The heart of the American capital looks like occupied territory.
After President Donald Trump instigated the Capitol uprising last week, a massive force is protecting the building and its surroundings from another possible attack. An extensive black fence surrounds the entire perimeter of the building and its surroundings. Armed members of the National Guard, Capitol Police and intelligence agents stand guard on both sides.
Your mandate appears to be to ensure a peaceful transfer of power through the inauguration day of President-elect Joe Biden. Many National Guard duty members I spoke to – all on condition that they remain anonymous so they can speak freely and avoid retaliation – said they had not received specific instructions on when to leave Washington, DC.
Until then, they do their job, stay at nearby hotels, or try to catch a few winking eyes on the floor of the Capitol Building, waiting to hear when to go home – what to expect after Biden is sworn in.
What is clear, however, is that their presence has brought downtown Washington, DC to a standstill.
Local police have set up a perimeter of torches and parked police cars across the city several blocks from the National Mall. DC National Guard trucks have blocked major roads downtown. Regular vehicle traffic is scared away; When a vehicle is allowed to enter the protected space, it must first pass a designated checkpoint for a security clearance.
All of this has made it difficult to gain access to the seat of American power and the greatest symbol of democracy that is normally open to the public. In normal times, one could go to the Capitol and the legislature at will – a symbol of how open the nation’s political system is. Now it’s difficult to be a few blocks from the Capitol Complex without law enforcement or troops staring at you.
Views on the temporary situation are different. I heard a white woman say on her bike what she saw and experienced was “cray-cray”, a slang term for “crazy”. A black man also rode by blowing up NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police”, though it’s unclear whether the song was intended as a protest.
Officer Wendell (she wouldn’t give me her first name), a member of the local DC police who guarded an area outside the fence, told me, “This is a normal day for us.” After all, top-class events with a high degree of security often take place in the city. The only thing she thought that she repeated many times and asked for it to appear in this play was her planned retirement on April 10th.
The strong security presence seems to be working. The normally busy streets are empty and few people are actually anywhere near the Capitol except to snap photos or videos of what is happening.
Members of the US National Guard arrive at the US Capitol on January 12th. Andres Reynolds-Caballero / AFP via Getty Images
A Pennsylvania National Guard member on duty inside the fence said that “things are slow, very slow” right now and that local law enforcement and day-to-day Capitol staff could handle themselves without real help. (As I got closer to him and his co-workers, they discussed their joy in ordering lunch from UberEats.) But the guard made sure they were all in town, “just in case – and you know what I am.” my.”
Indeed. That “just in case” is the potential for another attack on the Capitol. Intelligence agencies indicate that armed militia groups and right-wing extremists are planning the inauguration, which will take place on the western platform of the building. For at least one member of the Virginia National Guard, it is hoped that his presence and that of his fellow soldiers will help avert this possibility.
“We don’t need Americans to kill Americans,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine a crowd actually going through the barrier and overcoming the great force. It is arguably the most heavily guarded area in the city, maybe even more so than the White House. If someone tries to fight their way through, the chances are good they will fail.
With this in mind, locking down the Capitol area is a good idea – it ensures the safety of lawmakers, employees, and ultimately Biden’s inauguration podium. In another sense, it looks bad for American democracy that it cannot move from one government to another without demanding armed reinforcements.
“It’s not ideal,” said a member of the Pennsylvania National Guard, “but we are here now with a job to do.”
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