“Obama is a baby killer!” bellowed an anti-abortion protester from atop the tree he managed to shinny up undetected by security. “Stop the killing of innocent babies!” he continued. Alarming stuff, but especially so since my friends and I were seeing this action unfold at the 57th Presidential Inauguration. The protester, along with unhealthy exposure to cold temperatures, long lines, and extensive searches by security, were all part of the democratic process, one the Political Science Junior Fellows and I were happy to participate in.
Attending a Presidential Inauguration is fraught with uncertainty, and the twin challenges of time and weather were particularly acute. To safeguard against time issues, we left the hotel at about 4:30am on Inauguration Day to catch the Metro. The early departure got us there on time, but it subjected us to colder temperatures (low thirties) for a longer period of time. Like democracy, you take the good with the bad.
Planning is essential. Along with layers and layers of clothing, I brought hand-warmers, snacks, and lots of recording equipment, the latter to record the day’s events. The officers at the security checkpoint, however, had a different view of my planning than I did, and they spent much time unzipping zippers, turning on electronic devices, and otherwise investigating things. After much delay, and exasperated looks from other Junior Fellows, we trudged on, eventually arriving at our designated area.
The National Mall is a large place, but we were fortunate to have good tickets courtesy of Congressman Kevin Brady. We could actually see the Presidential Seal that adorned the podium! This was democracy up close and personal.
Our next goal was to stake out our territory, which we did with diligent exactitude by the dawn’s early light, when the crowds were relatively sparse. There wasn’t a lot of payoff to our territorial markers, which soon eroded with the arrival of more and more people. By the end, we were “packed like sardines,” an apt cliché in this case—by the end, an estimated 750,000 or so people were on the National Mall. We were all part of something special.
During the ceremony, we were able to see President Obama and the other dignitaries, and the sound system enabled us to hear the music and the speeches quite well, but not so well as we could hear the protester in the tree. His rants at times overpowered the speakers, including Obama.
I was surprised that none of the audience members tried to chase the protester up the tree. Perhaps they didn’t want to ruin a good day, or perhaps they took a good look at how high he was in the tree. Either way, they left it to the police—who, incidentally, didn’t do a whole lot either. They brought ladders, but these proved inadequate, and a police officer stopped climbing about halfway up the tree, in the ridiculous position of negotiating branch to branch with the protester. Before long, authorities contented themselves with simply waiting him out.
The close spaces, the reaction against the protester, and the long hours of discomfort forged a bond among strangers in our area. Conversations soon came alive, and the entertainment soon restored a bounce to the step of the onlookers. President Obama’s spirited speech also energized the crowd, almost all of whom, of course, were Democrats. But not necessarily in our group, which came in with split affiliations and, in fact, as a whole leaned Republican.
But in the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, the individuals who hold offices are secondary to the processes that put people in offices and allow them to govern. And our entire group was unanimous in our support of that process.
There was something unique about standing alongside almost one million people, most of whom, I am sure, disagreed with me on a majority of policy issues. And there was something about going through discomfort—did I mention the extended exposure to the cold and the endless standing?—to be part of the democratic process, a reminder that with rights come responsibilities.
Incidentally, shortly following the inauguration, the protester, too, was reminded about responsibly using rights: he was arrested.
No doubt the country will soon be beset by ongoing difficulties and unexpected travails. On Inauguration Day, however, almost one million citizens stood outside the Capitol Building alongside our elected officials of both parties and unequivocally embraced the democratic process. The country will be better off if we—and our elected officials—can do this more than once every four years.