On the system (or lack thereof) used at yesterday's inauguration to process the masses of people (crowd estimates I have seen so far range from 1.4 million to 2.5 million), Larry Stone, Santa Clara County's Assessor, said "...this whole thing looks like it was administered by FEMA." I couldn't agree more.
My inauguration experiences were partially shaped by naivety but more so by the ostensible lack of any coherent plan to process the huge crowds that became gridlocked in downtown Washington. At some points the scene was mass chaos. At other junctures it was frightening as the press of the crowd got more and more intense. And at others points during the morning, it was just plain hilarious.
Like me, Assessor Stone, despite having a "purple ticket" that was supposed to allow him into close-in priority viewing area, was left in the cold. Security officials locked the gate to his assigned special viewing area with fifteen people in front of him.
In some ways, Assessor Stone was lucky. I couldn't get within 150 yards of the purple area's gated entrance. Imagine wall to wall people for as far as you could see up and down city streets. Intersections were gridlocked with hordes of people converging from different directions with no visible crowd control, no signs, no people on PA systems - nothing. Just several thousands of people trying to find their way from chaos to some free space and order - never mind viewing the inauguration on a jumbotron.
"...This whole thing looks like it was administered by FEMA."
"...This whole thing looks like it was administered by FEMA."
The crowd I got stuck in was between two intersections. People were layered one to another belly to belly up and down the street. It was so tight that there was literally no room to get your arms up to scratch your head. People stood frozen in place by the size of the crowd that was compressed with the boundaries created by buildings.
Then it got worse, if that's possible. About thirty yards from where I was standing (while feeling a spell of claustrophobia coming over me) a couple of people had some kind injury producing accidents. One lady looked like she had fallen because she had a gash on her forehead and a young man looked like he had broken his leg. Paramedics were called and when the emergency vehicles arrived, they could only inch their way forward because of the masses of people that packed the street. The fire engine and EMS Van continuously sounded their sirens while trying to get to the injured.
Eventually, with the piercing noise and the fact that nobody was moving, the crowd got agitated. At about that same time, however, another large group of people around the corner started chanting, "Yes we can," maybe hoping to ease tensions. We inched forward every few minutes or so. The fireman finally got close enough and out came the stretchers and medical equipment.
One fireman climbed up on construction scaffolding connected to a hotel and he tried to give direction to the people below as he surveyed the scene. Government snipers meanwhile looked down from the building top perches. The police and secret service appeared from out of nowhere and at that point the crowd was instructed to turn around and go back in the direction "we had come from." The problem was there was no turning, no moving and it was impossible to head in the opposite direction. We were stuck for for around 40 minutes in that spot. Finally, and I don't know how, a single file exit from the gridlock was organized along a chain linked fence. Slowly, one at a time, people were able to leave the area thus freeing themselves from the crowd.
At some points this adventure was scary. While most people remained positive, some people freaked out while some just tried to muscle their way through the crowd thinking that they had a special privilege or something? The good part was that buried in that mass of humanity it was warm. That's about the only good thing I can say about the situation. So, despite having a special access pass to the inauguration, I never made it anywhere near the area nor to the reception in the Library of Congress that I was invited to.
I actually watched the swearing in ceremony on TV in a neighborhood deli with a handful of residents, a couple of police officers and the staff of the establishment. And that isn't the half of it.
In the morning before all of that happened, our car was towed from it's overnight parking place in the Arlington County building. The night before we were told by a parking lot attendant that it was OK to park there (the friend who was with me works for Arlington County and parks in this garage regularly. When we went to the car in the morning it was gone. We didn't know what to do for a moment and then we took action. We got the location of the car and we figured out how to get there in the least amount of time as possible to get the towing yard.
We jumped on the Metro and took the twenty minute ride to retrieve the car. At the Metro station we hailed a cab and had him drive us to the storage yard. We walked into a smoke filled room with rough looking guys drinking coffee - paid the fee and drove back to Arlington. This time we parked in a different garage. We grabbed another cab (this was a lucky thing because there were few cabs and lots of potential customers) to take us to the Capitol. And that's where all the fun really started. Someone asked me last night if I was sad because I had come all this way to be turned away.
My response was, "no way!" I got to check everything out on Monday and just seeing all the decorations, the stage, the media village and all the people was a thrill. I got to talk with visitors from all over the world and share the experience with them. I was fortunate to visit a long-timed friend of mine and see Congress Member Jackie Speier. I was able to experience the history of 2009 Presidential Inauguration from a different perspective.
Do I wish things had gone differently? Sure thing.
All of the interviews I saw on TV were with happy people who were thrilled at being at the inauguration. I can assure you that their were unhappy people and that everything was not perfect. There was a dark side to the inauguration. I was told, for instance, that the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies printed up some 250,000 tickets for that special viewing area I mentioned. In my estimation that area might have held 50,000 people. (Nothing but guesses).
What were people thinking when this part of the inauguration was planned?