The Presidential Inaugural Committee owes an explanation and apology to the tens of thousands of individuals who possessed tickets but did not gain access to the 56th Presidential Inauguration due to an utter lack of planning. While tickets to the event were free, thousands of people spent hard-earned dollars to pay travel and lodging expenses to come to the nation’s capital for the historic swearing-in of Barack Obama. Instead, they were subjected to utter chaos, as authorities failed to properly plan for an event that they knew beforehand would draw unprecedented numbers.
Someone needs to be held responsible for the poor planning of the event. While television audiences saw what appeared to be a very orderly throng that numbered close to 2 million, off-camera there was a far different scene. Thousands of ticket holders were stuck in the I-395 viaduct that runs beneath the Mall, led there by law enforcement officers erroneously. They never made it to the entrance gate and instead spent hours in the tunnel in sub-freezing temperatures, many of them children and elderly.
It was clear that not enough thought had gone into crowd control. There was a lack of sufficient signage and people were given conflicting information on where they should go to enter the event. There were also no announcements made over a public address system to inform the crowd of procedures or new developments. Making matters worse, the extreme cold posed a health threat as hundreds of thousands began assembling as early as 5:00 a.m. before the sun rose over Washington, D.C. and temperatures barely broke the teens. Despite weather forecasts of bitter cold and possible snow, there were no provisions made for people to get emergency relief from the conditions. Similarly, the heavy security presence belied the fact that emergency vehicles were not strategically positioned, and had to contest with overcrowded streets to access individuals in the event of injuries.
More so than just the inconvenience, the situation was a potential disaster of epic proportion. Had the crowd vented their anger in an unconstructive way, there would no doubt have been serious injuries or even deaths given the overcrowding and lack of security. The situation in the tunnel alone posed a threat to the people who were stranded inside. Had there been a terrorist action, a real possibility since none of those people passed through a security checkpoint, the fatalities would have eclipsed those of September 11, 2001. The presence of so many young children and senior citizens should have prompted consideration by authorities about how to take precautions to protect the most vulnerable attendees.
What saved the day was the good will and patience of the tens of thousands of people who were in a celebratory mood over the inauguration of the first Black President and handled the situation with grace. They could have easily expressed their anger and disappointment in a way that would have blemished the historic day. Instead, in deference to the man they came to support, they waited patiently, ticket in hand, no direction, as hours passed, and the historical “moment” of Mr. Obama’s swearing-in came and went. Even some members of the media were reportedly shut out after being stranded in the massive crowd.
These people are owed an explanation and an apology. Some have suggested compensating them for their travel and lodging. While we agree it would be fair to compensate individuals for the cost of travel and transportation, the logistics of doing so would be a nightmare. At a minimum, they should receive an official letter of apology from the Inaugural Committee or President Obama. Many people worked hard to make it to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration and their sacrifice in these difficult economic times should not be dismissed. Moreover, while adults, for the most part, can reconcile their disappointment, children are left with a bitter taste over how their government treated them on a very special day.
Let us hope this is a lesson learned. While we may never again witness a crowd of this size for a presidential inauguration, it does stand to chance that an emergency could require the evacuation of the nation’s capital or any major metropolitan area. Given what we witnessed the weekend of the inauguration, it is hard to believe that any city could be evacuated or the population moved to a “safe space” if the most secured city in the nation was overwhelmed. We hope Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), as chairperson of the Inauguration, comes forward with an apology on behalf of the Presidential Inaugural Committee and some means by which to acknowledge the inconvenience experienced by the thousands who came to witness history.