On the day of the Inauguration, I was among the crowds standing near the Washington Monument. As soon as the inaugural address ended, I hightailed it back to my friends' apartment and out of the cold. We flipped on the television to watch footage of the congressional lunch and parade. As CNN showed aerial footage of the massive crowd assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., one broadcaster suggested that a gathering of this size is usually seen only in Saudi Arabia.
It was not the first time CNN compared the inaugural trek to the nation’s capitol to the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. In a CNN online report filed on January 17, Zain Verjee compared the size and preparation of the political pilgrimage to the Muslim religious event, which is a pillar of Islam and done to demonstrate one’s submission to Allah.
For many inaugural pilgrims who had come from across the country and the globe, the day ended in the parking lot for charter buses outside of RFK stadium in Southeast D.C. One bus, surrounded by military officers, police cars, and black SUVs with flashing lights, had sacrificed its bumper to a light pole. Weary inauguration-goers shopped for last-minute souvenirs at a stand with a “$3 and under blowout,” selling myriad t-shirts, pins, calendars, and books, all featuring Obama’s now iconic image.
A small band of 47 political pilgrims boarded a charter bus bound for New York City on Tuesday night. During the five-hour journey—which included a bomb scare that re-routed them from the New Jersey turnpike—the passengers napped, watched a “Barack Obama” biography played over the bus media system, and talked softly on cell phones to friends and relatives about the events of the day. The tour operators passed out bottles of water, canned iced tea, Doritos, Cheetos, Lay’s potato chips, and Cracker Jacks.
The inaugural crowd, estimated to number 1.5 million, was smaller than the three-million-person crowd drawn to Mecca last year, but the sentiments of the participants echoed the hajj experience. Many were frustrated by the crowds, the cold, and the handling of lines and security, but elated at being part of the historical event.
“The hardship was part of being there. It was something you just had to endure. It was not meant to be a luxurious journey,” said John McDonagh, 52, an Irish native who has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. for the last 13 years. “It was like seeing the pope in Dublin in 1979.”
Ron Ng, 46, complained about the two hours it took to take the shuttle from the parking lot to the Mall, inept directions from National Guardsman, and the long lines at the Metro stations that forced him to walk the three miles back to the bus. “These unfortunate incidents marred a perfect day, a day I’ve been looking forward to for eight years,” said Ng. “It was a day of waiting in lines, waiting on answers. But when it mattered, I got the answer I wanted.”
People started getting agitated in the hours leading up to the noon inaugural address, said tour organizer Neal Kellman of SolidPlanIt, who was part of the shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-chest crowd in the middle of the National Mall. “There was some anger in the crowd. People started getting pushy. There were some fingers pointed in the face,” said Kellman.
But when Obama appeared on the jumbotrons, the crowd calmed. “You could hear a whisper. A pin drop,” said Kellman. “It was that quiet.”
Some pilgrims were celebrating Bacchus as well as Obama. “When I got back to the bus, this one guy was passed out, sleeping in the luggage area under the bus, even though the bus was unlocked,” said Kellman.
The under-bus napper, who wished to remain anonymous, is a public school teacher from Hartford, Conn.; he drank gin from a Poland Springs water bottle throughout the day. “It was a very emotional day. I was crying all over myself during Obama’s speech,” he said.
He and his friend, Mark H., 32, an environmental scientist, also from Hartford, were not bothered by the inconveniences of the day. “It’s the first time in my life that I’ve backed a winner. I’ve been passionate about many politicians, but I didn’t think someone I was passionate about would ever actually win,” said Mark H., who has supported Ralph Nader and Howard Dean in the past.
Of the pilgrimage experience, Mark H. said, “You have to be tough. Suffer a little bit. It’s like a rock festival. But I’ve never been to a concert where everything lived up to my expectations. But this did.”