Inauguration Day: This Is The Beginning, Where Does It End?
Words, Photographs & Video By Robert Aaron Mitchell
The days following the 2016 election, I was a swirling vortex of emotions. My emotions were a pendulum swinging from profound sadness to anger. I physically felt the schism and paradigm shift of the country. Through the great political divide, there was one feeling that united all of us: uncertainty. This country was drifting into unknown waters.
People began to gather in streets all over America. As much as I appreciate the cardboard signs and the hash tag #NotMyPresident that sentiment would go out the window as of noon on January 20th, 2017 when Donald Trump would place his hand on not one but two bibles and take the oath and become the 45th President of the United States of America.
My decision to head to Washington D.C. to attend the 58th inauguration of the United States of America was made at 3:30 in the morning while I was battling a cold. Once friends got word of this trip I started to field several texts and messages inquiring why I was going. Why indeed? First and foremost I felt compelled to stand on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol building to bear witness to this transfer of power. There was another pull more powerful. I wanted to stand in uncomfortable closeness with a large group of people that I one hundred percent disagreed with on this one major decision, the candidate they voted for. I also wanted a trip that would take me through the northern rustbelt aka the “blue curtain.” And finally, I wanted a trip that would kick my ass. The journey home to Bloomington, Indiana from D.C. on Greyhound would be over 35 hours. This inauguration trip would not disappoint all of these expectations.
Sunrise & Sirens
The morning began with the phone alarm belonging to one of the 6 people in the hostel room going off in seven-minute intervals. From my top bunk beside the window the sky was beginning to lighten. The constant sirens of law enforcement and motorcades moving through the city filled the room. There is a definite non-stop mojo in Washington D.C. By the 4th time the phone alarm went off, I decided I would get into a shower before everyone else in the hostel woke up. It was 5:30am. I then packed for the day, stashed my backpack in a locker, and headed out into the street in search for coffee. For a January day, the temperature was bearable. I wore a light jacket and T-shirt throughout the day and night.
Police drove by me on motorcycles, lights and sirens in full effect. By the coffee shop I saw the first of many military vehicles. Today was to be a peaceful transfer of power but make no mistake it would also be a show of force. The crowds of people and merchandise sellers began to appear as I approached Washington Union Station. I saw punks with “Fuck Trump” signs, a guy dressed as Captain America. I began to see many, many “Make America Great Again” red hats. More and more signs. “I Voted For Trump I Swear No Russian Told Me To” “Open The Valve, Drain That Swamp!” “Fight Racism Not Russia And China” “Hands Off My Pussy Donald.” I saw a giant pickup truck, which was covered in decals claiming it was the official Trump truck. As I passed by it, I remarked to a random guy walking nearing me, “This guy has his name branded on even more shit.”
As I neared the gate I was supposed to enter, I was told to proceed to another entrance. It turns out protesters were being successful—at least at this one checkpoint—in stopping people from entering the Capitol grounds. I finally arrived at the spot my ticket gave me access to. People kept filling in. It became unbearably crowded. There was three hours before the inauguration was set to begin.
Dignitaries began to be announced signaling we were getting closer to the start. George W. Bush received a grand ovation. Bill and Hillary Clinton did not. People around me began chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” When the Trump children arrived, the crowd started chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” As we continued to wait, someone shouted out “Are we going to get tired of winning?” The response back, “Nooooo!” Every once in a while something would happen in the sea of people that would set off a round of boos clashing with the music of John Philip Sousa that filled the air. I assumed it was a protestor but I was never sure. The beginning of “Hail To The Chief” began. “Ladies and Gentlemen, The President of the United States, the Honorable Barack H. Obama.” A large round of cheers and clapping and an equal amount of boos. Then the chant of “Na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” started. In the moments leading up to Donald Trump’s entrance, the crowd began shouting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” “U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!” Each letter shouted out, its own celebratory and vengeful roar. Let there be no doubt, we won! This is our country again.
The vibe was strange and made me feel sad. “Ladies and Gentlemen the President-elect Donald John Trump.” A wave of cheers and chants.
The most profound moment of Inauguration Day for me was Chuck Schumer’s speech:
“Today we celebrate our democracy and a peaceful transfer of power. And we stand up for democratic principles enshrined in the constitution. The rule of law, equal protections for all under law, freedom of speech, press, religion, the things that make America, America.”
Then Senator Schumer read from a civil war letter of Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. The Major would die a week later in the first battle of Bull Run. What made the Senator’s speech remarkable were not the words he spoke; it was a good speech. No, what made these five minutes remarkable to me was the reaction of the crowd. The crowd had been showing their disdain anytime someone from the Democratic party was introduced, but now it was a full-on frenzy of antipathy. Here was a speech speaking of our differences and the extraordinariness of Americans during extremely difficult and divisive circumstances. The Inauguration crowd chanted over this call for unity with more chants of Trump and U-S-A. It was an ugly scene. One I will not forget. As the words of a civil war hero were read the crowd continued to jeer and then chants of “Drain The Swamp, Drain The Swamp!” “Get off the stage!” “We want Trump, We want Trump!” The crowd cheered when he was done—not for the speech but for his leaving the stage to the opening strains of “America, the Beautiful”. As the song finished, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was announced to administer the Presidential oath of office.
As the oath was being said there was a small but loud contingent of detractors blowing whistles and yelling. It was not lost upon me that the Trump Hotel here in D.C. was 1.3 miles from where we were standing.
After Mr. Trump repeated the final words of the oath, “So help me God”, the first of the twenty-one cannon salute began. It was loud. I jumped. Then the rain started. It was a remarkable moment of pathetic fallacy. The person who should have never been President was now the leader of the free world. The cannons continued and the rain kicked up in intensity.
The 45th President of the United States then took to the podium and with great conviction began the most dire inauguration speech in this country’s history. When I heard the words “American Carnage,” it sent a chill down my spine. As he uttered the words, “America First,” I was extremely unsettled. The words and the tone of this speech were ominous, bleak, and sinister. What made it more intense and chilling for me was that it was met with thunderous applause and cheers. Then there were prayers.
As the first notes of the Star Spangled Banner stirred, I joined the crowd of people trying to leave the Capitol grounds. By this time my legs were very stiff. The sea of red hats began to intersperse with the protestors. I continued to walk and walk. I took photograph after photograph of the people all around me. Another profound moment for me was when the noise of a helicopter was roaring above me and I looked up and it was Marine One carrying the Obamas out of Washington D.C. Some in the larger crowd around me, once again, took up the refrain, “Na na na, hey hey, hey, goodbye!”
As the day waned and I continued to talk and walk on near empty streets among supporters and detractors of our new President, it struck me that we are all a part of this great human drama. Mostly everyone was peaceful. I witnessed only one act of a Trump supporter trying to shout over a woman holding a sign, “Queers Against Fascism” who was talking to a camera crew.
The Journey Home
Just before midnight at Union Station, I boarded my first Greyhound coach bus home. By now, I was riding a wave of sheer exhaustion. I was very much looking forward to sleeping as we began to depart D.C. That was not going to happen. One of the last people to board was a woman who was talking loudly. She kept bouncing from seat to seat to seat and finally sat beside some guy. All the while she was talking and talking and talking. I put headphones on and cranked my music. I tried to drift off.
We arrived in Baltimore. Some people got off and some people got on. A woman sat beside me. We spoke briefly. She was bound for Detroit. The bus rumbled to life once again. The lights dimmed and we resumed our middle of the night trek through America.
We were somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania when a prolonged shouting match began on the bus. The woman beside me yelled at the nonstop talking woman, “Shut the fuck up! People are trying to sleep!” I woke up and turned off my music. The nonstop talking woman responded, “Bitch, I just got of prison! I will fuck you up!” The woman beside me then said, “You can go back to prison." Try as I might I could not suppress my urge to laugh at this last comment. It was now on. The shouting and name-calling escalated. Finally the bus driver turned the bus to the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and intervenes. He then seated the nonstop talking woman at the front of the bus. We then proceeded to a rest stop and the woman has now been kicked off the bus. Our fifteen minutes has turned into an hour. The police arrived and questioned the two women. America can be a rough room.
The bus finally rumbled to a start. My bleary eyes then continued to look out the giant window beside me into the darkness. My mind was processing and reflecting on what I had witnessed in these two days in D.C. My heart was indeed heavy. What I saw were a lot of good people taken in by an orange carnival barker of hate. A man who had promised to take on a system of which he had personally benefitted from enormously.
There are many people who do not care who the President is in any given year. A lot of folks are jaded and skeptical. They see no remarkable change in between elections. But apathy does not stave off effect. Invisible lives in tough circumstances will struggle to survive, as conditions only get tougher. I sense that this country is sliding into something insidious. The great fleecing of America has begun. We all lost and the greed-heads have taken over one hundred percent. I do not have much hope right now. The only solace I have is that there are millions of us fighting for justice. We must continue to fight the good fight. The people and ideals of this country are far too important to give up on.