A weary Washington celebrates, with revelry and relief

After four years of President Trump, the White House, for once, was quiet. But just out front, beyond the scaffolding and the fences put up to keep out protesters, the nation’s capital transformed into an all-day celebration, stretching into night, that no barrier could block.

Hundreds gathered Saturday morning downtown to cheer the long-awaited results of the 2020 presidential election and to mark the selection of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman who will hold that office.

As revelers chanted, danced, drank, banged pots and pans and set off fireworks, native Washingtonians and the city’s many transplants said they were as relieved as they were overjoyed, eager to end a dark and divisive political era punctuated by racist and xenophobic rhetoric that often came from the White House itself.

They paraded before stately government buildings covered in plywood, boarded up amid unrest during the summer’s protests against injustice or in anticipation of post-election violence that hasn’t materialized. And they sang behind masks, a somber reminder of the more than 237,000 Americans who have died from the coronavirus.

Police blocked off some of the capital’s main thoroughfares, including K Street, home to powerful lobbyists, and 16th Street, which Mayor Muriel Bowser closed to cars and had painted with large yellow letters reading “Black Lives Matter” in the wake of protests this spring over injustice.

“Whose house? Our house!” Justin Johnson, an artist and activist, shouted from a truck bed to the crowd, backed by a band. “Raise your hand if you voted for Trump or Kanye,” he said, and much of the crowd raised middle fingers.

“We got work to do,” he said. “But I’m not gonna overwhelm y’all today — this is a celebration!”

At first, Trump wasn’t home to hear it. When the news broke on the summer-like Saturday that Biden had defeated the president’s reelection bid — despite his lawsuits and claims of fraud — Trump was golfing in Virginia. Beyond Twitter, he has declined to speak publicly.

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Inauguration Day in January will be something of a homecoming for Biden, the former vice president who spent eight years in the White House and many more just up Pennsylvania Avenue in Congress. And Harris, a freshman senator born in Oakland who grew up in Berkeley, left California to attend Howard University, one of the country’s most prominent historically black institutions, just two miles from the White House.

James West and his wife, Carolyn, born and raised in Washington, took it all in blocks from the White House. When he heard that the news of Trump’s loss had come while the president was on the golf course, West laughed.

“Hell — when is he at the White House?” he asked.

Of Harris’ election, Carolyn said, “It means everything … The foundation of this country was built on Black women.”

A block away from the historic church where, a few months ago, security forces used tear gas to clear protestors so that Trump could pose for a photo, Thulani Fuhr, 8, and his sister Thandi, 5, took a break on their triple-seated bike, guided by their dad, David.

Thulani said he was in a Zoom Spanish class Saturday when he heard that Biden had won.

“I was super excited, and I was dancing with my mom and dad,” he said from behind his tiger mask. “Because Biden won, and I am for Biden — he’s a good person.” Harris too, he added: “She is good — she is the first black and Asian and woman to be vice president.”

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Their cousin Tendai Sewing and aunt Tao Sewing just moved to Washington after years living in Berlin.

“It was really scary for a while there,” Tao Sewing said of watching the U.S. from abroad and seeing Trump’s attitude toward allies like Germany. “To have a relationship again with allies and other countries, it’s a great thing.”

By Saturday afternoon, Howard University’s grassy yard was already a party.

“Trump is out of office, y’all!” the young DJ playing music from the steps of the Carnegie Building shouted between songs. “We got Kamala Harris as vice president — let’s turn up!”

Takera Boston, 28, from Baltimore, graduated from Howard in 2014 and was in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same sorority as Harris.

“It feels like I can be anything in the world, honestly,” Boston said. “She’s everything that I am, so the options for me are limitless … and I feel the same way for any African American woman.”

For months, the nation’s capital has been something of a ghost town. But on Saturday, as dusk fell, moods were high, and business downtown was booming.

Food trucks moved in and around McPherson Square, as people gathered on the grass to wait for the acceptance speeches.

Protest signs read “Stop tweeting and start packing” and “Grab him by the BALLOTS.” Some featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) smirking; others showed the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the phrase “The Majority Opinion!”

A pink unicorn costume and enthusiastic dancing made Michelle Malebranche, a Maryland native, a popular attraction for photographs on Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Malebranche is worried that Trump will find a way to undermine the election or outright refuse to accept the results. And even if he does, she said, he is likely to leave behind a Republican-majority Senate and conservative Supreme Court — a direct threat to equal rights. Last week, she said, she and her wife, Elizabeth, put together a “bug-out bag,” “so we can get out of this city safely.” They wrote their wills, she said, “so if they take away our legal right to be married, we can take care of each other.”

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“Look, he has made it clear he is only going to leave office kicking and screaming,” she added, then yelled toward the White House: “Donald Trump, the American people will pull you out if we have to!”

Revelers didn’t spare Vice President Mike Pence, either. While the area around the U.S. Naval Observatory lacked the festivity that other parts of the city were seeing, the campus — where Pence and other vice presidents before him, including Biden, have historically resided — wasn’t exactly quiet. As cars rushed past along Massachusetts Avenue, one driver yelled, “See ya later, Mike!”

Back in front of the White House, dwindling crowds listened to Harris’ and Biden’s acceptance speeches through a microphone held up to someone’s speaker. Vanessa Burgard, who lives in Richmond, Va., came with her husband, who is in the Air Force, and two daughters.

When she heard the election news, she said, “I felt hopeful, but also a sigh of relief.”

She added, “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

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