By Tyler Bloomfield
Then president-elect Donald Trump sits on the cover of TIME magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year issue. Perched beside him are five words – “The divided states of America”. It’s a considerably provocative phrase and one that may even perpetuate the division that already existed. What I didn’t understand was how accurate those words would be on my trip to Washington for the presidential inauguration.
I was one of four student journalists from Humber, who had the opportunity to witness history and report on the inauguration, any rioting that went along with it and the Women’s March the following day.
We piled in the car – cameras, microphones and suitcases in tow. We left Toronto and hit the road to our first stop for a slice of American life before checking into the capital.
Altoona, Pennsylvania. Home to about 45,000 people. A little over halfway between Toronto and Washington D.C. it was our first stop in Trump country.
That first night was spent in a sports bar getting something to eat and listening in on some of the local banter. Our waiter was a young man who would’ve been otherwise forgettable if not for his slight, almost indistinguishable accent and what he told us when we were getting our bills.
He asked us what brought us to the bar. We told him we were journalists from Canada on assignment to cover the Inauguration and the Women’s March. He joked with us about taking him back to Canada in the trunk on our way back. We all laughed as he disappeared to get our change. When he returned, he said goodbye to us, reminding us how willing he’d be to hop in the car with us and head back to Canada, with a tongue-in-cheek sort of smile.
We had an understanding of the political landscape before we got into Altoona. The small city anchors Blair County politically and has been traditionally Republican for a century. A vast majority voted for Donald Trump, who held one of his Make America Great Again rallies in the town. Pennsylvania was one of the key battleground states in last year’s election and it turned red by a narrow margin.
Talking to some of the folks in town it became very apparent that Donald Trump was the candidate that best represented the people of the once-prosperous coal city.
This area is “prime Trump country,” said Ryan Brown, a political reporter for the local newspaper the Altoona Mirror.
“Even among the Republican party, it’s kind of that rural, white working class, rust belt area.”
Construction workers – who supported Trump during his campaign – echoed this. The general sentiment was that he reached the common working man, which for people in town, was easy to identify with.
We arrived in Washington the next night on the eve of the inauguration. As the sun went down, protesters demonstrated at the entrances to some major inaugural events. As we approached the National Press Building alongside hundreds of angry protestors we found ourselves at the ass end of a giant inflatable white elephant with the word ‘FASCISM’ sprawled across it. An American flag was burning on the streets, men wearing Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin masks held a sign that read ‘Trump is Alt-right with us’. All the while, someone was yelling the words ‘Impeach the Predatory President, bragging about grabbing a woman’s genitals’ which the crowd began to chant.
The scene was frantic and chaotic to say the least. It was our little introduction to Washington. We would spend three days there, seeing the atmosphere and look of the city change dramatically each day. The first change would happen in a matter of hours.
When we got in off the early train, the city was jammed with a sea of Trump supporters wearing red, various security forces and protesters. Navigating through roadblocks and security checkpoints consumed the morning as FBI, Homeland Security, CIA, Bomb Tech, the U.S. Military and various different police forces made their presence known.
We got as far as we could down Pennsylvania Avenue before lumping in with the rest of the inauguration crowd. We weren’t close enough to see the faces of U.S. Presidents past, present and future but if you squinted you could make out the humanoid figures on stage.
By the time we settled in, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was singing in all its glory, while people chattered in anticipation. With no screens in sight and no visual reference for what was happening on stage, a massive BOOM! rung through the air and my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach.
I scanned the area and watched people, like me, frantically look around for answers. I checked to see if a plume of smoke was coming from the stage or if you could hear screams and a stampede towards the exits, but nothing. A calm man in a Make America Great Again hat said “Gun salute,” calmly and smugly, and triggered an air of nervous laughter in the immediate area.
All of the boardroom meetings we had about emergency scenarios and all the what if’s that we discussed before the trip came flooding into my mind.
Although nothing nefarious had happened I couldn’t help but mentally run through the protocol in case of an emergency.
I took the next five minutes to call my mother.
As the swearing-in ceremony came to a close and I hung up the phone and Donald Trump began to speak just as rain fell from the sky like a pathetic fallacy in a Shakespearean play.
K AND 13TH
Moving through the city in Trump’s new America, anti-Trump protesters and Trump supporters clashed in the streets as strangers engaged in yelling matches. At K and 13th, across from Franklin square– beneath the Washington Post building– was the most aggressive clash I witnessed.
A military truck was mobbed by demonstrators and before long they were climbing onto the back of the truck. A Trump supporter seemed to take offence to this, jumping on the back to square up with a face hidden by a black bandana.
Others quickly intervened, forcing the Trump supporter off the truck and shaming him through the mob of anti-Trump groups.
Over the course of the next hour we saw firefighters blocking off an area where a limousine had been set on fire and a line of riot police on the street trying to contain the chaos.
I could see they had shields, we could smell the tear gas and were told by other spectators that they were using concussion grenades before we showed up.
Trump supporters were harassed as they walked anywhere near the intersection and they did not back down from the challenge.
One Trump supporter passing by had his hat taken off the top of his head by somebody in the crowd. and went after the person who had taken it.
The Trump supporter went in pursuit of the hat thief got a hold of him and wrestled in the street for possession of his hat. As he went to retrieve it he was also pepper sprayed by another protestor in the process.
He still had his Trump pride and told us that even though he was outnumbered and they took his hat he wasn’t going to let them get away with it. He told us this as he was wearing his hat dripping with orange pepper spray onto his glasses.