"I Was There!" -- My Experience Of The Inauguration Of President Obama [Parts 1 & 2]

I definitely have no complaints about was "the crush of the crowd," because -- in our area alone -- it simply did not exist. In other words, we lucked out.
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[Update: Second installment of this article has now been added, below.]

Barack Hussein Obama's oath of office was indeed inspiring to hear, if a bit flawed in the execution. Both he and the Chief Justice seemed to have an attack of nerves, and they both wound up blowing their lines. For me, though, the entire ceremony -- and the handling of the crowds who braved the cold to see it -- was also inspiring, if a bit flawed. So if you're looking for some poetic description full of lofty praise of the experience, bowdlerized to remove any warts, then I suggest you look elsewhere. You have been forewarned.

As I was writing this account, the news broke that Obama did actually re-swear the oath (with the 35 words in the correct order, one assumes), meaning that the right-wing crank brigade can no longer gnash their teeth about how Obama somehow isn't legally president due to the muffing of the oath. Whew! Constitutional crisis averted!

But I am getting ahead of myself here. I should begin at the beginning. And the beginning, for me (as well as for hundreds of thousands of others) was walking out of the house at around 3:45 in the morning. The first thing I noticed (being a current California resident) was the fact that it was around 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (for our readers living outside America, this is approximately -7 to -10 degrees Centigrade). By any scale, it was cold. Really cold. Bitter, bitter cold. More on this later.

We got dropped off, and approached the local Metro station from a secret "known to locals only" pedestrian entrance. The station was open, and already packed with people. At four in the morning. We missed the first train out, but caught the second train of the day. Not too bad a beginning. As the train pulled out of the station, we caught a glimpse of the non-locals entrance to the parking lots, and the endless line of cars inching forward, attempting to secure a parking place. A crowd worse than a normal rush hour, again, at 4:00 A.M.

But we were with locals (thanks Ginger!), so we sneered at those who would wind up following us (assuming, of course, that they got in to the parking lots -- we later received reports that the terminal Metro stations' lots were filled about an hour later).

Our intrepid group of four not only had seats together on the train, we also had room for our four milk crates. "Why milk crates?" I hear you ask, so allow me to explain. I had seen an article in the Washington Post which had Inauguration tips from folks who had attended them in years past, and the one tip which leapt out at me was: "take a milk crate." The Secret Service had not disallowed them, and they serve a dual purpose -- you can sit on them (rather than the frigid ground) and you can stand on them later (to see over the crowd). This turned out to be the single most valuable piece of advice we received for the entire event.

Getting out of the Metro was the first (and possibly the worst) mob crush of the day. This is because Metro was still requiring farecards for the trip (they gave up later in the day, and just let everyone ride free), and the exits were a serious bottleneck. But the crowd, as on the train itself, was in such a jubilant mood that it was a minor annoyance at best.

Once out of the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, we headed for the Capitol. This, we found out later, was a mistake. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. We looped around the National Museum of the American Indian and the way was clear to enter the Mall. We passed by a tent with a warming station and set up camp (we would later have envious thoughts of this warming tent throughout the morning). To get my bearings, I wandered over to ask what looked like a local citizen which street we were near, and upon hearing "3rd Street," began to worry. We were inside the ticketed "Mall Standing Area" -- where we simply were not supposed to be (as we had no tickets). There was absolutely no security to prevent us from entering this area, and there were hundreds of other people staking out their spots. We discussed moving, but decided to stay for the time being. My thought was that if they were going to clear the area (for the ticketed people to claim it) then they would have to do it soon, or else the crowd would become too large for them to do so.

The cops soon did begin a sweep to roust everyone out, and so we packed up to move once again. This was the first inkling we had of the absolute cluelessness of the police during the entire morning. This area, I should note, was completely fenced in except for one or two entrance points. All it would have taken to secure this area would have been a couple of authority figures with bullhorns preventing anyone from entering. Which was not done.

But it was still early, around 5:00 A.M., so we had plenty of time to move to another spot. We looped around the Indian museum once again and headed back down Independence Avenue. As we walked next to the Air and Space Museum, what appeared to be an orderly line was spotted, and the more-timid members of my personal group demanded we follow the rules and stand in this line. We took our positions and the line actually started moving fairly quickly. But when we reached the corner of the museum (at 7th Street) the way was barred, and the line stopped.

The police were not letting anyone into the Mall. They offered no explanation whatsoever, and no instructions about what we should do. They were letting in the volunteer workforce, but no one else. The crowd began getting ugly, and the fencing was looking like it was about to be breached by the sheer numbers and pressure of the crowd. To tell you the truth, it was a mob dangerously close to getting completely out of control of the few police guarding the entry point. Finally they told us to go all the way down to 12th Street to gain access to the Mall. Most of the crowd stayed put (being tantalizingly close to the Mall itself), but we decided a quick exit was called for, and squeezed our way back out to Independence and headed west once again.

As we moved towards 12th Street, we approached the Smithsonian "castle" building. I noticed a small stream of people entering what seemed to be an unguarded entrance to the Mall. Girl Scout volunteers seemed to be gaining entry, and I saw no security of any kind. I stood and watched for a moment and saw other enterprising folks of the non-Girl-Scout variety also entering, and (importantly) nobody coming back the other direction after being refused entry.

So our small band slipped through with the Scouts. Soon open grass (and the endless lines of Porta-Potties) were in sight, and we were on the Mall proper, at the east end of the castle. We immediately joined the rush of people heading Capitol-wards. We got across 7th Street and set up camp once again, with an excellent view of a Jumbotron, and a direct line-of-sight to the Capitol's west facade. We could have made it as far as the Jumbotron near 4th Street if we had pressed on, but as it turned out the area between 6th and 7th Streets was the prime location for the long wait ahead.

Because, shortly afterwards, the cops locked down the Mall (around 5:30 A.M.). No further access was allowed, and if you exited, you could not return. No movement was allowed between each rectangle of lawn (between the cross streets), as there were barricades at every street manned by both Park Police and the U.S. Army. No explanation was given for this lockdown, but the net effect was that our particular rectangle of the Mall was virtually empty of people. There was a small group of a few thousand or so people in front of "our" Jumbotron, and another few thousand at the easternmost edge, but other than that there was nothing but empty lawn.

If you don't believe me, a cool satellite photo (taken much later, at 11:19 A.M.) shows what I am talking about. From the Capitol (on the extreme right edge of the photo -- you may have to click and drag to see it, it has a blue roof), moving to the left, there is a large crowd in the seated ticketed area, a small reflecting pool (water looks green), then a fairly large crowd in the ticketed standing area (the first Mall rectangle), then the first public area with an even larger crowd (between 4th Street and 6th Street). Moving further westward, there is a virtually-empty rectangle with more grass visible than people. This is where we were. This is why I called it a "prime location" earlier.

Meaning one thing I definitely have no complaints about was "the crush of the crowd," because -- in our area alone -- it simply did not exist. In other words, we lucked out.

We spent the next few hours trying not to freeze to death. This sounds like hyperbole from a wimpy not-used-to-the-cold Californian, but I assure you it was not. During this time period, the Red Cross tents began limiting entry to people who were "uncontrollably shaking," because the first aid stations were simply being overwhelmed. Medically, "uncontrollably shaking" is followed by slipping into a coma, and then death.

This was due not only to the fact that it was 20 degrees out (or less) but that most people were either sitting or laying (!) on the frozen turf, with nothing but a thin blanket to protect them.

This is where the milk crates became not just convenient, but a medical necessity. That, and hand warmers, which (for those who live in warm climes) are little packs of miracle chemicals which, when shaken up, rise to about 100 degrees and stay warm for hours. We had one of these godsends each, and it kept our fingers from freezing.

At 7:00 A.M. the Jumbotrons came alive, much to the delight of the crowd. The sky began to lighten as well, bringing the promise of slightly-less-arctic temperatures in the near future. The mood lifted from one of sheer survival to happy anticipation of the day's events to come.

Your intrepid narrator.

[Note: This is going to be a long article, which I will be posting in several parts here. Thus endeth the first installment. Check back later for the full story, which will all be posted here in the same article. For readers of my personal blog (www.chrisweigant.com), please be advised that there will be no column tomorrow as I will be traveling. This week's Friday Talking Points will (hopefully) be posted on time, and will cover the actual text of Obama's Inaugural speech. Thanks in advance for your patience.]

Second Installment

I realize, from re-reading the first part of this report, that it's a bit negative towards the security forces. I apologize, because this is a mistaken impression. The individuals responsible for security were doing their best in a tense situation (for them), and the real blame lies with whoever fell down on their duty to come up with a master plan for security for the event (cough, cough... Dianne Feinstein... cough).

To further show my sincerity, I would like to acknowledge the professionalism of the U.S. Army soldiers who were holding the line at 7th Street. They were members of the 175th Infantry Regiment, and were doing a great job of dutifully following the orders they were given. I did not get a chance to interview any of the other individuals responsible for security, but I'm sure they all did the best they could with the orders they were given. Also, I have heard reports that there were no arrests made during the entire event, which is absolutely astounding. Whenever upwards of two million people get together, the percentage of idiots among them is always noticeable, and the simple statistic that nobody was actually hauled off to the pokey shows an almost unbelievable amount of restraint for the security personnel. So they deserve notice for that fact alone.

While the alert among you may notice that the fact that the U.S. Army was doing security seems to be a prima facie violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, I'm sure there is some sort of clause in the PATRIOT ACT which allows it, and therefore legal (I further apologize for "shouting" the name of the PATRIOT ACT, but it is an acronym, and thus that is the proper way to refer to it).

Lest you think I am the only one who noticed the disorganization of the security forces, here is one letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which appeared in this morning's paper:

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty owes the people of Washington and the nation a deep apology for the disgraceful way in which the police handled some aspects of President Barack Obama's inauguration yesterday.

My family and I arrived before 5 a.m. in hopes of getting a spot on the Mall. We and tens of thousands of others were channeled down Seventh Street by police who told us that admission to the Mall would begin about 7. Instead, more than four hours passed without a word of information being given to the enormous crowd that was gathering. Most disturbing was the spectacle of what appeared to be D.C. police officers in a second-floor office watching the obvious suffering of the people below. Just a few simple announcements by officers on bullhorns could have provided us some basis for action.

As it happened, after 9:30 we finally learned from others in the crowd that there would be no Mall access from this location, leaving only the possibility of seeing the parade. In other words, more hours in the cold.

I live in the Washington area, but people around me hailed from all over the country. Washington did not show itself in a good light at Seventh and D Streets.

Even more poignant, here is the full text of another letter to the editor:

I had a silver ticket for the inaugural ceremonies. I thought that having this ticket meant I would actually gain admission to this historic event.

Sadly, I was wrong.

I bought my MARC train ticket weeks in advance. I walked the length of the tunnel from Union Station to the opposite side of the Mall. I stood in the silver-ticket line, which snaked for many, many blocks.

I did everything I was told to do. I went where I was told to go. I stood in the lines I was told to stand in.

Why, then, were thousands of people turned away from the silver-gate entrance without explanation? Why were other ticket holders turned away as well?

I waited too long for this day just to be given the ol' "we don't owe you an explanation" by a security force that wouldn't know a terrorist threat if it were having lunch with them. I guess I can say that the next inauguration will be one person easier to control, because I will not subject myself to this kind of mass confusion again.

He was not the only ticket holder to be turned away, either. Once again, a master security plan for the event would have avoided this sort of thing. If there was indeed a master plan, it was woefully inadequate. And for that, the planners themselves bear full responsibility.

Prior to the event, there was a lot of information about what ticket holders could and could not bring to the event. There was a lot of information available about what to expect for the people who wanted to stand near the parade route. There was virtually no information, however, on what to expect for the vast majority of the people planning to attend, who would view the event from the Mall. Furthermore, there was no security whatsoever for entering the Mall. I could have brought just about anything with me, and would never have been challenged entering the Mall itself. This shows an astounding lack of planning by the Inaugural committee itself, who are ultimately responsible for the chaos. Next time, I would suggest naming a chair to this committee who will pay a bit more attention to these details, and a bit less to making it a federal crime to sell Inaugural tickets online -- which seemed to be the main priority of Senator Dianne Feinstein, this year's committee chair. I'm just saying....

The situation was summed up best by a quote in the Washington Post by an unnamed D.C. police sergeant: "I need a big fat 'I don't know' stripped right across my chest, man."

But enough editorializing, and DiFi-bashing. Let's get back to the actual timeline of the event, as seen by your intrepid reporter.

Cold... cold... very cold... it was so cold, our water supply froze. Our power bars turned into popsicles that had to be sucked on, they were so frozen solid. We huddled under our tinfoil survival blankets, waiting for sunrise. At least the wind wasn't too bad -- if it had really been blowing, it would have been five times as cold.

Where did I leave off? Ah, the Jumbotrons firing up at 7:00 A.M.

The first messages we got were laughable in their obviousness. "How to avoid the cold," for instance. We were informed -- at 7:03 A.M. -- that standing room for the parade route (which was supposed to be opened to the public at 7:00 A.M.) was completely full. The 7th Street exit from the Mall was now closed, and you had to walk down to 14th Street to even get off the Mall. Needless to say, nobody left.

At 7:30, music began. The crowd slowly stood up and engaged in some weary calisthenics, just to get the blood flowing. We discovered, across the street from the (doubtlessly well-heated) MSNBC booth, a hot air vent from the Metro absolutely packed with people standing on it and drinking in the warm air emanating from the bowels of the subway. The crowd was friendly, though, and cheerfully welcomed others to join in the heat-worshipping.

Finally, at 7:45, the sun appeared. Oh, joy! Light! Heat! Well, not much heat, but the temperature rose slowly to the tropical (or so it seemed) 30 degrees. Frostbite became less of a worry.

Around five minutes to eight, the Jumbotrons started replaying the concert from Sunday. Although it had been reported that Obama was annoyed that openly-gay Bishop Gene Robinson's speech was cut out of the HBO coverage of the concert and would be included today, disappointingly his speech was not broadcast to us. Or maybe it was, and I was just too cold to notice... I'm not entirely sure.

For the next hour and a half, we saw the concert replay. This was filled with stirring moments, but we immediately began to notice that the sound was woefully out of sync with the video. These sound problems would only get worse as time went on. It wasn't that we couldn't hear, as it was certainly cranked out loud enough, it was that the sound engineers themselves appeared to be rank amateurs at their jobs. More on this later.

For instance, we got the National Anthem at 8:00, but the first line was dropped, so the sound started with "...by the twilight's last gleaming." That bit about "the dawn's early light" would have been particularly appropriate to our situation, but it was chopped off by the sound folks. Thanks, guys.

Some in our group attempted at this time to get some coffee or hot chocolate from the concession stand, but the lines were very long and simply not moving. We heard, as an excuse, that the "trusted" volunteers (the only ones authorized to handle money) had not been able to get in to the Mall at all. Remember, we were in the most sparsely-populated quadrangle of the Mall... so I can only imagine what it was like in the places with denser crowds. We eventually gave up. Drinking liquids would only have meant eventually being forced to go to the porta-johns, and the women among us weren't looking forward to 20-degree toilet seats anyway. Yet another indictment of the poor planning on the Mall itself, I guess.

To inject a positive note, there were absolutely no lines for the bathrooms. There were dozens upon dozens of them, all in a row, and very few people (in our sparse crowd) to use them, so this aspect of the total experience did actually go pretty smoothly.

And one more positive note, I personally witnessed an act of kindness from one of the Army guys. A woman came up to him and asked where she could get a hand warmer, and he gave her a spare one he happened to have. OK, to be fair, she was kind of cute... but still, he didn't have to do so. I had to go up and shake his hand for this selfless act of mercy, just because I was so impressed. Right after this, he became busy escorting a woman obviously suffering from hypothermia to the first aid tent, so I didn't get a chance to talk to him further. Our men in uniform really did do their best, from what I saw.

One more public accolade needs to be made to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, whose job it was to distribute thousands of free miniature U.S. flags on sticks, for all of us to wave. Of course, in our quad, there were too many flags and not enough people, so after awhile it became automatic to respond "thanks, I've already got enough flags," but this did not daunt them in the least, and they continued to (attempt to) hand them out throughout the day. Well done, scouts!

Finally, at 10:00 A.M., the live show began with the San Francisco Boys and Girls Choruses (Chorusi?). As a fellow Californian, I loudly cheered. Under many, many layers of clothing -- to "represent" my state -- here is what I was wearing:

You can't get much more Californian than that.

[Note: OK, I thought I could finish this tonight, but I have a plane to catch tomorrow, and I have not even begun to format what I've written here. So again, I apologize, because there will have to be a third installment of this report, filed late tomorrow. Obama's speech itself will be covered Friday. I could easily have condensed this into a short fluff piece, but I have been informed by my traveling ChrisWeigant.com accountant that I have to give a full record of the experience if I want to write the whole trip off on my taxes as a business expense (which I indeed do). So please, once again, be patient, and the final installment will appear for your edification tomorrow. Thank you.]

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com

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