Campus News

An Alternative View of President Bush's Inauguration: Carolyn M. Johnson '05

Story posted February 04, 2005

Carolyn M. Johnson '05 attended the Presidential Inauguration January 20, 2005, in Washington, D.C. Below she offers an alternative view of the event from that of Daniel J. Schuberth '06, whose reflections were printed last week. Ed. Note: A portion of Johnson's article was printed as a letter to the editor in the January 28, 2005 Bowdoin Orient.

To begin my last semester as a senior at Bowdoin, I attended the 2005 Inauguration of President Bush. Having spent the last year as a co-leader of the Bowdoin Women's Association, organizing protests against the policies of the Bush administration and campaigning for Kerry, the inauguration had the atmosphere of a funeral rather than victory celebration. All of the hard work - the hundreds of miles traveled to march for women's rights, the state-wide volunteer-managed vote drives, the sweep of Maine's four electoral votes by Kerry - culminated in a grotesque carnival commemorating four...more...years.

Rumors flew in the weeks before the inauguration about the climbing costs of the celebration. The rumored $40 million spent on the spectacle was unprecedented for a wartime president. In 1945, for example, Franklin Roosevelt merely gave a short speech followed by a simple luncheon at the White House. The extravagant costs of the 2005 inauguration in the face of the relentless reports of American and Iraqi casualties seemed in poor taste at best. If not the war, the heartbreaking tragedy of the tsunami should have subdued the festivities. The audacity of the occasion was disheartening.

Many of my friends could not bear to attend the inauguration. On that day, the divide in this country had seldom seemed so clear cut, and so insurmountable. How can we make ourselves heard over the din of patriotic catch phrases? What can we accomplish against a political machine with such vast resources?

To maintain my belief in democracy, I have to believe that my voice matters. Though we have a winner-take-all electoral system, it is erroneous of this administration to assume that they have a full mandate. I may be just a college student, but I have a responsibility to myself, to my country, and to history to stand up for what I believe in.

Carolyn Johnson '05 (right) was joined on the parade route by Vivian Jaynes '05, Sheena James '05, and Ashley Cusick '05 (left to right).

I was not alone on January 20th. I was joined by tens of thousands of other protesters from all over the country. Protesters capitalized on the extensive grassroots networks that were mobilized during the campaign season. Braving snowstorms, buses of protesters descended from New England, including friends and colleagues from Peace Action Maine and the Maine College Action Network. I, along with three other Bowdoin students, joined a bus from Brandeis University carrying both the group Students for Peace and the Brandeis Republicans.

Though we arrived in Washington D.C. in the wee hours of the morning, many other protesters were already quietly making their way into the city. Sleepy and in need of coffee, we struck up conversations with other travelers. Some had been on the road for three days, but were still excited to finally be there. The protesters wore buttons and carried signs for innumerable causes, but we all were united by a sense of civic purpose and camaraderie.

While the Brandeis Republicans we traveled with had special invitations to inaugural events, we were the uninvited guests to what has traditionally been an open ceremony. While some headed for various demonstrations around the city, my friends and I made our way to the inaugural parade route. The Turn Your Back on Bush organizers warned us that it could potentially take many hours to find our way through the labyrinth of security. We passed gate after gate designated for mink-swathed carriers of VIP tickets. We were eventually funneled into the tiny section on the parade route designated for protesters. All the other sections open to protesters were roped off with police tape, and offset from the route by up to several blocks.

Once we entered the heavily secured area, we were not allowed to leave again. There were no bathrooms, and only one small establishment cheerfully serving coffee and Chinese food to hundreds of customers. Heavy artillery rolled down the streets, and snipers lined the roofs like modern gargoyles. Police from 67 precincts lined the streets, forming a wary human wall. Contrary to the impression many media reports gave, nearly all of the protesters were peaceful and respectful. People of all ages and all backgrounds were present, gladly packed shoulder to shoulder for the chance to be seen and heard on a day that, for better or worse, will be remembered.

The protesters lined up for the chance to wave signs or chant slogans at the presidential procession reminded me of our historical roots in mass petitioning. We have long had faith in the practice of laying our grievances at the feet of the government, and asking for justice. Despite the gaudy fanfare of Texan high school bands, overblown floats, and military processions, the passing of the President's motorcade was anticlimactic. His face was a blur behind tinted glass. To my ears, the enthusiastic chanting and jeering of the crowd dimmed for a moment after the motorcade passed. What do we do when our petitions fall on deaf ears?

Johnson, Jaynes, James, and Cusick in front of the Inaugural Seal at Union Station.

That night we departed from Union Station, the location of the Freedom Ball. Hundreds of people in tuxedos and gowns hustled past the protesters, intent on maintaining the illusion of a day of uncontested adulation of the President. Despite the massive presence of the protesters, I could not help but feel invisible.

The theme of this inauguration was freedom and liberty. What greater expression of democracy is there than the freedom to express dissent and alternative viewpoints? Our nation's capital should have opened its arms and embraced the protesters at the inauguration. All those who attended should be celebrated as the representatives of democracy. I commend our hosts at Brandeis University for creating the opportunity for people with different viewpoints to participate in the inauguration.

Despite being exhausted after a 36-hour round trip to Washington D.C., I am glad that I attended the inauguration. As a college student with few concrete responsibilities, I am in the unique position of being able to take the time to publicly demand change. Regardless of the impact made on that one day, protesting the inauguration helped to solidify a larger movement. Grassroots organizations gained valuable experience, and activists were able to meet and learn from one another. Personally, I made some wonderful friends on this trip. Moving past the election, the momentum of social change grows stronger in this country.

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