There was a sense of peacefulness Thursday as the Washington region celebrated the Fourth of July with parades, backyard barbecues, pool parties, ballgames, concerts and, of course, fireworks. And amid feasts of hot dogs, coleslaw and apple pie — or cuisines from faraway home countries — there was also reflection on what it means to live in the United States at a time of war and turmoil in many other places.
There were readings of the Declaration of Independence and reenactments of historic events. Social networks lit up with photos from the day and quotes from Founding Fathers. Politics were mostly put on hold for America’s 237th birthday, although debates about gun rights and immigration policy continued at hometown parades and D.C. landmarks.
“We are one country,” said Allan Lundsford, 44, an engineer who lives in Bowie. He camped out on the Mall on Thursday afternoon ahead of the concert and fireworks. “We can come together on this day and just celebrate that fact.”
The day seemed far calmer than last year, when the region was still recovering from the “derecho” storm, which left many without power. For days leading up to the holiday, dreary skies and frequent rain dominated the weather. But Thursday was hot and sunny, attracting massive crowds to events across the region.
Thousands gathered along Constitution Avenue in the District for the Independence Day Parade. There were couples young and old, interns, families from near and far. A visitor from Scotland, Jennie Walker, said she found the festivities pleasantly “cheesy.”
“This is America’s Main Street,” said Karen Engstrom, 50, who biked into the city with her husband from their home in Kensington.
Up and down the parade route, loud music and colorful floats sometimes provoked unexpected emotions.
“No matter what our country is going through, we are still one of the best countries in the world,” said James Bell, a D.C. native and former Army specialist.
Aaron Peters, a sophomore at Purdue University, recalled the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15 that killed three people and injured more than 260. He said he was glad that, in spite of the attack, “people don’t back down and stay home.”
“You think about what happened in Boston, and you come here and see Americans come together — so fearless, so amazing,” said Peters, 19, a Web page design intern. “We are lucky to live in America.”
Pablo Antonio Pacheco reflected on his journey from El Salvador, fleeing a bloody civil war, to the District, where he attended Cardozo High School in the mid-1990s. Pacheco and his family recently moved to North Carolina, but they returned for the holiday.
“There’s nothing like this,” Pacheco said. “You see everybody coming together today, under one flag. Our flag.”
The day was also marked with the American pastimes of protesting, campaigning and advocating.
Moms Demand Action, a group that opposes gun violence, organized marches at parades across the country, including one in Great Falls. The group is pushing for background checks for all weapon purchases, banning military-style assault weapons and making gun trafficking a federal crime.
“I joined the group because I couldn’t function after the Newtown shootings,” said Jenn Hoppe, a co-leader of a Washington area chapter. “I have two children, and I was so horrified. The more I learned about that tragedy and the larger epidemic of gun violence, I just felt I had to do something.”
The group of mostly mothers — although some dads, kids and pets also joined — handed out pamphlets and gave high-fives to some of those they passed.
On the other side of the issue, Internet talk show host Adam Kokesh had sought to mount a protest Thursday that would have involved 1,000 activists carrying loaded rifles and marching across the Memorial Bridge. The protest was canceled after police made clear that entering the District with loaded arms was against the law.
A video surfaced Thursday morning that appeared to show Kokesh loading a shotgun in Freedom Plaza. In the 23-second video, Kokesh appears to pull four shells out of his suit jacket and load a shotgun while saying: “We will not be silent. We will not obey. We will not allow our government to destroy our humanity. We are the final American Revolution. See you next Independence Day.”
U.S. Park Police and the D.C. police said in a joint statement that they were investigating.
Early Thursday afternoon, swarms of Washingtonians and tourists began to arrive on the Mall, strategizing about the best place to stake out and then passing the hours with card games, novels and running down the batteries of their cellphones. One family packed Yahtzee; another brought a volleyball net and inflatable pool. A group of teenagers from Southern California, on a church road trip, rested on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not far from a group of picnicking students from Colombia.
“It’s so exciting to be in the nation’s capital today,” said Sandra Cremin, who camped out on the Mall with her mother. “I don’t think there’s a better place to be on July 4th, is there?”
First, there was a concert featuring Barry Manilow, along with two “American Idol” winners and stars of such popular television shows as “Glee” and “Smash.” The National Symphony Orchestra performed with John Williams, a composer known for his work on blockbuster movies.
Four friends in their 20s journeyed from New York, Connecticut and Georgia to see Darren Criss of “Glee” perform. They traveled by bus and train, then stood in a long security line so they could stake out a good viewing spot — and then wait five hours.
“It’s a day to celebrate and be proud of the country you’re from and be proud of the progress we’re making,” said Windsor Bentley, 28, a secretary from Connecticut. “We’re making strides. We’re actually going to be a land of the free.”
Shortly after 9 p.m., as Manilow was singing “My Country Tis of Thee,” a shower of sparks went up in the sky, framing the Washington Monument in a shimmering halo of gold, red, blue and green.
There were shrieks. People flocked closer toward the monument.
The cameras and the iPhones came out.
Then the orchestra launched into Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a fireworks classic. Many in the crowd jumped as cannons boomed.
Nicole Chavez, Stefanie Dazio, Trishula Patel and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.