joke with her brother, that she would stand in front of the White House and applaud Obama on his last day in office. Months later, after watching Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, she was inspired to share her idea publicly.
“Literally, after he got off stage, I had my computer on my lap…and I just threw it [the event page] on Facebook on a whim thinking that maybe my friends, people I know, would want to do it,” Davis said. “Then it just grew and went viral.”
The celebration’s Facebook page recorded more than 133,000 Facebook members who were interested in the event, and more than 49,000 members responded to the page with intentions of attending.
More than 2,000 people have used the Facebook page to post personal letters of thanks to Obama and the first family. Posters were provided at the venue as well for guests to write thank you notes in their own penmanship. Organizers encouraged guests to post photos and videos from Thanks, Obama to social media using the hashtag #ThanksObama.
The Thanks, Obama celebration had gained so much popularity by early January that organizers decided to make it a ticketed event in order to help accommodate increasing costs needed to put on such a large event, according to a Facebook post by Davis.
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