02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Inauguration: Greetings from the Mob

The Approach

Before the sun comes up, the crowds move through the streets of downtown D.C., past the offers for handwarmers and the humvees and army fatigues, guided by the glowing obelisk in the dark purple sky.

When people get closer to the Capitol, it becomes pandemonium. People with tickets look for their gates. Volunteers in red hats offer good morning and push past the barricades. The worry on the faces, the confusion mixed with the police lights and mounted officers, the garbage blowing across the street makes Jefferson Dr. and 9th look more like there's been an accident than the early hours of an inauguration.

At Third and Independence, people with tickets wait in line for the silver gate -- the section between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Reflecting Pool. The line is long and people cut in. A man jumps up on a bench and yells "No Cutting in Line!" He's caught in the moment, and he's caught the attention of all around him. He runs with it. "I represent Barack Obama." Laughter. "We must take responsibility for our own actions." He finishes it up with a wave and hugs an imaginary Michelle Obama. "You wish you had Michelle," a girl says nearby.

The Mob

The fence, green plastic netting -- nothing substantial -- breaks under the weight of the crowd. They push through and a woman goes down in the stampede. She is screaming in pain. Her husband is cursing the throng. Still people push. "Stop" A man yells. "Stop moving!" A wall of people form around her, a human levy. She's in so much pain, lying on her side; it's in her eyes, opening and then shutting hard, it's in her hand that clutches the corduroy pantleg of her husband. This day, one she must have woken so early for, and she with a silver ticket; this moment, so joyous, the nomination of Barack Obama, it wasn't supposed to be like this. And now she was just lying there. Someone said it looked like a broken leg. Officers came. A cold-hearted soul snapped a picture. Others brought her blankets and doctors from the crowd.

Another barrier falls. People trickle past and move around the frozen Capitol Reflecting pool where the gulls perch. They move to the memorial of Ulyses S. Grant and mount the faded green lions. Their seat has suddenly gotten so much better.

Finding the Right Spot

In this inauguration, the kind of historic moment dorm room posters are made of, seating is so much on the mind. It's why these people woke up so early, some arriving at the gates just as the last of the guests at the pre-inaugural balls stumbled back in the opposite direction. It's so when they point to the map years from now they can say "I was here" rather than "back there" though the jumbo trons are all the same. It's the reason they tapped their political connections, anyone, from a family friend in the Senate to a friend of a friend who's second-cousin worked for a member of the House. They shook them to see if any tickets would fall out, just for a closer spot. In this inauguration, determination is king.

Vibe in the Crowd

Heat rises off the mall. Dust clouds form when a million people shift their footing. Flags flicker like fish feeding.

Amidst the joy and anticipation a free-floating anxiety permeates the crowd. It is an unspoken fear that something will happen. That even a little thing would turn the crowd deadly. It flickers to the surface for a moment in the eyes of those who don't know about the tradition of firing cannons when a new president is sworn in. The blasts sound like buildings blocks away losing their basements. The sirens in the distance don't help. But the crowd stays calm, those who can see the source of the noise on the jumbo trons keep their cool, and the one's without the visual aid follow by example. The new president is sworn in.

With a makeshift pole, a man named Sergio Zarate waves the Texas flag in the air. His pole, something he surely wouldn't have gotten past the frisk-and-fondle security check is a piece of the demolished fence. He found it in the rubble of the morning's lawlessness.

"I wanted to make sure Texas was represented here," he says. "We're here and accounted for." He waves his creation proudly in the wind, visible to all across the pool. People approach and ask him for pictures.

The crowd is positive, mostly. The introduction of Newt Gingrich is met with boos, as is George H.W. Bush, Lynn Cheney and Laura Bush. People know it will be much worse for W.


I turn to a woman next to me. "Sounds like Unity."

She laughs. "That part starts at 12:30."

President Obama

Obama takes his oath at around that time and his words echo back accross the mall. The crowd responds to every peak in his speech. When he assures us that no matter how bad things are, we'll fix them, the people believe him and cheer. When he indirectly signals that the practices of the Bush administration are over, there are cheers. And when he warns America's enemies that we will not be defeated, the crowd explodes.

When he is done the morning's mass confusion resumes in the opposite direction. People take to the Capitol Reflecting Pool, crossing the ice despite cracks. People call out the names of lost loved one's as they push through the streets.

They wave to Bush's helicopter as it passes over head, singing "Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye."

One man cups his hands over his mouth and yells to the sky: "The Nightmare is OVA!"