Here’s what happened. My aunt, my cousin and I left Alexandria, where I was staying along with 13 family members (the Allens rolled deep on this one—and that’s only about 10 percent of us). We caught the yellow line with the intent of transferring to the blue line, as the instructions on our ticket indicated we should do. But mid-transfer, a perplexed-looking train employee in a fluorescent vest told us that getting on the blue line was impossible. Sure enough, the blue line train was packed to the gills, despite being near the beginning of the line, and we had to get back on the next yellow line train.
It was the first episode in a series of vast crowd mismanagements that would have ruined the day were it not for the attitude—collective, I think—that it was more important simply to be present than to have the personal gratification of getting to see Obama.
The next episode was getting off the train. We were supposed to transfer at L’Enfant Plaza, but the train rolled slowly through a scene of nightmarishly packed platforms and escalators. The conductor explained that L’Enfant was closed: onward to the Chinatown station, which was nearly as packed. We stood cheek to jowl for more than 30 minutes in that station, inching forward past cops whose worried faces told us that things were barely under control. Lots of people were trying not to panic.
Topside, we walked, more or less completely disoriented, toward 3rd Street, where our tickets indicated that we should enter onto the mall. There was a security checkpoint with hundreds of people crowded around it, and a man with a walkie-talkie announced to the crowd that we were in the right place for ticket holders. But we emerged onto Constitution to see that we were several blocks from the Capitol Reflection Pool, separated by police barricades and a variety of people in uniform—sheriffs, police, secret service and military.
We spent the next three hours receiving various levels of misinformation from different officials.
Officer: “Go to 7th Street, you can cross to the mall here.”
Officer 2: “No, go back to 3rd.”
Volunteer: “No one’s crossing, they over-ticketed the event.”
Overheard in crowd: “The secret service closed all the gates.”
Secret service dude: “They’re opening the 3rd Street crossing at 11:00.”
Officer 3: “I have no idea.”
Finally, we heard some muttering about a tunnel on 3rd Street. With nothing to lose (we were on the parade route, far from a jumbotron and with no sight of anything having to do with the swearing-in ceremony), we left the security-controlled area for more sparsely populated streets and found that there was, in fact, a tunnel that deposited us on the other side of the mall. (No big whoop if you know Washington, but I don’t.) We followed the sign for silver tickets. There was a mob of disgruntled people who appeared to be pressed against police barricades. They were waving their silver tickets in the air, a trend that gained popularity although it was not clear that it was serving any purpose.
It was nearly 11:30, the time at which “they” were supposedly closing access to the mall, and folks were beginning to panic. Everyone was also extremely cold and probably hungry. After about 20 minutes, I had had about enough. I suggested we cut out and try for the general admission.
As we moved out of the silver-ticket crowd and to the left, I discovered that the way was in fact completely open. The silver-ticket crowd had in fact unnecessarily cornered themselves into a police barricade that petered out after about 100 feet. There wasn’t even a security check or anything. It was surreal—we just walked across open ground while looking back at the people pointlessly waving their tickets in the air, totally ignorant of the fact that they could have easy entrance 50 steps to the left. It was a hilarious and troubling study in crowd dynamics (crowds do NOT have good instincts). It was also, unfortunately, a testament to the failure of crowd control at the inauguration. No one was in charge, it seemed, and no one knew what was going on.
So as it turned out, we got into the ticketed area without ever displaying our ticket. Not only that, we were near the front of the area to which we had tickets, behind the Reflection Pool. We still couldn’t see the stage at all, just the flag-draped Capitol and some of the people sitting in front of it. But we got to hear the swearing-in and speech clearly, which was more than many people could say. And we cheered and shouted along with everyone else. People were tired and perhaps a little disappointed because of the lack of visibility, so the reactions to Obama’s speech were more subdued than you might expect. A few people climbed trees or raised video cameras on tripods above the crowd.
Most importantly, each of us made up a pixel of the incredible mass of people that you saw on TV. I was one of those specks. Collectively, we were a testament to the determination we feel to turn a new page in American history.
(Epilogue: By racing back to Chinatown on the north side of the mall—again, via the tunnel—we were able to get right on the train and were back in Alexandria in about an hour. My dad and his group were not so lucky. It took them four hours to negotiate the closed Metro stations, packed trains and lack of information. I have no doubt that right now (8.45 pm) as I write this from the seat of an Amtrak car headed toward NYC, there are thousands of folks freezing their butts off and still trying to get from point A to B down there…)