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Briggs: Witnessing the human traffic jam

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On the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the U.S. Parks Service estimated that 1.8 million people crowded into the blocks around the U.S. capitol.

Tight security for the new president failed to translate into good, safe transit planning for the human traffic jam that came to celebrate.

Some 10,000 people who had tickets for the inauguration were stuck in a tunnel under the National Mall. But I witnessed other breakdowns of the transportation planning in the hours after the inauguration.

These deserve scrutiny as Washington, D.C. and federal officials, notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., of the Senate Rules Committee, review what happened to people during this inauguration.

After the day’s events, people struggled to get to where they were staying. Many, like me, walked miles to their destinations. Of those I spoke with, upwards of 25, not one was from the city. Like me, they were there to be a part of history.

The issues went beyond an overcrowded transit system that people waited hours to board.

Tight security for the new president failed to translate into good, safe transit planning.

Other issues included:

• The Metro, Washington’s subway system, did not plan for the numbers of people, had wait times of hours in frigid temperatures;

• The famed, old train depot, Union Station, was rented out to private parties, cutting access to transit;

• Officers from outside jurisdictions were not familiar with the street system and could not give directions;

• District of Columbia police were on cell phones, transit police and workers discouraged;

• Hundreds that I saw, likely thousands, walked despite frigid temperatures, exhaustion and dehydration.

I was one of those who walked, despite dangerous conditions such as having to run across the George Washington Parkway after sunset, to reach my hotel in Virginia. The five miles from the National Mall to my destination were increased by this misdirection from officers, most of them very young, from outside jurisdictions. They looked as worried and cold as I felt.

Many of the people I talked to, because I was looking for others to walk with, seemed to be in a panic. Many simply uttered the destinations they were seeking.

At the first Metro station I went to, I noticed an elderly African American woman wearing a red suit with a fur collar. She was leaning on her cane. I asked if she was alright. She said, “I just have to get in that station.”

The presence of these elders was for me the most pressing reason for better planning.

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Elder African Americans were significantly represented at the inauguration. As important as this president is to many of us, it was clear among the predominantly African American crowds that this was a watershed moment of far more than political import. The presence of these elders was for me the most pressing reason for better planning.

Already that day, one woman had fallen onto the subway tracks because of the wall-to-wall crowd in the station. Given the conditions, it may only be inauguration-goers caring for each other that prevented more accidents of that nature.

At the next station a dejected, young African American transit officer told me that the best option might be to walk over the 14th Street Bridge to Virginia. He looked as if he wanted to cry. I asked him if he was alright. He said, “It’s not a good day.” I said, “Of course, it’s a good day. We inaugurated a good president today.”

But any police I saw were on cell phones, sitting in their warm cars. Later I heard from a senate staffer that all over there were reports of officers talking on their cell phones instead of talking with people who were in need of help.

On my journey, I met a lone Smithsonian Institution security guard standing across Independence Avenue from his museum dispensing calm to elder African Americans. I got in line, and took a little for myself as he pointed me toward the bridge.

After the inauguration some dozed off on the museum floors to recoup their strength from the long day.

Nearby, the National Museum of the American Indian gave refuge to 34,361 people that day. After the inauguration some dozed off on the museum floors to recoup their strength from the long day. I probably should have stayed there, but I had a ticket to the American Indian Inaugural Ball and I was determined to get there.

Outside the museums there were groups of people, if not walking, then waiting for buses or cars that didn’t come. Drivers went home. Restaurants and other businesses closed for private parties. Outside of the National Mall, there were few places to use the restroom or get a hot drink.

As I approached one stranded group of young people, I saw a man step out of the group and declare, “I think the bridge is the only way.” I followed the stranger, declaring, “Exactly what I think.”

Doug works now in the management of a local restaurant chain, but used to be a high school English teacher.

“I really looked forward to this inauguration,” he said. “I had to be there. But when it was over, we couldn’t move for an hour. Kids were passing out. It might have been hypothermia. I would have had a better day if I’d stayed home.”

I said, as the burnt orange sun dipped low in the sky, “I don’t think there are any dangerous people here; only out-of-towners trying to find their way.”

At the Jefferson Memorial, we came up to a dozen young men in uniform. They were far enough away from the National Mall that I don’t think they understood the chaos nearby. They were standing in a circle shooting the breeze. Doug and I walked by like refugees.

We made it to our destinations. But I am left concerned for the failure to plan for the safety of the humanity that longed to be part of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The civic responsibility was dropped by businesses that closed for private parties at times when people needed to get out of the cold. It is the dereliction of duty by officers who didn’t help lost people.

Next time, we can do better.

Kara Briggs, Yakama and Snohomish, is a journalist. She owns Red Hummingbird Media Corp., and lives at the Tulalip reservation in Washington state.