“As a Black woman and a descendant of slaves, this is a really big moment,” she said. “And those people who stormed the Capitol, they robbed everybody of being a part of it.”
Twelve years ago, the National Mall was packed with millions of people who came to witness the inauguration of the first Black president. Four years ago, the Mall erupted with clashes as crowds descended to celebrate and dispute President Trump’s victory. This year, the Mall will mostly be empty but for journalists, law enforcement and close to 200,000 flags planted to represent people unable to attend in person.
Despite the pandemic, Americans across the country had configured intricate plans to quarantine and get coronavirus tests before traveling by plane, by car and by foot to celebrate the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris. The attack on the Capitol, however, was the last straw for many still hoping to lay eyes on history.
In the past two weeks, regional leaders have urged people to stay away from D.C., the U.S. Secret Service and other federal agencies have closed down the Mall, and 25,000 National Guard troops have turned the city center into a militarized zone meant to keep visitors out. As a result, the millions of people who voted Biden and Harris into office will be all but relegated to their couches on Inauguration Day.
Addressing a nation starved for hope and an opportunity to mark the end of a fraught election together, the Biden team hopes carefully staged virtual events will be enough to conjure optimism about the country’s ability to rebound from dual public health and safety crises. They’ve put faith in a star-studded prime-time special and a virtual parade, among other events, to distract from a National Mall populated by law enforcement officers instead of jubilant supporters.
But as generations of D.C. residents and politicians know, there is nothing like the freezing-cold, so-packed-you-can-hardly-see-it Inauguration Day in the nation’s capital. For many, the loss of the moment of togetherness is yet another reminder of all that remains in shambles even with a new president about to enter the White House.
“I just wanted to be there to feel what it is like, the atmosphere,” said Aldo Puccini, a 23-year-old who worked as a field organizer for the Biden campaign. “In a lot of ways, it has been this prolonged celebration, but it hasn’t felt that happy.”
After four months of making calls for Biden from his childhood bedroom in Florida, Puccini was looking forward to finally meeting other Biden supporters in D.C. on Wednesday. But he canceled his trip a few weeks before the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, figuring it was too risky to travel during the coronavirus pandemic. He briefly considered rebooking his trip, but the attempted insurrection affirmed his decision to stay home.
Puccini plans to watch the ceremony from his home, wearing a Biden-Harris hoodie he ordered online, with a bottle of champagne he bought to pop after the swearing-in ceremony.
Tracy Hepner and Tammy Smith, both 58, have always seen presidential inaugurations as opportunities to pay respect to the democratic process of elections and peaceful transitions of power. For the last four swearing-in ceremonies, they have made a point to drive to the Mall from Northern Virginia with an American flag, feeling especially proud to live in the Washington region.
They had booked a hotel room in downtown Washington for Tuesday night to ensure access to the Mall but canceled it after the short-lived insurrection to avoid any potential unrest. Instead, they drove into the city Sunday, flag in hand, and posed for their traditional Inauguration Day picture with armed federal troops and a seven-foot fence obstructing the view of the Capitol.
“We are still down here, just in a little different way,” Hepner said, standing on the edge of the security zone established by the Secret Service on East Capitol Street. “They’re not going to scare me away from my country and my Capitol.”
Others have remained steadfast in their plans to come to Washington, to make a point that the pro-Trump mob should not upend this historic inauguration.
Matt Tyack, a 47-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, booked a hotel room in D.C. as a gift to his daughter, who he said had grown up to be far more politically savvy and passionate than he could have dreamed. An anti-democratic mob, he said, would not stand in the way of their first presidential inauguration together.
Tyack said he has packed extra snacks in case road closures prevent food delivery and that they hope to walk downtown, even if there isn’t much to see.
“Even if we watch the actual event on TV, hopefully we can venture out and watch a little bit of history, even if it’s just seeing the security,” he said. “It’s still history, the first time the Capitol has been stormed since [the War of] 1812.”
The loss of a traditional Inauguration Day is particularly gutting for many longtime D.C. residents who have often participated in the event or relied on it for business. Elliott Ferguson, who heads the tourism promotion agency Destination D.C., said at a news conference Tuesday that inauguration tourists usually spend $1 billion in the city.
“That’s not happening this year,” he said. He said he worries about how to reassure Americans and global audiences, who are seeing a city under military lockdown on their TV screens, that Washington is in fact a safe and welcoming place to visit. “We’re going to focus on . . . how safe Washington is, even though the perception might be a concern,” he added.
Democrats and inauguration fans, trying to make the best of things, are looking for small ways to be part of the moment, even from their porches. Some said they plan to ring bells and play musical instruments for four minutes after Biden takes the oath of office to usher in a new president.
Jennie Guilfoyle, who lives in the District, plans to bake cupcakes with “B” and “H” inscribed in icing to hand out to friends in her neighborhood.
A Democrat, Guilfoyle made similar “O” cupcakes in 2009 when Barack Obama became president. Eight years later, on election night, she baked cupcakes frosted with the letter “H,” hopeful that the country would have its first female president. Those treats ended up in the trunk of her car until she found them days later, smashed, and threw them away.
This year, despite the surging pandemic and the fallout from the Capitol attack close to her home, Guilfoyle hopes her cupcakes will help the day feel special.
“I want to look forward to giving out the cupcakes to close the loop,” she said. “We have a woman elected vice president, a woman of color; that’s really a thrilling historical moment for our country.”
Justin Jouvenal, Julie Zauzmer, Michael E. Miller and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.