THE PLANK JANUARY 20, 2009
I cannot even imagine the logistical skill and dedication required to pull off an event of today's magnitude. And, given the million-plus emotional people I just watched on the Mall via my DVR, much of the inaugural planning was clearly successful. But there was a massive breakdown of planning--what little of it there appears to have been--for those folks who had Purple tickets to this morning's festivities.
The 240,000 people who had tickets to the inauguration were each assigned to a color-coded section (Yellow, Blue, Purple, etc.) and told to go through security at a specific gate around the Capitol. By 9:00 a.m., my wife and I had arrived at the staging area for the Purple Gate. Tens of thousands of people were snaking in a rough line that started at the entrance on 1st Street and Constitution, stretched down into a tunnel at 3rd and D Streets, NW, and peaked all the way out the other end and kept going. For hours, we stood in this line, which moved ahead in spurts just frequent enough to keep us from growing too impatient even though we were underground. Spirits were high, and the line was relatively orderly despite the lack of police officers or other officials to control the crowd. But let me repeat that last part: In a tunnel filled with thousands of people, we saw not a single cop, inauguration worker, or EMT over the course of several hours.
As 11:00 approached, and the ticket-holders around us were becoming increasingly anxious that they would not be admitted to the Mall, we were still underground. Graffiti thumbed into the dirt on the tile walls read "Free the Tunnel!" Finally, the line, which by this time had widened to fill the tunnel from wall to wall as order broke down, surged forward. We emerged into the light, only to find that there was no line to speak of any more--just a single undifferentiated mass of people trying to force themselves around a corner and down 1st Street toward the Purple Gate. With no one directing pedestrians--I still had yet to see a single official of any kind--people packed together so tightly that you could not change direction and leave if you wanted to.
Soon it became clear that the gate had been shut. No one was being admitted to the Purple section. Thousands of people within sight of the Capitol were essentially stuck, with those in front either trying to retreat or hoping the gate would re-open, while those behind continued to push forward. Soon someone standing on top of a car said that one block east, officials had opened an impromptu gate and were letting ticket-holders through in twos and threes. The crowd tried to push that way but because there was little space and no coordination, we were just jammed together tighter and tighter. So we shuffled, clearing perhaps a couple feet every two minutes or so. Then we heard a thin, barely amplified voice offering our first official direction: It was announced that only ticket-holders would be let in. The crowd roared. "We all have tickets, you moron!" one man shouted. Dozens of people held their tickets up in the air, while others chanted "Let. Us. In!" or simply "Pur-ple! Pur-ple!"
The crowd turned agitated. A man with an iPhone announced that Biden had just been sworn in--as it was, even though the Capitol was within sight, we could hear nothing. The gate seemed so close, but people packed every inch of the 50-yard radius around the gate. We moved a few more feet. The only sign that there was an inauguration just a few hundred yards away were the Obama-pin wearing people on every side trying to elbow you out of the way. Then, peering over the heads of those in front of me, I saw the ad hoc gate begin to close. The man with the iPhone asked everyone to quiet down. People held cell phones to their ears and through the tinny broadcast of half a dozen mobiles, I tried to listen as Barack Obama took the oath of office. A boom went off as the Army began its salute. A couple people cheered weakly, while others grumbled and a few cried, having come to Washington without even being able to watch the ceremony on a JumboTron.
So it was with not a little anger that I read Capitol Police chief Phillip Morse's contention that every ticket-holder had been admitted to the inauguration. Even though he later reversed his comments, acknowledging that "some" folks hadn't gotten in, he should note that thousands of people had not gotten in, and, worse, there was apparently no attempt at security or crowd control. It was an extremely dangerous situation--a mob catastrophe waiting to happen--that was both foreseeable and preventable. And for many of those who came to the Mall today hoping to witness history, it was a sad and ironic moment--that they were among the few Americans who couldn't watch today's inauguration.