A New Day in Washington

by Caris White | 1/27/21 2:20am

inauguration-watercolor
by Lucy Handy / The Dartmouth

Over the past week I’ve had the fortune (misfortune?) of being The Dartmouth’s Washington correspondent for the presidential inauguration. Normally, the start of midterm season is a strange time to find oneself in a city 500 miles south of Hanover. However, after unexpectedly testing positive for COVID-19, I found myself spending the second and third weeks of classes in isolation at my uncle’s house in northwest Washington, D.C. So, for better or worse, I was unintentionally sitting right at the epicenter of American politics when the inauguration rolled around last week. 

Even from the vantage point of someone mostly stuck inside, the city felt like a ghost town. I didn’t get outside much during my 10 days, but on the few walks I did take, what I saw was nothing like the capital I have grown to love over family Christmases and Thanksgivings. The streets were barricaded to through traffic once you got within four blocks of the National Mall, leaving a mere trickle of masked pedestrians weaving their way through fence lines in the normally bustling heart of Washington. Instead of tourists loitering on streetcorners, squads of uniformed and armed National Guard members stood watching, stationed at major intersections to prevent a repeat of the violent insurrection on Jan. 6.

A few days before the inauguration, it was just about noon as I made my way home from my morning walk. As I crossed another empty boulevard, I heard the not-too-distant sound of church bells marking the midday. It took me a few seconds, but when the bells didn’t stop ringing I realized they were playing a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” 

Stopped dead in my tracks in the middle of an empty thoroughfare in downtown Washington, I listened as the usually uplifting melody rebounded off of the empty buildings and throughout the lifeless streets. As if on cue, a line of 25 National Guard members fell into step as they marched toward their next station just around the corner. 

It was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever witnessed. “America the Beautiful,” echoing through the streets of an American landscape that felt anything but. 

However grim the streets of the district looked on the days leading up to inauguration, the day itself went by peacefully. I was stuck inside attending Zoom classes and studying for my midterm the next morning, but on the moments I did take to appreciate the momentous occasion, it felt almost serene. Sunlight drifted lazily through the windows of my uncle’s house as I chatted in office hours, and despite all of our worries, the day slipped by without violence. 

Inauguration midday turned into night, and before I knew it, the day had gone by. It felt strange that the day that marked the end of such a traumatic, historic and deadly four years should so drift by so easily. In the end, my status as both a COVID-19 patient and not a government official meant that I experienced inauguration the same way as most people: looking at the news articles, TikToks and countless Bernie Sanders memes proliferating on the screen of my phone.

Thursday morning dawned, and with it a new day in Washington. We had a new president, the four years that felt like they would never end had actually ended and hope glimmered on the horizon. It felt good to ask Siri “Who is the president of the United States?” and hear a comforting robotic voice reassure me that it is, in fact, Joe Biden.

I went for another walk later that week, and it weirdly didn’t feel much different. In some ways, everything was different: We had a new president, the National Guard was packing up and the district was letting go of the breath it had been holding since Jan. 6. However, the mark of the past four years was still there in the city, in the boarded up windows and the fading Black Lives Matter slogans and the masked faces staring down at the sidewalk. 

The past four years are still here, in the obituaries of every newspaper and the hospital reports of every state and the persistent ache in my mind that tells me the world is not OK.

This year’s presidential inauguration was memorable for a number of reasons, and I am glad I was able to be in Washington to experience it, even if it was from the confines of my bedroom. That being said, the fact that we have a new president doesn’t erase the tragedies from the tenure of our last one, and there is a lot of ground to make up. 

Although I’ve since left the capital to return to campus for the winter, I know that it’s what happens now that really matters in Washington and the rest of the world. Even during a winter that feels dark and cold not just in a metaphorical sense, I’ve found myself looking forward to the future again. That feeling of hope, more than anything else, was the best part of inauguration.

It’s a new day in Washington, and I’m ready to see the sun.

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