America reacts to Joe Biden's election, with jubilation, relief, defiance

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For tens of millions of Americans on Saturday, a great tension broke.

A tension that had tightened in the chest and temples through four years of watching their nation, in their view, become meaner and more hateful, unable to see plain truths and human decency. A nation spinning down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, praising white supremacists as “fine people,” putting children in cages.

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory brought tears of not just joy, but relief — a hissing purge of all that anxiety that had not relented, through so many tweets and outrages and, ultimately, to the possibility that for the first time in American history, a president might refuse to step down.

That prospect still hung in the air Saturday but felt vastly deflated — like many saw President Trump himself — as his attorneys made their unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, inexplicably, in front of a landscaping shop on the industrial edge of Philadelphia.

People raise bottles of champagne as they celebrate near the White House.
People raise bottles of champagne as they celebrate near the White House in Washington, DC on Saturday. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

Spontaneous celebration erupted around the nation, even amid its worst pandemic in a century. Revelers, for the most part wearing masks, danced and chanted “You’re fired!” Horns honked, flags flew, pots banged, champagne flowed with abandon, from the Bronx to Puerto Rico, Atlanta to Minneapolis, Seattle to South Pasadena.

In Manhattan, thousands poured into the streets, the noise of jubilation thundering through skyscraper canyons.

“We finally have a country back where it's safe for the children again!” Greg Shlotthauer shouted in Times Square. “A country where we are not ashamed of the man in the White House!”

In Brooklyn, a rabbi’s son blew a shofar ram’s horn from his window. On Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles, a bagpiper played on a street corner as someone else rang a cowbell, and a cardboard sign that read “It’s Over” was pinned to a tree.

In Washington, where protestors were tear-gassed just months ago so Trump could pose with a Bible in front of a church, the mood was festive. Crowds danced. A man sang “Sweet Caroline” in front of the boarded-up Department of Veterans Affairs.

People gathered on the grass at McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House, to wait for Biden’s acceptance speech. They brought signs that read “Stop tweeting and start packing” and “Grab him by the BALLOTS.”

In Philadelphia, outside the convention center where election workers were finishing the ballot count, celebrants danced to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and the Village People’s “YMCA,” — which had been a favorite Trump campaign song.

People react near Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday.
People react to the election news near Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Saturday morning. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Philadelphia saved the world,” said Andrew Phillips, a 49-year-old property manager carrying an “Elections Have Consequences” sign. “We haven’t been this relevant since the 1780s."

But in a country no less divided than it was before the election, the counterweight to all that exhilaration was anger, resignation and, in the streets, defiance — fueled by the president’s refusal to concede even as his favorite Fox News called the election for Biden and did not run with his baseless fraud claims.

In Philadelphia, dozens of police officers on bike patrol kept revelers apart from Trump supporters, who were demanding to stop the vote counting.

Jim Eberhardt, a 63-year-old school bus driver, drove to Philadelphia from his home in Rockland County, N.Y., to show his opposition to what he says is vote fraud taking place inside the convention center, based on the false claims by Trump.

The president, who has complained that mail ballots were being tallied after election day, on Saturday pledged to continue his fight to overturn the election.

“I felt it was the least I could do to come down,” said Eberhardt, his Trump flag hoisted on his shoulder. “I think the election’s been stolen, obviously.”

Similar scenes played out across the country.

“This isn't over,” said Lisa Kathryn, at the Michigan state Capitol, still holding her red Trump 2020 sign.

A Trump supporter shouts down counter-protesters outside the Michigan State Capitol building.
A Trump supporter shouts down counter-protesters during a demonstration Saturday over ballot counting outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing. (John Moore / Getty Images)

“Democrats think they’re going to steal an election? This country will not head into socialism," Kathryn said, mirroring Republicans' false claims that the moderate Biden is a radical.

Kathryn, who voted for Trump in 2016 and again this election, said she came to show her support for the president and spend an afternoon with like-minded voters. Dozens of Trump supporters packed in front of the Capitol building, some outfitted in camouflage and openly carrying firearms.

“This is our country,” yelled a man with a megaphone and a Glock 9mm holstered on his right hip. “Freedom!” shouted a woman walking past and offering him a high-five.

Kathryn grinned. “We all love this country just like any other American,” she said. “We are here to speak our minds and stand by President Trump.”

For much of the country, this fervid support made for a bittersweet catharsis, the exhilaration dampened by knowing at least 70 million Americans have doubled down on the Trumpist view of the world, and still mourning all that occurred on his watch.

The author and commentator Van Jones put that emotion in searing terms when he learned of the victory on CNN.

“It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids character matters. It matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.”

He choked up, trying to hold back sobs, talking of Muslims who no longer “have a president that doesn’t want you here,” of undocumented immigrants who don't have to worry about being separated from their children.

“This is a vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered. You know, ‘I can’t breathe.’ You know that wasn’t just George Floyd. That was a lot of people that felt they couldn’t breathe," Jones said. "Every day you’re waking up and you’re getting these tweets and ... you’re going to the store and people who have been afraid to show their racism are getting nastier and nastier to you. And you’re worried about your kids and you’re worried about your sister, and can she just go to Walmart and get back into her car without someone saying something to her?

“And you spent so much of your life energy just trying to hold it together.”

Many Biden supporters felt the racism Trump unleashed in America could never be put back in a bottle.

Adriana Holt of Decatur, Ga., stands in front of a mural of George Floyd.
"There's a Black woman at the second highest position in the country," Adriana Holt of Decatur, Ga., said of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. "That's wild. And to know that I had a part in this." (Jenny Jarvie/Los Angeles Times)

In Decatur, Ga., Adriana Holt’s elation was weighed down by that reality. But it wasn’t going to stop the party. The 28-year-old Black social media manager and her sister, Alexandria, a sports service representative, piled into a Nissan Juke, switched on "My President" by Young Jeezy and headed into Atlanta.

All over the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, which had been home to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., cars honked horns and blasted the anthem “F— Donald Trump” out of their windows.

Some walked the streets with raised fists. Others smoked cigars or popped open champagne bottles.

“Now there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Alexandria Holt said as the sisters snapped photos in front of a mural of George Floyd. Adriana nodded.

“Today, I almost feel the first sigh of relief since the day Trump got elected,” she said.

When she woke up four years ago to learn that Trump had been elected president, she felt that America had told her that, as a Black person, a woman, a survivor of sexual assault, she didn’t matter.

“There's no going back to how it was,” Adriana Holt said. “You know, Trump just made it OK to be racist. So, it's like the people I knew beforehand, now I know: I can't be your friend anymore. This is permanent.”

Still, she could feel change. She was born just a month before Georgia voted for its last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and now her home state was tilting blue for the first time she could remember.

“There's a Black woman at the second highest position in the country,” she said. “That's wild. And to know that I had a part in this.”

Flashbacks to four years ago still tormented some of the most vulnerable.

Hernan Hernandez-Vela, 31, began to weep as he talked about the racism that many people have endured since Trump took office.

The Las Vegas resident recalled the time someone ran him off the road while he was in the car with his young son. He talked about parents whose children were told to "go back to Mexico."

“The last four years, our community has been criminalized,” said Hernandez-Vela, who works for La Pulga de Las Vegas, a community organization that helps Latinos. “We just want our kids to feel safe on the playground, to feel safe at school."

His organization heard from Latinos who weren't paid for work and were threatened with ICE when they spoke up.

When he was a child, Hernandez-Vela would read about Martin Luther King and the racial issues that divided the country. He felt like King brought it to light and laws were changed.

"But Trump came and brought all that back. He single-handedly targeted the Hispanic community," he said. For Hernandez-Vela, whose parents were immigrants from Mexico, Biden's win meant everything.

“We feel like we’re human again," he said. “With Biden winning, we feel like we finally have a voice. We have somebody in office who cares about our community, who cares about our families.

"He shows that racism isn't right, that hatred isn't right," he said.

Janet Pulido, 19, in small-town Siler City, N.C., remembered watching classmates come to school wearing Trump gear to celebrate.

“Everybody’s racism came out,” she said. For Pulido, it hit hard. Her family immigrated from Veracruz, Mexico, in 1999, and some still lacked legal status.

On Saturday, when she went to Walmart, a sense of joy washed over her as she noted that the Trump hats and shirts she normally saw on customers were conspicuously absent.

“As the day goes on, it’s starting to hit me more,” she said. “Come Jan. 20, he’s gone. That’s it. The nightmare’s over.”

The stakes of this election were the starkest for those on the margins.

In Austin, Texas, Marco Jaramillo said Biden’s election meant the end of living under the cloud of deportation. His legal status in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was under threat as Trump fought to end the Obama-era program.

“It means a lot of hope, because Biden has already said he’s going to make it permanent,” he said.

Jaramillo, 32, was brought from Mexico to the U.S. as a child by his parents and runs a local cleaning business.

He said he spent the past four years “living in fear of deportation.”

He joined Saturday’s crowd in celebrating with handmade signs that said, “Love over hate” and “We are all Dreamers” in Spanish.

Friend and fellow DACA recipient Raul Armenta said he was tired of spending years listening to the president demonize Mexican immigrants

“We’re not criminals,” Armenta said. “I feel content now that they can’t make us leave.”

In a spontaneous crowd outside the Palacio del Sol in Las Vegas, Mayra Aguirre, 38, felt “mega feliz,” she said — super happy — because it felt like democracy was rescued.

The last four years had felt like a weight, she said. “I felt like the country was broken, like I was drowning,” Mayra said. She felt the racism in the community. Over the past three days, she hasn’t slept. And when she did, it was only for two hours.

“Today, when I heard the news, I felt like I could breathe,” she said. “I feel like the country is coming together again ... we’re going back to the country we were before Trump got into the White House.”

Her family grouped together and sang a spin on a song by the Miami group Los 3 de la Habana. The original version went “voy a votar por Donald Trump.” ("I'm going to vote for Donald Trump.")

They sang a new version: “Que alegre soy, voy a botar a Donald Trump — fuera de La Casa Blanca.” (“I’m so happy, I’m going to kick out Donald Trump out of the White House.”)

In other cities, the tug-of-war between celebrants and Trump supporters was more fraught.

In Austin, several hundred Trump supporters waving flags and signs reading “Stop the Steal” and “Fraud” chanted and shouted at a smaller crowd of Biden supporters across the street. More than a dozen bicycle police pedaled between the two sides, intervening when Trump supporters crossed the street.

At least one Trump supporter was carrying an AR-15 rifle slung across his chest. A pickup truck slowed as it passed the Trump crowd and the driver shouted, “The nonsense is over!”

A bicycle food delivery worker pedaled in his wake, calmly adding, “It’s over, guys.”

Trump supporter Elizabeth Brumbaugh, 62, disagreed. “It’s not over!” she shouted, holding her Trump 2020 sign aloft “Count the legal votes, not the illegal!”

“You lost — take it like a man!” Natalie Roberts, 43, shouted at the occupants of a pickup truck with a Trump sign in the back, who grew livid. Roberts, a single mother who runs an Austin social media marketing company, voted for Biden but hadn’t joined a protest until she saw the pro-Trump crowd Saturday.

Christian Rico, 20, a student at Concordia University, took turns with a friend chanting through a bullhorn at Trump supporters: “You guys lost!”

A Biden supporter began blasting Queen’s “We Are the Champions." And on it went.

People celebrate in Orlando, Saturday after Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump.
People celebrate in Orlando, Saturday, after Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become 46th president of the United States. (Melissa Gomez/Los Angeles Times)

As an event in downtown Orlando came to a close, 61-year-old retiree Don Luellen happily held a homemade “Biden Harris 2020” sign but worried about the future.

“Trump has done nothing but divide our country for the last four years,” he said. He fears the president won’t stop.

“My greatest fear is that even though Biden is president, that Trump will not be quiet and will keep on drumming up hatred and division,” he said. “I’m scared to death of them and militias.”

“But I’m hoping that when Biden starts to get into the presidency, that a lot of people that feel that way will start to calm down.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.