Celebration Instead of Conflict in Inauguration

By Jeffrey Decker

Washington, D.C.

Even the contrast between black and white is not as strong as the differences between the inaugurations of Barack Obama and his predecessor.

Though security was another step up in intensity, the elements of dissension were almost non-existent. Goodwill and optimism ruled the streets, even when the record 2 million people were crammed in with no hope of moving anywhere. On any other day they could have agreed on a number of topics, but on this day they were each united in their support of one man.

“This is like my 26th trip to DC and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Wausau City Councilman Jim Rosenberg, one of several local Wisconsin officials to make the trek to Washington, D.C. “It’s euphoric, really. People are very, very excited and happy. I was here four years ago. It was not like this!”

Rosenberg says he chatted with some of the tens of thousands of protesters at the 2005 inauguration, some who left from Wisconsin in vans and buses to vent and shout. With solid fencing sealing off the action only certain security checkpoints allowed access, leaving ample conservative targets to the rage of the defeated. It seemed easy to pick out a fur coat and throw aggressive disagreement at its wearer. In 2001 security lockdown was still a newborn and dissent was very vocal and combative along the parade route. Sometimes it was thrown and dripped off the face shields of police in full riot gear.

Though they were ready with extra-long batons and belts covered with plastic handcuffs, police were dressed down at this inauguration, opting for extra scarves to block assaulting cold winds. “Hail to the thief” was a common message that day. The National Organization for Women carried signs reading “No W!”

The temporary construction fences erected to seal the parade route for the first time were overtaken by crowds, though in 2005 only one group managed to breach the nearly-impenetrable new steel fencing.

This was possibly the first inauguration in eight years without anyone being pepper sprayed. There were no riotous protesters Tuesday and no busses filled with conservatives left from Wisconsin. Signs supporting anything besides Obama were rare, and one women even held up one reading “Arrest Bush—Obama Inauguration 2009.” The night before the inauguration, more than 100 anti-Bush protesters met in nearby DuPont Circle to hurl their shoes collectively at the outgoing president.

Rather, they told stories and sang songs, or huddled tightly together to beat the cold and keep spirits up. All those people and their diverse backgrounds and ideas made an impression on Wisconsin attorney Christine Bremer. “Looking back at the Washington Monument was an unbelievable perspective because of the power of the throngs of people and the mass of human emotion was unbelievable,” she recalls. That monument reaches skyward from the National Mall, which stretches between the Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol. Pennsylvania Avenue angles to the Northwest from the capitol, where President Obama’s parade traveled to the White House.

As a presidential elector, Bremer sat only a few rows away from center stage on the Capitol’s west lawn. The speech from President Obama pushed away the bitter cold, she says. “For us, to be that close, the religious connotations to it are not lost. Franklin Roosevelt said the inauguration of a president is a day of consecration, and it was clear that our nation was consecrating this man.”

The opposite may be true for former President George W. Bush. Bremer attended Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993 and noted a stark difference between President George H.W. Bush’s introduction then and the introduction of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at this event. “There were boos. We could hear it very strongly, as I’m sure could all the people around the podium, including all the members of Congress,” she explains. “It wasn’t lost on them.”

After the ceremony was over, security eased and she and her husband were able to stand where Obama had been. VIP access didn’t leapfrog long lines, but others played a guessing game as to which entry points were closed and which had unbelievably long lines. Just as the inaugural parade was set to begin, people without tickets lined up almost two blocks hoping for a peek from Pennsylvania Avenue while an access point a few blocks East had no waiting.

The villain of the day was confusion, with police and volunteers uncertain which routes and entire portions of the mall were being sealed off. Caravans told to go in one direction to find their spot met equally massive streams of people moving under opposite suggestions. The best way to keep on top of the shifting boundaries was to sign up for text messages from the city and the Obama campaign. As one frustrated (but cheery regardless) throng moved into the mall, one man with a drum and set of cymbals single-handedly sparked a musical chorus line with no apparent end.

A clever strategy to space out these throngs relied on jumbo televisions. By playing recorded feeds from a major concert and rally Sunday and live feeds from the ceremony, organizers managed to shape more than a million people on the National Mall into self-containing clusters. No fence defined their edge, only the line of sight to the giant TV.

With so many opting for the hassle-free access to that public space, there were actually fewer people along the parade route than at either of Bush’s inaugurations, where that was the main attraction.

Without protests that length of street was completely different. It really was a celebration instead of another conflict.

Some did still express combative positions over their loudspeaker, but these evangelicals were less aggressive than the anarchist element of four years ago. (That group had planned a protest against the Wall Street bailout, but it’s uncertain if it materialized or was cancelled.) Holding a sign reading “Jesus is king of the Jews,” Allen Russell stated, “Obama’s a liar, and he doesn’t support this country. He’s not Christian. He’s not even American. That’s been covered up since the beginning.” He and his friends drove from Pennsylvania to point out how un-Christianlike the common American is, and how they’ve misplaced their faith in Obama.

Others used edgy messages, too. One African American was selling T-shirts that referenced slavery by reading, “back in the house we built.” It was one offer in a sea of watches, stickers, hats an altogether startling quantity of Obama merchandise.

Across Pennsylvania Avenue, fewer than a dozen members of the Coalition for Peace came from across the eastern seaboard for their permitted protest behind the sturdy fences closing off Lafayette Park, an area across from the White House that had designated space for protests. They talked through the fence to the few people who noticed them. Though anyone was allowed in the park by passing security, no one seemed to want in. “This is what we have right now, so we will live with it,” says member Majendra Sapa.

He was confident their message against terrorism would have a friend in the White House with Obama. “We request he take quick and stern action against terrorist states, namely Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Hezbollah.”

On the public side of that fence, a handful of Buddhists drummed for nonviolence, and nearby a pair of young men struggled to give our personalized signs reading “Mr. President, I hope for ...” and a blank to be filled in by anyone taking the signs.

So few were the people hoping to express specific desires that the pair couldn’t seem to give away those signs. Later they wrote into the blank “free signs!” in an attempt to unload.

Another striking example of the changed atmosphere was on one of the largest, tallest signs of all. It didn’t bemoan housing conditions or foreclosures. Rather, it read “We Buy Houses. ... Cash in 24 Hours!”

Initially people strolled by in droves like pilgrims to their Mecca. When the oath was taken and America had a new president, people started to head home and ended up in a potentially dangerous congestion. Especially in and around the Mall, at certain points no one could move for 30 minutes or longer, and there was no relief in sight beyond the endless people.

Even the day before, lines were “monumental” to visit House representatives and pick up the coveted tickets to Obama’s oath. Rosenberg and his family waited two hours in line. “It was a circus because everybody had to go through security,” he remembers.

The downside to mega attendance persisted into late evening, when traffic was a slow drip through these important streets and where more than one executive motorcade was clogged up in it.

Jeffrey Decker is a freelance writer based in Oshkosh, Wis.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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