Mystery Incorporated

Programming, photography, news, culture, and cartoons

home | rss | atom

Add to Google

Permission to View the Inauguration

January 22nd, 2013 [photography]

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.

Military Barricade
14th & K NW

13th & K NW

Cross Guard
12th & K NW

In Chinatown I saw a car being allowed into the restricted area by the military personnel. Downtown had become a gated community.

Special Treatment
6th & H NW

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.”

Vehicular restrictions

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 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

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.

Grim Entrance
3rd St NW, under 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 Governed
Crowds of people entering the screening tents

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.

TSA Is Everywhere
Inside the screening tent

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.

Constitution Ave NW

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.

Gloomy Inauguration
View from Union Square

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.

The Stage Is Set
Close-up of the Capitol

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.

A Bad Use of Space
3rd Street was kept empty

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.

Sitting on a Barricade
People sitting on a concrete barricade

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.

Lots of Space on the Other Side
Empty space by the Capitol reflecting pool

There were jumbotrons at the north and south ends of our area. I got to see Beyoncé sing the national anthem.

Beyoncé on TV
Beyoncé on the Jumbotron

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!

Fenced Out
4th St & Madison Dr NW

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.

The Secret Service Is In Charge
This guy wouldn’t let me turn back

So I continued west. It wasn’t until 7th St that we were able to turn north.

Funneled onto 7th Street
7th St NW

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.

Abandon All Rights Ye Who Enter
10th St & Constitution Dr NW

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!

Ill-Treated Guests
12th St & Constitution Dr NW

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.

You Shall Not Pass
14th St & Constitution Dr NW

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.

No-Go Zone
18th St & Pennsylvania Ave NW

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.

Still No Going East
18th & H NW

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.

Vehicle Screening Area
13th & I NW

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.

More photos via the inaug2013 tag. For a happier review of the inauguration, see What I Saw at the Inauguration… in 1993.


14 Responses to “Permission to View the Inauguration”

  • Bullwinkle says:

    I wonder what it will take for people to wake up and realize what is going on in this country and stop drinking Obama’s koolaid? Maybe this will help sound the alarm.

  • Brian Levene says:

    Our government overreacts to security threats so often that its almost reflexive to complain or disparage security efforts. However, after JFK, RFK, MLK and Malcom X, I applaud all efforts to prevent the assassination of our first Black President.

  • Evan Harper says:

    Even though I agree with all of your conclusions, I’m rather turned off by the hyperbole. A middle-class white dude getting tapped on the shoulder and having to empty his pockets to get into a public event is not, in fact, akin to a a military occupation, nor a callback to Nazi Germany. You might do better to temper your passion for liberty with a little bit of perspective. If you’re honest, it’s easy to think of vastly greater government abuses in America, although as a middle-class non-Muslim white adult dude with no especially radical views you (and me) are unlikely to be subjected to them.

  • Toby Howard says:

    I find it interesting to read the posts of people who have suddenly noticed all of the violations of our Constitutional rights over the last 5 years or so, particularly since I have seen these same rights violated in so many “less than middle-class” places for most of my adult 47 years. And by law enforcement with less of a security concern than a President who has received more death threats than any other President in American history. Add to this the amount of gun violence we have seen in this country very recently and I don’t believe that any American President would have trouble signing off on what the Secret Service wants to impliment on the day of his or her inauguration. And I think they hope that reasonable people would understand.

    I have also noticed how trendy it is to compare what goes on in this country in the interest of nationaly security with the Nazi regime of a different era. Quite honestly, I think these comparisons are very sad and very telling with regard to the people that use them. The things going on now are not much different than the way things were changed after 9/11. (Consider that may have been why ’93 was so much more “happy”). I’ve noticed that it only seems more obvious since Barack Obama became President. We all know why that is. I won’t talk about it because it appears we don’t honestly want to discuss that anymore in this country. We prefer to believe we are done with that. That’s fine.

    I’ve never minded the troubles I had to go through in my travels in and around DC for the purposes of the protection of our elected officials. Gabby Giffords may not want much protection either, but I’ll gladly go through it for her and anyone else since I do respect their position and the importance for our country of not having the tragedy of losing a live or lives and the distraction it would cause for a country that has so many more things going on that need to be addressed. I guess losing the current President wouldn’t be a tragedy for some folks though.

    Meanwhile, I’m saving this blog for my grandchildren. They can read it after they’ve been subjected to random stop and frisks because they live next to a drug house. I’m sure it will make them feel better.

  • Tom Limoncelli says:

    Years from now someone is going to write a tell-all book about all the attempts on his life and how each one was prevented; and how all of them were kept secret to discourage copycats. People will look back at your post and say, “oh, that’s why they did all that!” and you’ll feel silly for calling them “extreme” instead of “fully justified”.

  • Ted says:

    To the other commenters on this post –

    I think the spirit, and beauty of social media, is that people won’t look back at a post, they’ll see a whole person in the body of their work/experience. In the context of the other content on this blog, they’ll just see another human being working to understand the world around them.

    Take a look around and see if it supports a different dialogue. Something to think about,


  • MilliMiniMises says:

    Quite a few of the things documented here are the kind of crowd control measures you’d see for any kind of large public event. If you go to any large festival for example you’ll have plenty of security tents, bouncers areas of restricted access etc. Several of these roads were probably kept clear to ensure swift access or evacuation in case of an emergency.

    I don’t think the simple fact that they had to close several roads and heavily restrict traffic when you have a gathering of 800,000 to 1,000,000 people is not unreasonable.

    That said the extensive use of the army for crowd control and policing is not a good thing. Even more since they are not really trained to police public events. It also sounds as if the the crowd planning, signage and the likes for this event was not very good.

  • tensor says:

    This is the result of having too many agencies with, um, agency to cover a single event. Our military has no business attempting to perform crowd control amongst civilians, but they want the prestige, and soldiers get paid whether or not they are on duty, so our government uses them. President Obama and his family have, I am told, received the largest number of death threats our Secret Service has ever had to face, and nobody in that agency wants the blame for failing to protect any president — especially our first bi-racial one.

    The military should certainly know that a would-be assassin out in the crowd would need a very accurate long gun to accomplish his evil deed, and movie magic notwithstanding, one of those cannot be “snapped together” from small parts on-site. Again, they were told to Do Something, to Look Busy, and that they did.

    Since I find our capital un-appealing under the best of circumstances — foreigners often express surprise when I tell them it was carved from a swamp — I really can’t understand why anyone would enter such a packed space to hear a speech. (Have these folks never heard of television?)

  • fred says:

    Go to Turkey, you will feel real freedom there, you are responsible for yourself. No credit, identity theft, welfare or social security. Get a gun, buy a place and be free.

  • Andy says:

    Having grown up behind the Iron Curtain this all looks, sadly, very familiar

  • Jerome says:

    Glad for the detail, less so for the editorial. I’m no fan of Obama’s, but neither do I want our president shot. After 9/11/01 we started seeing our liberties erode to get on airplanes, and this is no different. It’s interesting to note that Democrats have no better answer to security threats than Republicans- You want to be secure? You need long lines and security personnel. More security = less freedom. No one is immune.

  • AtH says:

    “… people in military outfits lined the parade route, standing at attention …” Those in the photograph of Constitution Ave NW appear to be standing at “Parade rest” / “Stand easy”.

  • Jeremy says:

    Good description of the reality. But blaming this on Obama is unfair – I went to the 2004 Bush inauguration, and it was pretty much the same thing, with large sections of downtown closed off for no particularly good reason, and goons giving orders.

  • Karl says:

    Maybe when they stop shooting Senators point blank in shopping malls, I’ll agree to toning down security around diplomats. As for the Achtung comment, my parents lived through Nazi Germany (and Soviet Russia). You have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s sad when Hitler is dragged out as a comparison every time some kid doesn’t agree with their government.

  • Leave a reply

Site by M.V. Jantzen
mvs202 "at"