If there's a mess somewhere I have a knack of finding myself in the middle of it. Even after all these years I still haven't decided if that quality is a blessing or a curse.
I was one of the minions from around the country and around the world who made the pilgrimage to Washington, DC, over these past few days to participate in the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. I use the word "participate" instead of "attend" because this truly was an event that became larger than any one person, or small group. That's what made it so special.
This President has stirred emotions in people that have lay dormant for a very long time. Words fail to adequately describe it - some mixture of hope, inspiration, excitement, passion, leadership - it's a very potent combination of emotions that draws us not only to this man and his message but to the mission. It was an event that anyone who was there can't help but find profoundly moving. However, it was a day that - for many (including yours truly) did not go as planned.
There are as many inauguration day stories as there are people who attended yesterday's massive event. Mine, like many, started at 4am and involves getting to the Metro station with throngs of others at 5am, crowded trains, long lines, mass confusion, and bone-chilling cold.
I had driven to Washington, DC, from upstate NY with a ticket to watch the inauguration from the Purple section on the Capitol grounds. Purple Ticket holders were directed to a single entry gate at 1st and D Street so that's where we headed. The Gate was scheduled to open at 9am and by the time we got there after one train broke down (it was too packed so the doors wouldn't close - we had to evacuate it and wait for another one), wading through huge crowds looking for where we needed to be, and general craziness it was just after 7am.
A line had already formed there and as we walked along the line to find the end we found, to our amazement, that it seemed to have NO end. It snaked around the corner down a street, into a long tunnel under the mall and back out the other side towards an expressway. It was at least a mile long and a dozen people wide and people stood there waiting patiently. We finally found the end but were confident we'd get in because, after all, we had a ticket.
The following 4 hours were cold, slow-moving, and is already being documented as the "Purple Tunnel of Doom." For those who know me it should come as no surprise that I was there, in the middle of it. The scene was absolutely surreal: there was an unending sea of wall-to-wall people trapped deep in a neon-lit tunnel, with icicles dangling from the ceiling and walls like a freezer. There were absolutely no bathrooms to be found anywhere and most seemed to pass the time chatting or taking pictures of this crazy scene. There was nobody "official" to talk to about the situation, to ask, to control the crowd, to let people know what was happening.
Those of us in line came from all over the world to be there. The couple behind me came from Boston and a family with a young child a little ahead of me came from the UK. One man was on crutches. There was young and old, people of all colors, shapes and sizes. People got their tickets in various ways that some compared to finding a Golden Ticket in Willie Wonka as it provided opportunity to come and celebrate this historic event. Despite the early hour and the cold the overriding emotion was one of excitement and, to my amazement, nobody in this huge line bailed.
As hours ticket by, though, many of us started to get a little concerned. One hour passed, then another, and another, and we barely moved. By 10:30 we finally started moving but it seemed as though we had more ground to cover than there was time left. The line stretched in front of us and behind us as far as the eye could see - how could we all get in?
To make a long story short - for any number of reasons they closed the Purple Gate and stopped admitting ticket holders while thousands and thousdands of us were still waiting to get in. By the time that message got to where we stood it was 11 o'clock and there was no time to get anywhere else. People who started the day with so much excitement were left scrambling to fend for themselves.
By 6 a.m., mobs of people had taken over several blocks around the gate. There was no line and no one directing traffic or keeping order.
Ticket-holders, including several Cascade High School students, stood in the same spot for hours without moving a foot. People were packed in so tightly they couldn't move their arms. Several children and elderly people were caught in the middle of the crowd. Some people called 911, but were apparently told nothing could be done.
Overwhelmed, many tried to leave, but couldn't get free of the throng.
While thousands of port-a-potties lined the National Mall, there were no toilets in the mob zone. Some people urinated anyway.
I have seen some estimates put the number of people left in the cold at 1,000 to 4,000. These people are dreaming as those numbers trivialize the size of this horror. I was there and the number had to be significantly more than 10,000. What started as excitement had turned to despair for many - my heart broke for them.
One Obama campaign worker who was apparently stuck in line with us blogged about how many are feeling:
My understanding is that many of those dedicated volunteers and campaign staff were rewarded for their efforts with purple Inauguration tickets. The true believers came from across the country, put airline tickets on our credit cards, slept on people's floors, woke up at 4 a.m. to get to the Inauguration... only to find that we were to be parked in an underground tunnel under DC waiting to be let in, and then were turned away at the gates. As one African-American man said on his cell phone to his kids: "I came all the way to DC and didn't see shit but some tunnel."
My 73-year-old father and I made the trek this morning with our purple tickets clutched proudly in hand. As African-Americans, this event had such significance. My father earlier said quietly that he wished his parents could have seen this day come to pass. I flew in from Los Angeles, he drove 6 hours from North Carolina.
It was horrible.
As for my friend Rachel and I - what happened next will come to symbolize the day for me. We ended up outside the Capitol gates with hundreds of others unable to see or hear what was happening. A couple of older African American women with canes were standing nearby and had used their cell phone to call someone back home. This person held their phone up to the television so these two women could hear the inaugural speech on the speaker phone. Seeing us standing there, they invited us over to huddle with them - staying warm with our heads tilted to hear the historic words of our new President. I looked around and noticed other groups huddled similarly around cell phones, in cars with radios turned on, sharing earphones from iPods. Tears rolled down faces. Despite the disappointment, it was an amazing moment.
I don't know who or what is to blame for the potentially dangerous and very unfortunate situation many of us experienced in the Purple Tunnel of Doom yesterday. What I DO know, though, is that (a) "officials" are already trying to trivialize it or sweep it under the rug but (b) there needs to be some kind of investigation to identify root cause to avoid situations like this in the future. They are extremely fortunate that the chaos did not end up in a tragedy or a riot.
Although the most significant vision that millions will retain from yesterday is a sea of people waving flags, mine and many thousands of others will remember a long line of people waiting patiently in a tunnel with an invitation to a party but who were turned away at the door. As a transperson - it's not the first time I've felt that way and I expect it certainly won't be the last.