Earlier today, as President Obama was sworn in, everything about the event heralded change. From Aretha Franklin singing My Country, 'Tis of Thee, to the Rev. Joseph Lowery using his benediction to invoke a coming day when "black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."
Instead of the Supreme Court selecting the President, Chief Justice John Roberts was reduced to mischief-making as he tried to trip Obama up with a bungled, mis-worded oath of office. Or perhaps Roberts was simply displaying his arrogance by attempting to administer the oath sans notes.
President Obama used his inaugural address to draw a line separating the past eight years and what the nation should expect to come next. In an obvious rebuke to George W. Bush's decision to institutionalize torture of U.S. detainees, he made it clear "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." He renounced Bush's orgy of deregulation and giveaways to the rich by reminding us that "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
Eight years ago, the country was experiencing an entirely different sort of Inauguration Day. On January 20, 2001, people were outraged that George W. Bush had stolen the 2000 election. The largest number of protesters since the Nixon era came to Washington, D.C. and staged a counter-Inaugural, vowing to resist the fraudulent Bush Administration.
My friends and I were among them. The three of us were too worked up over Bush’s electoral shenanigans to let the day pass within raising a ruckus. It was a bitterly cold morning, and we got up early to walk a few miles from where we were staying to the Capitol. Our plan was a simple one – get as close as we could to the swearing-in ceremony and make as much noise as possible denouncing it.
To these ends, I borrowed a bullhorn for the occasion, the biggest, most powerful one I could find. I was carrying it in a large black messenger's bag. Security seemed tight, with cops and security personnel everywhere, although nowhere near post-9/11 levels.
It was 11:45 am as we walked down Independence Avenue, past the Capitol steps where the reviewing stands were set up. The first entrance we came to for VIP ticketholders was on the corner of 1st Street S.W. and Independence, next to the U.S. Botanic Garden. I walked right through the security line, blending in with the stream of well-heeled GOP donors and activists, despite toting a bulky black bag nearly capable of holding a suitcase nuclear bomb.
My friends weren't as lucky. What made them stand out in the otherwise lily-white crowd was their skin color – both were black. Somehow, even to the incompetent Republican party functionaries doubling as ticket takers, they didn't look like George W. Bush supporters.
So we retreated across the street, and made our stand at the entrance to Bartholdi Park. At the stroke of 12 noon, we whipped out the bullhorn and began delivering our own counter-Inaugural address. Enraged GOP attendees rushed over, trying to intimidate us into shutting up. But just as quickly, other protesters carrying banners and signs swarmed to our streetcorner, yelling their own slogans, and swelling our numbers to more than 100.
The three of us took turns leading chants of anti-Bush, pro-democracy slogans for the next half-hour, like WHAT IF THEY HELD AN ELECTION...AND NOBODY COUNTED THE VOTES?, BUSH WAS SELECTED, NOT ELECTED, and YOUR VOTE ONLY COUNTS...IF YOUR CANDIDATE'S DADDY ALREADY PACKED THE SUPREME COURT.
That bullhorn was loud, and it's safe to say audible to most of the VIP guests gathered to watch their illegitimate hero take the oath of office. FBI agents hovered around us, videotaping our activities. But we didn't stop until we felt we'd made our point. Then we packed up and moved on down the street to the Justice Department to protest John Ashcroft's impending confirmation as Attorney General.
What a difference eight years made. Today, on January 20, 2009, a sea of Americans of all colors stretched for two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Far from being out of place, revelers who look like my friends were well represented among the 240,000 who received tickets to view the ceremonies from designated viewing areas near the front of the Mall.
Only the weather remained the same. It was a frigid, cold day, but millions braved the elements to be there, their hearts warm and full of joy, witness to a proud day in our nation's history. And there was nary a protester in sight.