25 January 2009

Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: The Day Of and Braving the Icy Currents

I have significantly defrosted. I am walking with a slight limp. I have finally caught up on sleep. I have survived the inauguration ceremonies of President Barack Obama.

To say that Tuesday was an exciting, moving day or a test of true endurance would not do justice to either. Those that were there know that it took more than a few days to recover from the extreme cold, the nine-plus hours of standing and the crushing crowds. However, most that attended inauguration would also adamantly tell you that they wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything.

My Tuesday morning began at 4am, strategically bundled in layers and riding an already-full Metro into the Capital area of DC. Between 5:30 and 8am, I shuffled forward with the other Silver ticket holders on a haphazard line, watching thousands of people pass by in a stream. In speaking to those around me, there were those from Minnesota, Italy, Florida, Nebraska, Canada and California, there were high school student groups, families, friends, grad students, and there were those that had supported Obama in the election and those that hadn’t and just came to witness history. Silver ticket holders, (and yes, every time I peeked at it, the ticket still felt Willy Wonka-esque) as I had suspected, were the non-celebrities that had stumbled upon this chance due to dumb luck.

As such, we were a relatively rowdy bunch that rose up frequent Obama chants and brought down a barricade once we were actually admitted into our area. Being situated on the edge of the small reflection pool in front of the Capital, I think the proximity of it all was just too much for some – after about an hour of deliberation, around two hundred spectators in the Silver section burst through a gate and ran up and around the reflection pool. In an attempt to get even closer, some then climbed into trees, onto statues or on the frozen reflection pool itself. Staying around the pool area, I opted for the far more boring approach to waiting out the next four hours: stomping my feet, chatting with fellow enthusiasts, and sharing snacks.

Despite the impressive show of crowds beforehand, it would only be after the ceremonies that the sheer number of people in DC would become truly apparent. The thousands of cops that had come to help from all over the country -– Ohio, Texas, Florida, etc. -– could only help so much, as the city took on all 1.8 million celebrants at once in a scene of good-natured chaos. The swamped streets, clogged Metro stations, and the random road-blocks pushed a great deal of people out onto the highways, which soon became flooded with pedestrians. It was out on one of these highways that I finally found a friend that I had been trying to meet up with for an hour and a half. Amongst hundreds of others, my friend and I walked the highway, attempted to enter some Metro stops, returned to the highway after several failures, and took it down under the Capital. After three hours of attempting to exit the area, we finally found success at a Metro station to the north of the Capital. Our apocalypse-like experience wasn’t quite over yet, however, as the escalators in this station were still only running downward to accommodate all of the crowds. As a result, anyone trying to exit the station had no other choice other than to climb the ramps next to the escalators up and out of the station.

As entertaining as all of this may be, it points to something far deeper that was going on on Tuesday. It is a testament to how meaningful this moment was that a record-breaking number of people were willing to travel to DC to stand for hours in freezing temperatures for a ceremony that lasted a little under an hour. And, despite all of chaos and physical discomfort people endured, it was clear that the general feeling was one of unshakable joy and tolerance, especially since not one arrest was made. For these people, the experience had less to do with the images that anyone could watch later on YouTube than the physical space they occupied by being there. The mass of people- enthusiastic, elated, emotional and excited to be a living testament to what was actually occurring- is what will resonate with me whenever I think back on my experiences. In trying to anticipate who exactly would be best represented at the inauguration ceremonies, I had always assumed that the candidates would be corporations, grassroots organizations or political groups, with the average visitor dodging around or caught up in whatever they had to say. It had never crossed my mind that all of the above would be so distinctly absent and so wholly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, just celebrating.

The day, to me, became about the people. It became about the millions of black dots that faced a small stage with only a few black dots. In the surreal moment in which I realized that some of the world’s most important leaders were just people on a stage not terribly far away, I also realized the overwhelming power in the numbers facing them. It truly solidified for me how amazing this country can be in its strange, passionate, peaceful turnover of who gets to stand on that stage every four years. And, as mature a process as this is, President Obama’s call for an end to the childish tendencies we’ve developed (including the deafening roar of “boo’s” when George W. Bush was announced) seemed more relevant than ever. In his speech, he alluded to the fact that analysis, accountability and action, all of which define a mature nation, truly need to be adopted by our mass of inspired people if the amazing momentum we have created is to keep going.

It seemed relevant that we were being told this on such a cold day. In referencing the almost certain defeat Washington and his troops faced on the shore of the Delaware river, Obama said, “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” Our endurance, I’m sure, will have to be for far greater things than 22 degree weather, although it was a symbolic start. Looking around, speaking with others, and listening to what they had to say, I was filled with the hope that, working together, we will make it to the other side. And, afterward, as we walked the apocalyptic-looking highways, I couldn’t help thinking that, just like Washington on the Delaware, sometimes we mistake the bleakest-looking moments in our history as the end, when we are really at the beginning of something great.

[See Caitlin's first inauguration post: Inauguration Ceremonies 2009: Being Here.]

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