I have a new addition to our series, “Things That Tick Me Off,” encounters and experiences that go beyond the usual level of inconvenience or stupidity in everyday life. This weekend, we took the kids to the D.C. Chinese Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown with another family. It was not just the worst experience we have had in an outing with the kids, we felt fortunate to leave the parade without injury. It was nothing short of unbelievable.
First some history. Leslie and I took the kids years ago to the parade and had a uniquely bad experience. It had poor crowd control and the parade itself was incredibly short — literally a parade that passed by in its entirely in a matter of minutes. However, we wanted the kids to experience this culture and decided to give it another chance to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. It was a huge mistake.
The parade organizers appear to have spent more time in advertising the event than actually planning it. There was an almost complete absence of crowd coordination or any parade security to be seen. Thousands of people were packed into a tiny area where the stage was set up at H and 6th street. Security tape was placed across the middle of the street at one point and people did not know if the parade would come to the end of the street or if they should stand behind the tape in the middle of the street. Since there was no one to direct people, there was a surge of people just before the start of the parade into the middle of the street. This led everyone to give up their spots and fight for a position to see the parade. The lead car of the parade then came directly down the parade and beeped for people to move. There were virtually no police to be seen. The result was chaos. People were fighting for their old positions and the crowd was forced back to the sidewalks.
We were caught with the rest of the people in the stampede. It was unbelievably dangerous and thousands of people were pressed on to the sidewalk. You literally could not breathe. People were pressing from all sides. One woman was trying to get her mother with MS out of the crowd in a wheelchair. Families like ours tried to keep our children from being crushed. I literally put Aidan on my shoulder because adults were stepping on children to get out. The conduct we witnessed of adults was shocking with people screaming at each other and other people having panic attacks. At one point, I wanted to take a picture of the scene but I could not reach into my pocket for my phone with people pressing from all sides. People were coming from both ends of the street (particularly on the side with the Metro stop) and trying to move in opposite directions. In the meantime, shop owners in Chinatown were screaming at people not to even step on their stairs to get out of the away because it was “private property.” The effect was literally crushing with people pushing from both ends of the street and people pushing back from the street . . . and shop owners pushing people away from their doors.
When D.C. police were finally seen in the street, they made things worse by ordering people sitting on the curbs to move to the sidewalks — ignoring cries from people that they were being crushed. A stampede could have broken out easily at any time.
The situation was better away from the short street with the stage but there was also a lack of police or security present. People walked in front of cars and officers simply drove down the street expecting people to get out of their way. I personally had to grab two children (not my own) who were standing in front of a turning truck. The mother was behind in the crowd. The most dangerous situation however was on the block with the stage. That is where people were being crushed and literally unable to move. The city risked a serious disaster for its lack of planning and effort.
The most bizarre moment came when the mayor and council members appeared on stage to give speeches after the the remarkably short parade had passed. As people clawed to get out of the area, one council member could be heard proclaiming “This is what D.C. is all about.” Unfortunately, that may be true.
The lack of planning and security could have led to a disaster. It may need a lawsuit to get the parade organizers and city to show a modicum of efforts and judgment. The fault falls primarily on the organizers who created a dangerous situation for the public. However, the D.C. police and city share the blame for such a chaotic situation. I saw officers who seemed entirely clueless on what they should do. Others seemed intent on ignoring the reality in front of them — after the passing of the parade, ordering hundreds of people to get out of the streets and onto sidewalks that were in total gridlock.
If this parade cannot be held without creating such peril, it should not be held. That would be a shame. The Chinese community deserves better. A better parade and a better planning committee. For our part, we promised the kids that they would never have to go to the parade again. They looked totally shell shocked for about an hour. In order to show the better side of the Chinese culture, we took them to a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Virginia. It helped a bit but the kids were still shaken by that vicious conduct of adults and the scary situation on H St.
The situation at the D.C. parade is a disgrace. The city is fortunate that it is not looking at a massive lawsuit after a stampede . . . as are the organizers. For a city that routinely hosts parades and protests, it was a shockingly negligent performance. If they continue this type of dangerous lack of planning, they may learn the wisdom of the Chinese proverb 失足成千古恨 (yi shi zu cheng qian gu hen): “The error of one moment becomes the sorrow of a whole life.”