Crowd on Sproul watching inaugurationWall-to-wall people filled Sproul Plaza to watch on the big screen as Barack Obama took the oath of office as the nation's 44th president. (Steve McConnell/UC Berkeley photos)

Glued to the ObamaTron

Thousands crowded Sproul Plaza on Jan. 20 to watch the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama on TV.

Group hug on Sproul Inaugural video: The scene on Sproul Plaza

| 22 January 2009

Barack Obama's inauguration brought a joyful, mellow crowd of some 10,000 to Sproul Plaza on Tuesday, perhaps the biggest gathering ever in the storied history of Berkeley's most sacred spot.

For many, the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement and site of many civil-rights and anti-war protests in the 1960s was the place to be to witness the swearing-in of the nation's first African American president, elected on the promise of a new direction for the country.

African American students watch Obama's speechObama's status as America's first African American president held special meaning for many in the crowd.
La Reva Myles, a 1978 alumna who was raised in Berkeley but lives in Albany now, had two words to explain why she was there: "Go Bears!"

Then she added, "This is the place where everything good happens that's new. The Free Speech Movement started here and guess what? This is the result of all that hard work."

Andy Schumacher '89, a lawyer and Berkeley law graduate, seconded that emotion: "We couldn't think of a better place, because this is a time for some freedom to be returned back to the people." He and his wife, Nancy, drove over from San Anselmo by 7:20 a.m., early enough to stake out prime seating around Ludwig's Fountain with a good view of the giant TV screen erected on the steps of Sproul Hall.

By the time Obama took the oath of office, just after 9 a.m., people of all ages and colors, some with kids on their shoulders, stretched to the back of Lower Sproul, and spread out almost to Sather Gate and Telegraph Avenue. Every nook and cranny with even a partial view was occupied.

Unlike the loud anger of Sproul's most famous moments, Tuesday's crowd was in a mood as sunny as the day, and kept its attention quietly riveted on the C-SPAN feed from Washington.

Cheers for departure of BushThe Berkeley crowd saved some of its heartiest cheers (and cowbells) for the departure of the helicopter carrying outgoing President Bush into retirement.
Happy cheers went up with each sighting of an Obama, starting with the first glimpse of Michelle Obama at 7:59 a.m. Shots of outgoing President George W. Bush, and the wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney, drew boos, hisses, and one shout of "bye!"

Only light booing greeted the invocation by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, a Christian conservative whose selection to deliver the inauguration's invocation enraged many, especially in the gay community, because of his comments comparing gay marriage to pedophilia and incest.

When Obama was finally sworn in as the 44th U.S. president, several minutes past the constitutional deadline, the plaza erupted in sustained cheering and clapping. Up front, a 15-foot-long banner unfurled, reading "UROCKBARACK," handpainted by Berkeley resident Susan Louie, a graduate from the 1990s (she wouldn't say exactly when) who sees Obama as the epitome of a multicultural society and a force for peace.

A deep quiet fell again for the new president's first speech, a call for Americans to "dust ourselves off and start the work of remaking America."

For most of the speech, a call for a new era of responsibility and national service, the Berkeley audience was in sync with the masses watching from the Mall in Washington. They cheered together when Obama conjured a nation where "all are equal, all are free," an America that is "a friend of each nation ... and ... ready to lead once more."

But Robin Lakoff, a Berkeley linguistics professor, noticed several lines that drew cheers at Sproul while Washington stayed quiet: When Obama added "non-believers" to the list of faiths that need to come together, when he said "we'll restore science to its rightful place" in American political discussion, and when he called for developing green-energy sources and transforming "our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age."

While both audiences were similar, Lakoff said, "Ours was more of a Berkeley crowd."

Banner displayed on SproulSusan Louie (kneeling, left) and friends displayed their banner on Sproul as the crowd thinned after the ceremony.
The size of both crowds also broke records, with Washington's hitting an estimated 1.8 million to 2 million. In Berkeley, the campus police department's estimate of 10,000 by far eclipses the previous high of some 6,000 for Sproul Plaza, set both in 1967 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke, and in December 1964, during a Free Speech Movement rally.

The event was made possible by the gift of an anonymous donor, which paid for the rental of the 15-by-20-foot screen, plus vats of free coffee for everyone.

Getting the festivities off to a rousing start, the Straw Hat Band played the national anthem, and ASUC President Roxanne Winston described the ways that Berkeley faculty, staff, and students worked for Obama's election. Ultimately, she said, "this is not about Barack Obama; it's about changing the political process so that it's not alienating; it lets everyone feel empowered and have ownership over government."

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau followed, saying that with Obama's election, the "country has taken a real step toward equity and inclusion." He drew attention to the many campus faculty called to serve in the Obama administration's transition and Cabinet, including law Dean Christopher Edley, economics professor Christina Romer, and physicist Steven Chu, but cheers interrupted him as Obama's daughters appeared on the screen.

Echoing the new president's call for a culture of public service, Birgeneau urged people to find Cal Corps recruiters in the crowd, who were signing up volunteers for community projects. (Signup forms also are available.)

The Sproul celebration attracted not just Berkeley students, faculty, staff, and alumni, but residents of the East Bay and beyond who were drawn by the desire to spend a historic moment with others who shared their ideals, in the place that best represents them.

Freshman Simone Johnson got up early to be there at 8:20 a.m., and not just because the semester started Tuesday. Her first class wasn't until 2 p.m.

Semifreddi's delivery man with Obama shirtEven the delivery guy making his regular rounds got into the Obama spirit.
"I never thought I'd see the day," said Johnson, who graduated last spring from Oakland High and is African American. Throughout the ceremony, she was scared for Obama's safety, because "things can happen not everyone likes him."

Ann Bartz was a Berkeley freshman in 1970 when she was tear-gassed on Sproul Plaza during protests over the killing of four Kent State students during an antiwar demonstration in Ohio. She now lives in Berkeley and works for a San Francisco non-profit, BALLE, which helps build sustainable, local economies.

Back then, she said, "we were expecting the revolution any minute. But then it was clear it was going to be a much longer process." She wanted to be at Sproul because Obama's election makes her think "it's going to work out OK."

Sherry Core, a mental-health worker whose daughter just graduated from Berkeley, drove up from Bakersfield to be at Sproul.

"I had to see history. Finally the people have a voice, and we're ready for a change. It's almost a revolution," said Core, who stayed in her daughter's Bancroft Way apartment. Her daughter slept in through the goings-on.

Even after the inauguration, people lingered in Sproul. On the big screen, a military helicopter waited outside the Capitol as the 43rd president and first lady descended the stairs and got in. Marlene Stein, an Alamo resident, made a lifting gesture with her hands, as if she could levitate the helicopter herself and speed the Bushes on their way.

As it finally took off, she and many in the crowd clapped.