Or, how I went to the Inauguration and all I got was this lousy profiling by the Secret Service
This was supposed to be a nice, fluffy feature piece about what it was like to be in D. C. on Inauguration Day. I arranged for a tour of the Human Rights Campaign headquarters, secured a press pass to the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee party with Sharon Stone and Sister Sledge, and even had a pass to the HRC Ball with Melissa Etheridge and Cyndi Lauper.
The big question was what to do on Inauguration Day itself: view the ceremony from the Mall or stake out a spot early on the parade route? My partner, a friend and I decided on the parade; given the size of the Mall compared to Pennsylvania Avenue, we figured we’d get a lot closer to the action there.
Boy, were we right!
Just as the parade was approaching around 3:30 p.m., we’d spent more than 11 hours outside, my friend and I were suddenly pulled from the crowd by a Secret Service agent. We were separated and asked to surrender our identification. We were then questioned on the sidewalk while officers from Homeland Security ran a background check on our IDs.
I was told by the agent, who didn’t tell me his name, that two officers had independently reported that we were seen engaging in suspicious behavior and that we’d been witnessed casing officers.
I identified myself as a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News and told the agent that I was doing a man-on-the-street feature about being in D.C. for this historic event. He asked me why I was taking such an interest in the officers, and I told him that I thought the security measures were of legitimate interest. He asked me to explain, so I did.
We were standing on the sidewalk, one row back from the barricades. Across the barricades was a corridor in which Army soldiers were patrolling back and forth. They weren’t visibly armed, but they were decked out in full camo gear.
Just beyond the corridor was one of many groups of well-armed police officers who traveled to D.C. to help with the event; in our case, it was a troop from Sarasota, Fla. They were standing close together in a line, about 6 feet apart from each other. Behind them stood another line of police officers who seemed to be their superiors.
Behind those officers was a line of Marines in dress uniforms. Finally, behind us on the sidewalk was another line of Army soldiers. We were literally surrounded by police and military — and that’s not counting undercover agents or officers stationed on the surrounding rooftops. Anyone who’s seen “The West Wing” or “24” knows how these things operate.
The officers themselves were very professional and very friendly. When there was nobody passing by on the street that needed their protection, they interacted freely with the crowd. They took group pictures for people, posed for pictures themselves, helped anyone who needed assistance, and even sang and danced along with the rock and R&B music that played over the PA system.
The agent asked me why this was of interest and I told him on one hand, it’s understandable that this much security would be necessary, and that the officers were doing an admirable job that I whole-heartedly appreciated. But at the same time, it’s a little overwhelming to see the sheer numbers of officers necessary to secure such an event.
The agent considered my response, then left me under the watchful eyes of some Homeland Security officers while he went to talk to my friend. I couldn’t hear much of what they said, but I could tell he was seeing if my friend could corroborate my story.
After he did, my friend and I had to wait there for the results of our background checks. The agent told us if they came back clean, we could go back and watch the parade, which was drawing closer with every second.
Honestly, I was pretty scared. I don’t trust police, and not just because they shoot or beat the crap out of unarmed people every now and then. Every kid I went to high school with who became a cop started his career as a bully on an elementary-school playground. And as one of the easily identifiable fags, I was on the receiving end of their torture more often than not.
Secondly, I work with computers, so I know that databases aren’t perfect. People make mistakes doing data entry, data gets messy over time and it’s easy to screw up queries and reports if you don’t know what you’re doing. I had no idea what was going to come back on my ID or what these guys were going to do to me based on that information.
Luckily, our IDs came back clean so we were allowed to return to the parade.
The agent told me not to be so inquisitive going forward and then made a crack about my Eagles hat and how much he hates them. Before I realized what I was doing, I blurted out, “I knew it! You’re a Redskins fan!”
One of his officers said to me, “I wouldn’t get into that,” as the agent replied, “No. Cowboys.”
Great. I just don’t know when to shut up sometimes.
With my friend and me back in our spots, we watched the parade under the even-more-watchful eyes of the surrounding officers. We even had two Homeland Security officers of our very own standing behind us, watching our every move. They even took my ID from me again to run another background check. No reason was given for this one.
We left the area soon after Mr. Obama’s motorcade passed and I’m pretty sure we were followed to the Metro station, but I didn’t turn around to check. I didn’t want to talk about it, I just wanted to get back on the train and get the hell home. By this time, our feet were frozen, we were exhausted, hungry and I was more than a little freaked out.
So, just what was it that we were guilty of doing? Being bored, mainly. We had left at 4 a.m. Tuesday for a five-minute drive to the Metro station, which took half an hour due to traffic. Another half-hour was spent waiting in line just to get into the station. It took an hour for the train to get to the District, so at 6 a.m. we were finally standing in line at a security checkpoint for entry to the parade route.
After two hours in line, they finally opened the gates and the crowd went berserk. All order was lost as the mass of people crammed together so tightly that we couldn’t even raise our arms. A mother lost her child in the chaos, but thankfully the little girl was found and safely returned. It was near bedlam.
After one full hour of being crushed together more and more tightly, we finally got through to the checkpoint. There we waited another 45 minutes before being cleared. At 10 a.m., we had been in 30-degree weather for six hours, and we had at least four more hours to go before the parade started.
Was I checking the officers out? Of course I was. Partly so I could describe what it was like being surrounded by them, but also because we were cold and bored and they were wearing uniforms. But since none of them were attractive in cold-weather gear (who is, really?), I was truly interested only in their uniforms. There wasn’t much else to do by that time, although my friend and I had fun noticing that one officer looked like Woody Harrelson and the Secret Service agent looked a little like Chris Cooper from “American Beauty,” if he had gained 80 pounds.
Was it stupid? In retrospect, maybe a little. But dear God, it could not have been more innocent. They mistook my uniform fetish for a possible terroristic threat against the president!
So what did I learn from this?
Number one: Don’t look at Secret Service agents. They don’t like it. Even though they have curly wires coming out of their ears and they still look like 1950s G-men dressed in bad suits from the ’80s, they think they blend. Play along with it.
Number two: Keep your ID with you at all times. At one point before the crush at the gates, I stepped out to get some hot chocolate. A woman getting coffee was distraught because she had put all her money and her driver’s license in her shoe for safekeeping — then she changed into boots before leaving the house. She had no money and no ID. I remember thinking how risky it was to be there without any legal papers.
Number three: Don’t put all your hopes in Obama’s hands. I saw thousands of people celebrating his inauguration like it was the last victory in a long series of battles. This is only the beginning.
It will be impossible for our new president to single-handedly repair our government overnight and get it back on the right track. It’s a huge bureaucracy that will take a Herculean effort from countless people over a long period of time to change. Getting Obama in was the first step. Now we all have to pitch in and help turn this government away from the suspicious, torture-endorsing, quasi-military state Bush created and back into a land where hope, freedom and opportunity are available to all.
We have a long way to go.