*Returning from President Obama’s Second (and last) Inauguration, there was a lot of things to take away as the country continues to struggle with its identity, prosperity and its humility. National pride can be a great thing, and we have a lot of it. But it can also be a bad thing when pride is a foolish one. As Americans, we go back and forth, like windshield wipers, when identifying what we’re proud of-and what we’re not.
The culture shock we call the Obama Phenomenon is less threatening but still an enigma to nation not used to reporting to diversity. The national pride in him showed during this inauguration. But the animus showed too. It can’t escape the reality of Obama leading the nation anymore than it can embrace the realism of his populism.
Nearly a million people came to Barack Obama be sworn into office, a little more than half of what showed up four years ago, but still much more than any other President had show up at his inauguration. Mostly people that missed it the first time, though there were many repeat inauguration “Obama-ites” in attendance. You heard the frequent, “It wasn’t like this last time,” or “it wasn’t as cold as last time,” or (my favorite) “last time was historical…”
This time was historical too. The last time was the first time you saw a black man take the Presidential oath of office. This time was the last time we’re likely to see a black man take the Presidential Oath of office. At least in our lifetimes. There might be a woman or two, or another man of color, but I believe this was too much of a culture shock for America to let this happen again, more than once every 50 years or so. That is the history. That was one of the things I took away.
“Obama” the cottage industry – was another thing I took away. People making money on the President, even those that don’t like him. Like the Republicans found, just because you don’t like him doesn’t mean that tens of millions of others don’t. The President is probably as popular he’s ever going to be (in office). Just when you think you have seen everything “Obama”? Guess again… Obama dice??? Last time, it was just the playing cards. Now you can lighten up your party by throwing back your tequila shots with Obama shot glasses. Bomber/letterman jackets?? Who wears those? At $550, they wasn’t movin’. There were the usual t-shirts, hats, caps, buttons, sweaters, sweatsuits, hoodies… I got my 57th Inauguration hoodie. So now if the hoodie doesn’t scare nervous white people in the middle of a gun control fight, seeing that Obama signature on it will definitely make em stand their ground. I’ma wear it at this year’s Trayvon Martin protest…if George Zimmerman ever goes to trial. I took away the wonderment of what am I going to do with all this Obama stuff four years from now. I still haven’t wore, or given away, all the stuff I bought four years ago. Maybe I will start an Obama museum. I’ll call it, “The O-seum.” Damn, does Oprah own that already? Okay, how about, the Obamaseum?
Seriously, I did take more than a few serious things away. One was the tone of conversation around what to expect the next four years. The critique is coming from all sides. Everybody has something to say. Everybody doesn’t need to be heard, but that’s the risk you run when you call for an open dialogue. However, relevancy and irrelevancy can’t occupy the same space. But it happens…the real question is, what comes out of it?
The most serious thing I took away was the swearing in itself. President Obama’s message of practical governing by reason and rational consideration sounded good to the crowd, but he wasn’t talking to the crowd. He was talking to the obstructionist on the podium that intended to not let him win at all cost, and when he won, they still won’t quit the political shenanigans. They intend to try to clown him to the end. Obama let them know that he knows it and implored them to not do it for him, but to do it for America.
The most impactful thing I took away was the greatness of the American Constitution and the protection of civil liberties and the cultural conflictions of America during the President’s swearing in. These things were never more in evidence than at this moment in time. Before the President and dignitaries took the platform, an anti-abortion protester placed himself in a tree relatively close to the platform. He began shouting, “What about the babies?” LOUDLY…for four hours…all the way through the swearing in.
Now there are some interesting dynamics at play here, all present in the society today, that represent the divergent realities we witness regularly. First, a middle aged white man scales a tree on the highest profile day in the nation, Inauguration Day, with all the government officials, military might, 800,000 people on the national mall present and -50 million viewers watching. Now known by his name, Rives Grogan, he scales to the top of the tree, and screams, “OBAMA,” at the top of his voice. Grogan is holding a sign, “Pray To End Abortion,” noting this year is the 40th Anniversary of Roe ve. Wade.
The “authorities” (police/fire) try to get him down, but they can’t. They don’t have a ladder high enough to reach him. Too risky to go up and get him. He might pull someone down with him. They don’t shoot him or tranquilize him because the WHOLE world is watching. So they just contained him and let him shout, though his free speech wasn’t protected-you can’t use your speech to disrupt somebody else’s speech in a public assembly. Sitting in the President’s sightline, right in the green standing section, everybody in our section (red) all the way to stage could hear this guy. I can’t imagine the government having that kind of tolerance with anybody else. People said it spoiled the inauguration. As annoyed as everyone was, I thought it was a beautiful thing.
Democracy in action. Protest liberty in the purest form. Agree with him or not.
What I took away was, whether everybody would have received the same treatment in a similarly situated scenario. I can’t imagine that if that was Tavis and Cornell up there shouting, “Obama, what about poor people, you Plutocrat you?” the treatment would have been the same. It would’ve happened without them being dragged down or shot down by authorities. Hell, black people woulda went up there and pulled em down. Would an immigrant have been allowed to stay in the tree protesting immigration reform? Would someone who was part of the Occupy Movement that lost their home in foreclosure been allowed to scream at the President and the oligarchs on stage, for four hours, on Inauguration Day? What if the protester had been Arab, or Armenian, or Asian or Latino or black, would the government have been as tolerant? It was emblematic of the desperate treatment in America today.
This man in the tree kept the world’s most powerful government at bay for four hours during nations quad triennial transfer of power, at a time of the nation’s highest vulnerability and during it most xenophobic. But he stayed in the tree.
How do the rest of us stay in front of government at a time when many of our officials would rather dismiss our concerns, or even worse-dismiss us? This is the challenge for the next four years. How do we become men and women in trees, in the sight line of the seats of power and scream until they hear us-without fear of reprisal or retaliation. The timing has never been better. The situation has never been worse. The silence, more deafening. Protest has never been more necessary. But would any other country have tolerated that on its national “transfer of power” day? China? Russia? North Korea? Iran?
I seriously doubt it, but where there is a sophisticated will…
That was my takeaway from my second Inauguration Day.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of the book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21st Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com or on Twitter at @dranthonysamad.