January 20 was a memorable night for the 3,500 campaign volunteers and supporters who made it inside the Hilton Washington’s ballroom for the official Youth Inaugural Ball. They were mere feet away from the newly inaugurated President of the United States, who personally thanked the roomful of twentysomethings for believing in his campaign and delivering him to the White House.
But not everyone had the same experience.
Kimberly Misher arrived at the Hilton at 7:30, just 30 minutes after the doors opened. The ball didn’t even begin until 9 and the line was already around the block, but Misher had hope—it was moving fast. A few days earlier, she had bought a ball ticket off Craigslist for $400—more than five times the original $75. It was expensive, but she wanted to be a part of history. After navigating through a maze of tents, passing the security check, and checking her coat, she was finally in. Or so she thought.
“A police officer called it a holding area,” says Misher. “That’s how I learned that we were just in the antechamber. The main ballroom was across the hall.” There was one door leading to the main ballroom, and people were lined up 100 people across and 100 people deep, she says. “There was a lot of pushing, and it was hot.”
When the door finally opened, she ran smack into another line—at the entrance to the ballroom. Earlier in the day, Misher had been denied access to the inaugural parade. She had a ticket but was told to go to the wrong gate and wound up at the end of an insurmountable line. But again, she had hope.
“We stood there like cattle, shoulder to shoulder and breast to breast, for an hour,” she says. Eventually, people started to chant, “Let us in!” But to no avail. A fire marshal got on a blow horn and announced that the room was full. Not only that, but he announced that the exits were clogged and no one could leave.
After waiting in yet another line, Misher eventually found an exit. “We also found a line of people anxiously waiting to get into the building,” she says. “The line snaked through the tents, exploded onto the street, and wrapped around the block, stretching down to the far corner.” The main ballroom had to have been double-booked, Misher guesses.
According to Melanie Roussell, spokeswoman for the Presidential Inauguration Committee, the event was not oversold. She said the ballroom never even reached its capacity of 4,200.
“As sometimes happens at large events, a determination was made by the fire marshal to temporarily stop letting people into the ballroom for safety reasons,” says Roussell. “This was an unfortunate situation that kept many guests from enjoying an otherwise wonderful event.”
Roussell and the Presidential Inaugural Committee are in the process of investigating what happened at the ball. When the investigation is over, they’ll determine a response to guests unable to attend. For now, disgruntled ticketholders will have to continue to wait.
Karl Johnson, an Obama staffer, spent three hours in the line outside. He says most of the people around him had worked on the campaign for close to two years. They never even made it inside.
Deanna Zandt, a 33-year-old progressive media organizer, made it inside but was no better off. She described the night as a weird shunting-and-herding of people. Zandt, who has already started a Facebook group, is also starting a Web site to demand an apology and refund from the inaugural committee.
“We’re youth organizers,” she points out. “What did they think we’re going to do?”
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