a reflection from a participant observer
at one point, i read a statistic that said, there was one person in Washington DC on January 20 for every 150 Americans. It was one moment of many I experienced that day that gave me pause. Here is was, a number amidst numbers. . . 1 million, 2.5 million, 950,000, - here it was, a number I could wrap my head around. 150... I was present at the inauguration for 150 others who weren't able to be there. I know 150 people and so I have to say, I feel a bit compelled to share the experience. But, what to say?
Can I tell you that my first impression upon getting off the metro was the amount of garbage strewn across the sidewalks and streets? It was clear evidence of the numbers of people who had already begun to celebrate this momentous occasion. Or maybe that much of the garbage consisted of handwarmer wrappers and coffee cups, although there were a remarkable number of gloves without mates; causing us to speculate on why we didn't see more people with one gloved hand. We had come out of the metro station right near a security checkpoint - identifiable by the large dumpster for confiscated items adorned with a list of all the items prohibited on the mall during the event. Unfortunately for us, this was an entrance designated for ticket holders only... which we were not. and so, at approximately 8:45am and with 2.75 hours before the ceremony began, we set off with the goal of finding a place from which to view the inauguration. Our plan was simple, get onto the mall and then figure something out. So, off we went - into what was (we would learn) a maze of fencing, concrete barriers, and human walls. The former two with the intent of keeping people out, the latter with the sole intent of getting in.
It was incredible. It was more people than I've ever seen.
As we wandered, occasionally hitting dead ends and having to turn around, other times, finding relatively empty paths only to run headlong into a line of people waiting at one of the entrances... at which point one was likely to engage in or overhear a fairly familiar conversation... what line is this? is it for the mall or the parade? is it security? how long have you been here? where are you from? This happened over and over again as we zigged and then zagged our way from 3rd and C streets turning left and then right... meandering further and further from the mall as the security checkpoints blocked every path. It wasn't that we were avoiding security, it was simply that those entrances weren't moving at all and we weren't trying to get close, we were just trying to see something. So, on we went. At one point, we reached the intersection of 12th and E - and there was a line but this one was different. It looked like it was moving. So we asked the common questions... and found out, it was a line for general public mall entrance. OMG, did we make it? We had 90 minutes to spare, surely we could make it through by then. So, we made the executive decision to get in line and were richly rewarded when the line started to move. (yay!)
Unfortunately, our victory was shortlived. We moved but soon noticed that no one was going through the gate and the line was just bunching up tighter and tighter on the other side of the intersection. We chatted with the folks around us and realized that there was no real consensus about what we were waiting in line for - maybe it was parade access only, maybe it was the mall. Whatever it was, it didn't matter because after being there for an hour, we weren't moving at all. Again, our group made an executive decision. I had been receiving twitter updates from the official inaugural website and they were directing people west of 14th street if they wanted to get anywhere close to a jumbotron (aka...an obamaton). With about 40 minutes left 'til the ceremony, we got out of our line and decided to start walking again. As we walked (turning left, turning right), we were in a crowd of people like I've never seen.
I can't explain to you the feeling of walking through this maze of people and concrete. I couldn't help but think it must be a metaphor for the path that brought us to this amazing day. Occasionally, we'd be in a group of people determined that the best path was in one direction and see another group, of equal size and determination, heading in the opposite direction. Some folks might have wondered, what if they're going the right way? and joined them. Others might have thought... haha, we've been that way already, there's nothing going on down there. And others still might have said, well, maybe they are headed somewhere else.
Overall, the mood was festive, generous, hope filled, expectant, energetic, and neighborly. With that many people and that much confusion, for the most part no one was freaking out and people were helping each other.
We were told by someone that the best way to go was to get to 18th street and turn left, by that point we would be beyond the all the barriers and able to access a small park at the far end of the mall, past the washington monument, near the memorial. By the time we got to 18th street, we were in sea of people who had all gotten the same message. I referred to it as our 'perimeter parade' as we had essentially all just walked halfway around the event on the outside ring. We were the people and from all sides you heard voices of change and hope calling out... oh yes we did!
We finally turned one last corner and our destination came into view. The ceremony had officially started but it wasn't quite noon yet and we thought again that we might actually make it. As, we came around a line of port-o-potties, there must have been 159 of them... we saw a crowd gathered. With a cry of joy I announced to Dad and Susan... it's a JUMBOTRON! and we all cheered, yes we DID! there were even speakers.
We joined the group of people standing shoulder to shoulder just in time to hear Rick Warren offer the prayer. Despite what I feel about his politics, I was happy to have a moment to give thanks, and as I looked around at the people with whom I would share this moment, I realized how much I had to be thankful for. It wasn't just me, Dad and Susan - it was people from all over the country. Some people who had attended King's speech, some who were born after 9/11. I still can't really describe what happened in those moments. I can't tell you all the the details of the diversity because, honestly, it felt like we really were all just Americans, sharing a vision, sharing hope and celebrating a moment that arrived only after a long time - after following a path rife with immovable barriers and unexpected turns.
We stood shoulder to shoulder at the furthest point from the events... gathered around a jumbotron and under the watchful eye of the security station... we stood as a community that lifted itself beyond the lines that have been drawn to separate us ... we stood as one body and cheered as we heard the words that officially inaugurated Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States - and we celebrated, some of us cried, some of us hollered... some just stood in silence. As President Obama gave his inaugural speech, the crowd was quiet. We heard his challenge and we heard his faith that yes, we could in fact rise above the crises of today and usher in a new tomorrow, a future based on hope.
It was an amazing moment. The sun was shining and it felt anything but cold.
There is so much more to say. I could tell you about the coffee I bought for a dollar, the anti-bush handwarmers (really, they were just regular handwarmers), the bling, the merchandise, the metro, our amazing good luck, our delicious lunch, the wonderful people we met, the craziness of line-culture and what happens to line-jumpers, twittering, crowds, crowds, and crowds... I could offer my reflections on post-racial america and whether I think that's just a catch phrase or a potential reality, the irony of having to take baby steps for 3 blocks after hearing a speech telling us how hard it would be to move forward... but forward we moved, just slowly and with great difficulty.
There is a lot to say and I hope that I will continue to share my reflections, after all, I'm reflecting for 150. However, for now, I will leave it at a summary of our experience and hope you enjoy it.
Peace and Yes We Can!