Amherst Magazine

“We Don't Need Tickets—Let’s Just Go”

Alain Hunkins ’90 was at the National Mall for the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. Here is his dispatch.

By Alain Hunkins ’90

The icy breeze cut through the marble boulevards. With hours to go until dawn, the darkness was broken with the flashing blue of police cars. We had just emerged from underground, ready for action. We were dressed ready for the elements, from our Gore-Tex down to our trail mix. Our map set a course due south to the National Mall. It was there that we’d cross the intersection of the personal and political, meeting up at the junction of history.I looked at my watch. 6:10 a.m. 1-20-09. I was standing at Federal Triangle with Bill Lienhard ’90, a fellow rower, roommate and great friend for the last 23 years. We walked to Constitution Avenue and encountered a 10-foot-high chain link fence. A smiling officer in riot gear told us that there’d be no access to the Mall until 7 a.m. This was, we reminded ourselves, all part of the inauguration experience. As the minutes passed, the steady stream of people pooled at the fence.

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The author, left, and Bill Lienhard, right, at the inauguration.

Where are you from?” was the common question in our crowd. Wisconsin, Chicago, Seattle. “Anyone else here from D.C.?” a jovial African-American man shouted. “Thanks for coming. But please leave your money before you go. We need it.” 7 o’clock came and went. The fence opened, but only to send squadrons of police officers marching off to their posts. Their uniform arm patches read like a law enforcement convention: Baltimore, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, New Jersey, to name a few.

As I looked into the faces of those around me, it was still hard for me to believe that this day was actually happening. Just a few weeks earlier, I had called Bill and said, “We don’t need tickets—let’s just go. It’ll be another adventure.”

Bill had been a part of my last adventure. In October, I had convinced him to come and help out for a weekend in Wayne County, Ohio, where I was volunteering as an Obama field organizer in Wooster, a city about 70 miles southwest of Cleveland. I had signed on for a five-week stint to coordinate volunteers. In this battleground county of a battleground state, I spent 16 hours a day recruiting and training our grassroots army to knock on doors and make phone calls to help elect Obama. I had become a community organizer.

There was something about this highly unlikely candidate that had turned me into a highly unlikely political activist. I had been a longstanding political cynic, but Obama and his candidacy had awakened my dormant belief in the power of the democratic process. Underneath my cool veneer, all along I had wanted hope.

As the gates on Constitution Avenue opened, it was obvious that I wasn’t the only one drawn to Obama and his message. As we crossed the street and walked up the hill, we merged into the hundreds of thousands who were already on the Mall. The crowd buzzed with enthusiasm. The Mall was lined with grand buildings: the Smithsonian, the Department of Agriculture, the National History Museum. American flags fluttered and SWAT team members stood on the rooftops. To the east, streaks of clouds painted the dawn over the majesty of the Capitol Dome. As I turned back west, the river of people had become a sea, stretching to the Washington Monument and beyond. Abraham Lincoln sat observing from a distance.

Call it what you want, but that same force that had moved me to volunteer in Ohio had moved me to make this journey to Washington. I needed to be here.

“Trail mix?” Bill offered with an outstretched arm. I was so glad that he was here too, sharing this experience with me.

I looked at my watch. 8:20 a.m. More than three hours still to go until the actual inaugural ceremony, but morning had come to America.