Washington, D.C., held its breath Saturday as the city — and the rest of the nation and world — waited for the winner of the 2020 presidential election to be announced. Around 11:30 a.m. at the Voters Decided Rally in McPherson Square, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton was giving a speech of encouragement to attendees and voters when the week-long struggle for the White House finally ended.
The crowd's attention shifted as a CNN live broadcast began to play on the screen behind Norton. People nudged those standing next to them and began to point. Time paused as people read the banner at the bottom of the screen that said, “Joseph Biden Jr. elected 46th president.”
There was a split second before the crowd was hit with the full realization of what they had witnessed. Voices rippled through the crowd saying, “We won.”
That moment, when the finish line was finally crossed, would be the last bit of calm many attendees and the nation’s capital would have in the coming hours.
A man to the left of the stage cried out in victory and time started again. More cries joined him and applause filled the square. Norton stopped for a moment, then turned behind her to see what made the crowd so excited. As the cheering continued Norton raised her arms up, beaming with joy and making the peace sign with both of her hands.
A man stepped up to the stage and began to chant, “Who decides? We decide? Who decides? We decide.”
The crowd followed suit as the full report from the CNN broadcast came in.
“That was right on cue don’t you think?” Norton asked the crowd as she took to the stage again. “So those margins tell us that the American people are ready to see Donald Trump going, going, gone!”
Several speakers came to the stage, but within the hour the rally was ready to march to Black Lives Matter Plaza. An event organizer walked up to the stage and addressed the rally, instructing them to organize and pick up signs at the starting point, “Let's do what we do best, let’s march. Let's show our power,” he said.
With that, the crowd around the stage in McPherson Square began to disperse, and I found myself in a river of people preparing to march. I had never been at a rally or demonstration before, let alone a march in the middle of Washington, D.C. While the sun had been shining since the moment I stepped out from the Metro station, it seemed to shine even brighter as I made my way to the marchers who were beaming with joy and relief.
A gentle wind cooled the sweat along my neck, sending a shiver of excitement down my spine as I joined the other photographers and reporters in front of the march. I realized that I was about to walk out into a new America. The streets I would be walking backward on, trying to capture photos and video of the marchers, would be the streets of an America with a new political and social atmosphere.
A group of activists led the march while holding a sign that read “Immigrants are #heretostay” and were from one of the many activist groups that joined the march. Police were on the street corners helping to direct marchers and traffic as we rounded corners, but I did not really pay attention to the city around me until we finally turned onto the Black Lives Matter Plaza. We had passed small groups of onlookers who cheered for the march, but as I turned the plaza stretched out in front of me, half of it already was filled with thousands of people.
It took a moment to take in the view before me. Moments ago, I had just been one of maybe a hundred or two hundred in a march, and now I was just one in a sea of thousands. That moment was when I realized the scope of celebration in D.C., how truly happy many in the nation were. Caught up in the excitement and desperate to see anything and everything, I quickly made my way into the sea of revelers on the plaza.
Just about anything and everything you could think of in terms of a celebration was present in that crowd. People had climbed onto concrete road dividers trying to capture videos, champagne bottles were being popped and homemade signs bobbled above the crowd. American flags, Pride flags, Biden flags, BLM flags were worn or waved all down the plaza.
Every so often someone would start a chant, and then suddenly a group of 20 people joined in amplifying the cheer. Police stood on most corners or on the sidewalks tucked away from the crowd as they watched. One man had managed to climb on top of a bus stop shelter and was shouting while waving his Biden 2020 flag in the air.
Eventually, I made it all the way to the end of the plaza and found myself right up against the gate that had been set up at the perimeter of the White House. All sorts of signs, banners and pictures were affixed to the gate. Some were in disdain of Trump; others advocated for racial equality and BLM, to protect LGBTQ rights and many more political topics.
Reaching into my backpack for my water bottle, I realized I had nearly drunk all of my water as I trekked to the end of the plaza. Hot, sweaty and a little sore as the sun now seemed to blaze down on the sea of celebrators, I could not help but feel energized by my surroundings. I had never seen an entire city smile before, but here I was, looking into the beaming face of Washington, D.C.
At one point I found myself gazing over the crowded plaza from the base of a lamppost. After seeing the many other photographers and videographers dispersed in the crowd trying to capture the historic moments unfolding before us, some from atop rickety ladders and others from standing on electrical boxes, I decided that I too should get a bird’s-eye view.
Not keen on falling and hurting myself, I decided the safest but still good view would be a lamppost. I made my way to the nearest lamppost where a short woman was standing on its base. I waited a few minutes, then asked if I could possibly jump up to see the view for myself. The woman happily obliged and hopped down from the lampost.
I climbed onto the base of the lamppost to get a good look at the plaza. Reaching out as far as I safely could, I took photos and videos on my phone. There were teenagers, young adults, college students, children on their parents’ shoulders, older people and even dozens of dogs swarming the plaza.
It already had been over an hour since I stepped foot onto the plaza and there was no sign the celebrations would be over anytime soon. I called my friend, who had come with me but split off to join the march, hoping we could find a way to each other.
“Meet me at the left-hand corner of the plaza near the gate,” I told her, practically yelling into the phone over the noise of the crowd. “There’s a guy on top of an electrical box holding a sign that says ‘Make America Gay Again.’”
Surprisingly we managed to find each other quickly and exited the massive crowd.
As we weaved our way across the city, it appeared that every single street was celebrating. One block, two blocks, three blocks, four blocks, five blocks and onward the celebrations continued. Pedestrians skipped and jumped over crosswalks, flags trailing in the air behind them, as drivers cheered them on. Sidewalks were laden with signs and T-shirts for Biden. Young adults and children poked their heads out of sunroofs, waving their hands and cheering.
What stuck out to me the most was the prevalent honking of car horns. Just one block away from the plaza I realized there were constant car horns. People popped out of sunroofs holding flags and signs. Drivers waved hands out their windows and pumped their fists in the air. Much like the chants in the plaza, one car would let out a beat from its horn and suddenly several others joined in, drowning out all other noise on the street.
The energy of the city was infectious. Even as I sat down for the first time in hours on a street bench, I couldn't wait to get back on my feet. Breaking out our second water bottles of the day, my friend and I caught our breath on the quiet street. I leaned back against the bench, tilted my head toward the sky and closed my eyes. A refreshing breeze swept across my face as I took in the chorus of horns in the distance, the blades of a helicopter flying nearby and the chatter of passers-by.
Sitting back up I saw a small family pass by us. A young boy who couldn’t have been more than 7 was asking his mother about the commotion, “It’s because a nice man has been elected,” I heard her say as they passed by.
Deciding there was still more to see in D.C., my friend and I made our way to the Washington Monument area of the National Mall. We approached from the World War II Memorial, walking through the open lawn where the monument stood proudly. Surprisingly, this area was much less packed than the streets themselves. There were still dozens of people, but many were enjoying the day further distanced from one another.
Food trucks were lined up along Constitution Avenue, attracting flocks of people. Celebrators sprawled out across the lawn were throwing frisbees, sitting next to signs in support of Biden or setting up picnic blankets. While taking in the sights on the lawn, my friend nudged me. “Is that the police over there?” she asked. I looked to our left and saw a group of police wearing vests and helmets walking from the road.
As far as I could see there were no disturbances on the mall lawn. Confused, I watched to see where the police were headed. It looked like they were headed toward the Washington Monument so, curiously but cautiously, I dragged my friend with me to follow. As we neared the base of the monument, I could see a small crowd had formed at its base. I assumed it was a tour guide group or spectators, but as I got closer I saw it was a group of about 30 to 40 people holding banners and signs.
The police had split off to stand back on either side watching the scene around them. Not sure if I should get too close, I asked the women who were also standing off to the side if they knew what was going on. They told me it was a group of Trump supporters who had gathered protesting the results of the election and the counting of the ballots. Even though there were police standing off to the side, the demonstration was calm even as several debates were going on between the demonstrators and passers-by.
Many signs and shirts the demonstrators displayed said “Stop the Count” of votes, and some had a chart on them to display what they said was the negative effect of mail-in ballots. One lady was speaking to a small gathering around her through a megaphone about what she called illegal ballots. Those who interacted with the demonstrators and engaged in debates seemed to become increasingly agitated, and I decided it was time to leave.
I walked back to my friend, who had decided to stay down at the path to the monument, and filled her in on the scene at the monument base. It was late in the afternoon, and we decided to take a seat further down the lawn to rest and take in the view.
When I stepped off the metro that morning, I was greeted by businesses and hotels with their windows boarded up in anticipation of protests. I had arrived in Washington a little nervous and a little unsure, but determined to find a story. Now, just hours later, I comfortably sat on the sunlit lawn watching those around me in good spirits and celebrating. America had been on edge all week, millions of people wrestling with the anxiety of an unknown future. Sitting in the warm sunlight, letting myself relax for the first time that day, I heard the city surrounding me let out a sigh of relief.