Little ants at the Inaguration of Obama

by wonderfullyrich on February 8, 2009

This is long out of the news by now, but some of you expressed interest in my experience at the Inaguration so I thought I might reflect on it for a bit.

Overall I found it an experience that was heartwarming and tiring with a minor undercurrent of frustration.  I’ll lay this out chronologicly.  I woke up around 5:30 or 6am, at which time it was -6F or so outside based on reports I heard later.  I dressed with liner socks, wool socks, long john bottoms, jeans, topped by nylon workout pants (wind breaking), long john shirt, tee-shirt, button up shirt, and my double layered jacket, plus hat, and scarf.  Trying to be a good boy and not get tripped up by the security, I did not bring a backpack, rather I brought a canvas shopping bag full.  I got on the road around 6:30 or so after getting a donuts, sandwich, coke and bottled water at a 7-eleven, then biked on down to the security perimeter.  I live around 16th and Newton, so I basically stayed on 16th all the way down to the perimeter, which started at about K st.  At some point around there it became to dense to bike so I started walking, however I was confused by the entrances as some streets were the National Mall entrances for the Inaguration itself, and others were for the Parade.  I ended up missing the entrance that would have been quickest on 16th and going to the 19th street one, which pushed me behind the Lincoln Memorial.  By the time I go onto the actual mall, after I locked up my bike around 16th and Madison, it was around 9am or so.

IMG_0007.JPG I was going to try and meet up with my old house mates and the couchsurfer they had, but cell phone towers were to overwhelmed to make anything work well.  I while I waited I was standing around the castle on the mall (12th on the south side), right behind a guy on a wheelchair who the crowd flowed around. I felt like he was a rock with water gushing around him and I was trying to stand in a eddy so I wouldn’t get knocked over. Eventually I gave up on waiting for them and moved down the mall and wish I’d brought a step ladder or milk crates. (See right).  After scouting for a while and watching the crows as best I could, I eventually decided that it being in the middle of the crowd seem likely to be the warmest due to the wind blocking.

There I stood standing in a crowd that seemed immense and felt like more then a million people.  It was around 10-10:30 by the time I settled.  So like most of the crowd I stood there waiting for a hour an a half waiting for the show to get on the road.  Actually I guess the show got started around 11am, as they stopped running the powerpoint presentation on the jumbotrons around then and gave us a live feed of the bigwigs walking in.  I have to admit that I was impressed by the sound setup.  They may not of gotten the crowd control right, but they got the sound right.  Every bock or so they had speakers erected and it was well powered and directed enough that that crowd could hear it, but not so much that you had multiple echos all the way down the mall.

This turned out to be great, as we got to watch and listen to the hallways and sundries as the former presidents and dignitaries came in.  I think this is what made the experience for me, insofar as the crowd reacted with cheers and jeers spontaneously upon seeing or hearing announcements of the precession.  By far the biggest jeer was for Joe Leiberman, which just cracked me up.  The fact that they knew who he was, and hated him enough to boo violently was hysterical.  Well maybe the biggest jeer was for W., but Liberman was still the funniest.

Listening to the crowd and enjoying the solidarity was what made the day worth it.

By the time Obama showed up and started his speech though, I was just tired.  Lack of sleep (O’dark thirty is not a normal wake up time for me), lack of nutrients (I lost my donut & sandwich), and being only mostly warm exhasted me.  Around 11:30 or so I realized I started shivering, so even though I thought I was warm enough, my body thought otherwise.  Thankfully, Obama’s speech was short.  (I posted the audio I took using my IC Recorder in case you’d like to hear the jeers, speech, or what it was like in the crowd.)

At the time, I was rather unimpressed by his speech.  I though he talked about useful things and was inspiring, but he didn’t capture the crowd.  I wrote most of that off as being tired though.

As soon as his speech was over, I started walking out.  This was the fun part.  I spent another one and a half to two hours just getting to my bike.  I was outraged by the stupidity of planners and security types.  Here they basically told us not to bring all sorts of stuff, but then the don’t even bother checking us and beyond that they don’t even do foot traffic control worth a damn. I think they very much underestimated the security risk of a large blob of several thousand people who were pissed off because they couldn’t see where to go, had no guidance from anyone in a better vantage point or who had a radio, and ended up going around in circles inside a crowd.  It didn’t happen, but I thought about how easy it would have been to bring a bomb, firecracker, or even a ballon that scared this crowd–already on the emotion edge–into a panic enduced stampede.  Luckily even though the cold tired crowd was emotional, it remain a light hearted crowd that self-diffused the edge by random jokes or happy faces.  Yet another reason I’m glad I was there.

After I got to my bike, I had to do more circling (carrying my bike in a large crowd without smacking people unintentionally, which is not easy) and was again hindered by poorly directed people who couldn’t see around port-o-potties.  What happen next is best described by the picture that Fallow’s found.  I was very near here when this happen, which turned out to be great both for the comedy of it and it’s utility of giving us an “ground” traffic controller.

Hours later, after more bottle necks and more non-traffic focused cops I managed to get up to 18th and walked north with the crowd.  The crowd of people didn’t break up enough to go counter flow or cross the street until well after L st.  Thankfully around there I remember a Chipolte existed nearby and looked it up on my iPhone, locked my bike up and looked at my savior.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts.  What if instead of having the parade on the north side of the mall along Pennsylvania Ave, you have the parade on the south side of the mall.  Currently, although the route is historic, it also effectively locks the million person crowd in a small space.  Most people want to head north because the National Mall is actually on the south side of the city and most residences/hotels are north.  This is additionally confounded by the fact that the river provides a natural barrier to people, both psychologically and physically.  It’s not likely to happen, but instead of security theater, where due to security reason several people with tickets (read donors and campagin supporters) didn’t get in and others were trapped in between two security check points for hours without a bathroom, they should think about crowd psychology and plan around it.  Keep the crowd well informed, give them small things to bitch and whine about, but give them natural ways to exit that are speedy, reassuring, and well described.

Second, I’m glad I saw it, but I’m unlikely to ever do it again.  Although if I am as inspired to go, next time I’ll bring a step ladder, my tripod, and my backpack.

Here is a map to illustrate approximately where I was.


View Larger Map

Here is the audio I mentioned earlier, in case you’d like to hear what it was like in the crowd during obama’s speech and before.

Lastly here is the photos I took from the day, including my really bad timelapses.

2009 Obama Inauguration 2

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