More than 20 city blocks around the U.S. Capitol are enclosed by an eight-foot fence topped with razor wire. Five thousand National Guard troops, dressed in camouflage and toting assault rifles, patrol the periphery on foot and in armoured vehicles.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue, a second fence surrounds the White House, Treasury Building and two parks. In places, the perimeter is further reinforced with concrete barricades.
These fortresses are stunning sights – the sort of militarization more commonly associated with Baghdad or Kabul than with the centre of the world’s most powerful democracy – and a sign of the tense and divided times in which the country finds itself.
“It’s upsetting. It should never have to be like this,” said Phil DeStefano, a 58-year-old construction superintendent on holiday from Boston, as he stood on the National Mall one sunny morning this week, peering at the Capitol through the fence. “Other countries look at this place as they strive for freedom.”
The barriers around the White House area date to last June, after police cracked down on racial justice protesters in Lafayette Square. The Capitol’s fencing, which also encloses the Supreme Court and a dozen other buildings, went up after then-president Donald Trump’s supporters stormed Congress on Jan. 6.
Now, a growing chorus of Washington residents, city councillors and members of Congress is arguing these measures are excessive. But security forces insist they must remain in place.
The Capitol’s acting police chief, Yogananda Pittman, told a legislative committee that President Joe Biden’s planned address to Congress later this month would be vulnerable to attack without the de facto citadel around the building. She has also asked the Pentagon to extend deployment of National Guard troops in the city for another 60 days.
“To stop a mob of tens of thousands requires more than a police force, it requires physical infrastructure or a regiment of soldiers,” she said.
The Secret Service, responsible for security at the White House, would not comment when asked whether there are any plans to take down its fencing.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s congressional delegate, contends there were other actions short of building a fence that could have thwarted the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Police failed to act on intelligence that armed groups were planning an attack, for instance, and did not have reinforcements readily available when it began. Ms. Norton is one of several legislators from both parties pushing Ms. Pittman to start gradually dismantling the barriers.
“It sends a message of weakness to the rest of the world when you see the entire Capitol complex surrounded by fencing,” Ms. Norton said in an interview.
In the Capitol Hill neighbourhood to the east of Congress, locals say the armed camp next door has disrupted daily life. Two major traffic arteries have been closed off, as have several blocks’ worth of parks and a botanical garden. During Washington’s unusually large snowfalls this winter, children were unable to toboggan down the hill as they have in years past. Local restaurants have suffered, as the security discourages legislators, staff and lobbyists from leaving the building to get coffee or a sandwich.
At Pete’s Diner, owner Gum Tong estimated her business had fallen more than 90 per cent.
“This is like a jail,” she said, gesturing at the fence and razor wire across the street. “This is our country, this is our Capitol and no one is allowed in or out. The pandemic is killing the whole world, and we are killing ourselves. The city has been dead for how long? Nobody can afford it.”
Allison Cunningham, an area resident campaigning against the barrier, argues that police can ramp up security when necessary for major events, such as Mr. Biden’s speech, rather than permanently fortifying the neighbourhood. Her group, Don’t Fence the Capitol, has collected more than 23,000 signatures on a petition.
“If we need to have a temporary barricade, that’s understandable. But a permanent fence feels like a lazy way to get around the problem. And it punishes the wrong people,” she said.
According to Washington History magazine, the White House itself has been protected by a fence since the assassination of president William McKinley in 1901. This fence, however, surrounded only the building and its grounds, and not the adjacent streets and parks. The block of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to traffic after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Until last summer, it remained open to pedestrians, and was a magnet for both tourists and protesters.
Jane Levey of the DC History Center says the extent of the barriers around both the White House and the Capitol are “totally, utterly unprecedented.” At previous moments of national peril, including during the Civil War, neither the president nor Congress resorted to such measures.
“Even during Lincoln’s administration, if you were visiting Washington, you could walk in and see him,” she said. “Washingtonians really valued that freedom. We thought it was very symbolic of who we were as a nation. And that has very much changed.”
There are other reminders around the city of this unusual moment. Local hotels, for instance, have been turned into makeshift barracks for the National Guard, who pile into rented coach buses at daybreak to be shuttled to the Hill for duty.
The few tourists who make the trek have to settle for photographing the republic’s power centres through chinks in the fence.
“It’s a little sad having to look at it from this far away,” said Mina Kalei, 40, a stay-at-home mother visiting from California with her family, as she stood at the edge of the perimeter two blocks from the White House. “But we understand security has to be tough these days. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way it was.”
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