Purple Heart

by Jason Zengerle | February 18, 2009

In the heady days leading up to Barack Obama's inauguration, Washington was abuzz with speculation about the next great cause his legion of idealistic, tech-savvy supporters would tackle. Would they harness their collective Facebook energies to combat global warming? Or would they turn their Twittering talents toward fighting for universal health care? In the dawn of this new political era, anything seemed possible. And it was only a few hours after his swearing-in that the first great grassroots campaign of the Obama presidency commenced--only it turned out to be something slightly less exalted than originally predicted: getting justice for the Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom.

The effort is the brainchild--albeit the unplanned one--of two thirtysomething Democratic political consultants, Marisa McNee and Dave Meyer. At eight o'clock in the morning on Inauguration Day, McNee and Meyer set off from their D.C. homes to the Capitol to watch Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Through a friend on the Hill, McNee had scored two of the 240,000 color-coded tickets issued by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies: Yellow and orange tickets entitled their holders to seats close to the podium; blue, purple, and silver tickets provided entrée to standing-room sections in front of the Capitol. McNee and Meyer had purple tickets. But, as they tried to make their way to the entrance for their appointed section, they were shuffled, along with thousands of other purple-ticket holders, into the Third Street Tunnel that runs underneath the National Mall.

That's where things started to go horribly wrong. For more than two hours, they stood in the dank, white-tiled tunnel with perhaps as many as 10,000 other people, waiting to gain entry to the Capitol grounds. To pass the time, they talked to the people in line in front of them--a couple from Michigan, one of whom was active with the United Auto Workers--while others in the tunnel chanted and broke into impromptu renditions of "Lean On Me." But the jovial mood could only mask the reality of their surroundings for so long. With no police or security presence of any sort in the tunnel--and with thousands of people eager to see history--it was a dangerous situation. The situation only became more dangerous as the hour of Obama's swearing-in drew closer, and the crowd became increasingly frantic to get through the gates to see it. Shortly after noon, many of those in the crowd, realizing they had missed the historic moment they had longed to see, burst into tears.

Fortunately for McNee and Meyer, they had given up and left the tunnel at 10:45--and headed to an Adams Morgan restaurant, where they watched the proceedings on television over brunch. Inspiration struck later that afternoon, when they read a post by the Middle East blogger Marc Lynch titled "The Purple Tunnel of Doom," recounting Lynch's own failed efforts to gain admission to the purple section. Meyer suggested that, as a joke, he and McNee start a Facebook group called "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom." They sent out invitations to only a handful of their friends--fellow activists and political consultants who, they knew, had held purple tickets. When McNee and Meyer checked the Facebook group that evening, however, its membership had ballooned to more than 1,000 people. "Most of the people on there were people we didn't even know," says Meyer. "That's when we realized this was pretty big."

And that's when Meyer and McNee--or, as she is now known by one of her fellow survivors, the "Purple Angel of Hope"--decided to turn their joke into a cause. First, they began reaching out to the press--everyone from the The Huffington Post to The New York Times. Like the political pros that they are, they made certain that they weren't the story. After all, the tale of two single, white political consultants who rode the Metro to Obama's inauguration only to be turned away isn't that compelling. Instead, the pair steered reporters toward, as McNee calls them, the "normal people ... people who traveled all the way from California and spent thousands of dollars and didn't get in, ... [and] the older African American people who'd waited a very long time to see this day and didn't get in."

With the press sufficiently outraged on these purple people's behalf, McNee and Meyer then turned up the heat on Terrance Gainer, who, as the Senate sergeant at arms, was in charge of security at Obama's swearing-in and who'd earned the enmity of the purple masses when he initially estimated that only 3,000 to 4,000 ticketholders had been kept out--and that bulky winter clothing was to blame for their exclusion. When McNee and Meyer's calls to Gainer's office went unreturned, they complained about it to The Washington Post. The next day, Gainer met in his Capitol office with McNee and Meyer for more than an hour; two days after that he met with them again; and the day after that--exactly one week after Inauguration Day--Gainer appeared on the "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" page (he had joined Facebook the night before) to issue a public apology and to take questions from its members, which by then numbered close to 6,000.

McNee and Meyer are most interested in getting to the bottom of what went wrong on Inauguration Day. "It was a very dangerous situation, and we don't want it repeated again," says Meyer. To that end, he and McNee successfully lobbied for a federal investigation, which should be completed within 30 days. Meanwhile, Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz recently contacted McNee and Meyer to inform them that she plans to hold hearings on the matter next month. But other purple-tunnel survivors want more than that. Their Facebook page has turned into a support group and a place to list demands. "I was at Trader Joe's yesterday, and there was a long waiting line that circled all the way across the store. ... All of a sudden I am having an anxiety attack waiting in that line because it felt like I was back in the tunnel waiting in a line that will never move," reported one purple-ticket holder from New York, prompting similar tales of post-traumatic stress from others. Ideas are bandied about over appropriate forms of compensation. Some have suggested reimbursement for travel expenses. One D.C. purple person proposed to Gainer: "I recommend that you work with the President to set up another event at a DC location, like the Verizon Center or the new Nationals Baseball Stadium, where the President Barack Obama stops by and talks to those who had Purple tickets. He would only need to stop by for an hour or two. He could give a speech, shake hands, take photos, etc."

Some of the griping has even morphed into a certain sense of pride. As a purple-ticket holder who works at the Department of Health and Human Services wrote on the Facebook page, "maybe someday when my grandkids ask where I was 'that day', I'll be able to laugh and say something like, 'Well, technically I was "there", but I didn't see anything that day ... you see I'm part of the infamous Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom' ... and they will marvel with awe, because [they] will have heard rumors of the legend."

Indeed, the legend of the Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom has grown so large that it's begun to breed some resentment among non-purple-ticket holders who weren't admitted to the inaugural ceremonies--and whose plight has failed to coalesce into a mass movement. The "Tangled Up in Blue: Nightmare Shut out at the Inaugural's Blue Gate" group on Facebook, for instance, has fewer than 400 members. "Many think it's just the tunnel. They have no idea," complained one self-described "Silver Checkpoint Survivor" on Facebook. Meyer and McNee are aware of the importance of coalition-building. "Every now and then, someone pops up on our Facebook page and says, 'Don't forget silver! Don't forget blue!'" says McNee. "That's good. We've tried to be very welcoming of all the other people."

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/purple-heart