Iris at the Inauguration

January 31, 2013

The day started early. My friend Leah had graciously offered the use of her apartment in the District so Sara, Lauren, and I would not have to worry about getting into the busy capital the morning of the Inauguration.  However this meant that six people were crammed into a space usually reserved for two. We used every available sleeping surface: me on the couch, Lauren in a sleeping bag on the floor, and Sara on a pile of stuffed animals in Leah’s room. Thanks to an accidental detour on 495 and an unexpected two-mile walk from Dupont Circle to Leah's apartment due to the WMATA's counter-intuitive bus schedule, we had only arrived about four-and-a-half hours before Leah woke us up at 5 in the morning. I had one cup of tea in the kitchen as soon as I was dressed and was already on my second by the time we hopped on the bus 45 minutes later. Whatever happened, none of us were going to be particularly well-rested.

Despite our sleep deprivation, we (by which I mean myself and Sara Morrow, fourth-years in the College of Arts and Sciences, Lauren Huff, a fourth-year in the Comm School, Leah Paisner, 2012 UVa graduate and current American University law student, and Paula Majumdar, also a UVa 2012 grad) were excited. Leah, who had gone to the Inauguration in 2009, had some idea of what to expect, but the rest of us were completely in the dark. I had lived in DC the summer before while I was interning in immigration advocacy, so by the time we arrived at the Farragut West Metro station, I could already tell things were different. There were police cars and barricades everywhere, and the streets were more crowded than I had ever seen them so early in the morning. The Metro to L'Enfant Plaza was surprisingly empty, but when we emerged, it was into a mass of people, all streaming toward the Mall. We met up with our friend Elizabeth Dang (CLAS '11), who had just taken the Metro in from Alexandria and joined the flow into the non-ticketed area. Along the way, street vendors hawked their Obama merchandise. (Among other fascinating wares, there were commemorative plates, full watercolor paintings with rather questionable likenesses of the president, and Sara even spotted one man wearing an elaborate Obama throw.)

As we walked out onto the Mall, the view was breathtaking. The sun was rising, the sky above the Capitol streaked with pink and orange. The organizers had chosen to play a hopeful, optimistic soundtrack over images of past inaugurations on the Jumbotrons, which only added to the effect. Though the majesty was somewhat broken by the shouted greetings of the Inauguration workers (who, it should be added, were very friendly and cheerful, especially considering they must have already been awake for several hours at that point) it was one of the highlights of the day for everyone in the group. We arrived early enough to find a very nice space in the crowd; we ended up level with the National Gallery of Art, not far from the first Jumbotron and dead center to the platform on the Capitol building. The Mall was covered with plastic sheets to protect the grass, which had the added benefit of making a convenient, non-dewy place for me to put my picnic blanket. We spent roughly three hours before the main event sitting around eating banana bread and Vietnamese coconut cookies with Nutella, reading aloud from the books we had brought with us, and, in Sara’s case, taking a nap wrapped in her UVa Snuggie. Behind us, the Mall continued to fill up, though I didn't really get a good sense of how many people were there until we left.

The main event began sometime between 10 and 11. All of a sudden, everyone stood up and settled around the Jumbotrons, leaving us to scramble to get our things together and catch up with the crowd. Sara and Lauren later described the next two hours as “a bunch of people standing around watching TV together,” which was really not far off the mark. The Jumbotrons projected video of what was happening on the Capitol without commentary, so we were left to identify the faces of DC’s finest on our own. John Boehner and Paul Ryan were met with a chorus of boos from the Inauguration goers, while famous Democrats like the Carters and the Clintons were given a much warmer reception. (It must be said, however, that possibly the loudest cheers of all, save for the Obamas themselves, were for Beyonce and Jay-Z.) Sometimes the camera would pan out over the masses on the Mall, at which point we would all wave enthusiastically. The anticipation was surprisingly fun on its own.

The ceremony itself was quite enjoyable, in the way that government pageantry and political speeches are (we were not, after all, there for a rock concert.) We were close enough to the Capitol that we could hear the echo from the sound system up on the viewing platform. Songs were sung, prayers were prayed, Joe Biden was sworn in. Sonia Sotomayor seemed to be highly-regarded by the crowd, which I appreciated both as an admirer of hers and as a fellow Puerto Rican. Seeing the president take the Oath of Office was exhilarating (even as his small stutter caused a collective inward groan). The 21-gun salute was a particularly surreal experience; I could hear the cannons firing to my left and physically felt the reverberations as they rippled through the Mall. Before the president began his speech nearly everyone in the audience erupted into a raucous “O-ba-ma!” chant, and I know he heard us, because he smiled and gave us a wave of acknowledgement. Getting to hear his inaugural address in person was quite a special experience; for one thing, I have never been part of an audience paying such rapt attention to a political speech (except, perhaps, for the bored Tennessee high schoolers in front of us, who seemed more interested in poking each other and playing with their winter attire than in the President), it was also quite an extraordinary piece of oratory. His acknowledgement of women’s, civil, and gay rights resonated with my friends, and at least for me personally, it was a welcome change to see him so openly embrace and defend a positive view of government.

Obama family

After the president finished, most of the audience seemed to just be sticking around for Beyonce (there was some not-so-charitable commentary from the peanut gallery while the poet was speaking). Lip-synced or otherwise, her rendition of the national anthem met with thunderous approval. Then we hung around to take some pictures as the crowd trickled out, and ended up battling our way through massive throngs of people on our quest to find lunch afterward.

There wasn't much energy left for thoughtful introspection during those first couple of hours. We were all exhausted both from lack of adequate rest and our police-directed trek across the Mall (we were nearly at the Lincoln Memorial before we even had enough space to turn right and walk into the city proper), and then we spent about 45 minutes in a hungry, tired daze waiting for our to-go order at a small bar-grill in Foggy Bottom. But as Lauren, Sara, and I drove back to Charlottesville that evening, we talked about our time in DC - the fun that we’d had and the event we had witnessed, how we couldn't believe the entire trip had lasted only 25 hours. And we had to conclude that it had been one of the most worthwhile experiences we’d taken part in during our four years of college. It was an historic day for the country, and it was also an historic day for us.

- Aida Barnes

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