I'm really not an early riser. I sure don't like the cold. And I certainly don't care for standing around for hours on end in freezing temperatures after getting out of bed really early and without enough sleep. But on Tuesday this week in Washington DC I gladly put aside all of these personal disinclinations to be on the National Mall for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Sure it was uncomfortably cold as I waited, standing in the one spot for five long hours in frigid temperatures after being up since 4AM. Not only that but, like the majority of the other people that crammed all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building on Tuesday, I didn't even catch a firsthand glimpse of the miniature faraway figure of Barack Obama on the steps of the Capitol Building. Instead I only got to see him (and everything else) on one of the many JumboTrons that were set up along the National Mall. But none of these temporary, uncomfortable inconveniences mattered one iota to me or seemingly to anyone else who had gathered in the numbingly cold pre-dawn to late morning hours patiently waiting for the historic ceremony to begin. It was all well worth it.
While varying reports I have read estimated Tuesday's turnout to be anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million, all seem to agree that it was a landmark event with a stunning turnout. Consider in comparison that for the last inauguration, George W Bush's second in January 2005, that a mere 100,000 showed up, and many of them were protesters. Meanwhile, for this year's inauguration festivities an estimated 10,000 charter buses, packed with revelers from as far away as Chicago and California, descended upon Washington for Tuesday's events and the couple of days leading up to it. So crazy were the numbers arriving in the nation's capitol that not only were all hotels in the DC area completely booked (many reportedly jacking their rates way up in a direct correlation to demand) but hotels up to a three hour drive in all directions out of DC were also booked up. One guy told me how his friend had rented out his DC apartment for $2000 for a night. In fact, get this, even all the campgrounds in the greater DC area were all booked up, and trust me, this is not camping weather on the East Coast. Many, like me, were lucky to have friends living in the DC/Maryland/Virginia areas who they could stay with.
I stayed with my buddy DJ ALF who lives in Maryland. And early on Tuesday morning we headed from the outskirts into the center of Washington DC in the pre-dawn hours. We took the only form of transport available, the Metrorail, since for security reasons, the city center had been closed off to all traffic except for police, army, FBI, and Secret Service. (If you looked up on any rooftop Tuesday you would see guys with high powered guns and binoculars surveying the crowds.) Understandably the Metro train we took was mad packed. Even at 5AM it was full beyond capacity but everyone on the train, all taking the day off work (schools were closed) and excitedly chattering, seemed to be on a natural high. Along the way the train passed many large lots filled with parked charter buses emptying people who had traveled from all over to DC for the day. "Isn't that a beautiful sight?" said our train driver over the speaker system as the train passed above the vast RFK Stadium lot filled with at least 70 parked buses, and others still filing in. Everyone on the packed Blue line Metro, which was about 95% African American, cheered with obvious pride and joy.
With the DC Metro system, which is not built for the large crowds it had to endure Tuesday, being so packed, it took a long time just to get out of the station (on the way back it would take even longer). Once off the train and on the street there were thousands and thousands of people every which way you looked and they were all walking in the one direction, towards the National Mall several blocks away. We finally arrived in the Mall at around 7AM but already the crowds were so thick that there must have been a million already there ahead of us. Many of those, we learned, had stayed up all night in the cold or gotten there as early as 1AM or 2AM just to secure a halfway decent spot. Many others had reserved tickets, given away free via their state representatives (some of these hot commodities were fetching hundreds to thousands of dollars on eBay and Craigslist), but they had to line up too and still had to be outside in the cold -- they just got a bit closer to the actual ceremony. So full to capacity was the event that some ticket holders got turned away.
On the packed Mall there were people of all ages and races but what struck me most was the significant representation of African Americans, especially older black folks, who had trekked in from all over the country-- many traveling all night with little or no sleep. From looking around I figured the African American turnout to be approximately 50% of the total. One elderly lady, in her eighties, who needed a walker just to keep herself balanced, had traveled from St Louis with her family spanning five generations. All were cold but happy as they stood patiently for hours waiting for history to unfold in front of their eyes. The crowds were jammed together so tight that some attendees said they felt claustrophobic. And at times the cold was so severe that peoples' feet went completely numb and they had to jump around to get the circulation going again. Everyone (myself included) seemed to be using hand warmers and feet warmers to help fight off the bitter cold.
At 8AM the big JumboTron screens and accompanying giant echoing speakers that lined the Mall clicked on and for the next two hours we were entertained with a real time replay of the concert from the same location just two days earlier which was great because I had missed the whole thing first time around. So I got to see everyone from Sunday's pre-inauguration show, including such celebrities/actors as Jamie Foxx (who did a spot on imitation of Obama) and performers like U2 (with Bono expressing "What a thrill for four Irish boys from the north side of Dublin" to be participanting), Mary J. Blige, John Cougar Mellancamp, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, Usher, & Shakira, and Bruce Springsteen (all were really great). And since it was on the jumbo screens and from the exact same location with crowd shots of the same packed Mall, only two days previously, many in Tuesday's crowd understandably mistakenly thought it was a live performance happening right then. It was a perfect Is it Live or Memorex? moment. Whenever some music played, whether it was Garth Brooks & his backing choir doing "Shout" or the army marching band playing "The Liberty Bell" (aka "The Monty Python Theme") everyone happily danced along, as much an effort to keep warm as to groove to the music.
After the replay finished the live feeds began and by about 11AM things got really rolling as many of the players began to filter in, their every move and sound relayed on the big screens/speakers. This included many celebrities and, of course, countless politicians, including California Senator/former Mayor of San Francisco Diane Feinstein (D), who raised her profile considerably Tuesday when she had the honor of introducing Barack Obama. As the various political figures arrived in the Capitol building to take their seats, the reaction from the crowd around me was anywhere from muted to loudly excited but rarely negative. Only George W. Bush's arrival on the big screen resulted in any booing heard all day. Even outgoing VP Dick Cheney, looking pathetic in a wheelchair (reportedly from a back injury inflicted while moving house over the weekend), got zero response from the large crowd. But the entrance of Colin Powell, the first African American to be appointed to the position of US Secretary of State (2001 - 2005), got loud cheers and chants. Of course the arrival of VP elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill (who on Oprah "Live from Washington" the day before had shared more information than she should have) got big applause. But the biggest applause of all was bestowed upon the Obamas. The screams and cheers elicited by the entrance of the adorable looking Obama girls, 7 year old Sasha and her 10 year old sister Malia, was just crazy and proved that they had already won the hearts of everyone just as their mom, Michelle, also had.
But when Barack Obama himself finally made his entrance the reaction was just off the hook: like a rock concert, a religious revival, and a political rally all rolled into one. It was like that moment when your team wins the Super Bowl. It was simply electric to be amongst the ecstatic cheering crowds. And he hadn't even been sworn in at this point. But when he was the crowd erupted into deafening cheers. It was such an uplifting moment that I will never forget it. Meanwhile at a computer somewhere at that exact same moment the webmaster of the White House website, with a click, deleted the old layout of the Bush regime, replacing it with the new President Obama White House website design. As Obama made his inauguration speech the crowd got quiet again. In his trademark commanding oratory style he called for equality for all races, religions, and sexual preferences and proceeded to deliver an inspirational but realistic speech for these troubled times and the work that lies ahead for everyone, not just this newly elected president, in what he called "the work of remaking America." Particularly poignant were his personal points about racism in America and its welcome erosion, noting how, "A man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." At that point I looked around and saw people, their faces wet, crying with joy and sheer disbelief at this historic moment taking place right then and there.
Corny as it might sound, the whole day was filled with nothing but love. Everyone was in a good mood and just oozing goodwill. As the event wound down a group of about ten older black men and women who looked in their mid sixties and were all dressed up in their finest clothes and who, they proudly announced, had traveled all the way from Alabama, were walking through the crowd shaking hands with every stranger in their path. It was like church. Further proof of the positivity of the day lay in the fact that the event, which attracted around two million people all crammed into a relatively tiny area, had no arrests -- none. Not one single arrest all day! There were no problems anywhere. Even when folks, tired as hell from an already long day of standing in the freezing cold, had to cram into a wall of people and wait for another two hours just to get inside the nearby over-capacity Metro stations on their way home, they patiently and peacefully waited.
Once on the packed Metrorail train, those who hadn't dozed off from exhaustion were talking to anyone and everyone. A 39 year old black man who said he had traveled from Memphis announced to no one in particular that, "I never thought I would see it in my life, a black president!" My buddy DJ ALF concurred, "I thought maybe I might see a woman president before I would see a black president. You know, you think of all these rappers who used to always talk about how there would never be a black president in the White House, and now there really is one."
DJ ALF, who is 33, then talked of his own mom who grew up and still lives in nearby Annapolis, MD. "I think of my mother going through segregation and all the stuff she had to endure in her life. Stories she told me of when she was young. It's hard to believe that there is now a black president in the White House!"
As Barack Obama himself clearly stressed in his inauguration address and later that night at the Neighborhood Ball, it is now that the real work begins. Everything cannot be accomplished overnight. Yesterday, his first day in office, he followed up with changes he called “a clean break from business as usual.”
Recent surveys such as the Times/CBS News poll indicate that overwhelming majorities of Americans say they think that Mr. Obama will be a good president, that he will bring real change to Washington, and that he will make the right decisions on the economy, Iraq, dealing with the war in the Middle East and protecting the country from terrorist attacks. Of course, who knows how long the honeymoon with the celebrated new commander in chief will last or how soon Obama may make unpopular decisions or be perceived as making them.
But regardless of whatever might happen in the future, after witnessing Tuesday's historic event firsthand, when the day was really less about one person and more about the possibility open to all people, the act of Obama being elected president is itself a major accomplishment and positive step forward and change for the human race.