After I waited in a long, long line to get into the Portland Community College gymnasium and found my seat, I looked around for the nearest exit. I heard other people doing the same.
People seemed keenly aware that we were on a college campus, that our bags had been searched and our presence scrutinized by several uniformed sheriff’s officers. Most of us also likely noticed that a number of children were present. All good reasons to be a little nervous.
I amused myself by trying to pick out the U.S. marshals in the crowd. Easy enough. How many Portlanders do you know who wear a short haircut, a dark suit, and have a springy cord coming out of one ear?
Justice Sotomayor’s visit was sponsored by the library and I saw several of my colleagues taking tickets and managing volunteers. I was glad that I was there as a private citizen, able to come and go as I please — or so I imagined. Later, I felt a little less like a private citizen as we were told to sit still in our seats, lest we make the U.S. marshals nervous.
A large crowd had shown up to show our appreciation for a Justice that we think of as one of our own. She represents the vision of inclusion and liberal politics that is Portland’s milieu. That’s why it feels so important, so necessary, to keep her safe on our watch.
It must be nerve-wracking for Justice Sotomayor’s staff to attend these events. They plan out every moment of her day, where she’ll walk, who she’ll meet. I saw her staff exchange the glasses of water on stage at least three times, and one man in a dark suit carefully wiped down her entire path.
Once she got on stage, it was clear that Justice Sotomayor kept her own counsel despite the whirlwind around her. She knew what was important to her — meeting and greeting the kids in the crowd — and she had enough power and courage to make it happen.
Justice Sotomayor told the crowd that she had made a deal with her security detail. If the entire crowd — some 700 of us — remained seated, she could walk out into the audience and hug kids. But if any one of us stood up suddenly, she would be whisked away and the event would be over. So we all sat — even those of us who wanted to stretch after sitting on gymnasium bleachers for an hour or two. We obeyed and sat and Justice Sotomayor walked out and hugged our kids, one at a time. She couldn’t have been more charming. And then it was over and the crowd was dismissed in rows of three. We headed for the nearest exit and breathed a sigh of relief. We hadn’t lost Sonia on our watch. We gave her back to the world. I hope they take good care of her.