From the National Affairs Desk: The 2009 Presidential Inauguration: On Location Free Press Coverage by Kendra R. Chamberlain Free Press Correspondent (Editor's Note: Kendra Chamberlain, of “la Chupa Cabra” fame, served for many years as the Logistics Team for National Affairs Editor, David S. Lewis. Present for the mêlée that was Hurricane Katrina, and the months that Followed, Chamberlain was also present in Puerto Rico and for various other Free Press stories. This, her first Free Press story, was pulled as reluctantly from her as Teeth from a Wino. Look for more Kendra Chamberlain stories in the coming months.) WASHINGTON, DC – There were large traffic signs every twenty miles or so, indicating doom ahead: “Jan. 20 Inauguration Expect Delays Plan Ahead.” I was driving in on Monday, however, and there was hardly any traffic at all, at least not on the north side. I entered D.C at 3 pm, but it wasn’t until 4p.m. that I found my Washington, D.C. Press contact, head of the People's Media, the DC branch of the People's Media Center. Ryme Katkhouda is a mysterious woman, in many respects; the type who demonstrates her control in the first few moments of meeting her. I knew only that she was terrifying to speak to on the phone. I had called her from the Chicago Airport on Sunday to get the address of her office. She delivered orders to me for a good five minutes before hanging up, an ordeal so jarring that it forced me to order a shot of whiskey at 11:50 am (shocking for me, really; despite my associations with Free Press National Affairs Editor, David S. Lewis, I try not to drink before noon on Sundays). The office is a strange one: low ceiling, long bamboo bar on the left, and is covered in mirrors. If it wasn’t for the vegan food that littered the place, one might mistake the PMC for a seedy joint. The first thing I noticed as I stepped through the door was a large flyer that read: No Weapons, No Alcohol, Please! It would be a long two days. Ryme called out across the room “Can I help you?” The shiver that ran down my spine told me that this short, middle-aged eloquent woman was Ryme. Bracing myself emotionally, I told her my name. She jumped up kissed me on the cheek. “Take a load off.” She gestured at a couch, and sauntered back over to the table she was seated at. “I’m going to take a shower, then we will talk.” One might interpret the range of emotions she had demonstrated to me in the last forty eight hours as volatile. Instantly I knew better, however; anger excitement, indifference? This woman is passionate. In fact, I realized over the course of the next two days, Ryme is fond of expressing her “passion” using a variety of mediums and media, from webcasts to hand gestures and short, loud shouts. However, what she has accomplished with her passion is nothing short of amazing. The People’s Media Center was established in 2005. Ryme has connections with groups all over D.C, including WBIX, DC radiocoop, DC indymedia, DC Visions, etc. etc. The building itself is quite impressive; comprised of three stories, multiple apartments and a large backyard, the building was previously abandoned and condemned before Ryme and her buddies came along; the center began with just two floors, but over time PMC has acquired more and more property. The mirrors and bamboo bar, she told me, were the remnants of a strip club. She then took me downstairs and flicked on the lights. “This is the lap dance room.” The room was a basement with more mirrors and small partitions. Though I could see what she meant, the room seemed a bit chilly to me. There were a few more computers in the corner. “We gave a gift to the neighborhood,” she explained. “because we want to be relevant to ‘the local.’ ” They held a Christmas program, in which kids were brought in and taught Linex open source computer techniques in two weeks: “boot camp” she said, “and then they got to take a machine home with them. We are bridging the digital divide.” When I arrived there were two youth using the computers, Aisha and Oscar. I later learned that these kids were volunteers for Ryme, helping her out with food and organization. PMC also seems to function as a youth outreach program. “My youngest employee is four years old,” she said with a smile. “The kids don’t always use the computers for Myspace. They fill out job applications, write emails to their parents who are in jail, and they do their homework.” There were about fifteen people staying at the PMC, indymedia journalists and activists, to whom Ryme had offered food and housing while they were in town. The first person Ryme introduced me to of this ilk was Janet, a quiet and cordial individual from the Revolutionary Communist Party in New York. She handed me a publication with a smile. “STOP THE ISRAELI MASSACRE IN GAZA!” it read, just above a photo of a few blood-spattered Arab children. The Revolutionary Communist Party calls for a campaign against the status quo of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East; this includes “spreading the truth,” “exposing Obama” and organizing “massive political resistance.” These individuals have committed themselves to bringing awareness to the citizenry of the United States and demanding retribution: “…with the eyes of the world fixed on Gaza, there is both a challenge and opportunity to pierce that ignorance. At the same time, there is an urgent need…for mass outpourings against Israeli-U.S. aggression in the region,” write the editors. Their main target this week is what they call the “obamically inebriated,” the poor saps who have fallen smitten with president Obama. “As we head into the inauguration…it will be critical to hammer at this among those who have been won to support Obama—many of whom have been sympathetic to the Palestinian people in the past and have been in denial about Obama’s actual stance on this question.” My editor, David S. Lewis, had called me last Saturday to inform me that I would be observing a protest of the Israeli invasion of Gaza on Tuesday morning. “I NEED YOU OUTSIDE FUCKING FBI HEADQUARTERS AT THREE AM!! YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE FUCKING CHECKPOINT; THREE A GODDAMN M! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!” I don’t enjoy receiving phone calls from my editor, especially when he is in this mood; there aren’t enough exclamation points to demonstrate the urgency and aggression with which he was speaking into the phone. “FIND SOME FUCKING PROTESTS AND FUCKING COVER THEM!” I was surprised to learn that anyone thought the inauguration would be a good time to protest anything. In 2004, the (second) inauguration of president Bush was a prime location to voice concerns. I believe that year the cops actually ran out of tear gas. It is an obvious point that this inauguration was to be nothing like the last. During my taxi ride from the airport Ryme had called to inquire whether I would be interested in joining her and a few other women in attending a Muslim Inaugural Ball. “It is Muslim formal—you know what that means? No exposed flesh except for the hands and face.” Right. At 5 p.m., Ryme announced to me that we were leaving in half an hour. I quickly dressed into my pseudo-Muslim attire and sat patiently in the main space. Her mood had significantly deteriorated since I had arrived; the last thing I wanted to do was provoke her. From my seat, I could observe the group of Communists undisturbed. They are a strange bunch. Janet and a few others were quietly discussing routes for tomorrow’s events, while the others had congregated on the sofas to eat vegan soup and pick raisins out of a large zip-lock bag in silence. Bob Parsons interrupted my observations with some books that Nader had donated to the anti-war activist organization, World Can’t Wait. Bob is the type of activist that smiles while he describes torture techniques. “Today we did some demonstrations of waterboarding; we had some guys lined up in orange jumpsuits, with bags over their heads, and we picked one out and dragged him down and commenced with the torture.” “How were people reacting it?” I asked. “People seemed interested. It was fun.” I had taken the bait. He slipped into a long monologue regarding the U.S. imperial interest in Israel. After twenty minutes, he paused. “You’re going to the Muslim Ball?” he asked. “I wonder what that will be like. Don’t they keep the women separate?” I concluded that this man had never met a Muslim, and is quite unfamiliar with the manifestation of Islam within the U.S. Growing suddenly unbearably uncomfortable with Bob smiling at me, I got up to speak with a youth who had been walking the length of the bamboo bar periodically spraying the can of Axe he kept in his back pocket. His name is Louvantae. “What are you doing?” I asked. He looked at the deodorant. “I found it.” He replied. “What do you do here?” “Oh. I am a youth intern.” I gave up on him and snatched a conversation with Warsaw Shabazzallah, the Youth Intern Councilor at PMC. When I asked him what he thought of the election of president Barack Obama he said, “Obama is a pacifier. Same way you treat a baby. The baby’s crying, here give em this! The people are crying? Oh, give em Obama. Just to shut them up.” “Did you vote for him?” “Of course I did.” The drive over was seat-gripping. Ryme exhibited a confident disinterest in traffic laws, and had a spectrum of brazen driving tricks in her repertoire. The culmination was perhaps the six-point U-turn made in a red light, which seemed to only mildly upset the traffic, while waxing poetic on the importance of activism within the Muslim community. “We must hold their feet to the fire,” she said of politicians, waving by a car she had just nearly collided into. “Enough is enough. We cannot allow this behavior to stand.” From what I gathered on the drive over, the Muslim community perceives the US support of Israel as disgusting, and takes it quite personally. (As one Muslim put it, “pretend that the Israelis are rounding up and murdering all people with blond hair, and the U.S. supports this. If you have blond hair—how would you feel?) This support is attributed to the powerful Israeli lobby. U.S. support of Israel is, therefore, effectively alienating the Muslim population within the U.S. from the political process. The ball was held in the Thurgood Marshall Center on the 12 St. named for the important African American lawyer and Supreme Court justice. The place was filled with beautiful women dressed in exotics, squawking like hens, and quiet men in tuxedos sipping on limeade. The audience enthusiastically replied when the speaker greeted them “Asalaam alakum!” Tellingly, when she continued with “Shalom!” the audience became silent. The main hall was dark and much smaller than I imagined. Given the wood floors, cheap balloons, and refreshments, the event felt more like a high school dance than an inaugural ball. “We are so excited to be here, on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama!” exclaimed the speaker. It was a long night, filled with limeade and invocations of President Obama’s middle name. Guests included the “Honorables,” two Muslim Democratic representatives, Keith Ellison of Indiana and Andre Carson of Minnesota, as well as “representatives” of the Obama administration and “key Congressional Muslim staffers.” Ellison’s speech was perhaps the most interesting. He demonstrated himself to be the most radical guy allowed on stage. He called upon Muslims to be more active in the community, and to fight for what they believe in. His tone and relation with the crowd was something akin to a Baptist minister praising Islamic morals and uttering Arabic idioms. It was the most riled up I had ever seen a group of American Muslims. Representative Dennis Kucinich also made a guest appearance, with his lovely and conspicuously bored wife, standing above and behind him. He gave a short speech about peace and Islam and then made a break for the exit. He seemed a bit jumpy that night, and for good reason, I found out. The press had barricaded the door, and Zarina Shakir, the head press consultant, expertly herded him into the press room, where he was forced to cordially field questions. The room fell silent as a young woman from AWAAM (Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media) asked what Muslim Americans could do to help the situation in Gaza. “Stand for the truth,” he began, licking his lips. “Say what must be said, but in tones that are gentle.” Where the fuck is he going with this? “…the truth doesn’t have to be loud. The power of truth can be in a whisper.” I exhaled loudly at this and Representative Kucinich flashed his beady eyes at me. (Editor's note: Ms. Chamberlain is well-known for her “loud exhalations;” imagine, if you will, a sigh of profound exasperation at the decibel level of a Boeing 727 with the hammer All the Way Down...when her drink order is wrong.) “We know that the people in Gaza have suffered so greatly… We must be their voice—the voice of the children and the women.” He then shot up out of his seat and bolted for the door. His wife smiled at me and mouthed “Thank you” to the group of us as she followed. I heard later that Rep. Kucinich needed to return to the Midwest Ball in order to meet with the President as he arrived. The juxtaposition was strange. I hope to God it was only a coincidence that the only white man (of consequence) present at the ball was also the only guy urging the Muslim community to “whisper” its grievances. If anything, the Muslim community has been too quiet; there is a bitter struggle for civil rights occurring within the Muslim community in this country, and much of the country is simply unaware. * * * No one woke up in time for the FBI headquarters protest. I forced myself out of bed around 6 30 a.m. Recognizing I had missed out on my one real assignment, I resolved to find them, out in the field, handing out literature and shouting into megaphones. I got downtown with the company of an older gentleman named Jo. Jo spent the early morning speaking to me about the parallels between Israeli policy and Nazism, and the Satanism present within the political class here in the U.S. Jo is from Colorado. His card reads: J.A. Calhoun, Investigative Journalist, and on the back is a photo in which he seems to be attempting to steal an Oscar from the award-winning director Barbara Trent. The man is chatty and clearly insane. We arrived at the Washington Monument just in time to watch the swearing in of both Vice President Biden and President Obama on the large monitors set up outside. I stood alongside easily twenty thousand people in the dead grass of the Washington Monument. As I suspected, the crowd was in no mood for any kind of criticism of President Obama; not today. A fat man with a bullhorn sauntering up and down the field protesting abortion at full volume was quickly silenced by a black man of comparable proportions who was obviously intending to listen to Aretha Franklin’s performance of “America, 'Tis of of Thee” without interruption. After a brief altercation, the protester left the area. That was the last one I saw, in fact; the protesters remained elusive all afternoon. When President Obama began to speak, a most unusual quiet descended upon the crowd. It is said that very little of a speech is retained by most people, and I do not think that Obama’s speech was any exception. It became obvious to me that though the crowd was not necessarily listening, they were most certainly reflecting upon him. I spoke with two women from Orlando, Connie and Carol Everette. “Our President put a lot of hope and possibilities in front of us,” Carol commented as we walked amidst the post-coital glow that filled the streets, “and reminded us that we can do things if we really want to, and if we stick to truth, we stick to right, and we treat people the way they should be treated…things will turn out okay.” As the ceremony closed, the presidential inauguration committee sent me the following text: “Barack Obama is now the 44th President of the United States. Please stay & watch the parade on the jumbotrons. Encourage your neighbors to exit the Mall slowly.” It was the third text message I had received that morning from the PIC. I wondered if everyone was getting the text messages, and further, if that explained the calm of the crowd. Making my way home, I reflected upon the people I spoken with on this dawning moment in America. There was a lot of hope in D.C. The Muslims hope to become respected citizens; Activists hope for a birth of conscience; the Anti-war movement hopes that the people in this country do not forget we are still at war; Rep. Dennis Kucinich hopes to be President some day. Ryme had decided not to attend the inauguration. Instead, she stayed at the center, webcasting and offering ground support for the activists downtown. Ryme hopes too: She wants to expand her center to include services to the community, low-income housing, job-training, and activist training. She wants to provide multimedia outlets, fight propaganda, and help people. “Information is power,” she told me, “media is power. The dissemination of information is bringing empowerment to the people. They go from there.” The political process in the U.S. was revealed to be color-blind. Obama is President and the underclass remains the underclass. If anything of value can be gleaned from Kucinich's words at the Muslim inaugural ball, it is his determination to maintain the status quo. One suspects this belief is rampant throughout the political elite, and Obama is no stranger here: rather, he is King. The exceptionalism present in D.C. on January 20th, I write assuredly, was on Georgia Avenue, not the Capitol. Ryme Katkhouda demonstrates what passion, dedication, and conscience can achieve. She is the one handing out computers, webcasting news, pulling kids off the streets and handing them the tools to empower themselves. She belongs to a class of community organizer that realizes the phrase "make a difference" on a daily basis. And it is in her, and others of her kind, that we should find our truest national Hope. --KRC