Dora Guo

If the 45th president and his former colleagues aren’t currently too occupied with post-office lawsuits, they might be pleased to observe that Trump’s 2017 inauguration crowds blew this year’s ceremony out of the water. ‘Sleepy Joe,’ unable to excite even his own party, mustered only the puniest of crowds on the day of his swearing-in; in fact, one could say he’s so unpopular that downtown Washington D.C. was practically a ghost town for all of Jan. 20. Of course, anybody relishing that narrative would be ignoring the presence of a fatal pandemic and forgetting the storming of the Capitol building only two weeks earlier. 

Still, they’d be right to say that President Joe Biden’s inauguration was by far the least-attended public inauguration in all of American history. But in making the decision to discourage spectators and focus on digital broadcasting, he might just have inspired more patriotism than any massive cheering crowds could create.

Some of us, however, just couldn’t stay away from the in-person inaugural proceedings. I was one of a handful of impulsive, and somewhat unethical, onlookers who chose to travel to D.C. in defiance of both clear public warnings and general common sense. I was eager to be present for the making of history, but also filled with a twisted desire to bear witness if anything terrible happened. So I woke up early on the day of the inauguration and took an empty commuter bus from my central Maryland town to the district. Or, rather, as close as the bus could get. While MTA buses usually drop passengers off right in the middle of D.C., an emergency order issued days before meant the route would only go as far as a metro station on the outskirts of the city. Finding an open way into the heart of the city was difficult, but I reminded myself that this was probably a good sign. It reflected the effectiveness of the city’s strategy to deter agitators looking to conduct another violent invasion.

After a quick ride on the Orange Line, I exited the ominously brutalist underground halls of D.C.’s metro subway system, and stepped onto an empty street. A very empty street. That was the first thing that struck me that day, and perhaps the aspect of the experience that has stayed with me the most.

Growing up only a 45-minute car ride from the capital, I got the chance to walk through downtown D.C. plenty of times: on elementary school field trips, birthday dinner nights with family, rowdy late-night drives to the monuments with friends. I had never seen it like this. The heart of the federal district, usually bustling with tourists and city workers and cars, was completely vacant. The streets were so quiet that the occasional noise from some distant vehicle would echo through the winter air. Within a few minutes of wandering away from the L’Enfant Plaza stop I had exited, I sent a text to my friends waiting for an update: “Big nuketown vibes in D.C. today.”

I passed across a broad boulevard lined with flags waving in the wind — absent of any signs of life — then started meandering toward the stretch of the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. This long green would usually be filled with visitors celebrating on Inauguration Day; today it was completely closed off by a high fence and heavily armed guards. As I got closer, I noticed strangely parked trucks in every single road running perpendicular to the Mall: concrete mixer trucks, random lawn care company vehicles and semis, all parked diagonally such that the entire width of the underlying road was blocked. It took me a minute to realize that they had all been placed there by the authorities to prevent any vehicles from ramming through the perimeter fence at high speed and successfully breaching the Mall.

The few people I came across walked past me quickly and quietly and we all looked straight ahead as if any accidental eye contact would kill us. The danger of an armed insurrection, an assassination attempt or violent protests was more real and more possible for us than it had been in a long time — this had been resoundingly proven just 14 days before.

Even in a pandemic, I was somewhat relieved to find scattered collections of people as I reached the fenced perimeter of the Mall and proceeded to walk along it. There were spectators, the occasional salesman hawking Biden-Harris paraphernalia and plenty of reporters with tripod setups and small technical crews. And, of course, thousands of National Guard troops, in lines within the fence, marching down the sidewalk which was clustered by checkpoints. I spent another hour-and-a-half simply wandering around the Mall, taking photos of the bizarre scene and scoping out the best spots to catch distant glimpses of the stands and podium on the West Front of the Capitol.

My friend arrived at L’Enfant and joined me just in time for the ceremony. We hustled to the best area we could find for viewing, a large lawn between a federal office and the National Museum of the American Indian, where a crowd of spectators and journalists had set up shop. If you squinted, you could make out a tiny central area where the speakers would take the podium. Only able to hear the faintest echo of the Capitol’s mic system, a bike rickshaw driver brought a speaker to our spot and played a broadcast of the ceremony for the surrounding crowd.

As for the ceremony itself, any reader who watched a broadcast is probably more knowledgeable on it than I am. There were times when I couldn’t make out the song being sung or the words of a speech coming from the rickshaw’s speaker. I had to cheat once in a while and open up the New York Times livestream on my phone to see Biden’s gestures during his inaugural address. But I had known that this would be the case. I had come more for the atmosphere surrounding the inauguration than for the event itself. I had come to be able to listen to Biden’s words of unity and healing while I stared at the Capitol dome, through the gaps of a fence and over the heads of a long line of camouflaged U.S. soldiers with large black guns in their hands.

Once the ceremony ended, the bleachers in the distance started to clear, the news channels began discussing the next events of the day for the new president and everybody around me exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Apart from the excellent speeches and the historical nature of the vice president’s swearing-in, it had been gloriously uneventful. There was no violence and no legions of furious flag-toting rebels. The crowds were small. And thank God for that.

Clay Jamieson | clay.jamieson@yale.edu