Not once in his 54 years has Frank Williams been to a protest. But after he watched hundreds of Trump supporters storm the nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, he said he felt a “calling” that it was time.
The train engineer took a week off work and drove solo from his home in Yorktown, Indiana, to Washington, DC, compelled to stand against the attempted coup and for a democratic American tradition: the peaceful transition of power.
He and several others told BuzzFeed News that despite the threat of far-right violence and a massive security response, they had crossed the country for Wednesday’s inauguration out of a sense of duty. Showing up, they said, was their way of standing against the hate and divisiveness that erupted exactly two weeks ago, a violent capstone of the four troubled years of the Trump administration.
“I am moderately conservative, but when I saw what they did to the Capitol, I thought, I got to protect what I can and counterprotest,” Williams said. “It was terrible what they did, and it was all based on lies.”
Wearing a Biden–Harris shirt over two sweatshirts, Williams arrived in the wind-chilled, empty district about an hour before Joe Biden was officially inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. It was everything and nothing like Williams had expected: There were more tall fences, barricades, and National Guard members than people, and though he had prepared to confront far-right extremists, like the Proud Boys, he found none.
Instead, just feet from the White House at Black Lives Matter plaza, a small group of Biden supporters huddled next to speakers to listen as the country welcomed its new leader. As "Fuck Trump” flags flapped in the breeze, it was largely quiet, the mood tempered but joyful. Sitting on a concrete block, Williams wasn’t really sure what to do next.
Nearby, Liane, a Democrat from Michigan wearing star-spangled running tights, a Biden–Harris beanie, and a Biden flag draped around her like a cape, seemed to know exactly what to do: celebrate. She jumped up and down as the official announcement that the new president and vice president had been sworn in echoed from a loudspeaker. Like Williams, she also felt the need to be physically present for the inauguration and witness the transfer of power, despite the historic lockdown in DC.
Catching her breath, she told BuzzFeed News she felt “elation and joy.”
“It’s more than happiness, it’s a joy that’s in my heart. I feel so deeply that we’re on a path to healing,” she continued. “[Biden] is trying to bring us together. It’s a good day.”
In his inaugural speech, Biden emphasized the need for Americans to unite and laid out plans to do so, even as he spoke from the Capitol steps that had been overrun with rioters two weeks before.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said. “We can do this, if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts. If we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we’re willing to stand in the other person’s shoes, as my mom would say, just for a moment, stand in their shoes.”
Shrugging off warnings from their friends in Hallowell, Maine, Dawn Gallagher and Phil Lindley showed up in DC ready for anything. The couple, in their seventies, showed BuzzFeed News a text from their son instructing them to be careful: “don’t get arrested, don’t get shot, stay safe, don’t mouth off to people.”
“You have no idea what is going to happen,” Gallagher said, explaining the fears of their loved ones. “In a way, we almost felt a duty to come down here to say this is how we do this peacefully.”
As they navigated their way past military vehicles and through checkpoints, Gallagher and Lindley, who is a retired military police officer, said hello and thanks to every National Guard member they saw. After living through the Trump administration, they welcomed the mild, reserved celebration. “It’s OK that we are celebrating quietly,” Gallagher said, adding that, for this heightened and precarious transition, she felt it was important not to further inflame people by rubbing defeat in their faces.
“We are hoping to get back to remembering what it is like to treat people with respect," Lindley said. “Regardless of what you believe.”
But gloating was exactly what Bob, a staunch Republican wearing an NRA cap, felt the group at BLM Plaza was doing. He said he drove to DC from northern Maryland that morning because he didn’t believe Biden would be sworn in as president or that Trump would actually leave the White House. He had to see for himself what would happen, he said.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News while watching the festivities from the sidelines, he rehashed unfounded conspiracy theories, popular among Trump’s base and pushed by the former president himself, about the election being rigged and Biden’s work regarding Ukraine. He said that he does not support the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, but that he wishes he had been at the Trump rally that led to it.
“Goldarnit!” he exclaimed, crossing his arms. Gesturing to a rainbow flag adorned with a black fist, he added: “I’m angry.”
Bob’s anger and disbelief was familiar to Williams, who described his Indiana hometown. Most of the train driver’s friends didn't know he took the DC trip. His vote for Biden, despite being what he described as a union man in a “blue-collar, all-male environment,” could get him in trouble, he said. Many in his circles, he added, believe the election was stolen and that Trump will, somehow, come back to power.
“It sucks in my circles right now. I have some really down-the-rabbit-hole-friends,” he said.
Williams attributed his belief in honor and tradition for pulling him to witness the incoming Biden administration anyway. Before the inauguration, he visited the battlefields of Gettysburg, where the tide of the Civil War had turned. It was hard not to draw parallels, he said, thinking back to the horrific scenes of the deadly Capitol insurrection.
“I think that was the end of it,” Williams said, saying that he doesn’t think Trump would run again. “And if he did, I don’t think he’d win. He left his supporters high and dry.”