Witnessing History

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January 23, 2009

1:15 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “You make me want to — shout!” the crowd yells as people jump into the air, throwing their hands to the sky.

It’s almost 10 a.m., the temperature is in the low 30s and people, packed close together next to the Washington Monument, sing along with Garth Brooks, whose performance from a concert Sunday is being re-played on a giant screen.

Liz Pedraja ’09, the president of the College of William and Mary Young Democrats, jumps and shouts with the crowd.

“That got my blood pumping again,” she says after the song finishes.

Approximately 2 million people flocked to the capital on Tuesday. Pedraja, along with Young Democrats Vice President Ross Gillingham ’10 and Campaign Coordinator Carlos Quintela ’12, were among a large number of College students who made the trip to Washington to witness Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration.

For the three students, who watch from the National Mall because they didn’t get tickets, Inauguration Day begins in Northern Virginia, where they wake at 5 a.m. to a still-dark sky. After taking an espresso shot or two and bundling up in heavy coats, gloves and hats, the group heads to the city’s Metro, where a line of passengers stretches at least a block down the sidewalk. Fortunately for the cold College students, the wait isn’t too long and there is an atmosphere of general cheerfulness as people joke with each other while waiting in the cold.

The train is tightly packed, but they manage to find some room, standing close together with other passengers. As the train gets closer to the Capitol building, people on the platform try desperately to squeeze themselves into the cars, jamming the doors and slowing down other trains. The ride — which usually takes 40 minutes — ends up taking nearly two hours. Despite the delays, everyone remains excited, talking about the 44th president, looking at maps of the city and pinning on Obama support buttons.

Across town, Young Democrats Historian Isabelle Cohen ’11, whose family has tickets for the swearing-in ceremony, leaves her hotel at 6:30 a.m. They join the security line by 7 a.m. and settle in for a long wait; security for the ticketed section is high. Everyone must walk through a metal detector and each person is checked individually with a small metal detector wand. The line is painfully slow.

“We basically moved a foot every five minutes,” Cohen said later. “It was the worst-managed line I have ever seen.”

Although tensions are high, people in line manage to stay courteous, she said, parting aside for those in wheelchairs and apologizing when they bump into each other.

“I think everyone was just happy to be there,” Cohen said.

Still, as the clock slowly approaches noon, the lines grow longer. Feet become numb and patience wears thin.
Disembarking the train, Pedraja, Gillingham and Quintela join a crowd in the street heading toward the Mall. Empty city buses used as barriers are parked along the street. Police officers watch from the sides and point out directions. Vendors, hawking Obama t-shirts, hats and flags, display their wares.

The hottest commodity? Packets of hand-warmers.

Around 8:45 a.m., the three Young Democrats find themselves among several hundreds of people already by the Washington Monument and settle down to begin the long wait for the ceremony to start. The Mall, free and open to the public, has giant screens set up specifically for viewing the ceremony.

The crowds swell larger and larger as the start of the event nears. Pushing their way through the crowd, people try to make their way down the Mall. On screen, cameras begin showing the arrival of VIPs. Jay-Z’s hat causes a stir. People take pictures of each other and point out the White House in the distance, wondering out loud if Bush is still there packing. Someone waves the flag of Kenya. Others hold yellow signs beseeching the president-elect for a policy of peace. When the camera zooms out to show a view of the Mall, people yell happily and wave.

Everyone cheers and claps when Michelle Obama and her daughters finally arrive. A short woman standing near the Young Democrats boos loudly with the crowd when the camera shows a shot of President Bush.

“Buh-bye, Bush!” she exclaims happily. “You get out of here! Yes!”

During the swearing-in of Vice President Joe Biden, the screen and its speakers are out of sync; it appears as though Justice John Paul Stevens is being sworn in instead of Biden, much to the amusement of the crowd. Still, they burst into cheers as Biden becomes vice-president, which quickly transforms into an impatient chant — “Obama.”

Finally, Obama steps onto the stage and the crowd erupts.

“Yes, we can!” and “Yes, we did!” shouts ring out as onlookers wave American flags with enthusiasm.
People hold each other tightly as Obama is finally sworn in as president. The three Young Democrats have smiles plastered on their faces. During his speech, the crowd listens intently with their cameras out, taking pictures of the giant screen and the reactions of the people around them. The crowd erupts again even before Obama finishes his speech with “…and God bless the United States of America.”

The euphoria of the crowd is felt even as everyone tries to make their way out of the Mall and through the barricaded city streets. The view of the massive sea of people causes the Young Democrats to look back at the Washington Monument with awe. The crowd chatters excitedly about the Inauguration, remarking that times are changing for the better. On building rooftops, groups of people gather, celebrating the inauguration of their new president.

“It’s so weird having a new president,” Pedraja says. “It’s been eight years, which is a long time. This is exciting because it is completely different.”

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