Ben Thomas clasps his silver ticket and braves the Washington throngs to watch the inauguration, those watching it, and the squirrels. Complete with data analysis via Grindr.
“This is the least attractive group of Americans I have ever seen,” my DC-based friend David said with a furrowed brow. We were standing on the Washington Mall, in the fenced silver-ticket area for the inauguration ceremony of Donald J Trump as President of the United States of America, but he was looking at his phone. We had turned to 21st century processing power and big data – that is, Grindr – to analyse the throng of Trump supporters around us.
There were 14 active users within 100 metres, predominantly white. A higher proportion of their faces were obscured than usual in profile pictures – “they’re less likely to be out.” Usernames included statues of liberty and American eagle images more than normal, too. Important findings, but it was time to investigate the inauguration in real life, so as to Snapchat and Instagram it more easily.
We arrived early, despite a mishap that yielded yet more vital intelligence: after overshooting the subway transfer from the north, we doubled back towards the Capitol from inner Virginia. Whereas there had been no obvious Tr(i)ump-halists on the first train, the return journey was packed with red hats, Deplorables t-shirts, and stars and stripes bowties. It’s no secret Washington DC is overwhelmingly liberal, in American political terms, and so the idea of a Trump inauguration for locals is akin to staging a Make America Great Again rally in Wellington.
The silver mall was the furthest back ticketed section of the inauguration ceremony – about 200m away from the Capitol where the new president would be sworn in. The park area was about a quarter full, and easy to navigate for the bicycle police who at least seemed the most non-threatening of an array of different law enforcement agencies involved in security (secret service mingled with customs and border protection, the Metropolitan police, TSA, army, national guard, and more). They still had guns, of course. I felt sorry for what appeared to be huge crowds behind us in the non-ticketed sections, until later seeing aerial shots that showed behind the packed up front rows it was even emptier.
Still plenty of space at the silver ticketed area of the inauguration pic.twitter.com/q095mWTudH
— Ben Thomas (@BenThomasNZ) January 20, 2017
The crowd had little interest in the long formal introductions, as dignitaries and family members were led to the seats on the Capitol, facing us but essentially indistinct without the assistance of the big screens erected on the Mall. But also, little venom. Jimmy Carter got a small, polite clap. George W Bush received more applause than Trump’s grown adult children, in line with the idea that despite the high profile of Trump’s dangerous neo-fascist supporters, most of his votes came from tribal Republicans. Michelle Obama was applauded. Barack Obama was cheered. The only negative reaction was the loud booing when former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton were introduced (and briefly when Bernie Sanders appeared onscreen in a cut shot).
The ceremony dragged on, the small crowd restless and irritable, jeering at the speech of Senator Chuck Schumer as he talked about the need to treat all Americans equally, then letting out whoops of delight at the mention of a “peaceful transition of power”. When he tried to evoke the spirit of unity by reading a letter from a Civil War soldier, a “Na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye” chant swept the sparse field. The feeling grew that these people were here to see the inauguration not to celebrate, nor to plan for the future, but to make sure that at the last moment their man wasn’t somehow robbed of his – their – victory by Washington trickery. There was little revelry in the moment, only the urgency of a shotgun wedding.
When Trump finally took the oath, the crowd erupted. Cannons went off. Squirrels were startled in the trees above, running from branch to branch but unable to escape the noise. Surprisingly, given what I’ve learned from movies and TV, no vortex opened up in the sky above the Capitol. The new president began his speech graciously by thanking the Obamas for their help with the transition. This was a transition like no other, he said, because this was a transfer of power back to you, the people.
Then the biliousness began. He excoriated Washington for growing rich while Americans grew poorer. He talked about the threat of radical Islam. He blamed America’s allies for taking more than they give. Every grievance brought a crowd reaction. I didn’t stay for the whole speech.
Here’s something, though: visiting DC won’t have changed the minds of any of these people. A government town is probably the worst place on earth to get people to see there is not really a political elite that looks down on them, because in every government town there is, and it does. On the way out, to one of the few Metro stations still open in the city, behind the Capitol, government workers walked against the flow of inauguration attendees, either embarrassed, impassive or smirking. I sat down for a cigarette with a protester who had come up from Virginia for the week, and had been protesting the neo-fascist Alt-Right Deploraball the previous night, the worst expression of Trumpism.
“Americans are so kind and nice on a personal level,” I offer. “It seems insane that collectively they can vote in someone like Trump.”
“It’s interesting that you say that,” she says, “because I think people where I’m from are nice, but when I come to DC people are so snobbish and unfriendly.”
The best journalism is done on the streets, with the people. That’s where we can learn about our changing world. As I, a condemned man in this nightmare present, sat there smoking, a group of Washington suits passed by, one gesturing to the half a dozen merchandise stalls of flags, hats and badges lining the road. “You know [inaudible]? He made two hundred and fifty thousand off that shirt he designed, you know, the Grab ’Em one?” Not everyone was winning from the new economy though – Trump t-shirts sold by the road were now marked down to $5 each, from $20 just the night before.
The half dozen sellers of “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica” shirts hollered out their slogan increasingly frenetically to get the attention of wandering attendees. “That’s not very respectful to women,” one frat boy yelled out, to laughter from his friends. A fat man walked by as he was beginning to explain to his son of about seven who Monica was. “Get a job!” a Trump hatted mid 20s man yelled at the person who at that moment was trying to sell him a t-shirt for money.
Clearly the excitement of the inauguration was done for now. Trump supporters were flooding back to their hotels – later photos showed the Presidential motorcade and parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House after the inauguration was lined with bare bleachers and a handful of well-wishers. For context, the inauguration web page had advised anyone wanting to get a spot by the street to arrive by 9am. It was 2pm. Trump’s supporters had seen enough.
There were reports that protesters were being teargassed by police on the other side of town at Macpherson square. I followed some teens with a “Make Racists Afraid Again” sign. I thought I had arrived late – Macpherson square is about one city block of grass and a smattering of trees. There were around three or four hundred people still on intersection in the far corner, surrounding a burning trash can, over which a masked anarchist stood guard. Across the road was a black stretched limo, graffitied, with its windscreen knocked in and its passenger windows smashed into crystals on the ground. I tried to document this for Spinoff readers, but most of my shots were ruined by the crowds of citizen journalists in front of me.
Wait, I think this is why people were running pic.twitter.com/Mx2CNNuGKr
— Ben Thomas (@BenThomasNZ) January 20, 2017
A couple of young women holding placards shook their heads at the photographers crouching down by the trash can.
“So this is what will be reported, even though thousands of people are just protesting peacefully?” one says.
Not quite. Later someone would torch the limo, sending plumes of black smoke into the air and forcing a line of riot police to clear the area. That was what was reported.
Earlier, though, a giant black SUV tried to force its way through the blocked intersection, hitting a young guy from behind and bumping him to the ground violently. His friends immediately started thumping its windows and bonnets, but the protestor who was hit sprang to his feet and cautioned them against violence.
It kept driving, and dragged slowly through, disappearing from view and enveloped in more shouting, horn-honking, thumping and confusion. The static intersection demonstration now broke off and followed up the street, fuelled by the sense of outrage of peaceful protestors at a lack of reciprocity. On the corner, a man in his 20s in a bandana and denim jacket yelled out “I got a tyre! We’re looking for a car with three wheels!” He balanced a big, gleaming chrome car wheel beside his knees. “Is that from the car?” someone asks? “I got a tyre!” he said, rolling it on to the street and chasing it like a child playing an old fashioned game. More people spilled on to the road, falling in behind the protest pied piper.
He may still be going, slowly turning his mini-revolutions in the street. I trudged wearily off from Metro station to Metro station, finding only closures and roads blocked by police. Today David and I are off to the Women’s March, where we have high hopes for even more positive mass action, but also for Grindr.