I woke up to my phone vibrating on an unfamiliar bedside table near my head. Reaching over in a daze to check it, I quickly realized I was not at home, in my comfy, very familiar bed, in my little house by a redwood forest in Northern California. Instead, I was in a rented vacation condominium in Arlington, Virginia, sharing an enormous king-size bed with my 33-year-old niece, Shauna.
At first, I thought I must have set the alarm, which I never do. I can’t stand waking up to an alarm. I felt unusually exhausted. Although the clock in my phone said it was close to 7 am, it was four in the morning on the west coast. Flying across time zones has always thrown me off.
As it turns out, I hadn’t set the alarm. It was a text from Joel. The night before, I had arranged to meet Joel and Christy at the protest at 7th and Pennsylvania in DC around 7:30 in the morning. I have known Joel since he was a baby. Now he was now thirty, and married to Christy. I had promised I would be there. I struggled to get up.
Shauna offered to give me a ride to the station. As I scrambled to get dressed and grab my things, I thankfully accepted her offer since I really had no idea where I was in this city across the river from DC. In what seemed like only a few minutes, she had dropped me off about a mile away at Court House Station in downtown Arlington. She was wisely staying home all day and boycotting the inauguration, as was widely suggested on social media. She was also awaiting the arrival of two friends who were joining us for the Women’s March the next day. I was hopeful that she would be able to catch up on sleep.
We had both arrived the night before, flying into Baltimore, Maryland. I flew from San Francisco. She flew from LA. Shauna had figured out that we would find cheaper flights landing in Baltimore, which is only 40 miles from DC, rather than trying to fly directly into Washington. She thought it would be good to rent a car. With the large number of people arriving for this historic weekend, having a car meant that we weren’t completely dependent on public transportation. She ended up shopping for groceries for the three days we were there before picking me up from my later arrival. We would cook instead of eating out. Shauna is a much more experienced traveller and knows how to arrange these things, and I am a pretty good cook.
Before entering the metro station, I texted Joel to let him know I was just leaving Arlington. After riding down a long moving staircase to the mid-level, I looked down at the platform below before the final descent to the lowest level. Only one other person was waiting for the Orange line train. The dark station was eerily quiet as I descended in the bowels the subway system.
When the train arrived, I stepped into a car with about 10 people scattered among the seats. Four seats were filled with white men (three of them in their twenties, one was maybe in his 50’s). They all wore bright red baseball caps that read, “Make America Great Again.” I had never seen anyone wearing that hat in person. I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen a Trump supporter in person. All four sat closely together, even though there were plenty of empty seats in the car. The looks on their faces appeared to be a combination of excitement and fear. I sensed that they had never been to Washington DC before. I also got the feeling they had never ridden on a subway train.
The realization that I would be seeing more people with these hats and faces made me feel desperate inside. The reality of what was going to happen on this day was like attending the funeral of someone who died tragically. As I stood there holding on, (somehow, I couldn’t sit down), I flashed back to election night. As I settled in to watch the results on a friend’s TV, the tallied votes began to shift, and the predicted election of Hilary Clinton succumbed to the startling mix of news reports implying that Trump was winning, I raced home in my car, jumped into my bed, buried myself under the covers, and continually yelled, “No!” into my pillow until I couldn’t anymore. All night long, I checked the news reports on my phone to see if this had all been a mistake. I didn’t sleep that night. I stayed hidden under the covers, terrified. I will never forget that night, as much as I would like to. It was as if someone had just been murdered. I felt shock, horror, disbelief, and utter grief.
Getting off the train at L’Enfant Plaza on 7th Street, I rode up the escalator, arriving only two blocks from the National Mall. The sky matched the sullen gray of many of the surrounding buildings. Peeking between those buildings was the dome of the Capitol, just a few more blocks away. The sidewalks were full of people, many in clear, plastic rain ponchos, protecting themselves from the occasional light rain. The temperature was in the low 40’s. But the chill in my blood came from something other than the weather.
When I read the signs of a few bold demonstrators in the middle of the street, I realized I was in the wrong place. Scary-looking men wearing hooded sweatshirts with sayings about “Jesus” emblazoned across their chests and backs, or in camouflage coats wearing heavy boots, held large protest signs. These professionally made signs hovered above their heads on fancy metal poles. The signs had confusing messages, but I got their slant, and knew immediately that this wasn’t where Joel and Christy had told me to meet them. The protest I was trying to find was on 7th Street on the north side of the mall. I had gotten off on the south side. The mall was fenced off for security.
I felt like a fish out of water. Not only was I transplanted from Humboldt to Washington D.C., I was surrounded by Trump supporters. Bundled up in my cheap version of a London Fog raincoat, I pulled out my press pass and tied it to my waist with the belt of my coat. I didn’t want to look like I was part of this crowd, and I hoped being a “journalist” would give me a neutral identity. My reasons for being in D.C. were of a much different ideology than those celebrating the inauguration of Trump. Suddenly, I felt like I was in a movie, playing the part of a reporter. No one had to know that I only wrote two short articles a month for the local paper about non-political volunteer opportunities in my community.
After asking one of the many security police how to get across the mall, I was told I had to walk a few blocks away from the inauguration site to get across. As I walked westward, the crowds got thinner very rapidly. Within minutes I was walking alone along Independence Avenue. Occasionally a cluster of people with red hats bearing that obnoxious slogan would pass by me. But the sidewalks were mostly empty. A few vendors tried to sell me Trump-emblazoned items. It kind of shocked me that they were African-American men. Didn’t they know? This guy was not going to do anything for them. How could they be a part this event! It was very disturbing to see them there.
I ended up having to walk all the way past the Washington Monument to finally get to the end of the chain-link fencing that surrounded the Capital Mall. The silence was eerie as I reached the end of the fencing. Surrounded by a barren landscape, I stopped to look at the Washington Monument. This tall, strange obelisk stands erect at the center of the mall. Leafless trees, winter-dead grass, and unusual emptiness surrounded the giant phallic symbol in the middle of male-dominated Washington D.C. This was supposed to be the day we got our first woman president. Instead, we got a misogynist.
At that moment, I heard a chorus of sopranos singing in the distance. It sounded very familiar. Trying to recall the melody, I knew it was a tune that I liked, and wondered if there was a choir somewhere just out of my sight, warming up to sing for the inauguration ceremony. Suddenly, I realized, with harsh irony, that the song was a recording by the Rolling Stones. Trump had used it without their permission for his campaign. The 1968 long version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a dichotomous choice for a born-wealthy man who always gets what he wants, and on that day, would become the most powerful man in the world. It was a sickening moment in a day that was just getting started, full of things that were all wrong.
As I walked across the mall to the north side, I glanced westward toward the Lincoln Memorial, just past the Reflecting Pool. I remembered the incredible feeling I had when I stood on those steps a year and a half earlier on my first visit to D.C., on the spot where Martin Luther King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. I needed that moment. I needed to be reminded that America can be about good things, and that we can’t sink into despair and lose hope.
Reaching the north side of the mall on 17th Street, I arrived at the secure area that surrounds the White House. I had to walk several blocks north, then east, to get around to F Street just above Pennsylvania Avenue. I finally reached a corner bakery where I had actually stopped in on my last trip to DC. It was at 14th and F, which was also an entry point through security for the inauguration. I was very tired and realized I had better pause and get something to eat since I hadn’t eaten anything that morning. By this time, it was after 9 o’clock. It was still just after six in the morning on the west coast.
I texted Joel to report my location. He had already texted me saying that the entrance on 7th had been shut down, and to try and get in at 14th. They had gotten into the permitted area very early. At least I knew what my next move would be, and I that was in the right place (or so I thought.)
Much to my amazement, I walked into the bakery and right up to the counter. I thought for sure that I would have to wait in a long line. The young woman that worked there was equally surprised at how slow business was.
“We’re busier than this on normal days,” she said. “We expected it to be crazy-busy.”
Employees were lined up at the window, watching the street below them because they had nothing else to do. I ordered some food and sat down by the window to watch as well. There were plenty of people down on the street. Most of them were demonstrators. There were photographers and security people, but no one was actually going through the entrance to get to the bleachers on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Several people started walking down the long aisle that was defined by guardrails and created a walkway to the security entrance. They then turned around and sat down on the ground, locking arms. D.C. police in a dressed-down version of riot gear stood around them as many in the crowd chanted. I quickly finished my food and got down to the street for a closer look.
Once I was down there, it was clear that almost everyone present was either a protester or a supporter of the protesters. The police stood close while well-trained, non-violent action took place. No one got arrested while I was there.
A couple of blocks over, I got through to Pennsylvania Avenue. A man who looked like a plain-clothed security person let a small group of us through the fencing. I think he thought he was letting Trump supporters in. My press pass was my disguise.
When I got to the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wide street was lined with security police about every five feet, standing behind the guardrails, looking bored. The bleachers set up along the sidewalk were empty. There was a single line of spectators standing along the railing. I remembered hearing stories of how crowded it was at Obama’s inauguration. “A mass of humanity…everyone was smiling” was a comment from a friend who had been there eight years earlier. The mood on this day was so different. There were so few spectators.
Then all of a sudden, someone said, “Here he comes.” I stood by the railing and videotaped the presidential motorcade driving toward the Capitol. Military men stood in the street and saluted as heavy, black vehicles drove by. Hardly anyone made any noise. It was just the thunder of cars and motorcycles. My heart sank as I watched the president’s limousine drive by and pictured Obama inside having to sit next to Trump and hand over the presidency to him.
As I walked past more empty bleachers, I got to a fence that blocked me from getting closer to 7th where the demonstration was. I headed back toward E Street, which took me out of the secure area.
Arriving at 10th and E and another security checkpoint, I came upon a new group of protesters. A much bigger crowd filled the streets. The noise level was high. The protesters were focused and stood arm-in-arm to block the entrance. More protesters sat on the ground. The problem was that no one was trying to enter. There was no one to block. I was encouraged to see so many young people out in the streets, making a statement. Not one face looked hesitant. These, like the others, were committed resisters.
The next entry point was, finally, 7th Street. Masses of people filled the sidewalks and streets outside of the entrance, reaching back several blocks. The sound of the crowd bounced off the surrounding buildings. There were handmade signs, large puppets, drummers beating on 5-gallon plastic buckets, and people with blow horns chanting, A long, wide line of protesters defined by strategically placed guardrails lead toward the entrance to the permitted protest. There must have been over a thousand people waiting. These people were not happy and had been waiting for several hours to get in.
Holding up my press pass, I walked up to the front to find out why the line wasn’t moving. I could sense the frustration from the aggravated crowd. They were chanting, “Let us in.” I saw a man in a heavy, black trench coat shifting around some of the blockade fencing. A small group of us headed toward him, hoping he might let us in. He was asked by several people how to get into the protest. Strangely, his face and build had a striking resemblance to Vladimir Putin. When he refused everyone’s requests, I asked him, “What’s the story here?” This Putin look-alike, frowned, and quickly responded, “There is no story here.”
It was obvious that nothing could be further from the truth. It was very clear that “security” did not want protesters to get into the permitted area, making it appear to be a small turnout. Increasing tension in the streets made the situation ripe for someone to lose patience and do something to cause people to get arrested, which would make the whole protest look like negative news about those opposing Trump. It felt like the beginning of the end of the First Amendment, of free speech and the right to assemble peacefully.
“Vladimir” started to walk away, but turned and watched me as I walked up to the fence and looked through at the protest site. It did not look crowded inside at all. I photographed the scene, then looked back at him. He turned and continued to walk away.
Returning to the front of the line, I showed my press pass to the security guard. Within minutes, I was in. It was just as the clock struck noon. I hurried to the center of the scene. Suddenly, everything was in slow motion. As the speaker at the protest tried to continue, Trump’s voice overtook his. Giant speakers blasting from the inauguration had been set up right in the middle of the protest site, bigger and louder than the sound system for the demonstration.
As I tried to figure out where to go, and what to photograph, and find Joel and Christy, I thought, “How can this be happening?” It started to rain just as tears began to run down my face. Trump’s voice felt like knives. As I looked all around me, the faces of all the young people grew older. The older faces grew older still. Many were crying. Several protesters started to sit down on the ground in the rain. We couldn’t stop it. Defeat surrounded us like a noxious gas. Obama was out. Trump was in. Grief and despair ran through my blood and challenged my desire and need for hope. It became hard to see through the rain and the tears. I walked over to a cement bench and sat down after hours of racing to get there.
Then, through my blurred vision, I saw Joel and Christy off to the side of the crowd. I ran up to them and we shared some long hugs. None of us could really speak. We just looked at each other, drowned out by the loud, Orwellian voice that surrounded us. We cursed his words. I tried to tell them about all the people waiting to get in, but it all felt futile. Looking at both of them, I thought about what I was like at their age. I didn’t want to bring them down any more than they already were. I realized it would not be good for them to be around me in my state. This was not supposed to be their future. This is not what we had in store for them. Why should they inherit this?
I hugged them both again and told them that I was glad I had finally found them, but that I simply could not stay. It was all too depressing. They understood. I walked away through the crowds, passed through security, and wandered toward the streets of D.C. to find a metro station. A tall, thin middle-aged black man stood in my path as I walked from grief into anger toward the center of town. He held up a Trump hat and T-shirt and said, “Get your souvenir shirt. Only ten bucks!” As I approached him, I wondered how he could justify profiting from Trump paraphernalia. Directly in my path, he said it again. I told him, “Burn it,” and walked away to catch the train back to Shauna in Arlington, and crawl under the covers of an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar place, into an uncertain future.