Witnessing history: notes on the inauguration

Witnessing history: notes on the inauguration

I wrote this article during the 2009 inauguration and it was originally published in the University of Washington’s student newspaper, The Daily.

And so it begins
This is an attempt to capture our travels in words, phrases and photos as we make our way to Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama. I can’t begin to fathom how it will be to walk through the National Mall or wait for the metro with hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets, restaurants, bars and buildings. It’ll be like trying to get to the front of the stage at a rock concert, except it’ll be that way for most of the day. The district will never be the same. This country will never be the same. As one friend living in D.C. commented: “[As I was] passing the Capitol, I saw the Obama caravan go to the Capitol. As I told Amy and Kathryn, I didn’t mind waiting for the caravan at all, whereas I have always been impatient waiting for former President George W. Bush or Dick Cheney caravans to pass.”

Friends and fam gathered to celebrate Obama's win in 2008.

Friends and fam gathered to celebrate Obama’s win in 2008.

You’d think it was my friend or relative being sworn in. That’s what Obama’s campaign has done for us; we somehow all feel more connected in a strange way. We worked together to make Nov. 4, 2008 and Jan. 20, 2009 come to fruition. It was the small voter registration drives, bus tours, phone banking, letter writing, e-mail campaigning and coffee shop conversing. All of this made this world a little smaller and more tolerable to live in.

Snow, talk story and sleeping on the church floor
We were greeted at Newark, N.J. with snow covering the ground. That must have been an indicator of what was to come. It started snowing in the morning but stopped after a bit. We were staying with friends, and it’s been good to hear stories of activism and the civil rights movement. This presidency means so much to so many people, and even more for those who have worked so hard for a time like this to come.

The day the world was watching

We set our alarms to go off at some rediculous hour. My head was in such a haze since we had finally decided to sleep on the office floor. Only two blocks from the Capitol, we were in a better position to walk over to the Mall.

We woke up a little after six, and we were finally out the door by 6:42 a.m. The sun wasn’t up yet, but groups and individuals were making their way toward the Mall. We spent some time Monday studying maps that listed what streets were blocked off, but at this point we were following the masses moving in the vicinity of where we needed to go. We walked with our bags and backpacks slung across us, although we were sure that at any moment, security would prompt us to take them off because they weren’t allowed. At least that’s what we had been hearing from the newspapers and Internet sites we’d frequented. We even asked a security person, but he wasn’t sure.

Getting there
We trekked through the landscape that circled us around and away from the Capitol until we finally reached 12th and Jefferson. We were there on the Mall, near the Smithsonian Metro Station. I had never seen the city so crowded. We were 12 blocks from the Capitol, seven jumbotrons from the action and an hour walk from our new president. It was only 8 a.m.

The main event
Although footage from the concert at the Lincoln Memorial kept us entertained, we were getting restless. Teens holding up their signs in front of us were looking less cute as they blocked the only view we had of the Capitol: the jumbotron. Every now and then, a camera would swing over us and the crowds would scream. Photographers, news and radio folks would walk through asking for a statement or two of what we thought about this inauguration or why we were here. As the procession and seating began, all eyes looked up to the screens to catch glimpses of personalities from Hollywood, music and politics.

Still freezing, the stars of the morning made their way to the Capitol steps. Bush was booed, although some tried to quiet the crowd to show respect and let him be. It was a blur to remember who entered in what order, but somewhere in that procession the Bidens and Obamas took their place. Shortly after, Pastor Rick Warren was finishing up, and I found myself reciting the last lines of the Lord’s Prayer.

Soon Vice President Joe Biden was up taking his oath, then Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts. I didn’t catch that Roberts fudged it up, although I did notice what I thought was just some hesitation in reciting the lines. Then it was done. We had a new president. I guess I envisioned the actual ceremony to be much longer — I don’t know why.

Aretha Franklin sang wearing a hat only she could pull off. Obama spoke; Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and others performed a John Williams piece, and former civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction. Then it was over.

Get me outta here
Folks filed out of the Mall in no orderly fashion. The jumbotrons announced that the parade routes were closed and added that additional streets had been blocked off. We were stuck. We definitely couldn’t exit the way we came. It was a mess, like cattle being herded through some narrow gate. We crisscrossed the Mall looking for a way out. There was nothing. The museums were open to keep folks warm, but even they had long lines of people. Finally, we resigned ourselves to the idea that we were not going anywhere anytime soon. We fell in line at the refreshment tent and got hot dogs and hot cocoa to keep warm until the crowds subsided. By 2:30 p.m., we were heading away from the Mall, and by 3:30, we were back in the office where our things were, getting ready for the Inaugural Peace Ball hosted by Busboys & Poets.

A week later — some post-inauguration reflecting
It’s back to the daily grind. E-mails to read, meetings to attend, homework to do. It’s as if Jan. 20 was all a dream. I have to look back at my photos and blogs to remind myself that it happened. I was there. I don’t want to fall into that trap that counts President Obama’s presidency as a historic event and speak of it in the past tense. There’s work to be done, and he and his administration can’t do it alone. Never have I seen a president so comfortable using digital media to communicate his vision to the rest of the world. I still get weekly e-mails from David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, and that’s OK. This nation has been transformed. This world has been transformed.

Reach contributing writer Sophia Agtarap at features@dailyuw.com.