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Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States in Washington DC on Friday, pledging to lead a “united America” to renewed prosperity. But widespread protests suggested the country may be more divided than ever.
On a grey and rainy day in the US capital, crowds began filing into the National Mall in front of the Capitol Building from the crack of dawn Friday, as they have done every four years for decades to watch new presidents be sworn in. But it was clear from the start that this was no ordinary inauguration, for no ordinary president.
The turnout alone bore testament to that: Although there was no official count, it was clear that far fewer people attended Trump’s inauguration than the estimated 1.8 million who turned out for Barack Obama in 2009. Some counts put Friday’s turnout as low as 250,000.
More stark still was the number of those present who had come not to cheer on the new president, but to deride him. Protest groups gathered on street corners, in parks and squares and along entrance routes to the swearing-in ceremony. Almost every conceivable cause was represented. Placards displayed slogans ranging from “Free Palestine” to “Black Lives Matter” and “Pussy grabs back”.
‘No Trump! No KKK! No racist USA’
“Today is a very sad day,” said Janice, a retired 65-year-old from Philadelphia, attending a protest outside the National Archives building next to the Mall. “Today a man is being sworn in for the highest office in the country who doesn’t deserve it.
“What he said about disadvantaged people, about women…”
As she spoke, Trump supporters, many wearing bright-red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, filed by. Some ignored the protesters, others stared on in slight bemusement.
In the background, a woman on a megaphone chanted: “No Trump! No KKK! No racist USA!”
Others directed their ire not just at Trump, but the political establishment in general.
At another protest a few blocks away, 35-year-old PHD student Matt Berkman held aloft a sign reading “The ruling class loves to bomb kids”, directed at both Republicans and Democrats.
“Last year Barack Obama dropped 26,000 bombs, I’m certain Trump will do the same thing or even worse,” he said.
“I’m anti-Trump but also anti the Democrats, both are controlled but the corporations,” he continued, adding that nevertheless he is “a big supporter of Bernie Sanders”.
‘Forgotten no longer’
Trump, the 70-year-old billionaire businessman, television personality and now president took many by surprise when his leftfield presidential campaign gained traction among voters seemingly disillusioned with mainstream politics, starting a wave of support the crest of which carried him all the way to the White House.
Despite comments and policies that have cast aspersions on groups from immigrants to women, he has based his campaign on appealing to the “silent majority”, a supposed group of everyday men and women who feel their voices have gone unheard by the country’s leaders in Washington.
It was to this group that he addressed much of his inauguration speech.
“January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he said as his defeated opponent, Hillary Clinton, looked on from a few yards away, along with Barack and Michelle Obama and a host of other former presidents and dignitaries.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”
The oath he had just taken to become the 45th president of the United States was, he said, “an oath of allegiance to all Americans”, in an apparent call for unity. “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable,” he said.
Moments earlier, however, there were plenty of signs to suggest the divisions exposed by a bitter race of the White House had not been forgotten by those in the crowd.
There were boos for Clinton when she arrived to take her seat and again each time she appeared on one of the big screens set up around the Capitol Building and on the Mall, along with occasional cries of “lock her up” – one of Trump’s anti-Clinton campaign slogans.
Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, was also given a less-than-welcoming reception.
Towards the end of the ceremony, a woman in the ticketed viewing area who had snuck in an anti-Trump banner was quietly removed by police.
Trump, meanwhile, painted a bleak picture of a broken America in desperate need of repair.
He spoke of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities”, “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealised potential”.
In way of a remedy, he vowed “from this moment on, it’s going to be America First”.
“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” he said.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Just blocks away, however, carnage was present in a very real sense. Although the vast majority of protests seemed to have been carried out entirely peacefully – something the presence of a 28,000-strong security force had helped to ensure – scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators who smashed windows of businesses and hurled projectiles at security forces.
Police responded with pepper spray and stun grenades.
The ugly scenes continued after the swearing-in ceremony had finished and the inaugural parade was underway, with protesters setting vehicles, including a limousine and a TV van, on fire.
Police said that at least 95 people were arrested and two officers injured in the clashes.
On the whole, however, most on both sides of the fence – whether die-hard Trump supporters or fierce critics – seemed willing to make clear their feelings on the new president peacefully, and give those with opposing views space to do the same in a sign that no matter how deep America’s divisions, the right to express oneself freely remains sacrosanct.
“I definitely don’t agree with them but I respect their right to be here, just like they respect mine,” said Ed Percill, a 25-year-old student and Trump supporter from New York.
“This is America,” said Janice, one of the protesters outside the National Archives Building, with a shrug when asked how she felt about Trump’s supporters. “People have a right to support who they want.”
The protests continue on Saturday with the Women’s March on Washington, expected to attract tens of thousands of people – the same day that Trump’s task of somehow unifying America’s stark rifts begins with his first full day in office as president of the United States.