I was part of the great mass of people braving the crowds and the cold and the long hours on the National Mall all in order to observe the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20th. For my spouse and daughter and her husband, it was a chance to observe history in the making … stretching over two days. (Continued after the jump)
My spouse and I traveled to DC on Sunday evening. Traffic through the middle of Washington DC was heavier than even a normal “rush hour”. At one place along Massachusetts Avenue, cars were parked along the curb, two opposing lanes of traffic were moving about 30 feet per minute, and a police escorted police bus (full size) squeezed between the two lanes of traffic. Clearances were measured in less than a handful of inches. I can’t imagine traffic late Monday! We crashed on the floor of our daughter’s home in Glover Park and prepared for a Monday mid-morning departure to see the sights before the big event on Tuesday.
Monday, we made our way on foot the 2 miles to the nearest Metro stop. Along the way, clouds of salt dust were coating everything. There was a threat of up to an inch of snow forecast for Monday, and the road crews were taking no chances. The salt was more plentiful than the few flakes that fell. The Metro was crowded as we passed through downtown DC, and eased quickly as we approached Eastern Market. Few vendors were present, but an Obama souvenir button was found and worn proudly by my spouse.
From Eastern Market, we traveled on foot to the Capitol, passing groups of excited people & vendors. The resturants around the Capitol were nearly all full, and outdoor tables were catching the overflow (in mid-30 temps). We saw hundreds of people dressed in full-length fur coats. I don’t know what the event was at the Library of Congress, but I don’t think they were letting anyone in without a fur coat. We walked around the Capitol, getting as close as was possible to the dais, the seating for the inauguration, and snapping photos like the tourists we were. There was a buzz of anticipation and excitement among the people, and nearly everyone handed cameras to strangers for the inevitable shot standing in front of the Capitol building. It was around the Capitol we began to discover the miles of fencing designed to “control the crowds”. We weren’t always able to see the gaps in the fence that the planners expected the crowds to travel through. This would be telling later.
We then proceeded to the National Mall area. We encountered a vendor who told us that all week the police kept “chasing us away”, but that on Monday, the police seemed to have “given up”. My daughter bought a T-shirt from this vendor. As we walked onto the Mall, we marveled at the large screens, checked out the network television crew locations, and tried to develop our strategy for viewing the inauguration on the next day.
Hungry, we moved north to Capital City Brewing Company for a late lunch and to obtain a “mate” to our commemorative inauguration beer glass. The beer glasses had sold out the night before, our waitress told us. We still had a great lunch. We made our way to the Metro to catch the train to Foggy Bottom, then hiked the hill to Glover Park. For supper, we visited a Turkish restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue and then settled in for the night after making our preliminary plans.
We were awake before the 5:30 am alarm on Tuesday. The television reports were already showing crowds at the National Mall and the buses running on Wisconsin Avenue were mostly empty, so instead of our walking plans, we dressed in multiple layers, bundled up, and waited at the nearest bus stop for about 15 minutes in 15 degree temperatures. This was about 6:00 am. Some in the bus line had been to inaugural events the night before and were telling stories about the pomp and the excitement. Some in the bus line had tickets for special seating or for the parade route. We filled the bus at that stop, so our trip to George Washington University was quicker than usual. While we were trying to decide which stop would get us the closest, the driver announced the end of the line.
There were a few cars on the road at first, as we made our way south to the Mall. Not a few people commented on the near-apocalyptic feel of this pre-dawn walk down the street on Virginia Avenue. Everyone was streaming toward one point, all going in the same direction. It was here where we also encountered the challenge of moving with limited information about the ways the authorities wanted us to proceed. Constitution Avenue was blocked by busses placed perpindicular to the regular traffic flow, with just enough clearance in the middle of the street for emergency vehicles. We had to wait until military vehicles passed before flooding across Constitution Avenue onto the National Mall. That’s where we encountered the first “choke point”. Concrete “Jersey Barriers” were set up with narrow spaces every 50 feet or so for people to move through. Hundreds of people, including us, were not going to wait for the lines to make their way orderly through these “choke points”. We hopped the barrier, and in fact, we saw more people hopping the barrier than we saw people moving in an orderly line. We had made it on the Mall. Now it was time to find us a place as close as possible to the Capitol.
As we crested the hill at the Washington Monument, it was clear this was going to be a challenge. Spread out for a mile and a half to the Capitol was a sea of people. This was just after 7:00 am! Many were already claiming their space in front of the screen just north of the Washington Monument, and others were claiming space on the hillside of the Monument facing the Capitol. We crossed 14th street, re-entered the National Mall through the entry point and were greeted by a “tunnel” of red-capped volunteers who were cheering us on and celebrating wildly. Talk about ratcheting up the enthusiasm! We made it to about 11th street before the crowd seemed to be overwhelming. That put us at about the 4th screen back (on the north side of the Mall) when you look at the crowd shots from the Capitol. Shortly after laying out our blanket, I tried to determine if we could get any closer to the Capitol and turned back after walking only about 200 feet. I had a hard time finding my group again in the mass of people, even though I had taken landmark readings. We settled on that spot.
And time marched slowly along. We broke out our hand and foot warmers. We laughed and talked and had some interactions with people around us. There was a festive mood among all of us. We watched the screens and saw the entire concert from Sunday. We watched as some who were lost meandered around calling out someone’s name. Finally, at about 8:45, the first one in our party asked what time it was. Only a little over an hour left to go before something new was happening … and all around groaned. It was feeling colder by the minute as the wind began to pick up and as there wasn’t much else to focus on. Other than the screen, you could interact with those closest to you and guard your spot. My daughter tried to make it to the port-a-potty at about 9:30, but was soon back because it was impossible to cross the gravel path to get there. About 15 minutes after that, our neighbor tried the same thing. She returned a good 45 minutes later. She had been successful. The port-a-pottys were no more than 50 yards from us. There were more wandering lost people. Occasionally the boom camera behind us raised up for shots of the crowd and we all waved and cheered … less excited each time it happened. We were constantly being asked to move as people shoved their way through the crowd to find their own perfect spot. And then, it was 10:00 am and the large screens began to show something happening!
It was our experience that reactions were rather localized. With so many people, and with all the cold weather gear we were wearing, it was easier to react to what was happening within about 15-20 yards of where we were. We had no knowledge about how the rest of the crowd was reacting. There was some grumbling about some of the musicians and their selections. But by far, the most interesting was the crowd reactions to those who were being shown on the screen being seated. That’s what occupied us until about noon. Joe Lieberman received jeers and boos. Democrats received cheers. Prominant Republicans received mostly silence. When President Bush was first seen by the crowds, someone started the song “nah nah nah nah. Nah nah nah nah. Hey hey, goodbye!” That worked a few times, but when he was formally introduced, many around us booed.
When Rick Warren prayed, mostly people were respectful. We did hear on the bus later about the awful prayer he said. When Joe Biden took the oath of office, people cheered. Some speculated that since the inauguration of President Obama didn’t take place at the stroke of noon that Joe Biden was president for a few minutes. Twice, the announcement was made to be seated, and it caused a ripple of laughter through the crowd. We had been on our feet since 7:00 am. We would have loved to be able to sit down. But the ground was cold, and we weren’t sure there would have been enough room for everyone to sit. We had little space between people as it was. As we approached the oath of office for President, the crowd was full of anticipation and excitement. Not a few tears were shed. Some proclaimed that they had been waiting for this their entire lives. There were plenty of references to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches in the 60s and eyes were bright.
During President Obama’s speech, those bright eyes were riveted, and the silence was astonishing, except when the speech prompted cheers and muted applause (using gloved hands). The biggest challenge was the struggle to see, with everyone on their feet. When the speech was over, the temperature seemed to drop 20 degrees. Everyone was immediately chilled to the bone. As we started to leave, the inaugural poem started to be recited. It didn’t hold our attention for long. As we maneuvered, we heard the benediction, the words of the song often referred to as the “Black National Anthem”, one of my favorite.
We made our way toward 12th street where the screens had announced was a path through the parade route. Soon, at the very place where 12th street was, we encountered a crushing crowd and a fence. A few stepped over the fence. Some tried to dismantle it. Soldiers told us that we couldn’t go that way and that the best bet was to go to the Smithsonian Metro Station. (One that had been closed all day, and would not open again for hours.) There were no signs for exits. We rapidly discovered that our best bet off the National Mall would be to head west along the Mall behind the rows of port-a-potties, and we walked at a fairly good clip, passing the mass of people on the street beside us who were stopped dead in their tracks. As we approached 14th street, we too were in a crush of people and not moving. At 14th street, there were 2 places to cross, both were crosswalks, both were guarded by military, and both had serious log jams. To challenge us even more, a bus and an ambulance were using 14th street going north. This was not well-planned!
Beyond that is when we caught the wind. It was a cold wind out of the northwest, blowing in our faces and making our eyes tear. The hill at the Washinton Monument was the worst. The flags were flying straight out in the wind. We made our way to a point just north of the WWII memorial and attempted to cross Constitution Avenue. Hah! Buses dropping off marchers for the parade blocked Constitution Avenue. They were literally touching bumper to bumper, creating a barrier. We had to move nearly to the bridge across the Potomac River before we could cross. Just north of GWU, we were able to catch a bus north to Glover Park. We were cold, exhausted, and excited at the opportunity to witness history. After a quick re-pack, we were in the car headed north to the beltway, then east to our home north of Annapolis. We listened to the start of the parade, but were home in time to see President Obama enter the viewing stand for the parade.
I went to bed at 8:30 exhausted and was soon asleep.