On Jan. 20, I was one of the 1.8 million people that covered the National Mall in Washington D.C. to witness the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.
The crisp, clear winter day will forever be engraved in my memory. It began when I woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready to board the D.C. Metro in Alexandria, Virginia, to take me into the District of Columbia as all roads leading into the District were closed. Sophomore Jake Johnson and I waited with hundreds of others at the King Street Station to cram into one of the many Metro cars running that day. We were packed like sardines. The air was tight and an elderly woman standing next to us fainted. Yet the air was also buzzing with excitement and people from very different parts of the nation chatted like old friends. We clutched our silver tickets that Jake received from Minnesota’s District 7 Congressman Collin Peterson as we arrived at the Capitol South station and slowly made our way up the stopped escalators with thousands of others.
From Metro Center on 12th Street, we walked up to Third Street where the Silver Gate was located. Seeing thousands of Americans march down the closed streets of Washington brought tears to my eyes. We all believed in our country, believed in the opportunity for change, believed in a senator from Illinois to make our dreams become reality.
After reaching our gate, the waiting game began. From 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. we waited in line, shivering in the cold and wishing we had brought some food and hand warmers. We boasted to others that 25 degrees was balmy compared to wind chills of 50 degrees below zero back home, but we truly were a little cold because we are used to walking briskly from building to building rather than standing outside for hours at a time.
The Silver entrance to our area of the mall was not organized well and consisted of a large silver gate followed by the security screening far off to the left around a corner. This led to a massive crowd forced to enter a trickle of a line extreme left side of the gate and no signs were posted nor any law enforcement readily available to tell us where to go.
The silver ticket crowd was packed in the holding area for the security screening line until 11 a.m. The inauguration was scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. Later I learned that our silver ticket line stretched for 11 blocks. As you might guess, people who had waited in line for hours on Monday to receive their tickets from their senators and representatives were less than impressed. We began to think we would never make it in before the swearing in. People began to grow more and more frustrated and waved their tickets in the air and chanted “Let us in!” in unison. Many people gave up and left. When nothing was done, the front of the enormous crowd knocked over the metal barricades containing us and literally stormed the security checkpoint. We followed the crowd and after clearing security (which was surprisingly very lax, allowing many items that were supposed to be prohibited) raced across the mall in search of the best spot.
The mall was already extremely crowded and we settled for a view of one of the Jumbotron screens as our view of the Capitol with the naked eye was quite limited. We watched as prominent political figures like Al Gore and new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked out, followed by former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. You may not have seen this on television, but I even felt some sympathy for Bush when the crowd of 2 million booed and groaned when his face appeared on the screen. Of course, Barack and Michelle Obama were greeted with cheers of “Yes we can!” and “O-ba-ma!” upon gracing the Capitol steps.
I will never forget the sight of the 2 million people stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, covering two miles or about 150 acres, cheering ecstatically and waving countless American flags at the sight of their nation’s new leader.
The crowd hushed as Obama took the podium to deliver his inaugural address. It was a good speech. However, more than his words I remember being taken aback by all the people surrounding me with their eyes wet, their faces beaming with pride, and their smiles wide with pure joy. It was at that moment I realized how monumental an accomplishment it is for the United States to have an African American president. A Chicago college student told us, “I’m only 19 and I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime.” I cannot even fathom how much it meant for people like the 80-year-old man who sat by us after the ceremony in the National Air and Space Museum, where many gathered to get out of the cold and some McDonald’s. He was there with his son and grandson and while he looked exhausted, you could see in his eyes how elated he was.
Despite the long lines and waiting, the chaos and hoards of people, it was truly unbelievably amazing to be standing there on the National Mall that day. To be an eyewitness the inauguration of the first African American president is an incredible feeling. I am and always will be incredibly grateful to have been a spectator in this significant piece of history.
Marisa Paulson is a senior and the news & features editor of The Concordian, although she still writes when she can. She plans to attend the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in fall 2011.