In theory, Barack Obama’s second inauguration was a public event, taking place outdoors at the United States Capitol, with giant screens sharing the broadcast along the National Mall. In practice, access was limited to those willing to surrender their dignity and personal rights in order to pass into a giant swath of Washington, DC that was taken over by police, the military, and various government agencies.
I was lucky enough to be given a yellow ticket for the presidential inauguration, granting me access to Union Square, between the Capitol reflecting pool and 3rd St. I rode my bike to the entrance. It was astounding to see military personnel standing in their camouflage uniforms, closing off public streets as far north as K St. You could see Metro buses being used as barricades. Washington felt like a war zone, but the occupying force was our own military.
In Chinatown I saw a car being allowed into the restricted area by the military personnel. Downtown had become a gated community.
The map below is from a press release (PDF) from the Secret Service. The dotted green line shows the “vehicle restricted area”, and the red line shows the “vehicle road closures.”
Closer to my destination, I discovered I could ride my bike through the military perimeter. But inside this perimeter was another perimeter, one for screening pedestrians. The map below (via 2013pic.org) shows the large area reserved for ticket holders.
Areas restricted by checkpoints with screenings
The ticketed area was divided into six sections. Each section had a single entrance, depending on the color of your ticket (blue, red, orange, green, yellow, and gold). Map via about.com.
Ticketed areas west of the U.S. Capitol
My entrance for the yellow section was at 3rd & D NW. I locked my bike to a parking meter and entered the line below the Department of Labor building.
The street was lined with a row of tents spanning the entire block. How one was supposed to filter into a line for the screenings was a mystery. I walked down the sidewalk until I found a tent with a shorter line. There were fences everywhere – some metal, and lots of bright-orange plastic fencing. But much of the plastic fencing had been ripped down and trampled over. There didn’t seem to be any logic to the arrangement of the fencing.
The screening itself was less burdensome that what you endure from TSA in the airports. Jackets had to be unzipped but otherwise were kept on. Electronics were set on a table and were to be turned on. Though the web sites had a long list of prohibited items, I didn’t notice any signage saying what was not allowed.
To get to Union Square, we had to cross Constitution Ave and Pennsylvania Ave. But there was no freedom of movement here. The streets were void of public participants. Two rows of fences kept us restricted to the path connecting us to our sanctioned viewing area. Outside the fences, people in military outfits lined the parade route, standing at attention, though it would be several long hours before the parade itself.
Union Square itself was quite crowded, though the irony is we were surrounded by empty space. The fencing kept us in our crowded pens. This must be what it’s like for farm animals.
I was grateful for my yellow ticket. Though I couldn’t quite see what was happening on the steps of the Capitol, it was interesting to witness the event. It just felt horrible that we weren’t allowed to mingle or explore the area.
What a waste that this section of 3rd St was closed to the public. Looking across the street, I could see people in the gold section, crowded into their little section of the Mall.
The amount of fencing erected for this event must add up to dozens and dozens of miles. All kinds of fencing, and of course lots of concrete barriers too.
My section was next to the Capitol reflecting pool, but of course there was yet another fence preventing us from getting too close. Maybe they were afraid someone would try to swim to freedom.
There were jumbotrons at the north and south ends of our area. I got to see Beyoncé sing the national anthem.
When the ceremony was over, I decided to venture onto to Mall to see if there was anything interesting. I walked one block west to 4th St, by the National Gallery of Art. But 4th St was completely blocked off. More fencing!
When I turned around to head back to the 3rd St entrance, someone put his hand on my shoulder and told me I wasn’t allowed to walk that way. He didn’t identify himself, but it was one of those security goons (shown below). I was shocked someone would lay a hand on me. Isn’t that a form of assault? And it was completely idiotic that we wouldn’t be allowed to walk east on Madison Dr – this was after the ceremony had even ended! Why would anyone prevent people from entering the ticketed areas after the event had ended? Furthermore, he didn’t care that I had come from the ticketed area that I was trying to return to. This was the most idiotic, frustrating moment of the day.
So I continued west. It wasn’t until 7th St that we were able to turn north.
At 7th St and Constitution Ave, a guy with a bullhorn said to turn right to enter the parade area, and left to go to Metro. I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a parade after this, so I headed further west on Constitution Ave.
At 10th St & Constitution Ave, I got a closer look at one of the entry points for viewing the parade. Yet another screening tent, but this one had big signs saying “Achtung!” – I mean, “Attention!”, adding “by entering this secured area you are consenting to a search of your person and your belongings.” This in order to walk on a public street. No thanks.
At 12th St & Constitution Ave, it seemed as if I had found a way north. Signs indicated this was the way to Metro; I figured one couldn’t go further north than the Federal Triangle Metro station, since the parade route had been completely closed since the morning. In any case, no one was being allowed to enter 12th St at the moment I approached it, though I did see a few people walking on the sidewalks there. This street was a huge choke-point, with new waves of people arriving with the expectation that they’d be able to leave the Mall area. No luck!
At 14th St & Constitution Ave, I was about to cross the intersection when a group of soldiers barked orders for us to move back. A truck had slowly approached from 14th St and was inching its way towards the intersection. There would have been plenty of time for us to safely cross, but everyone in uniform seemed to have a preference to execute their authority and control the flow of people. The slowly-moving truck came to a stop yards away from the crosswalk on our left, its driver stopping to chat with someone there. The soldiers continued to stand with their arms spread out, even though there was no danger to anyone. Finally the truck lumbered past and we were allowed to cross. Also note that there was a fenced-off lane in the middle of Constitution Ave, which made it hard to move about.
It wasn’t until 18th St that we were finally able to walk north of Constitution Ave. Keep in mind I had started at 3rd St. Walking north, it was sad to see so many streets cordoned off, completely empty, like this block of Pennsylvania Ave.
For a normal celebration, streets would be teeming with people. But DC had become a strange contrast of the super-crowded next to the super-empty. At 18th & H, I saw a pedicab driver pedal aimlessly, unable to pick up passengers on the other side of the barrier.
I wasn’t able to turn back east until I St. Now I had to walk 15 more blocks east, and 5 more south, to get back to where I had parked my bike. Along the way I came across this makeshift “vehicle screening area”. It was a bit frightening to see my city so easily turned into a military zone.
Is it possible to protect the president without turning public streets and public parks into military zones? I remember attending Obama’s first inauguration, and being so optimistic when I heard him say:
“…we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
Yet here we are, four years later, and “safety” has trumped not only our ideals, but common sense as well.
Where does the government even get the authority to conduct searches on public streets, and to cordon off public parks? I have heard how easy it is for laws like H.R. 347 to be abused. (Not to mention the horrendous 2012 NDAA bill.) I’m uncomfortable with the authority we grant our local and federal law enforcement agencies being used not to protect us from crime, but to build a bubble around elected officials and VIPs. Our constitutional freedom of assembly rights were curtailed. Our Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches were violated.
Our military should be used to defend us from foreign enemies, not control vehicular access to downtown streets. It’s not sufficient if some bureaucrat has a hunch that maybe someone somewhere somehow might try to do something bad.
I want our public streets to be controlled by the city’s Department of Transportation. They have the expertise on how to handle large events and traffic concerns. And given the Secret Service’s order to dismantle six Capital Bikeshare stations, I question their security expertise.
I want the National Park Service to maintain control of the National Mall. People should never be restricted from entering (or in my case, exiting) this iconic space. Fencing can be used to protect things that are genuinely dangerous (like power generators), but should never be used to corral people, or reserve space for VIPs or vehicles. The pathways should be kept clear, but otherwise let people decide how much crowding they can tolerate and go where they please.
We need to lower the level of paranoia, even if it means increasing our risks. We keep saying the terrorists can’t take away our way of life, but we have let fear slowly erode the freedoms we once celebrated. We need stronger public oversight of the agencies that act in the name of security.
On a day when we should be celebrating our democracy, I found myself mourning the erosion of our freedoms.