Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On January 20th, 2009, thousands of Americans from all over the country poured into D.C. and waited for hours in the freezing weather to become a part of history. Despite the start of the second semester, Swarthmore students were no exception. Dozens packed into cars or got on trains to witness the momentous event of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and all called it an unforgettable experience.
Photo by Nell Bang-Jensen ’11.
Also see more photos from the inauguration.
For many, the trip was an impromptu decision. Adam Koshkin ’11 made plans spontaneously during a ski trip over Winter Break. Nell Bang-Jensen ’11, in typical Swattie fashion, laughingly explains that she originally did not plan to go “because I wasn’t sure about missing classes.” But when she found out that some high school friends were going to drive down from Vermont, she decided to join them. “To be so close to it and to have it be such a historic moment— well, there was no reason not to go, and a lot of reasons to go,” she said.
Dan Symonds made his decision along with a friend literally at “1 in the morning a day before the Inauguration— we were sitting around procrastinating, and then we were like ‘why aren’t we going?!’” So the two friends packed up a Honda Civic with four other people and drove down to D.C., arriving late on Monday night. “We were really nervous about the traffic and our parents said it was the dumbest thing to do,” said Symonds, but the roads ended up being clear. “Apparently baby boomers don’t drive at night.”
Despite the drive down to D.C. being hassle-free, once into D.C. proper, roads everywhere were clogged. “There was a papable sense of something important happening,” Symonds explained. “Bars were open, streets were jammed with cars, and people everywhere were selling Obama merchandise and celebrating.” Koshkin also observed the Obama-mania in D.C. “Every place that sold clothes had Obama shirts, people were selling pins, buttons, everything. The Benihana’s we went to even had the “Obama Special”: lobster, shrimp, and chicken.”
Crowds started gathering on the National Mall in the wee hours of the morning. Says Koshkin “my sister was out in D.C. on a school trip, and they got to the mall around 2:30 AM and basically slept out there in sleeping bags.” Bang-Jensen and her friends left their apartment near the Columbia Heights area at 4:00 AM. “We were worried that the metro would be really crowded, so we decided to walk. It ended up taking us about an hour to get there.”
The walk ended up being an experience onto itself. “At first there weren’t many people out, but as we got closer and closer to the Mall, more and more people were walking with us,” Bang-Jensen explained. “People were rolling down their car windows and cheering us on. There was a family out on their lawn, and the mother was running in and out of her house filling a tea-kettle with hot chocolate and giving some to passerbys. I remember some woman yelling out as we got closer ‘Obama, we’re coming!’ It was amazing.” Eventually, they got to the Mall and found a place with the thousands of others who were out there.
Koshkin describes the Mall during the Inauguration as “the single most crowded place I have ever been in my life.” Symonds agreed, adding that “it was a crowd where you couldn’t decide if it was 10,000 people or 2 million.” Though people had trickled into their places by 6 or 7 AM, there were still at least 5 or 6 hours to go before the ceremony began. Bang-Jensen explained that the jumbotron screens were playing the concert from the night before. “People were dancing and singing along, partially to keep warm. I remember people got really excited when they played ‘Shout!’,” she said. A woman from D.C. took a picture of Bang-Jensen and her friends “because we told her we were from Vermont, and that was one of the first states to go for Obama!”
Symonds took the opportunity to interview other attendees for a War News Radio piece on the Inauguration (you can listen to the piece on the War News Radio website). “I asked people why they were there, and what they thought about Obama’s policies as it related to the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “The thing with the Inauguration is that EVERYONE showed up— every single interest group imaginable.”
Symonds described a group of recently immigrated Indians who were demanding that Obama declare Pakistan a terrorist state. “They kept asking me again and again if I believed Pakistan was a terrorist state,” he said with a laugh, and finally gave up when Symonds answered in the negative. “But it just goes to show how many diverse interest groups were there.”
“Being part of the group there was one of the best parts of the experience,” said Bang-Jensen, “it felt surreal because it was something so big for so many people—to be a part of that was so amazing. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my life. “ Symonds agreed, adding that it wasn’t really the swearing-in of the President that was the most important moment. It was “the whole spectacle of being there with a crowd and seeing people cry out of joy, seeing kids form their first memory at a national event,” he said.
“Another great moment was when Bush came out and hundreds of thousands of people booed him. Bush never has had to face a crowd that doesn’t like him, so that was great to see.” He added that “If we had a 10th of the people at the Inauguration at an Iraq War protest, or writing to their congresspeople, or contesting the the 2000 election, we wouldn’t need to be so excited about welcoming Obama.”
Despite the elation of the crowd, there were also more somber moments. Symonds reported seeing a silent protest of about 20 people dressed up in orange jumpsuits shackled like Guantanamo Bay prisoners. “The idea was that yes, Obama is the president, yes we’re glad he is here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean automatic change,” said Symonds. Symonds underscored the importance of keeping the pressure on Obama to continue to do what is right, as much pressure as liberal groups put on Bush. “Yes it’s great that we’re closing Guantanamo Bay. But right now, on the Bagram Air Base just north of Kabul [Afghanistan], there are about 600 prisoners in far worse conditions than in Guantanamo Bay. Yet not a single journalist has been there. It’s so far away, we don’t know anything about it.”
Still, Symonds says that he is optimistic as an activist, and felt that the trip was a “really positive experience.” Koshkin agreed and Bang-Jensen agreed. She adds “It was wonderful. I think it’s something — this is so cliche— but it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”