Instead of cheering massses, Joe Biden’s welcome to the White House on Wednesday was miles of metal barriers, masked security forces and a dystopian-looking Washington that would normally be primed to party on Inauguration Day.
The lockdown meant the contingent of roughly 25,000 National Guard troops far outnumbered revellers, who were told to stay away due to America’s out-of-control Covid spread and fears of violence.
"This looks like the entrance to a military base... during war," said 42-year-old Joe Brunner from New York City, as he stood across from a checkpoint guarded by armed troops and military vehicles in central Washington.
Red dump trucks with "God Bless America" emblazoned on their sides served as security barriers at one of the most sensitive sites -- the north side of the White House where Biden was to arrive after his swearing in.
"The atmosphere is very strange, it is very un-American", said 36-year-old Jason Sheffield, adding the security zone and heavy police presence "is unethical to freedom" and "very scary."
For most Americans, the inauguration was watched on social media and TV. Streets were nearly empty and many businesses in downtown Washington were boarded up, some due to the pandemic and others because of recent violent protests.
In recent years, tens of thousands of people have been close enough to the inauguration ceremony to see the president take the oath of office at the great domed Capitol building that hosts Congress.
The crowd has been massively pared down due to virus contagion concerns -- normally 200,000 passes would be distributed among lawmakers to hand out to their constituents. This year it was one ticket for each of the 535 members of Congress and one guest each.
On top of that, Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol building two weeks ago to try to undo Biden’s election win, prompting extra heavy security.
"All of the security services have gotten together and essentially shut down movement into Washington DC," G. Alexander Crowther, research professor at Florida International University and a retired Army colonel, told AFP.
The number of National Guard troops -- which is on top of thousands of police officers -- is about three times the roughly 8,000 on hand for Trump’s inauguration. Those troops would, outside a pandemic year, be guarding crowds on the Capitol grounds and many thousands more packing the roughly 700-acre (280-hectare) National Mall.
The 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, drew an estimated 450,000 spectators to the Mall. Yet some people defied the warnings and strolled the car-less streets to see what they could of America’s handover of power.
"I think today is kind of joyous," said downtown Washington resident Sheila Callahan. "As soon as Trump’s helicopter took off from the White House, people (in her neighborhood) were up on the roof cheering."
Meanwhile, Hondurans who were kicked out of Guatemala as they started off on a long walk to the United States are vowing they will not abandon their pursuit of the American dream. Among the thousands driven back to the border Tuesday in buses and trucks provided by Guatemala and Mexico, many told AFP they are not ready to give up on their dreams of a better life.
Rosa Baquedano, was among the thousands of migrants in a caravan dispersed this week by security forces with tear gas and batons in the Guatemalan town of Vado Hondo, less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) inside the border.
Her family lost everything, even their home, after Honduras was hit by two violent tropical storms last November that caused vast devastation, not yet repaired. "I want to try again" to get to the United States, Baquedano, 35, said at the El Florido border crossing where thousands of migrants were dumped Tuesday.
The group had already walked more than 200 kilometers after departing Honduras last Friday. "We don’t want to return to our country because everything there is complicated. We are dying of hunger," she said.
On Monday, security forces broke up the caravan of some 4,000 migrants at Vado Hondo, where they had waited for three days, sleeping out of doors, to be allowed through and continue their journey of thousands of kilometers on foot through Central America. They had been blocking a key road, causing a massive logjam of cargo trucks, their wares at risk of spoiling.
Saying they are desperate to escape poverty, unemployment, gang and drug violence and the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes, the migrants were hoping for a welcome, and a shot at a better future, in the America of President-elect Joe Biden after years of anti-immigrant rhetoric under Donald Trump.
Some 9,000 have set out from Honduras since last Friday. But they encountered a wall of police in Vado Hondo. Thousands of Guatemalan security personnel were deployed under strict orders to stop anyone without travel documents or a negative coronavirus test.
Twenty-one migrants tested positive for the virus along the route. Mexico too, reinforced its border control, and Washington warned the would-be asylum seekers in an official communication not to "waste your time and money".
"We need help and support because we don’t want to go back," pleaded Baquedano as she waited for a bus on the border that will take her to San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city, from where most of the migrants started their journey.
"We’re going back to nothing," she said, in tears. Baquedano was separated from her husband and three-year-old son in Tuesday’s clashes with police and soldiers that left several on both sides injured.
Her compatriot Jose Vasquez, traveling with his wife and toddler son, said he, too, would reattempt the journey as soon as possible, undeterred by an exhausting five days of walking, little food, and sleeping on the ground in the cold.
In Honduras, he sold peanuts on buses to eke out a living. "I’m going to look for some money to try again... We have nothing in Honduras so we are pursuing the American dream because want to lift ourselves and help our families," Vasquez told AFP.
In a related development, Lady Gaga launched Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony by belting out a classic rendition of the US national anthem, donning a billowing ball gown and enormous dove brooch.
The long-sleeved gown, reportedly Schiaparelli, featured a fitted navy drop-waist bodice with a demure mock neck collar, a look completed with a voluminous scarlet skirt that ensured she kept her Covid-friendly distance.
"My intention is to acknowledge our past, be healing for our present, and passionate for a future where we work together lovingly. I will sing to the hearts of all people who live on this land," Gaga tweeted ahead of her performance.
Following Gaga’s performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" Jennifer Lopez took the stage, performing Woody Guthrie’s classic "This Land Is Your Land", a tune with socialist leanings the folk legend is said to have written in response to the more nationalistic "God Bless America."
Bronx-raised with Puerto Rican roots, Lopez finished with "America The Beautiful", adding in a line of Spanish: "Siempre con libertad y justicia para todos" ("Liberty and justice for all, always").
Sporting a white pantsuit ensemble with a lace ruffle collar, reportedly Chanel, Lopez also shouted "Let’s get loud!" during her performance, a nod to her turn-of-the-millennium signature hit, delighting social media.
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