Tuesday morning, we left Alexandria, Virginia at 7:30 am and took a bus – the only allowed road traffic on the highways and bridges - into Washington. The driver let us off at 14th and C. Walking with a gathering multitude -- families and friends holding onto each other’s coats to avoid being separated, elderly people, some clearly very poor, wrapped in blankets; disabled people in wheelchairs decorated with flags and Obama paraphernalia -- we made our way to the Mall and the security checkpoint, where we were scanned, patted down apologetically, and waved through by cheerful officers.
For the next couple of hours, Jonathan took photographs from a vantage point on one of the huge stands that held an array of loudspeakers. People with cameras approached his coveted perch and asked if they could switch with him for a few minutes, or if he’d take a photo of them with the flag-draped Capitol behind them. I helped one elderly black gentleman climb up the slippery metal, and held his feet while he snapped a few photographs. Back on the frozen ground, he thanked me, and said he was from New York City. “That’s my grandson,” he told me, gesturing proudly toward a boy who stood near us. “I’m going to be 80 this year – the same age as Dr. King.”
“Did you march with him?” I asked.
“I certainly did.”
“He’d be happy today,” I said.
He nodded gravely: “That he would.”
On the huge video monitors on the edges of the Mall, members of a children's choir recited bits of American poetry. One of them spoke the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”
That’s who we are today, I thought. Tired, many of us poor, and all of us yearning to breathe free. I looked around and smiled: but if we’re huddled, it’s only against the cold. The people thronging the Mall were not giddy, as on the night of the election. Now they waited patiently, with a certain soberness – the daunting reality facing the new president had sunk in over the intervening weeks - but there was definitely joy, anticipation, and a sense of shared witness and shared pilgrimage: the constant question was "where are you from?" and the answer, "Los Angeles," "Iowa," "Memphis," was often followed by the words, "I just had to be here."
Near me, a burly first aid worker knelt in front of an elderly woman in a wheelchair and massaged her frigid feet before putting thermal packs in her shoes. "Is that better, dear?" I heard him ask. The choir began singing "Amazing Grace," and a lot of the people around me joined in. I did too, and suddenly found myself wiping my eyes.
The crowd was patient, but they were alert and reactive. When Ted Kennedy appeared on the TV screens, everyone cheered. Senator Joe Lieberman was hissed. John McCain and the past presidents, including George Bush, Sr., were greeted with polite applause. The biggest cheers of the day, other than those for the Obamas, were for Bill Clinton. But when George Bush, Jr. and Dick Cheney made their entrances, loud boos swept the Mall – unreported by the television media, but certainly heard by everyone on the podium. The lack of reporting about the size of demonstrations, and the depth of American dissatisfaction and dissent, had been among the most frustrating facts of the past eight years, while the administration’s appearances in front of dwindling audiences were carefully-orchestrated and televised. On this day, however, that dissatisfaction was going to be heard.
So, too, was the crowd’s overflowing joy. When the caravan of Secret Service vans and Obama’s limousine drew into sight, cheers rippled all along Pennsylvania Avenue up to the Capitol, and people ran forward to try to catch a glimpse. The cheers for the Obama children, the new First Lady, and the President-elect were deafening.
But everyone was riveted during the oath of office. Afterwards, the young black woman in front of me turned to her companion, tears running down her cheeks, crying, “At last! Finally I can say President Obama!” We all turned and hugged our neighbours, crying and laughing in relief, happiness, and incredulity: the country had its first black President - a man who was about to pledge to turn the country around.
During the President’s address the crowd listened attentively. The comments near me were soft: “He’s got a good heart;” a few “Amen, brother”s; a surprised “He’s really giving it to him!” when Obama repudiated the past administration’s policies. The speech signalled a clear break with the past; the difficulty of the task ahead; the need for all of us to contribute; and the desire to extend America’s hands in friendship and peace toward the world. “For all his oratorical skills, I think Obama ultimately wants to be known as a doer, not a speaker,” reflected one observer afterwards. The new President's inaugural address – simple and direct, without many rhetorical flourishes, would seem to back that up.
There was no question about the historical significance of the day in the struggle for racial equality, and the high number of gay and lesbian couples, people of other ethnic groups, Native Americans, and women in the crowd indicated how much this milestone meant to other minorities. But it was also the end of eight devastating years. The moment when Bush's helicopter lifted off and the cry went up from all those throats was something I'll never forget. It wasn't until later that I realized, bizarrely, that it had reminded me of that endlessly-replayed moment of toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein. In that case, still photographs later revealed that what had looked like an enormous crowd had actually been a staged event. But on Tuesday, the jubilation and relief couldn’t have been more real. As the departing helicopter flew down the length of the National Mall, millions and millions of people cheered, jeered, danced, sang, and raised their arms wide in a universal gesture of freedom. This president who, with his colleagues, had betrayed America’s core values at home and abroad, was finally leaving and we, the people, had replaced him with someone who felt like one of us. Everywhere, the same phrase was repeated, "Finally -- I can breathe again! I can breathe!"
The crush of people leaving the Mall and trying to get home or to the parade route was even greater than in the morning. The buses back to Alexandria weren’t running yet at all, so we decided to walk. Somewhere on the bridge over the icy, wide Potomac we walked for a while with an older black man. He limped and carried a cane, and told us he was a cab driver. “I mean no disrespect,” he said, “but I am glad to see these men gone. They’ve done so much damage; I really feel they should go to jail for what they’ve done.” His gentle voice deepened: “They did it for their own profit... and were arrogant about it, while ordinary people lost everything, including their hope.”
It was a long drive back to Montreal. About halfway up, outside New York City, we stopped at a highway service area. In the large fluorescent-lit restroom, hung with warning signs like ‘Ladies, Watch your Pocketbooks!”, and “All Employees Must Wash Hands!” a middle-aged black woman, stooped beyond her years, shuffled across the floor, sweeping bits of paper into a long-handled dustpan. I went out and approached one of the fast-food counters, where another woman, only twenty or so, stood waiting for customers. “Could you make a latte that’s half regular and half decaf?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, in the defeated low voice I’ve sadly heard in poor black workers all my life. “We can’t do that.”
“I’ll have a tea then,” I said. “Small is fine.” My chest constricted as she turned away to fill my order. I wanted so badly to give her some of what I'd received, and had no idea how.
“That’ll be a dollar-thirty” she said.
I pulled out a bill and the change and handed it to her. “I’m on my way back from Washington,” I tried, the words tumbling out into the space between us. “From the inauguration yesterday.” She looked at me, startled, the recognition dawning that I was trying to tell her something. I met her eyes and said, “It was a wonderful day.”
Slowly, shyly, she broke into a broad smile. “Yes,” she said, finally, but in a much stronger voice, “Yesterday was a really good day.”
“For all of us, I hope,” I said firmly.
She handed me the tea across the counter, and for a moment we locked eyes.
“Thanks very much,” I said, nodding, and turned to go, my eyes suddenly brimming with tears.