Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 20 and 21 Washington, DC

“Let Us In!”


At 6:20am, Tanya and I set out for Barack Obama’s inauguration with high hopes and great excitement.  I’ve been looking forward to this day for, well, eight years now, and the anticipation is enormous.  Yesterday, when went into town to pick up our tickets, I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people thronging the streets.  I remarked to Tanya: “This would sure have been a different crowd if John McCain had won the election.”  It’s hard to find words for how moving it was to witness so many African-Americans, and young people, here to attend this event.  This is a sea change.  People who have never felt much stake in the political process are suddenly sensing that their votes matter, their voices are heard, and their hopes are empowered.  You can see this on their faces, and in the general mood of ebullience.  Even the most mundane exchanges feel more neighborly.  It’s almost too good to be true.  After eight years of Bush, can it really be the case that we have chosen such a brilliant, compassionate and eloquent man as commander-in-chief?  And an African-American, too!  No doubt there will be failures and disillusionment down the road.  No one could live up to the expectations that Obama has inspired, despite his best efforts to tamp them down.  But all of that is for another day.  Today we celebrate.


We caught the first Metro train into town.  It was crowded, but not the nightmare that some in the media had forecast.  We stood for the entire ride; everyone on the train was hyped about the big event.  Some of the lucky ones who had found seats caught a few extra winks.  The rest of us talked about where we were from, why we were here, what we hoped to witness.


Exiting at the Metro Center station, we walked through the streets of town as the early morning sun cast its gold illumination on the alabaster monuments of our nation’s capital.  The weather was very cold but also crystal clear.  None of the rain or snow that some had predicted.  Even the weather seemed to augur a perfect day.


But perfection is not what we found when we arrived at the intersection of 1st and E Streets, which was the route to the designated entrance for those of us who held purple-coded tickets.  Instead, we encountered a huge crowd of people funneling into a busy intersection half-blocked by a stalled bus.  Over the course of the first hour, by 8:45am, we might have moved twenty-five yards.  This brought us right into the middle of the intersection.  That’s when things got really chaotic.  The crowd behind us surged forward, while those in front of us had nowhere to go, so we ended up in a seething mass of humanity, unable to budge except when the whole crowd moved us.  I literally could not raise my arms; I held on to Tanya for dear life, fighting to prevent us from being separated.  Things got even worse when two ambulances had to squeeze through this mobbed intersection.  Folks were all trying to get out of the way, but no one knew where to go—forward, back sideways—and no one could move on their own anyway.  At this point, I began to pray that no one be hurt or killed in a stampede. 


Somehow the ambulances made it through, but we remained stuck in this human pressure-cooker for another two hours without progressing an inch.  At least we were not cold; even with the sub-freezing temperatures and chill wind, the collective body heat kept us all warm.  The crowd’s mood lifted for a moment as a police crew somehow passed through on foot, blowing their whistles as they escorted the actor Samuel L. Jackson to his waiting seat.  Someone made a joke about “Snakes on a Plane” and everyone wished they were in his shoes.  Around this same time, a few folks gave up and tried to work their way back out of the crowd.


Given the tension and discomfort, the miracle was that a wildly diverse mass of people were, for the most part, genuinely kind to one another throughout this ordeal.  In a sense, we bonded through our shared sense of frustration.  All of us expected large crowds, but the lack of any organization or guidance was disappointing.  Police officers and Secret Service agents were stationed all along the street, but when we asked them where to go and what to do, they ignored us.  There were no signs, no pathways, no volunteers offering to direct traffic.  In short, no one was running the show.  The only information we got was a scattering of rumors passed along by cell phones and Blackberries.  We could see sharpshooters on the roofs of the surrounding buildings, pacing about, keeping an eye on all of us, lest terrorists lurk in our midst.  But as long as we remained peaceful—which we did for the duration—no one gave a damn about us.


Then, just as we were about to surrender all hope of making it to the swearing-in ceremony, there was a breakthrough.  Someone in our pack, tall enough to see over the crowd, declared, “There’s forward movement a block away.  If we can get out of this bottleneck, we might make it to the gate.”  We surged ahead in a kind of flying wedge, then hit a stretch of open road.  With arms locked, Tanya and I ran along with scores of others, until we arrived at the end of 1st Street, where we were stopped in our tracks by another mass of people gathered at a black chain-link fence along the perimeter of Louisiana Ave.  Beyond that fence, we could see metal detectors, Secret Service agents, lucky ticket holders scurrying to their seats, and the Capitol—the Promised Land.  But would we be able to get there?  Or would we only get to gaze at it from afar?  It was now close to 10:45, just an hour or so before the inauguration would commence.  Others came up from behind us and joined the crowd, which soon took on the all-too familiar disorder that we had experienced all morning.  The gate was about 200 yards away, and traffic wasn’t moving.


Time ticked away.  A few people turned back.  A man behind me muttered that we would never make it.  Silently, I shared his pessimism, but a young African-American woman who had travelled from Florida for this occasion said, “We’ve got to have hope.  We are going to get there.”  Others nodded with her.  We encouraged one another, sharing stories.  One woman noted that only one person from her office had made it in; the others had all gone home, but she was going to wait until the end.  A mother, accompanied by her adolescent daughter, spoke by cell phone with her husband who had somehow made it into another gate.  Next to me, an elderly African-American woman with a walker quietly but doggedly held her ground.  A trio of idealistic white college guys clustered around a small radio. All of us watched and waited and prayed that we’d get to the head of the line and through the entry gate.  Meanwhile, as had been the case all morning, the police and Secret Service agents on the other side of the fence looked at us without any affect, without uttering a word.


Our crowd—probably a thousand people—began to chant, “Let us in!  Let us in!”  Everyone knew this was pointless, but somehow it made us feel better.  We held our tickets high over our heads and joined in a rousing chorus of: “PUR-PLE!  PUR-PLE!”  We were young and old, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, women and men and children—but all that matter in that moment is that we were purple.


As the swearing-in ceremony began, the gate still loomed in the distance.  We clung to the faint hope that we might make it in for Obama’s speech.  Cheers rose from behind the barricade and someone with a Blackberry reported, “Cheney is out!”  We applauded.  Then two enormous booms went off, like bombs or gunshots.  All around us, people flinched, fearing the worst.  Then we realized that this was the firing of cannons, marking the moment that Barack Obama had become president of the United States.  We roared our approval—and noticed that all activity on the other side of the fence had stopped.  The security guards were abandoning the metal detectors.  At last, for the first time all day, someone spoke to us from across the divide: “The gates are closed for the day.”


The crowd dispersed, bittersweet, simultaneously rejoicing in the Obama presidency and deeply frustrated at our inability to witness the event we had come so far to see.  As we went our separate ways, we could hear bits and pieces of President Obama’s speech over the PA system.  The sound was badly garbled, but one line rang out with great clarity: “We need not compromise between our ideals and our security.”  I applauded, across the distance, then walked back to the Metro station with Tanya.  We caught a train to Adams-Morgan, far from the maddening crowds, ate a consolation lunch at a swank sushi bar, then returned to our home base in Virginia to watch the inaugural parade on television.


Over the next twenty-four hours, my disappointment diminished.  I am still sad that I did not get in to the inauguration ceremony, but I have no regrets about making the trip to Washington.  The diverse crowd embodied a vision of America at its best, joined in hope and common cause in difficult times.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to share the celebration with them, to be a part of this event together, even if we could not witness it directly.  As I listened to President Obama’s speech on You Tube, I was inspired by his call to service, which echoed Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”  Watching President Obama, sitting with his beautiful family during the parade, or dancing with his elegant wife at the many balls, I was repeatedly impressed by his physical and intellectual grace, which has been so lacking in American politics for the past eight years.  I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense that we have entered a new decade.  Today, Americans are walking with a little extra bounce in their steps and hope on their faces.   This is not to ignore the deep and even dire problems that lie ahead.  We are still at war, and our economy is in a shambles.  But this is, nonetheless, a new day.  I am glad I had the opportunity to greet its arrival in person—well, sort of.