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For some Americans, Biden-Harris inauguration reassures: ‘We’re going to be OK’

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Javier Torres’ 8-year-old daughter, Shikeyah, often “grumped and groaned” when starting an online school day, the Phoenix dad said. But on Wednesday, she bounded excitedly out of bed.

“She popped up and said, ‘It’s the inauguration!’” said Torres, a 43-year-old attorney. Shikeyah put on her Kamala Harris T-shirt for the occasion — the elaborately choreographed national ritual taking place 2,300 miles away, on a cold, blustery day in Washington, D.C.

With millions of Americans watching on cellphones or laptops or television, and before a pandemic-thinned in-person audience of dignitaries and former presidents, President Biden and Vice President Harris took their oaths of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, besieged two weeks earlier by an extremist mob.

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Shikeyah — who has a Latino father and a Diné, or Navajo, mother — has told her parents she wants to be president when she grows up. So Torres was moved to tears to see Harris — a Black and South Asian woman who served, until Monday, as a U.S. senator from California — assume the second-highest office in the land.

“For her to see a woman with brown skin up there, it means that she has a role model for that dream,” said Torres, who campaigned for Biden among Arizona’s Latino communities. “It can happen.”

As Biden sought in his inaugural speech to summon the “better angels” invoked by Abraham Lincoln more than a century and a half ago, many of those watching from around the country said they drew inspiration from his words.

“We’re going to be OK,” Keonice Fortune, a 46-year-old coffeehouse manager, said softly as she focused on cellphone images of the ceremony over a quick meal at a food court in downtown Atlanta. She thought of what she might one day tell her great-grandchildren about this moment, but also recalled the suffering of her ancestors.

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“When we look back at history, as African Americans, we can tell things have changed,” she said. “People fought for this.”

Earlier Wednesday, in the nation’s capital, a smattering of dog-walkers and local residents raised their mobile phones to capture the sight of Marine One flying away from the White House with President Trump aboard, and heading for nearby Joint Base Andrews, across the Maryland line. Trump skipped the inauguration of his successor, the first president in modern times to do so.

“This is the moment I was waiting for,” said Mustafa Bey, a 59-year-old native Washingtonian who works with disabled veterans, watching with satisfaction as the chopper’s outline sliced the horizon. “Now the healing starts.”

Natasha Rankin, 47, walking her dogs near the Washington Channel, welcomed airborne proof that Trump “is actually gone” from her city, and from the White House.

“So much of a mess has been left behind,” she said.

Parker Mullins of Portland, Ore., backed Biden’s rival Bernie Sanders in the fight for the Democratic nomination. But the 30-year-old called the advent of the Biden administration an “incredible relief” after Trump’s erratic handling of crises like the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans and infected nearly 25 million.

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“I am relieved as hell to have somebody who I know is not going to change their attitude toward the pandemic every two hours, depending on how they’re feeling about tweeting,” Mullins said.

That sentiment was echoed by Allison Muhlendorf, who works in early-childhood education in Montgomery, Ala.

“The adults are back in the White House,” the 37-year-old said. “Really, no matter what your party is, we should all be proud of this moment in history.”

In chilly upstate New York, Rabbi Yamin Levy, a Moroccan immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than three decades, teared up with happiness as he watched the Washington coverage. The 57-year-old rabbi of Great Neck’s Iranian Jewish Center, Levy said he had prayed with his congregation for “the government to be wise.”

Some Americans, though, could muster little enthusiasm. Diana Co, who manages a taqueria in downtown Atlanta, voted for Trump in 2016 because she thought the economy was a mess and she liked his business background. She didn’t vote in November.

While she believes “values and principles” matter in a leader, Co, 36, had little hope for meaningful change under Biden. “It’s a very capitalistic system — that doesn’t change,” she said.

Others warned it would take more than words to pull a rancor-riven nation together.

“Unity doesn’t come from saying in a speech that you want unity,” said George Khalaf, a 29-year-old Republican political pollster who watched the proceedings from his Phoenix home.

An angry undercurrent coursed in some quarters. Lori Hatley, an ex-California Highway Patrol officer from Escondido, declared herself too disgusted to watch the inauguration coverage. An ardent Trump backer who now works in parking enforcement, the 56-year-old drove to Phoenix in search of like-minded people, joining a dozen pro-Trump demonstrators outside the Arizona capitol.

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“For me, this is a day of mourning,” she said.

Joy was the order of the day for others. Claudia Mitchell, a Black retired teacher in Montgomery, Ala., saw crucial affirmation in the day’s events.

“My parents always told me to never give up on America,” the 68-year-old said, recalling a coming-of-age during the civil rights movement. “I do trust America; I do love America. This is a hopeful time.”

In some cases, delight was tinged with grief. Sisters Sylvia Luna, 43, and Norma Luna, 49, both teachers in Killeen, Texas, stood on the state capital steps in Austin to watch the inaugural on their cellphones. Their elder sister, Veronica Vargas, died of the coronavirus in November at age 56, and they fault the departed president for indifference.

“Trump did nothing about COVID, nothing,” said Sylvia Luna. “I know that Biden and Harris will care a lot more.”

Norma Luna broke into tears as Biden took the oath of office, while her sister exclaimed in excitement.

“It’s official!” she said. “We have a new president!”

Times staff writer Kaleem reported from Phoenix, King from Washington, and Lee from Montgomery, Ala. Staff writers Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles, Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta, Patrick J. McDonnell in Austin, Texas, and Richard Read in Salem, Ore., contributed to this report.

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