The re-election of President Barack Obama for a second term has me thinking back to his first inauguration in 2009. What an amazing experience that was.
I wasn’t interested in attending the inauguration. During the years that I’d lived in Washington, D.C., both Presidents Reagan and Clinton were inaugurated twice but I never felt compelled to take the 15-minute metro ride to the Mall to attend any of them.
Blame the cold. No matter how mild the winter, come inauguration weekend, the temperature would drop so low that it was always an easier decision to stay home and watch the event on television than be outside in the bone-chilling cold.
Blame disinterest. As a recent immigrant, American politics didn’t capture my interest. I didn’t know the players, and even though only a few blocks separated us, the person holding the most important job in the most important country in the world, didn’t make a direct difference in my world.
President Obama’s inauguration made me feel differently. As a black person, I felt an obligation to witness history. So I bought thermals, and fleece socks, packed my sweats, hand warmers, gloves and scarves, and boarded Amtrak (I had moved to New York City by then) a few days before the inaugural weekend.
The cold Washington air crackled with energy and excitement. A sea of people bustled through Union Station, their voices echoing off the ceiling, creating a buzz of its own. I’ve always found Washington to be a friendly place, but that weekend, everyone seemed friendlier, some downright giddy. As my cousin and I walked around the city, strangers greeted each other and conversations started as if people were picking up the threads they had dropped some time before.
The 2009 inauguration set a record. It was one of the largest gatherings in Washington, DC. It was also one of the coldest January weekends I’ve ever experienced in the Nation’s Capital.
We had planned to leave early – by 5 a.m., my cousin suggested — but we didn’t leave until near 7. We boarded the metro at the second stop on the red line and the train filled up quickly. Closer to DC, passengers, waiting in the cold on outdoor platforms, grew larger and by the time we got to the Catholic University station, the train only slowed. There was no space left.
To control the crowd, streets leading to the Mall were cordoned off by buses, trucks, and police barriers with police and military personnel monitoring some areas.
People streamed on to the Mall by the thousands. Some looked for spots to sit, others for hot beverages to ward off the chill. We settled on a low wall that was close to a television monitor and waited.
Nearly four years later, some images come easily to mind: The elderly black woman in a wheelchair with an old photograph attached to a string around her neck. It was only after I had passed her that I thought of asking her about the person in the photo. But I didn’t want to intrude — it looked too personal.
A young white woman with a sign that read “Obama 2012.” It felt premature. Another one that stated “Our long national nightmare is over.”
In the excitement of the day, we decided we wanted to attend the parade but didn’t have tickets. We hadn’t planned that far ahead. We got lucky. We met someone whose party didn’t show and she had extra tickets which she willingly gave them to us. We found seats on bleachers near the White House and waited for the president, vice president and their wives to arrive.
By the time they did, my feet felt like blocks of ice. As they approached, the crowd cheered wildly and pressed forward to get a better look. President and Mrs. Obama exited their limo near where we were standing and walked right in front of us. So did Vice President and Mrs. Biden. Caught up in the excitement, I wanted to see with my own eyes but I also wanted to record the event. I fumbled for a few minutes then focused my camera. It a special moment that I was glad to experience.
I doubt I’ll make the second inauguration, which will be held on Monday, January 21st – Martin Luther King Day – but nothing can compare to the first.
Here are a few of my photos and a short video from the inaugural website.
Have you attended an inauguration?