/ 20 January 2009

Washington set for Obama swearing-in

Photo gallery

Barack Obama: View the photo gallery

Special report: The Obama presidency

Huge crowds poured into Washington, DC, before dawn on Tuesday for Barack Obama’s inauguration with a building sense of joy, racial healing and a new lightness of mood despite the United States’s problems.

Tens of thousands of people, young and old, black and white, Asian and Latino from many different states flocked to the National Mall where millions will gather to soak up a moment of change and history.

The Secret Service launched its final security sweep of the area at 3am local time and an hour later special underground Metro trains were already filled to capacity and roads into the city were packed with traffic.

Past racial struggles were on many minds, hours before Obama swears to ”preserve, protect and defend” the US Constitution and shatter America’s most enduring colour barrier as the first black president.

Elizabeth Brooks, an African-American and Washington resident of 30 years, gazed at the white dome and flag-draped columns of the US Capitol, where Obama will take the oath of office, meditating on a racial circle about to close.

”I am remembering the four little girls that were bombed in the 16th Street Baptist church in Alabama,” she said, remembering the 1963 attack by white racists in segregated Birmingham in which all four girls perished.

”We have two little girls going into the White House tomorrow [Wednesday] in their place,” she said, her eyes filling with tears, speaking of Obama’s young daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Renita King (46) told her six-year-old son, Arthur, to say a silent prayer for Obama, and said she had flown from Houston, Texas, for the inauguration to mark the years of racial prejudice endured by her 73-year-old mother.

”She never thought she would see this. I am here for all the floors she has cleaned and waxed,” she said.

”I am here for her, and every time that she was called a nigger — that is how I see this, as an American.”

Across Washington, crowds celebrated the arrival of the historic moment. In Dupont Circle, throngs of smiling women lined up outside the Delta Sigma Theta sorority to snap a picture with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Obama.

Virginia businessman Earl Stafford spent $1,6-million to invite 300 disadvantaged people to join the inauguration celebrations, booking rooms in the capital’s Marriott Hotel, providing dresses, tuxedos and buffets, as well as invitations to inaugural balls and ringside seats to the festivities.

‘Welcome Mr President’
Along Pennsylvania Avenue, where Obama will ride with President George Bush before the inauguration, there stood rows of seats, and camera crews braved a whipping cold wind to set up their equipment.

Long rows of green ”porta-potty” temporary toilets also were prepared to welcome the vast crowds.

On an office building at the juncture where Pennsylvania Avenue makes a turn toward the Capitol, two large banners were fixed where they would be seen by the current and future president.

”Welcome Mr President,” said one. ”Thank you Mr President,” said the other.

Perhaps the most sombre place in downtown Washington was a strangely empty White House, where remaining Bush administration aides were packing up.

In the West Wing, walls that once held pictures of Bush meeting world leaders were stripped bare, as aides spoke of a ”last day of camp” — the reality that they would soon be leaving slowly sinking in.

Bush himself kept out of sight on his last day in office, as the announcement was made that he had commuted the sentences of two border agents jailed for shooting dead a Mexican drugs smuggler.

Activists and tourists eager to see the Bush era end appeared throughout the day in front of the famed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to snicker their good-byes.

One person dressed as the Grim Reaper held up a banner reading ”Thanks Bush and [Vice-President Dick] Cheney for eight prosperous years of murder and mayhem, torture and destruction.

”You boys sure know how to throw a blood bath.” — AFP