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Mobtown Beat

Watching the Inauguration From the Fringes

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 1/20/2009

Like the scene from This is Spinal Tap, where the band is lost in the bowels of a Cleveland arena, a group that set out for today’s inauguration from the east side of the U.S. Capitol is now walking in the cold shadows overlooking a freeway in southwest Washington, with barely any hope of glimpsing the Capitol dome, much less President Barack Obama.

Even the nearest JumboTron looks miles away.

Sure there are plenty of police and paramilitary on hand, but crowd direction and control is beneath their pay grade. So we are on our own, headed south when we should be headed north, east when we should be headed west, winding our way past federal buildings and under train bridges as we get increasingly farther away from the historic swearing-in that is about to take place.

Eventually we make it onto Independence Avenue, and the name alone is comforting and feels as if it bodes well. A tinny P.A. system is now audible as ceremonial music informs us that history is about to be made. People are standing on top of the Don’s Johns porta-potties that line the south side of the Mall, which stretches out from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. “I figure this is about as good as it’s gonna get,” says a North Carolina man who has settled for the cold, dark, viewless spot across from the U.S Deptartment of Agriculture.

Pressing on past the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the grand obelisk comes into view, with the surrounding hill packed with people. Some have climbed trees and are craning their necks to see the Capitol in the distance. Others are doing the same from the roof of a maintenance facility attached to the Sylvan Theater, an open-air band shell tucked off to the side of the monument. Here, we settle in for the roughly 45-minute ceremony.

“He says he was a uniter, and we are--against him,” says a middle-aged white man as outgoing President George W. Bush is introduced. “Not one person clapped for that man,” says an African-American woman in faux white fur. Finally, a JumboTron is a respectable quarter mile away, with a view of it disrupted only by bare tree limbs. Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation bounces off the monument, swirls in the wind, and comes back around so we get a second listen. The P.A. from M*A*S*H must have sounded clearer, as sirens shriek in the distance, on both sides of the Potomac River.

The crowd where we stand for the ceremony is at times rapt, at times engaged in prayer, and occasionally talking on cell phones, which were not supposed to work today. A large number of people recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison, and Aretha Franklin gets big whoops when she is introduced to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Rose Gilbert, from Severn, Md., looks serene and comfortable in her surroundings as a friend remarks about the level of police presence on the way to the Mall. “We’re in the safest place on Earth right now,” Gilbert tells her friend. “Now when we leave it’s another story.”

Gilbert is asked when she knew Obama would be elected president. “About half way through the campaign,” she says. “His speeches, his tone, the way everyone started coming together.” What change is she looking forward to? “Bringing people together on the issues. Government for the people, not the elite,” she says. “I’d like to make it so kids get into politics or law or government. My heart is so full. This is just a beautiful thing. It’s overwhelming.”

Video: Ed Ericson Jr. interviews a fellow line walker.

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Tags: Inauguration, Barack Obama

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