Thursday, February 5, 2009

Kofi's Inauguration Journal: Part I

Last week Barack H. Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. His part was well orchestrated and quite dramatically portrayed on an international stage. With the exception of John Roberts misstep during the swearing in ceremony it appeared to go off without a hitch.

When Obama's in town it's as if a hurricane just landed. Thousands of people rallied to his cause during his presidential campaign. Millions attended his inauguration and now the hopes of the nation rest at his doorstep. Will he be up to the challenge? Will the Congress back him to the hilt or will his flower wilt and die along with the hopes of the nation.

I was in D.C. for the inauguration with my oldest daughter, Miri Muhammad and Rita Rogers, a teacher from Stewart Africentric Elementary School in Akron, OH. Our first night in town we attended the African Inaugural Ball at the Hilton hotel in Silver Springs, MD.; a well attended international affair. The program and the participants were from numerous countries on the three most populous continents in the world. Africa was well represented, of course, but there were also guests from the U.S. and the U.K. as well.

The entertainment on Sunday evening derived from Africa, and the Americas. Countries represented included Canada, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Nigeria, USA and Kenya. The organizers of the event are US residents from Nigeria. Featured performers of the evening included a Nova Scotian African dance troupe and Emma I.K. Agu, a Nigerian singer who regaled us with his rendition of "Obama: the Wind of Change." Marcia Griffiths, one of Bob Marley's back-up singers, ended the evening with her hit song "Electric Slide." Everyone had a good time dancing the night away.

Following the Ball we went around the corner to Langon Ethiopian restaurant, where we enjoyed a well deserved meal of beans and vegetables. This was to be the first of a number of Ethiopian establishments we visited that evening. At each location we visited the excitement level was high and everyone was planning on attending the ceremonies the next day. It appears that Obama has broken down many of the barriers and eliminated many of the stereotypes of Black American men.

We spent the day before the inauguration and inauguration day in and around the National Mall. The day before the inauguration we visited the Pavilion below the Old Federal Post Office and traced part of the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, all the way to the North side of the White house to the see the presidential reviewing stand. Spirits were high and the atmosphere was congenial. People were in town from all over the world, not just the U.S. We got to meet many of these people and recorded their stories. It seemed like everyone was a vendor or a news reporter. There were armies of both in town for the swearing in ceremony.

Traveling to and from the mall was a breeze on the Metro. I was glad that we planned to stay with friends who had the foresight to plan ahead and purchase our commemorative passes in advance. The lines to get any kind of pass at the station were extremely long. But, with our prepaid passes we breezed right on through to the lower level where we got on board a train to the Federal Triangle station.

The next day we arrived at the Metro station at about 4am. The rush to get to the National Mall had already begun. Cars were lined up to get into the Park & Ride lot at the Old Branch Metro station. We managed to skirt some of it, by coming in another entrance. But, long lines would be the rule from then on out.

We had been told not to bring folding chairs, ice chests, back packs or even a thermos because of security concerns. So, upon exiting the Metro station the first thing we did was go to Star Bucks, where we encountered 2 uniformed Secret Service agents in line to get their morning cup of Joe. However, when we actually got to the National Mall very little of the security we had been expecting was in place. We arrived at the ninth street entrance at about 6:30am and waited patiently for the gate to open at 7:00am.

The crowd continued to grow larger by the minute. Everyone was in high spirits and on several occasions started up an Obama campaign chant, "Fired Up, Ready to Go!" As the crowd continued to grow several people passed out. In order to get to them the authorities sent a truck directly into the crowd. This caused a lot of confusion. A few cool heads prevailed and disaster was averted not once, but twice as the first vehicle was followed by a Humvee going the opposite direction. Soon after these incidents concluded we expected the gate would open, however we were informed that we needed to go to another gate on 14th Street.

We headed down the street to the appointed gate, but before we arrived someone in the crowd saw a gate that was open near the Smithsonian Castle. It was an unmanned gate hanging wide open. No metal detectors, no TSA officers, nothing but an open gate to the inauguration. People streamed through that gate with metal folding chairs and anything else they cared to bring with them. We had diligently come with only what was officially allowed according to information on the Secret Service website. Among the items we did bring with us were included three blankets. Each of us carried one of these blankets to the Mall.

Once we reached the Mall things went pretty smoothly. We found ourselves a spot with a good view on the hill around the Washington Monument and laid out some of our blankets. Rita and I headed across the street to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to get warm. We were met there by throngs of people with the same idea. Here we did have to go through the pretense of security. But, by the time we arrived there at 9am the museum was packed to overflowing, seriously beyond capacity.

We stayed in the museum until 11:30am, before we finally ventured back out onto the Mall. By this time it was impossible to cross 15th street to return to the base of the Washington Monument and there was a huge crowd in front of the Capitol. so, we reconciled ourselves to a clearing near a jumbotron on the Mall just outside of the NMAH. This turned out to be a good spot, as we had plenty of room around us and an unobstructed view.

No sooner had we stepped on the Mall many of the noted dignitaries made their grand entrance, including Malia and Sasha. Cheers rose up from the crowd at the mention of their names. Then Joe Biden took his oath and the crowd roared with delight. Last, but not least it was Obama's turn to take the stage. Right before he took the oath of office Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Izhak Perlman, pianist
Gabriella Montero
and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed a special piece composed especially for the inauguration of Barack Obama entitled "Air and Simple Gifts." We are not told that what we heard was actually a recorded rendition of the piece, as it was too cold to keep their instruments in tune. Obama took the oath and gave his inaugural address and the crowd dispersed.

Many of them did as we did and reentered the NMAH. The cold was bone-chilling, penetrating our outer garments in short order. All of the Smithsonian buildings were open that day. It purportedly cost the Inaugural Committee approximately $700,000 for these accommodations and was well worth it. Many of us would not have made it through the day without the respite offered us by the Museum complex.

Our plan was to give people a chance to exit the Mall before heading to the nearest Metro station, which on that day was at Le Enfant Plaza. We had found a cafe in the NMAH and decided 12:30pm was a good time to get something to eat. There are 2 cafes in the NMAH. We decided to go to the largest one on the Lower Level. There was a long line there, but it moved quickly. We went through the line and got our food.

The place was packed with people like ourselves from various places. Some of the most interesting people we met during our stay were seated at our table. One woman we met had been to the March On Washington, The Poor People's Campaign of 1968, three inaugurations and numerous other major events on the Mall. Everyone agreed the camaraderie was the main attraction for the day, not the swearing in ceremony, not the celebrities or the media, but the everyday people who willing and patiently shared their stories, they were the main attraction.

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