The Sound of Silence

Large photos of Vice President Kamala Harris hang outside a restaurant in Washington, D.C. Hanging off a building in the background is a giant American flag.
Photos of Vice President Kamala Harris hang outside a restaurant in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day.Todd Heisler / The New York Times / Redux

Donald Trump’s presidency concluded not with mutiny in state capitals or an attempted attack on his successor, but with a calm, conventional ceremony in an otherwise quiet city.

Walking through Washington, D.C., today, the silence in the streets was the sound of a country not quite ready to exhale. It was a fitting end to the noisiest era of American politics that many Americans can remember.

If this had been a normal Inauguration Day, in a normal year, the National Mall would have been covered with hundreds of thousands of shivering people hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president. The streets of the capital would have been packed with out-of-towners ready to pay $25 a head to visit the Spy Museum, and lining up at sidewalk vendors’ tables to buy Kamala Harris–themed merch. But the only civilians I saw downtown during the ceremony were a few committed joggers and a clutch of Joe Biden supporters lingering outside the White House. The showing was so small that journalists seemed to outnumber the revelers; I watched as reporters interviewed the same handful of attendees, over and over again.

Democrats in D.C. and beyond have a lot to be grateful for. They replaced Donald Trump with Barack Obama’s former vice president. They elected the first Black woman vice president in U.S. history. But on this day, of all days, they chose to celebrate from the warmth of their homes.

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That could be a reflection of how complicated this moment really is. A pandemic that is still raging has killed 400,000 Americans. The national vaccine rollout is slow, and new strains of the coronavirus are alarming scientists worldwide. COVID-19 didn’t stop Washingtonians from protesting in the streets this summer, but the country has changed since then. It’s changed a lot in just the past two weeks. Washington, D.C., is in lockdown mode, the result of a far-right delusion that led to a violent insurrection in the seat of American democracy.

Flags fill the National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument
Chang ​W. Lee / The New York Times / Redux

Seven months ago, I saw demonstrators do the Macarena in Black Lives Matter Plaza, a moment of joy after so many days of marches and die-ins to protest police brutality. I was walking through my neighborhood on November 7 when, at the precise moment that the networks projected Biden the winner, locals exploded out of their homes holding BYE, LOSER! signs and popping bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

To get to the plaza today, supporters had to pass through a TSA checkpoint and walk several blocks out of the way. Once they got there, most stood quietly in a circle, listening to the new president’s inaugural address over someone’s portable loudspeaker. A handful of protesters waved BIDEN-HARRIS or FUCK TRUMP flags. A few of them cheered when Biden promised that “the dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”

Diamond Douglas and her mother, Felicia, arrived in D.C. last night from Greenville, South Carolina. They’d come to town for Obama’s first inauguration, when Diamond was in fourth grade, and they wanted to witness history again, with the swearing-in of the first Black woman vice president. Diamond wished she could be closer to the proceedings—to actually see the ceremony, not listen to it from behind a tall fence more than a mile away. “It’s not what I was expecting,” she told me when I asked how she felt about the attendance and the security. “But I have to respect it, because it’s in the best interest for everyone.”