I attended the 44th presidential inauguration this weekend. I am now headed home, sitting at the airport; overhead they are “paging the person who just lost their iPhone.” I hear people walking by, talking about Obama. A tote bag with those big ears declares “forward.” It felt like everyone in the city was there to celebrate. I know some were just there because they live here, but I have to say, the waitstaff, pedestrians and metro workers I talked to, radiated good cheer— even when I panicked because my fare card wouldn’t work. I like to think the cheer is like a glue that is binding us all.
The city was in lockdown; I have never seen anything like it. How else, I suppose, do you make an open event safe for our Leader of the Free World to share the air with us. Despite this incredible security there was still a crazy man, wrapped around the top of an Atlantic Cedar that security couldn’t get down, right in front of us at the Mall. They had had to build a special platform around him, and there was a ladder against the trunk, testimony to their attempts to dislodge him. I guess they concluded he wasn’t armed and in the balance, leaving him there was better than risking his or the tree’s life. He droned on, a thin muffled voice, begging us to all agree with him; while our little group in the sea of humanity, my direct circle of contact, muttered our frustration that no one could silence him. We couldn’t, the police couldn’t. We did all take our turns observing the real consequences of free speech—the clear voice of our president obscured slightly by the wailings of a madman, and obscured a little bit more by our efforts to shut the madman up. I could hear Obama when I cupped my ears, but the occasional angry “hey police do your job” in front of me made it harder. And so the burly man, white haired and clinging to both the tree and his sign that declared something, swayed like a baby bear from his prickly pinnacle while we listened in the nippy air.
If you were wondering was it worth it, standing in the slight cold, slightly uncomfortable, while we were crushed softly by slightly irritable bodies straining to hear our president, the answer is yes. Sure we saw most of it on a glorified TV screen, but it was a screen we were all sharing, almost a million of us I bet, there to usher in a second historic four years. We were there to represent the sea of humanity.
I was there along with physicians from around the country representing Doctors for America; we, and many other doctor organizations, have just completed a huge effort to get our voices heard in Washington following the Newtown massacre. We are still spinning from the success we are having. Our effort grew from an email conversation. We created an online petition that gathered more than 4000 physician signatures; met with Joe Biden to come up with solutions; and heard Obama’s declaration of commitment to real changes. It’s not over yet of course, but we are used to that. As a physician group we have been working hard in support of the flawed ACA, and had just discovered the NRA’s hand in preventing data gathering by the government to monitor gun violence. And so we were gathering for the weekend to enjoy our small steps of victory in the big fight toward a better and healthier medical system.
Obama in his speech invoked the Declaration of Independence like he read my mind. I am sick of the constitution, or at least the temptation it holds out to those who want to say it means something more in their favor. The Declaration, on the other hand — that is ours. We the people. That mob I was part of on the Mall, sure. But also the educator on the plane on the way down, the driver who brought us to our hotel, the young woman on the train with the Obama pin. What I am seeing more and more is engagement, and that is what I saw this weekend. I am no historian, but I love history—my story; our story. This democracy continues to be an experiment, having started way back when the peaceful transfer of power was less sure than a war. And the Declaration lays it all out for us—what we should expect and who we should expect it from. We are all in this together, citizens, all sharing the same needs—for food, shelter and love—on a planet that is running out of resources, and filling up with carbon.
We are on the island but there is no other island like it in the sea, so those spaceships are not our salvation. We can no longer migrate away from our problems or disagreements. We are our own salvation — through our unity. That woman with the pin, on the train, shared a beautiful image with me, of two groups around their bowls of food, all with spoons too long to feed themselves. The ones who tried, only grew weaker as they starved, but those who fed each other thrived. We are at the point of another experiment. Just as in 1776, we are faced with the need to experiment. This time we need even more agreement, more cooperation. We no longer have the infinite physical frontiers of mountain and prairie, ocean and air to expand into. We have to instead explore the frontiers of cooperation, shared sacrifice and inner introspection. We can no longer hide in the false assurance of infinite growth and consumption; its time to stop playing chicken, stop waiting to see who can hold out longest with their cards, or their money, close to their chests, and hope someone else steps up to do the right thing. Doctors, oil companies, steel workers, teachers, CEOs, politicians, students, mommies, cashiers: we all have to agree that it’s one planet, one people.
Rebecca Jones MD is a Brattleboro physician and volunteer for 350VT and Doctors for America. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.