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Two Inaugurations for Two Americas: A Report from the Streets of Washington

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“You’re a witness to history. Thanks for coming, brother.” was the end of the first conversation I had when arriving in Washington, DC, on January 19th, the eve of the inauguration. It came from a man whose bags I had helped carry from the Greyhound bus station to the huge hub of Union Station, a couple of blocks away, where, he informed me, he planned on sleeping the next three nights. The man, black, working class, probably in his late 40s or early 50s, had traveled all the way from Dallas, Texas, to Washington, DC, by bus, a distance of over 1,300 miles, to bear witness to the United States’ first inauguration of a black president.

It soon became clear that this man’s story was indicative of a larger trend around the inauguration. Black working-class people from around the nation had come on buses from as far away points as California just to be in the same city as the instatement of Barack Obama. Many of those I spoke to echoed the same sentiments and conditions as the man from Dallas, an unquestionable desire to be in the Capital to witness this event, traveling for what, in some cases, were days on a bus across the country, improvising places to sleep when they arrived.

I also met, Anita, a middle school custodian from Georgia in her 60s who was staying with some relatives in Baltimore, Maryland. She took all of her remaining sick leave just to come to DC, an enormous sacrifice for a woman supporting her two grandchildren on a salary of around $38,000 a year. However, she said it was all worth it, because “we finally did it.” She went on to compare her belief in Obama with the hopes she had in Robert Kennedy during his bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 1968, which abruptly ended with his assassination that summer.

Comparisons of Obama to “progressive” political figures from the past, such as the Kennedys, and historical civil rights fighters like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, were a common theme during the inauguration. The most common products among the impromptu “Obama wares” market on the streets of DC at the time seemed to be apparel depicting Obama smiling and standing together with MLK and Malcolm X in a triumphant pose. Anita was one of those thousands of people wearing a shirt with a version of that image on it.

However, on the other side of the coin, I also encountered skepticism among many of these workers in the face of “Obamania” that had seemingly swept the country. I found that a great portion had limited expectations of what ‘change’ Obama would be able to bring. Underneath all the hoopla surrounding Obama, among a certain section of working people there seemed to lie a huge source of anxiety about what the future would actually hold. The pundits’ talk of a “post-racial” society was an idea not shared by those I met in DC.

Despite this, they still made the trek to the nation’s capital to participate in the historic moment. The sacrifices made by those in the black working class that were in DC for the inauguration, be they the most fervent supporters or those that were more cautious in their approach, were nothing short of amazing.

“Those Other People”

One of the more notable discussions I had during the inauguration was with a group of three young black hip-hop artists who had traveled down on a bus from New York City. We had talked casually for about 15 minutes when I asked them very bluntly if they thought Obama could bring about all he had been promising. One of the guys, named Mel, plainly answered, “As long as he doesn’t talk to those other people.”

Those other people, corporate big wigs, party bureaucrats, their millionaire and billionaire pals, were all out in full force at the inauguration as well. Though the event had attracted droves of diehard working-class folks and perhaps even more middle-class liberal supporters, Washington was top heavy with the rich.

The day I arrived the main parts of the city were blocked off. Most main streets in a large radius around Capitol Hill were cut short with Metro transit buses and military humvees. Members of the National Guard were posted on about every other block, even in residential neighborhoods. A trip to a fast food restaurant that evening which should have taken about half an hour turned into an hour and a half trek. It was the night of the inaugural balls.

The inaugural balls are hundreds or thousands of dollars a ticket soirees, more often than not being invite-only, sites for celebratory dances of those that could foot the enormous bill. That night there must have been hundreds of them, as on my extended journey for a burger I saw thousands of people lined up around the block dressed to the nines in top hats and fur coats, the shine from their polished leather shoes gleaming in the ambient light. It was apparent that night that the roads had been blocked off for such parties. These displays of wealth and power during the inauguration seemed to become commonplace.

Everywhere there was the mark of Obama’s other donor, big business. Companies such as Ikea had their own line of shirts endorsing Obama, which they gave out to their employees, and several banks around the Capitol had signs welcoming the new President.

What I saw at the inauguration are just the physical manifestations of the class contradictions in Obama’s support base. There are the working people who gave millions of votes to Obama and then there are the rich that gave millions of dollars to his coffer.

Working people supporting Obama, be they the skeptics or the faithful, all seemed to have a sense of patience when dealing with what Obama would bring to the table. But how long will this patience last when the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are not brought to an end? How long will the patience last as it becomes more and more clear that the bank bailout that Obama rubberstamped is not working; when the new stimulus package falls short of preventing disastrous declines in workers’ living standards; and unemployment continues to rise? Patience has a breaking point. At some stage, working people will see that the “other people” have the stronger pull on Obama.

The people I met during the inauguration, the people who slept in bus stations, the people who tried to get fast food through the labyrinth of the inaugural balls, the people who used the last of their sick leave to travel hundreds of miles to DC, the people who want real change, will begin to realize that they themselves are going have to make that real change. And they are going to have to fight for it.

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