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WASHINGTON – Doug Peterson drove 1,100 miles from Houston to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last year to canvass in frigid temperatures for presidential candidate Joe Biden.
He volunteered relentlessly for him across Houston and attended countless Zoom meetings with other organizers. When media outlets named Biden the winner of the presidential election in November, Peterson’s mind immediately raced to attending the inauguration. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
Wednesday, he’ll watch the inauguration with other activists on a TV in south Houston. At 69, Peterson can’t risk traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. And the threat of violence at the hands of overzealous supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump snuffed any remaining thrill of the event.
“It was like the second hammer coming down,” Peterson said of the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters Jan. 6. “It’s too dangerous.”
The inauguration of a new president, traditionally a joyous occasion filled with pomp and marching bands, has been disrupted by the twin threats of disease and civil unrest.
Under ordinary circumstances, people would stream into the U.S. capital this week to witness not just Biden’s swearing-in Wednesday but also the historic moment of Kamala Harris becoming the first African American and South Asian American woman to be vice president.
Instead, supporters are scratching plans to attend the event, and those who showed up to Washington encountered a scene more akin to a military takeover than a time-honored peaceful revel: concrete barriers, checkpoints, troops toting rifles, federal helicopters circling in the sky.
An FBI warning of possible armed protests by Trump supporters – who have embraced his false claim that the election was rigged against him – at the U.S. Capitol and at state capitols during the inauguration have put the nation on edge and irreversibly altered the look and feel of this year’s inauguration.
Pro-Trump rallies are expected through Wednesday. In Washington, the FBI vetted the 25,000 National Guard troops coming in for the inauguration to prevent collusion with pro-Trump protesters.
Edna Havlin, 44, navigated the militarized streets over the weekend with her husband and two children. Havlin celebrated Biden’s win by popping open a bottle of champagne in her hometown of São Paulo, Brazil, then booked flights to Washington to be part of the historic occasion.
“Little did we know everything would be upside down now,” she said.
Her 10-year-old daughter, Anna, said she was disappointed to see so many security restrictions.
“The city is very pretty, and there’s a lot of history,” she said. “But I’m sad I can’t see the Lincoln Memorial, and it’s just so quiet. I’m bummed.”
They have tickets to some inauguration events but are worried attending could make them a target of agitators. Havlin said she has to remind herself and her family that these are historic times: “It is what it is,” she said. “And we can come back on a better day.”
Earl Stafford, a philanthropist and Democratic campaign donor, attended both inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. At Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, he brought more than 300 underprivileged guests, including homeless people, wounded veterans and victims of domestic abuse, setting them up in hotel rooms and furnishing them with new clothes to attend galas.
Stafford, 72, said he supported Biden early in the Democratic primaries because the former vice president has the most experience and would bring emotional maturity to the White House.
"We don’t need an emotional president," he said. "We need one who’s going to make sage decisions that's best for our country."
Though he lives in McLean, Virginia, less than a half-hour drive from where Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president, Stafford said he plans to watch this inauguration from his couch at home with his wife, Amanda.
“The inauguration is the transfer of power. … We celebrate as a country, and people get behind that,” he said. “But not everyone’s getting behind it. It’s crazy this time. It’s embarrassing.”
Given the risks and challenges, the Presidential Inauguration Committee announced this week the traditional parade from the Capitol to the White House will be replaced with a virtual “Parade Across America,” which will be livestreamed and include performances by comedian Jon Stewart, musical group Earth Wind & Fire and performers and speakers across the country.
Julian Johnson drove from Minneapolis to Washington last week to sell inauguration memorabilia. He's one of a handful of vendors peddling Biden calendars and Black Lives Matter hats to a light flow of tourists, a stark contrast to the dozens of vendors who lined the National Mall for the pro-Trump rally this month.
Johnson, who is Black, said he plans to be out selling merchandise on Wednesday, too, as long as he doesn't see any Trump supporters causing trouble.
“I have my radar on,” he said. “If I spot something that doesn’t feel right, I’m outta here.”
Washington residents Charles and Gina Hall walked Sunday along C Street near the Lincoln Memorial, "Biden/Harris" buttons pinned to their jackets. Eight-feet-tall metal fencing blocked access to the nearby National Mall, their usual walking route. National Guard troops from as far away as Florida manned roadblocks, along with police and uniformed members of the Secret Service. Tourists snapped selfies.
“We walk around here all the time; it’s our normal place,” said Gina Hall, who works in environmental finance. “It’s wild to see.”
Juston Jackson was a 23-year-old student at Grambling State University in Louisiana when he marched with his French horn at Obama’s inauguration in 2009 with the renowned Tiger Marching Band. He remembered fondly how his toes went numb in the biting cold and how the crowds brimmed with excitement.
Jackson, now 35 and a high school teacher and photographer living near New Orleans, voted for Biden, hoping that the former vice president could restore unity to the nation and undo what Jackson described as the harm the Trump administration has done to the country's reputation around the world.
He would have entertained a return visit to Washington to see the inauguration, but the pandemic precluded him from even considering such a trip. The violence at the Capitol further soured the prospect. Wednesday, he’ll watch the inauguration from home with his two children, ages 4 and 2 months.
He’s eager to point out to them that Harris is not only the first African Asian woman sworn in as vice president – but the first one to have graduated from a historically Black university, just like their dad. The inauguration's military presence and the threat of civil unrest won't detract from that historical moment, he said.
“It means a lot,” Jackson said. “I got an opportunity to see a historic event, and now they can, too.”
Follow Jervis and Hughes on Twitter: @MrRJervis and @TrevorHughes.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden inauguration disrupted by fears of COVID-19, civil unrest