The Capitol, Fortified

The Capitol, Fortified

One week on from Trump’s riot, heavy fencing surrounds the Capitol complex and a swath of Washington is locked down tight.


Washington, D.C.—One week after the deadly siege, the Capitol complex is a fortress. Blocks away from the Capitol building itself span seven-foot-tall panels of black, steel-mesh fencing. Interlocked, they form a long, zig-zagging barrier; where there are breaks in the fence line, semitrucks and hulking military transports are parked in the way. Beyond the initial perimeter are even more barricades: more steel panels, chain link fencing, and likely miles of concrete jersey barriers. Then there are the police and National Guard soldiers: Capitol and Secret Service police—dressed varyingly in traditional uniforms, relaxed fleece jackets with khakis, and all-black tactical gear—number in the thousands. Military also numbered in the thousands on Wednesday, with as many as 15,000 soldiers expected in Washington by Inauguration Day—three times the American military footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

On Wednesday evening, I walked the full length of the security perimeter, hewing as close as possible to the fence line. It measured roughly three miles in total, and the closest I ever came to the Capitol building proper was 450 yards, four and a half football fields, at the intersection of Louisiana Avenue and 1st Street Northwest. Usually, I was farther, up to a half mile away, and out of view entirely of the Capitol dome.

A week earlier, D.C. had been all sirens. Now, it was so quiet on Capitol Hill that you could hear church bells ringing faintly in the distance. There were joggers, and couples were out walking dogs.

On the evening of the Capitol attack, when authorities finally began beating back the mob, rioters had been defiant. “We’ll be back!” I heard one Trump supporter yell at police last Wednesday. Another shouted, “This isn’t over, bitches!”

The very next day, plans for a second Capitol attack, on Sunday, January 17, were spreading online. A week later—after the president was permanently banned from Twitter and a host of other social media services, after tens of thousands of his extremist followers were likewise deplatformed, and after Amazon pulled the plug on the right-wing social media site Parler—far-right radicals are still using an encrypted messaging app to pass details for wreaking havoc in the lead-up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. As The Washington Post reported, they’re encouraging people to “descend on D.C.” and “stick to [their] guns.”

Perhaps Trump’s goons will return. If they do, they will find their task immeasurably more difficult than on January 6.

Where Pennsylvania Avenue meets Constitution Avenue, a gaping intersection that last week was packed with Trump supporters, now 18 police cars were parked all in a row. Still more and two dump trucks sat in the middle of the road to block traffic. A small handful of protesters hoisted signs: america wants accountability now; trump, you’re fired; and american terrorist, emblazoned over the visage of the president. On the street, they had laid out a tarp the size of a backyard swimming pool that bore the text of Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It was about 5:30 pm. One hour earlier, inside the Capitol, the House of Representatives had voted to impeach Trump, citing “incitement of insurrection” and making him the first president in US history to be impeached twice.

All around the security perimeter, tourists snapped photos of the Capitol behind bars. At one fence panel, on 3rd Street traversing the National Mall, someone had left a bouquet of white roses. On another was taped a solitary 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper. “Please maintain social distance,” it read—an afterthought, on a day when 3,982 Americans died from coronavirus infections.

Soldiers, dressed in MultiCam fatigues and bulky body armor, were ever-present. As a general rule, those closer to the Capitol were armed with M4 rifles; those manning farther afield sections of the perimeter were not. Some stood in groups of five, at spaced-out intervals. Others stood in shoulder-to-shoulder lines. Elsewhere still, there were lonely pairs.

Throughout the day, images had proliferated online of the Capitol full-to-bursting with National Guardsmen. Commentators expressed shock and concern, and rightly so: Rarely have soldiers ever been called on to defend the Capitol, and their presence served as a reminder of the violence that preceded them. Other reports, though, showed a lighter, human side to the Guardsmen. There were soldiers sleeping on floors all around the Capitol, by the hundreds, having nowhere else to be or go. There was the group of Black soldiers, in the National Statuary Hall, who posed for photos with a statue of Rosa Parks. One soldier from Virginia told Igor Bobic, a politics reporter at HuffPost, that it was his first visit to the Capitol and wondered aloud if the Visitor Center might open its gift shop.

Outside, indeed, the observable work had mostly to do with the logistics of supporting such a large mobilization. On their shoulders, soldiers carried pallets of Brisk tea and Dasani water. Large charter buses—Adventure Tours, Panorama Tours—ferried soldiers in and out of the perimeter. The mood was lighthearted. Soldiers were getting to know one another and bantering about football and the PlayStation 5. Other groups were quieter, perhaps having run out of common ground with each other, but eager for conversation with passersby. I asked one pair how much longer they had on their shift. “They didn’t tell us,” one, a corporal wearing glasses and a black beanie, groaned. “Just until whenever we get replaced,” his companion, a private first class, added. Such are the joys of being young and in the military, standing watch.

At one point on my walk, a cyclist drifted onto a road he shouldn’t have. “Hey, get back!” an armed soldier shouted, stepping out of line in the direction of the cyclist. It was a sudden burst of authority and hopefully, I thought, the most excitement this young Guardsman would experience on his visit to the nation’s capital. The cyclist duly turned around.

Myself, I was ordered twice to walk on the opposite side of the street from the soldiers and police. Tight enforcement like this was uneven, but regardless it was clear that no one was getting inside. Occasionally, the odd congressional staffer did emerge, however: a young man in a suit or young women in a blazer and ballet flats, bidding good night to the camouflaged soldiers. “I feel most bad for the staffers,” I heard one soldier tell another at one point. “I mean, they didn’t do anything, and they gotta put up with this.”

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