January 23, 2009
Finding hope behind (and beyond) the Purple Gate
Although I was in the capital on Inauguration Day, only five or six blocks from the Capitol building itself, I didn't witness the historic moment when Barack Huessein Obama raised his hand and pledged to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
I didn't share in the collective experience that nearly two million people experienced in person on the Mall leading to the Capitol. I didn't watch the inauguration on TV or JumboTron, or witness it via smart phone, cell phone, radio, or smoke signals.
Instead, I milled about with thousands of people holding printed Purple Tickets that promised access to Capitol grounds. The tickets were legitimate passes; they'd been given out by our duly elected Senators and Representatives. They were, however, useless. We were denied entry to the grounds and locked behind the Purple Gates -- left to stand in lines that stretched for numerous city blocks, or left to stand in huddled masses in underground tunnels.
On Inauguration Day, what I witnessed was a mismanagement of resources and a colossal failure to communicate with thousands of people who'd braved the freezing cold. I witnessed civil rights activists who'd marched in Selma being denied the experience they'd hoped and dreamed about the majority of their adult lives. I watched student activists become despondent and grown men shake with frustration and frostbite.
I witnessed distressed children, disappointed adults, and a police force that was as confused as the rest of us -- or utterly unaware (or indifferent) on vacant streets near empty Greyhound buses. I witnessed ATF forces descending on automobiles at will, bomb-sniffing dogs, and a mediated tension between police state and a new state of the union.
I didn't have the moment I was hoping for when Barack Obama was sworn in (for the first time). I wasn't a part of what a friend described as a "million mind group think" on the Mall. Of the millions, perhaps billions, who witnessed history, I was among a small group of people who were reminded that the election of Barack Obama had not eliminated disparity and disillusionment in the country.
I observed people being shut out from the American experience on Inauguration Day. I spoke with citizens struggling to understand why the government promised one thing, but delivered another. I was a part of a crowd chanting, "Let us in!" who shook the gates but did not storm the barricades.More importantly, though, what I witnessed were people finding comfort and solidarity in making friends and making small talk with others who were experiencing the same struggle and disappointment.
Granted, not getting into the Capitol grounds was not a catastrophic occurrence, although it could have been. Fortunately, there was no rioting or any serious injury. Even had I witnessed the swearing in among others on the Capitol lawn, the re-swearing in on Wednesday begs the question if we all hadn't been denied the true moment when Barack Obama became President of the United States.
The events that transpired this week are a very important reminder that history is a sum of occurrences. Some are monumental, some are not. Some events carry with them great weight and meaning, some are flashes of time and light, observed but never truly experienced. Some are forgotten, or ignored, because they devalue or question the collective experience.
Listening to Barack Obama's address coming from the stereo speakers of a street vendors' Cutlass, I couldn't help but feel that I was having an equally satisfying and uniquely American experience of my own. As thousands of ebullience-free citizens made their way home (or the liquor store) the vendors voices squawked "tee-shirts, buttons, nachos, pretzels....five dollars!" at a feverish, frantic pitch.
While I couldn't participate fully in this historic moment, I could at least purchase it. Isn't that the next best thing to being there or watching it from the comfort of one's own home, wrapped in a Snuggie? Instead, I had to find comfort in victory and find peace of mind in the fulfillment of November's nationwide vote of confidence in Barack Obama.
"It'll be better next time," I heard someone say to a child, forecasting four years ahead, turning one day's disappointment into many more years of hope.
And I was amazed, once again, how an ideal that is often fragile, and forever fleeting, can be incredibly powerful. Not quite as powerful as the jalapeno cheese I slathered on my nachos -- but much more satisfying and enduring.