Capitalism in the State Capital

The Inauguration of Barack Obama drew crowds nearly three times the US Census Bureau reported population for Washington D.C. of 581,530. According to the Washington Post, 1.8 million people gathered on the Mall and lined Pennsylvania Avenue for the historic swearing in of the 44th president.

Estimating physical crowd density in a specific location is a complicated and often contested process. In fact, the National Park Service (NPS) has not issued an official crowd count since Congress ordered the cessation of such information in 1995 after the organizers of the Million Man March threatened to sue over a count discrepancy. But, in light of the historic aspect of the Barack Obama Inauguration, the National Park Service is “not contesting” the Washington Post’s estimate of 1.8 million attendees at the 2009 Inauguration.

For some DC locals, the crowds and traffic were a nuisance, if not terrifying. In fact, despite additional support called in from police and military volunteers to direct the masses, those who attended the Inauguration observed that management of the crowds was dangerously lacking.

Televised coverage from cameras on scaffolding 40-50 feet above the crowd shows what looked to be an unbroken mass of humanity. But in reality, visuals broadcast from satellite illustrate that actually there were clusters with blank areas in between that with a little TOMing, could have been much more efficiently distributed.

The lucky few – 240,000 few that is – who held coveted tickets to the Inauguration ceremony literally struggled to make their way into the gates to find their seats or designated standing areas.

Color coded maps clearly sectioned off the various viewing zones: Yellow, Purple, etc… However, there was no oversight of the overwhelming crush of people who trampled into a chaotic maze of lines snaking and crisscrossing literally for miles around the mall.

As the clock ticked closer to the time of swearing in, the mass of people remained chaotically stagnant. Those who had not yet made it through those golden gates, past security and onto the lawn panicked at the possibility of being shut out when the gates closed.

These frantic ticket holders could be heard screaming out “Yellow!” “Purple!” “Yellow!” “Purple!” from a sea of lost people desperately trying to find the appropriate entrance gate. In any other context, the similarity to a giant game of Marco-Polo, might have been humorous.

Beyond the color-coded ticket-holder hysteria, the use of JumboTrons in this year’s Inauguration may have been an additional factor impacting the uneven distribution of the crowd. Whereas in the past people might have uniformly populated the mall, Aerial photographs from this year show high density areas of people clustered, no probably crushed, in a circular pattern around the JumboTron’s zone of visibility.

But for those who were prepared to embrace the crowds in an entrepreneurial rather than physical manner, the influx of visitors to the Capitol created an additional layer of hope and opportunity.

In Honor of the historic presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, from commemorative folk art to air freshener, opportunistic vendors employed creativity to monetize the Obama brand and capitalize on the influx of visitors to the nation’s capital.

“YES WE CAN! Fight air odor!” one vendor proclaimed to the busy street of Inauguration hopefuls. From a small fold-up table perched on the side of a busy sidewalk, she sold small spray bottles with Obama’s face plastered on the label. “Obama will work miracles, so will our spray!”

At a Texas State Society sponsored ‘Texas Fair” an artist showed off her hand-made Obama earrings. “They come in three styles and prices” she demonstrated, “Obama portrait for $26, ‘Yes We Can’ for $30 and these crystal studded beaut’s go for $40.” Meanwhile outside on the on a makeshift display near the Washington Momument, a street vendor sold similar knock-off pairs for $3.

CD recordings of Barack Obama’s Inauguration Speech were immediately available for sale on the street. “In the time it took me to walk the mile from the Mall to my house, a store on the corner of my block had already burned and was selling CDs of Obama’s speech.” Recalled Lisbeth Swinney who attended the Inauguration Swearing-In ceremony Tuesday.

Established D.C. businesses too, capitalized on the Obamamania. The Pug, A trendy dive bar on H street, added “Obama Beer” to its menu in honor of the historic 44th president. Meanwhile, “Obama Bean Custard Pie” could be found on sale for $1.50 on tables outside the Muslim Center also in the Atlas District.

February 2, 2009
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