On Tuesday, January 20, 2009, the warnings about the weather were accurate. The warnings about road closures and large crowds were precise. The inauguration of America’s 44th President was everything we expected it to be, but it was also so much more. Almost two million people descended on Washington DC, and not one arrest was made, nor was anyone seriously injured. I would have thought this a statistical impossibility. I know it’s true though, because I walked among the millions and felt the exuberance, optimism, and utter joy that permeated every inch of our nation’s capital. The future called from every direction and history was around each corner. For the better part of one day, the pettiness and divisiveness we all believe Washington, DC embodies, were nowhere to be found! It was beautiful.
What we didn’t expect was the complete lack of crowd control. You’ve already heard some of the stories; people with tickets unable to get in, overcrowded staging areas, massive crowds moving without guidance, pedestrian gridlock, etc. It’s all true.
As a witness to one of the most memorable days in America’s history, one moment however, typified for me the different meanings this event had for not just my family and friends, but for America. As my daughter, Samantha, and I shivered in lines leading to the Capitol Building some latecomers started to cut the line. A young man took it upon himself to get up on a barrier and direct people to the end of the line. He kept repeating that many people had been waiting for over three hours.
Someone from the crowd then yelled, “Hey, I’ve been waiting eight years for this!”
As everyone laughed, an elderly African American man next to me smiled, and whispered,“Try 200 years.”
Despite the 4 ½ hour wait, the overall feeling was incredible. People were in great spirits and the atmosphere was overwhelmingly celebratory. As I stood on the Capitol grounds, I looked back at the National Mall. I was stunned. I quite literally gasped looking at the throngs of people as far as the eye could see. The buildings and monuments in DC are awesome, but they were mere bricks and mortar next to the more than one million Americans standing together.
The authorities clearly had one major concern – evacuating the President and Congress if something happened. The vast majority of security personnel were tasked to keep particular streets clear rather than manage the crowd. I’m sure if an attack of some kind had occurred, civilians would, at least initially, have had to fend for themselves.
As two million people tried to leave the event, they were funneled into small areas and no official management was evident. The south side of Washington, DC (the side of the city the inaugural parade WASN’T on) looked like a science fiction movie with people wandering everywhere trying to figure out how to get out of the city.
January 20, 2009 was one of the most amazing days of my life. Being there with my daughter made it more special if that’s even possible. Watching everyone, listening to the different stories, meeting the various people, and seeing firsthand the effect historic moments have on so many is not something I will ever forget. We met families from all over the country on the Metro, and I spoke to a man who’d been to Harry Truman’s inauguration while we waited in line. Pictures tell part of the story; video some more, but the images and voices etched forever in my mind will remind me again and again what a truly historic moment we witnessed and what a glorious place America is.
Just after the inauguration of America’s 44th President, Barack Obama, the Keys delegation stopped at a restaurant in Georgetown to reflect on the historic day. Pictured, from left: Josh & Samantha Mothner, Nate and & Jeff Pinkus.