Eyewitness to history: The inauguration of Barack Obama

Craig Reinarman, professor of sociology, is teaching at UC-DC this quarter. On January 20, he was among the throngs who witnessed the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The next day, he sent this letter to friends and colleagues.

Dear friends,

It was an icy cold and windy day. We had to stand in line for hours, increasingly squished together at what crowd control experts call "choke points." At first we all had a patch of ground, but by the time we reached the one open gate at least three strangers' bodies were pressing against each of ours at all times. Even though we were among the lucky ones who had tickets to stand in front of the Capitol steps, we still couldn't see anything. After standing for hours in bone-chilling weather, my toes felt so numb I worried about frostbite. How can I sum up my Inaugural experience? Indescribably fabulous.

I was only 15 and too young to know enough to go to the Civil Rights Movement's great March on Washington in 1963, but I've always been moved beyond words by the news footage of 250,000 people on the National Mall from every state--more than had ever marched there in the history of the United States. They heard Martin Luther King's luminous "I Have a Dream" speech. Yesterday, six times that many people gathered in that same space to witness his dream take another giant step toward coming true, and at the same time ending an eight-year national nightmare.

We pushed through the mammoth crowd along the metal barriers past the long row of port-a-potties and gazed out from the Capitol steps over the Mall, back past Washington Monument a mile and a half to the Lincoln Memorial. A virtual sea of humanity seemed to stretch to the horizon, all cheering, their joy visible in the white puffs of frozen breath, which just took mine away.

Especially the morning after Martin Luther King's birthday. Especially seeing Obama take the oath on Lincoln's Bible. Especially standing on the great stone stairs of a Capitol building built by slaves. The whole scene made me weep, like many others around me.

Later we went to the Western States Inaugural Ball, one of ten or more balls held across the city. Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez sang salsa songs. The Bidens came for a few minutes. The vice president quoted a line from a Seamus Heany poem about making history.

Half an hour later, as we were starting to leave, away from the spotlights at one end of the huge hall, a Marine band quietly began to assemble. The crowd migrated toward it. The first bar of "Hail to the Chief" brought a roar. After a few seconds, a beaming Barack and Michelle Obama walked out to an ovation. When the cheering finally subsided, the president thanked us and asked us to begin--tomorrow morning--the work of remaking America. The First Couple then slow-danced alone across the stage, rather romantically, much to the crowd's delight, before waving goodbye.

Later, on our way home, exhausted, our car was inexplicably blocked at an intersection in a poor, mostly black, neighborhood by a motorcycle cop and instructed not to move. A long two minutes went by. Then we saw a helicopter low overhead, its huge searchlight scanning rooftops. Suddenly a dozen motorcycle cops zoomed past, red and blue lights flashing, followed by several police cars, then two huge black Chevy SUV's with darkly tinted windows, followed by the limousines. The Obamas put in an appearance at all ten Inaugural Balls (none paid for by corporate money), but they ended after midnight at The Neighborhood Ball, the one for all the people who couldn't get in to any of the other balls.

You all were way warmer and had a much better view on TV, but was I happy to be here? Mere words fail.