Capitol Reflections

© 2009 by Joanna Biggar

January 21, 2009…For forty years I have been going to the National Mall to celebrate, to witness and to participate in history. I’ve been there to see marathons and hootenannies, Grandmothers for Peace, Students for the Earth, reunions of the Peace Corps, and a Million Men’s March.

In the early days, the days of Lyndon Johnson in the late ‘60’s, the country was torn asunder by what was perceived as an unjust war. Led by youth – and I was then young – thousands came to march against the relentless killing in Southeast Asia in a fruitless and seemingly endless war. Among those who were dying were thousands of my own generation, drafted, disillusioned, and angry.

I was living in Washington at the time, my young husband having been drafted and serving in the Naval Medical Corps. I was impressed that, from all over the country, people of all ages, races, and backgrounds poured into the Capital to march – peacefully, but determined to make their voices heard.

When citizens exercise their lawful right to protest peacefully during times of hardening lines between the government and the people, there is always tension. In those days, tension gave way to lawlessness – in my experience, on the part of the police. I remember vividly days when all of downtown seemed overrun with armed cops in riot gear, their faces impersonal behind their blue masks and shields. I remember marching peacefully with thousands of others crowding onto the Mall near Constitution Avenue, one of my babies in my arms while my husband had the other. Something happened toward the edges of the crowd – police bullying, someone said, but I didn’t see it myself. Everyone started running, panicked. I feared a stampede and with our children there, felt a fear I have rarely experienced.

In those days one did not even need to be marching to get arrested, but merely to be on the wrong street at the wrong time. I remember riding on a bus through a rundown section of town near the Capitol and seeing SWAT-like teams of riot cops sweep in front of the bus, rounding up and sometimes bludgeoning anybody who happened to be on the street. Most of the residents in that neighborhood were black, but on that day and in that mood, the cops were truly ecumenical. Later, thousands in the sweep were arrested without charges and held in RFK Stadium. By that time of course, LBJ was gone and we had moved on to Richard Nixon.

Over the years I went to the Mall on countless other occasions. I went for Smithsonian Folk Life festivals every summer, for Cherry Blossom Festivals in spring (even when it snowed), and, in recent years, to protest another unjust war. Every year that I lived in Washington I went for my favorite Mall holiday, the Fourth of July, with its picnics, long sunsets, bands, merry-making and the crescendo of huge fireworks. The music pretty much reflected the regime; sometimes it rocked, sometimes it was hokey, sometimes it made you sing and dance. On one Fourth during the Reagan years the Beach Boys were uninvited to the party – for being suspected dissidents!

Yesterday I went back to that old neighborhood, or as close as I could get to it at 17th and Constitution. Yesterday I experienced something almost impossible to imagine forty years ago. Yesterday I went down with the multitudes to celebrate the first official event of Barack Obama’s Inauguration as the 44th President of the United States: the Concert on the Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Like all the festivals and celebrations, like all the Fourth of Julys, it was joyful. Like all the marches and protests, it was full of soul and heart and feeling. But unlike the others, tension was replaced by calm; fear gave way to hope. And mostly there was love in a way I have never experienced it in my country.

To witness this and celebrate it, the superstars were there: Bruce Springsteen backed by a gospel choir, and Mary J. Blige making her smooth moves in her snakeskin boots; old guys like James Taylor and John Mellincamp who sang “Ain’t That America,” and Pete Seeger who sang “This Land is Your Land” with all the verses from the Great Depression; Bon Jovi was there, and U2, and Queen Latifah who introduced the voice of Marion Anderson; Stevie Wonder rocked on the piano and Shakira rocked in leather pants; that wild trio, Sheryl Crow and Herbie Hancock and Will.I.Am in his dreds and Scottish tartan. Then, Barack and Michelle Obama singing along with Garth Brooks doing an “American Pie” medley. And finally Beyonce finished it all off with “America the Beautiful.” Not a dry eye in the house.

But as Obama said, “this is not about me,” and it wasn’t about them, really, biggar2either. It was about us, the thousands of folks who waited in the grey winter light, who shivered in the January cold, who stood for hours to celebrate this moment, to hear these voices, yes, but mostly just to be there. With each other. The family behind me, black, who had driven the day before all the way from Michigan. The young women in front of me, white, who had come from Utah and were so pleased with themselves for getting tickets to the Inauguration. “Think about it. They’re all Republicans in Utah and they’re not coming to this. No big deal to get tickets from our Republican Congressman.” The black woman in the long black fur coat and black hat who stood next to a blond white woman in a white coat and furry white hat who kept hugging each other. The people of every size, color, and contour who spontaneously linked arms, swayed and sang together.

This time was different, maybe because for the first time in my memory all those people were for something – the same thing – rather than against something. This time was different because people were unselfconsciously waving flags when at other times they might have been tearing, wearing or burning them. This time was different because in my memory, the living memory of most folks there, times have never been worse. And somehow we – all of us there, I sensed – never felt better or more hopeful. Nobody, none of us, had ever experienced, or maybe even imagined such a day.

Joanna Biggar lives in Oakland and is a teacher, writer, and traveler whose special places of the heart include the California coast and the South of France. A professional writer for more than 25 years, her poetry, fiction, personal essays, feature, news and travel articles have appeared in hundreds of publications.