Friday, January 23, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Purple Tunnel of Doom

It was fitting that we ended the last hours of the Bush administration in a cold, dark tunnel, being fed misinformation. Kate Gage had delivered us three elusive Purple tickets the midnight before the inauguration. Purple section tickets, and their blue counterparts, got you into a viewing area in front of the Reflecting Pool, well in front of the Mall. Weary of possible long lines, despite D.C relative tranquility in the days leading to the Inauguration, we had arrived at the Purple Gate at 7am, two hours before it was set to open. We were greeted by the longest line I have ever seen in my life.

The line flowed about two city blocks before a parked bus wreaked havoc, splintering the official line into a series of hydra-like offshoots. We followed one of these off-shoots for two more blocks before a group of policemen shuttled us, and our purple-ticket bearing brothers and sisters, into the 3rd Street Tunnel. We marched into the abyss, finding the end of the line 20 minutes later. It was now 7:30am. We shivered for the next few hours, finally emerging into the sunlight at 11am, only to realize that there were no longer any policemen in the area, and that people had been cutting the entire tunnel line for hours.

The Purple Tunnel of Doom has become something of a legend, spawning a Washington Post article and a Facebook Group (I Survived the Purple Tunnel of Doom). Nothing awful happened down there, and there was even occasional happy chanting. But Dianne Feinstein’s Inauguration Committee really, really dropped the ball on this one. For hours, there were 20,000 people in a freezing tunnel, where cell phones don’t work, without any police supervision or staffers providing instruction. There was definitely a risk of a stampede or medical emergency, two of the many morbid scenarios we discussed to pass the 3.5 hours we spent down there. The steady flow of people joining the line (masochistically having to push through the packed tunnel crowd only to get in the very back of it) and our slow but sure advancement had convinced me that we were in at least a real line, but alas.

When we got out of the tunnel, and realized our 3.5 hours of waiting had been in vain, we charged towards the Purple Gate, still three blocks away. Thousands of other people had the same idea, and by 11:15am a giant mob had amassed on First and C, where it turned out that the Purple Gate wasn’t even open. Ticket-holders were told to go to another location, which was impossible, because no one could move at all. At this point, we made an executive decision. We are mobile, resourceful, and not afraid to push, so we probably could have made a last desperate effort for the remaining open gate. Even if we succeeded, however, we would probably have terrible spots, lacking proper audio, visual, or both. Bewilderingly, there were no speakers or screens outside Capital Hill, so if we were going to find another location, we’d have to book it.

The first three bars were full or reserved, and by 11:30am we had resigned ourselves to trekking back to Carrie Chess’s apartment, where we could at least watch the Inauguration on television. On the way, however, we spotted an old church with a banner reading, “Inauguration Welcome Center.” Old ladies were selling Obama buttons outside of it. We thought, ‘what the hell’, and asked if they had a TV. It turned out that they were having a viewing party, and had erected a big-screen at the front of the basement. The room was decorated with Obama paraphernalia, festooned in red, white and blue, and about 100, mostly elderly, African-American church members sat watching the ceremonies. There was also free tea, and a handful of soldiers who had come off of their street duties to watch the ceremony. Nearly delirious with cold, fatigue and emotion, this felt like the warmest place on earth. We were settled with our tea just in time to catch the beginning of the ceremonies, including MC Feinstein.

To Feinstein’s credit, she has offered an apology for the debacle, and in doing so, at least acknowledged that it happened. The same cannot be said of the Capital Police, who declared that everything ran smoothly except for the “4,000-5,000 discombobulated people.” That line is deeply insulting to the thousands of people who had flown in from all over the country to see the Inauguration, only to be stuck in a tunnel for the historic moment, at an event where there was no correlation between when you joined the line and whether you’d get in. Additionally, purple ticket-holders included many of Obama’s staffers, who sacrificed a year of their lives to savor this very moment. Just because the Capital Police were either too disorganized or too lazy to run the lines properly does not give them the right to mock all the people who went through that awful experience. Lord knows how angry I would have been had we not found that church. And to people who ask how the Inauguration Committee could have done a better job given the number of people, how’s this?

  1. Have a police or volunteer/staffer presence at least at every block to direct the line.
  2. Make periodic announcements, through those people or others, on what is happening.
  3. Post signs!
  4. Open the gates at 6am, when there was already a huge line, instead of waiting until 9am.
  5. Open all the gates! Why have a gate if you aren’t going to use it? It’s a one-day event….
  6. Observe the madhouse at the Sunday free concert, and note that maybe extra preparations should be taken for Tuesday.
  7. Don’t give out so many tickets! I realize that I may not have gotten a ticket myself had this idea been implemented, but someone really fucked up here. I totally understand the logic of overbooking an event, especially one where the televised visual will be so pronounced. The Committee could probably have overbooked tickets by 10-15% and had certainty that the Purple section, and others, would fill up. Instead, they overbooked by way, way more than that, perhaps 100%. Especially when combined with the other cited failures, that was a recipe for a fiasco.

The people who ran the Inauguration are not fit to run a high school dance, much less a foreign war. I was relieved to find out that Feinstein and the Congressional Inauguration took responsibility, but Obama’s team is in charge now, and this is their bad too. I hope they have learned from this mistake.

Since we all saw the Inauguration itself, I have little to add about its substance. Rev. Warren stuck out like a lame sore thumb, Aretha was wonderful, Yo-Yo Ma and his crew were fantastic, Justice Stevens looked like the most relieved man on earth, and Rev. Lowry just kicked ass. Justice Roberts may have looked like a fool screwing up the oath, but the only person who deserves vitriol is Justice Alito, who arrogantly skipped the traditional meeting between the President and the Supreme Court earlier in the week, the only Justice in recent memory to pull such a stunt. To this day, Alito childishly refuses to walk on the sidewalk in front of the Senate Office Building because of his disdain for the Senators who votes against his confirmation.

When PRESIDENT Obama stepped up to the podium to face the largest crowd in Inauguration history, he seemed like a man calm and poised, ready to lead us through rough waters. It seems the nation agrees with me- his current approval rating stands at 77%, a level surpassed only by President Truman as World War II drew to a close, Obama’s speech echoed his campaign themes: restoring America’s position in the world, respecting the Constitution, and working to help Americans suffering here at home. The church crowd rallied behind him with affirmative exclamation of “yes”, “that’s the truth” and “tell it!” The most touching moment came when Obama spoke of a segregation policy that only fifty years ago would not allow his father the chance to be seated in a restaurant. An old man with gray hair raised his hand, and slowly rose to his feet. He doffed his cap at the television, and sat back down.

When I first began working on the Obama primary campaign in South Carolina, a group of volunteers were scattered across the Charleston area to reach out to churches. Shilpa and I were assigned to a small United Church of Christ congregation, where the pastor eschewed our pre-written statement and spoke of what an Obama presidency would mean to her, the congregation, and the country. The Charleston church also had a small, elderly, African-American congregation, and as I sat in that D.C basement I thought of them, and all of the incredible people I have met since this journey began more than a year ago. For at least a day, the whole world believed that democracy had delivered as a man ready to lead us together. There were no protesters, and the pundits shut up for a few precious hours. Less than an hour after the speech, the Mall seemed almost empty. D.C was still, and the Obama administration went to work.

1 comment:

Mike Licht, said...

The Nation's Capital will celebrate the effective, efficient security measures during the recent Inauguration festivities at the National Bollard Festival.