The barricades have gone up around the Capitol, miles of non-scalable gray fencing. Armed troops in fatigues packing AC-47s stand guard. Metro public transportation has shut down, and friends are escaping to the hills before the bridges close. Others, like me, hunker down as helicopters whir over our rooftops, rattling the windows in their frames.
A native Washingtonian, I’ve never experienced an inaugural countdown so expectant and disturbing.
I attended my first swearing-in when I was 5-years-old. “A chance to be part of history, girls,” my mom said to my baby sister and me as she bundled us up. Ignoring my father’s scorn, she marched us out the door. That was Nixon, 1969, in the wake of three assassinations, smack in the midst of Vietnam and Civil Rights. Inside our suburban split-level, the seeds of conflict were sprouting too.
Dad, son of Paisano immigrants, had worked his way out of Union City and was stationed at the Pentagon, designing weapon systems. His salary and the food on our table came from that war, he was sure to point out. Mom, daughter of a coal miner, who Dad called a socialist, worked at the VA Hospital lab analyzing patients’ blood and mostly ignored him, her German chilliness inviting his ire.
That January 20th morning, icy winds swept through the crowd of dark wool coats, numbing my tiny fingers, toes and nose, as I looked up toward the gray sky, watching tie-died hippies climb a streetlamp to hang a peace flag and thrust their fist to a cheering crowd. They chanted “We shall overcome,” and Mommy, Janey and I chanted with them.
My mother’s lesson “to be part of history,” to experience that transition of power first-hand, had stuck with me. As a longtime DC resident, over 50 years and nine administrations, I’ve made it down–in support or protest–for many inaugurations.
Clinton followed Reagan with a breath of youthful, soulful and liberal energy into our Nation's Capital after eight years of an aged, supply-side warmonger. By his side stood a with-it professional, not a cookie-baking, just-say-no, first lady. The air on that bright blue day in January 1993 was electric with possibility.
Bill Clinton promised in his inaugural address: “A spring reborn in the world's oldest democracy, that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America.” I was full of possibility too at 29, just out of a premature and suffocating 10-year marriage. That night, in my heels and scratchy taffeta, I stood adrenaline- and champagne-infused, trapped in a crowd of tuxes. As Hail to the Chief rang out, balloons up to the vaulted Union Station rafters, I cheered.
For Baby Bush, like for Nixon, I was a protestor, not a celebrant. It was a grim, gray day with snow forecasted. My crowd of friends and family were armed with signs we’d made the night before. Bent over my living room floor, we spilled our frustrations onto poster board: “Son of a Bush” and “Not My President!” and “Who Else Didn’t We Vote For?”
In the wake of a truly stolen election, dangling chads, an unprecedented decision by the supreme court to stop the recount, and a sad, if not premature concession by Al Gore, we were angry. We marched past rows of riot-geared police, screaming our slogans, as the sneaky checkpoints and strategically positioned barricades divided and diverted our forces. Frozen to the bone, with little girls in tow, we retreated home. The yelling continued for eight dismal years.
Then there was Ohhbama (Obama), our 44th president. Mom, aging in Peoria, was with us in proud spirit as we made the pilgrimage. At dawn, we waled toward The Mall to claim, amid the throng, a patch from which to witness history.
January 20th, 2009 was another startling, clear cold day, the reflecting pool covered with a sheet of ice. We shuffled and shivered and jumped in place for eight hours to keep the life in our feet. But our spirits were on fire as we chatted and convived with strangers: bands of African American seniors up from the South, teams of teens from high schools around the DMV and the country, and families with babies bundled in fleece. Cheers of joy spontaneously erupted from the crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see, love bridging black and white.
Fast forward to the transition upon us. It’s been a long, hard road.
Living in Mount Pleasant, a tiny neighborhood situated just 2.5 miles north of the White House, my amygdala’s been in hijack mode for four straight years. I put myself on news media moratoriums to calm my anxiety when I can no longer sleep.
I’m ready to wake-up to a new day.
I’ve been gearing up for my first masked inaugural address, planning for the always biting cold. I’m ecstatic to welcome, with relief and hope, my lovely new neighbors, behold a woman of color up on the podium, and not as first lady. This time around, more than ever, after an election cyclone that’s threatened our democracy and taken a heavy toll on our sanity, we deserve to be part of history, part of the mass celebration.
Alas, that opportunity’s been ruined. For this swearing-in of our 46th president, such a turning point for America, 26,000 armed national guard troops will attend–but we citizens will not.
As the banners and bunting go up inside the fortressed Capitol, I find myself, like everything political and pandemic-related over the last year, horrified and at the same time gradually acquiescing to yet another loss.
We will celebrate virtually, a few safe pod friends and me, watching history in the making through a screen, on the fringe of the militarized zone.