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The Capitol dome sits atop a hill, a symbol of American democracy for everyone except the actual residents of D.C., taxpayers whose representation in its marbled halls is limited to one non-voting delegate. For Washingtonians, the complex is an office, a place to renew a credential or visit with out-of-town guests, to appreciate Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping, or rest on cool, soft grass of the West Lawn. More often than not, it’s a place we pass without entering when cutting from one side of the Hill to the other. Occasionally on one of those shortcuts, a Capitol Police officer might stop you for reasons unknown and advise you to walk around, further removing you from the halls of power.
And yet, watching rioters storm the building and break windows to dispute the outcome of an already decided presidential election felt inherently personal. We may not have much of a say in what happens in Senate, but this is our town. How, after a summer when police kettled peaceful protesters standing against racism and brutality and the National Guard forcibly cleared Lafayette Square so the president could take a photo, did this happen? Did local leaders really not pay attention to the warning signs? Were the Capitol Police underprepared? Answers to some of these questions have become clearer in recent days, but the hurt—the loss of life, the spread of COVID-19 cases, the compounded ache of fear and hopelessness—remains.
In the following pages, we’ve attempted to make sense of the past week and figure out what happens next. Where we go from here isn’t clear yet, but if the words of our readers, which you’ll find throughout this feature, are any indication, we’ll forge a path forward together. —Caroline Jones
More “security theater” is another attack on the Capitol
The stench of sedition still lingers on my mask and mind from wading into the insurrection on Jan. 6. The walk onto the sprawling eastside grounds of the Capitol was easy. No police visible. No roadblocks.
Instead of hanging on the fringe of the agitated mob as we had intended, we found ourselves walking halfway up the broad ceremonial steps. As an older White guy with no press tag visible, it was easy to stand among the group strutting about and cheering on those who had bolted inside.
There will be investigations.
Boy, will there be investigations.
Shaken House and Senate committees are launching separate probes into why and how the mob stormed the Capitol. What could be done to prevent future attacks? Why was the U.S. Capitol Police, the principal protective force of that property, understaffed and poorly deployed? Other federal law enforcement agencies, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, regional police, and the National Guard are launching reassessments of their inadequate mutual aid agreements.
“It turns out … nothing was under control and we were overrun,” fumed California Rep. Maxine Waters (D) on Joe Madison’s SiriusXM radio show. House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina (D) publicly questioned whether “there were certain kinds of infiltration,” suggesting maybe an inside job by some to look the other way.
Former MPD Chief Charles Ramsey wondered on CNN whether the majority White Capitol Police simply assumed the White crowd would never really attack Congress, while suggesting a Black crowd would have been met with fierce resistance. “There is a difference. Why that is, I don’t know. But you can’t rule out bias as being one of the issues,” he said. Days later, two Capitol Police officers were suspended for posing for photos with rioters and donning a MAGA hat during the insurrection, respectively.
In the short term, the level of security for the upcoming inaugural festivities will be more intense than ever, hardened security elements visible and invisible. But in the longer term, it’s almost certain the assault will lead to a new layer of “security theater,” a classic bureaucratic move to physically close off more public space rather than adequately defend it.
It will mean more hassle for school groups, families, and tourists who come by the millions each year to see our federal government up close (except in this pandemic year.). They are already carefully searched and controlled. It even took an act of Congress in 2015 just to tell the Capitol Police to back off and open the western slope of the Capitol grounds for sledding on snowy days.
Sadly, what is left of openness on Capitol Hill since 9/11 could be the next victim of the attack.
On the Jan. 8 edition of WAMU’s Politics Hour, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (D) also worried that closing down even more of the Capitol complex, while not the right answer, is likely. “That [violence] could have been managed on Wednesday very effectively, but we shouldn’t penalize the public for poor management of the security challenge.”
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who lives on Capitol Hill and chairs the Council’s public safety committee, told City Paper closing off more of the Capitol grounds “is security theater, not the right response.”
“Its openness is a symbol of our freedom,” writes Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Achieving openness and security has always been a difficult balancing act, but it is what sets our country and the policing profession apart.”
“When I saw them going up the steps, I thought they’d never get in. Those are bronze doors,” says Sharon Gang, a former Hill staffer who helped oversee the opening of the $600 million, secure underground visitor center in 2008. “When they were breaking out the Capitol windows, I thought we’d put in extra thick glass, [but they were] busting through it like nothing.”
Just as Congress rushed to reconvene and complete the electoral vote count hours after the attack, many citizens are hoping they’ll also restore as much openness as possible, so tourists and other visitors can walk its historic halls again.
The first thing that should go after the inauguration is that oppressive, 7-foot security fence. And then, go on from there. —Tom Sherwood
“The events at the Capitol were deeply disturbing, but they did not change the way I feel about D.C. or my joy in living here. This is because I know the people who defiled the Capitol are by and large outsiders, agitated by a shell of a man with a bruised ego. I love Washington, I love our people, and I am not deterred from living in the city of my dreams.”
“No, the events of the past few days have not made me feel like living somewhere else. Protests are part of D.C., and one of the perks of living here. While this protest was way beyond anything that I (or anyone) have seen, and not one that I agree with, it is, in the end, one of those things that happen in D.C., just more so. I live on Capitol Hill, and was concerned enough that I had a few essentials ready to pack and go, but I never really felt that I was personally in danger of being attacked in my home or street (probably thanks to my White privilege).
Protests, even riots, can happen anywhere. There is no place where you could be honestly, absolutely sure that “it can’t happen here.” Moreover, natural or man-made disasters can happen anywhere, so trying to find a perfectly safe place to live is pointless. So I have not thought about leaving D.C. over this latest unfortunate event (or I hadn’t until you asked). Besides, anywhere that I might flee to, small town or large, is likely to have a higher COVID infection rate or ICU bed utilization rate. As I said, every place has some drawback, so might as well stay in D.C., damn the torpedoes, and full speed ahead.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about my life in D.C. since the coup attempt on Wednesday. I live downtown only a mile from the U.S. Capitol. Since yesterday, everyone that I’ve interacted with – the grocery store clerks, my handyman, my neighbors, people on the street – look directly at each other and nod or shake our heads. And if we do speak with each other it starts with “Oh my god” or “Can you believe it” and then “How are you?” with the expectation of a real, heartfelt answer.
So do I feel differently about D.C.? I give a resounding no. Even with the events this week, I am grateful to be a witness to history. I still love my life here. Even with the defiling of the U.S. Capitol, I plan to walk up the street and pay homage to it this week knowing it will be made whole again.
This week only underscored the strength, integrity and resilience of the people in my community. I am staying.”
“Recent events are troubling to me. If anything, they have affirmed my decision to live in the District. It has proven what I believe about the people of this city: We know good from bad, we know right from wrong, we are accepting, and we are resilient.
Better times are ahead. The District is one of the few places in the world where you can regularly watch history being made, and as residents we are privileged (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) to have a front row seat. Albeit, some of that history might be unpleasant. Not everything can be bad, and if we look and work towards a brighter tomorrow we can see positive history being made.”
“The recent events have not changed the way I feel about D.C. If [anything] it makes me feel more strongly than ever to advocate for statehood and for our protection. D.C.’s lifeblood is more than the evening news … D.C. is such a small town in a city. It’s a community where I know at least one employee in every store, restaurant, and shop in almost every neighborhood. I know my friends and neighbors, their dogs, their opinions on scooters, their order at brunch, and their favorite watering hole. The District is home, and advocating to stay and protect our home is more important than ever.”
“As a six-year Capitol Hill staffer (for a Dem in the House) and seven-year D.C. resident nothing could deter me less from leaving. That is just what they want. I refuse to change my routine or life even a little in the face of these terrorists and their despicable actions. I got up on Friday and went to work alongside the Member I work for and went home to my place a few blocks from the Capitol and will continue to do so. The people who call D.C. home don’t share values with these insurrectionists and it does not define our city or who we are as a community. We aren’t going anywhere.”
“In short, no, it has not changed how I feel about living in/near Washington, D.C.
Is it scary living in proximity to multiple locations/points of interest vulnerable to an attack? Yes. But, since I moved here nearly 10 years ago, this is something that’s been in the back of my mind and it’s something you learn to live with.
Even prior to the siege on the Capitol, I’ve had discussions with significant others on a course of action in case of an emergency and locations where we would meet with our pets in case we are unable to communicate. I’ve also had friends mention they have “go bags” prepared in their hall closets and an escape route planned for if/when they need to get out of the D.C. metro area. D.C. being attacked has been portrayed in television and movies enough where it’s just something you just have to keep in mind.”
“Recent events here in Washington, DC have not changed the way I feel about my city. I was born here and I raised my family here. We have lived through many volatile times, civil rights marches, riots in Mount Pleasant, a shotgun stalker, 9-11, marches of every kind (where both sides express their opinions on women’s rights, gun rights, civil rights), and now a pandemic.
It was painfully clear that those who participated in the insurrection were not people of D.C. While most of our population are Democrats, this is not a political issue. It is an attack on our history and an attack on our democracy, incited by a number of seditionists, including the person occupying the highest office in our land. When I saw those domestic terrorists fill the inaugural steps and bleachers of the People’s House, my heart ached. It revealed, yet again, a dark and disturbing side of our nation. I love my city, my roots here are deep and it will always be my home. We will get through this and emerge stronger with the help of our leaders. So I’m not going anywhere.”
A Ride Through the Capitol
A bike commuter reflects on the journey that took him past the halls of power, a route that’s now fenced off.
It must have been in August 2011, after we moved into the house on the Hill, when my bike commute changed and I started riding past the Capitol everyday. As a matter of practical concern, you shouldn’t ride a bike on Constitution or Independence avenues unless you want to be made uncomfortable or unsafe, so instead, after you come down East Capitol Street, you ride past the metal bollards onto the bricked terrace atop the underground Capitol Visitor Center. You see the whole building, but it’s the dome that impresses. In the morning, unless you’re very late, you’ve probably beaten the school groups and the engagement photo shoots, and it’s empty except for you and the guards and joggers and some drivers entering the complex. I never understood exactly who had the privilege of parking inside the security perimeter, but some people do, and after you pass the Senate side and go through more bollards to start down the Olmstedian curved driveway where they park, you see their cars. They’re just normal parked cars, like outside any other office. Around then is when you pick up speed. Exiting the driveway is tricky, because there’s only a narrow space between yet another bollard and a security gate that lowers for cars (but not for bikes), and if you don’t make the gap cleanly, you’ll hear your rear left pannier scrape the steel pole as you ride through.
But it’s riding up the hill when bike commuters test themselves against those same drivers leaving work, ambling groups of gawking or bored tourists, zoned-out runners, and the grade itself, which is steeper than you’d prefer. Daily riders aren’t snobs, but they do become quite proud of themselves. They climb the hill every day in the shadow of the building where the legislative branch of the United States of America works. If you know what the junior senator from North Dakota looks like, you might say, ‘Afternoon, sir,’ and if you don’t, you might ding your bell at him to get out of the way, because the last thing you need is another stupid obstacle after everything else D.C. streets have already thrown at you that day.
There will be days when you stop there. Because you have to (flat tire) and because you can (is that your neighbor?). Your Instagram will fill with pictures of the dome; stark winter morning crispy white; gauzy muggy summer haze yellow. You must stop because it’s the State of the Union and everything is closed. Serious people with guns will shunt you to Constitution or Independence. You want to say, “You are messing up my commute. I do this every day. Don’t you know me?” They don’t.
Because of the events of Jan. 6, the Capitol complex has locked down. Fences are up. Maybe future bike commuters will get to reclaim it or maybe it’ll be lost for good to the ever-expanding security needs of a democratic republic in disarray. It will be a shame, but we will have to ride around. —Brian McEntee
The Warning Signs
If you believe in democracy and a free and fair society, what are we as a city doing to protect it?
Editor’s note: Allison Lane is a D.C. bartender who co-founded Bartenders Against Racism, an organization that seeks to combat racism and discrimination in the hospitality industry, in 2020. She participated in protests against anti-Black violence and police brutality over the spring and summer, and even stepped up to feed her fellow demonstrators. In November, Lane was arrested during demonstrations at Black Lives Matter Plaza. She recounts the emotional anguish of the past year, and in particular, the stark contrast between how law enforcement treated Black protestors compared to the largely White domestic terrorists who stormed the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6.
I expected violence from White supremacists on Jan. 6, having experienced brutality before in D.C. I read threats on social media that were published freely and consistently. And I’ve lived long enough in this Black body to know when something dangerous is about to happen. Watching White people have a tantrum because they don’t get their way is something I know many Black and Brown people experience, and we all know the consequences of not heeding the warning signs.
The lack of protection for D.C. residents is well documented. Thinking White supremacists only stay at downtown hotels and not at neighborhood Airbnbs is willfully ignorant. I went grocery shopping days before to prepare to stay in my house all week. I didn’t see the mayor, interim police chief, or D.C. Council responding appropriately to the threats of violence, so I developed my own plan to stay safe. I even had an exit strategy in case something truly dangerous happened in my backyard.
I also didn’t see businesses responding in ways that felt responsible. Most people still working in public-facing roles—grocery store employees, rideshare drivers, baristas, and restaurant staffers—are Black and Brown. We didn’t see business owners board up their storefronts. We didn’t see any plans to protect their Black and Brown employees from visiting Proud Boys. People in my industry worried about the potential of serving maskless customers and wondered how to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
As I’m watching supporters of a violent presidential administration destroy federal property and threaten the lives of legislators as they said they would, I’m brought back to June, when I was pepper-sprayed and later trapped in a Shaw home after the president wanted to take a picture in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a bible. Unarmed people, with their hands raised above their heads chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” were maced, beaten, and shot with rubber bullets without hesitation. I saw businesses boarded up and the National Guard show up because Black people were upset and asking not to be killed.
In November, the Proud Boys came to D.C. for their first “Stop The Steal” demonstration. The next day, I took a walk to see the destroyed art at Black Lives Matter Plaza. I watched police officers protect White supremacists starting fights with peaceful Black protesters. I saw a woman hit a young Black man with a MAGA sign and I stood between them. The police immediately arrested the Black man. About an hour later, they arrested me. The woman claimed I was threatening her, and D.C. police took her on her word. I spent the night in jail for simple assault with a hate bias. They charged me, a Black woman, with a hate crime against White supremacists at Black Lives Matter Plaza. A place that used to represent hope is now a place where I relive trauma.
The response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations was in stark contrast with what unfolded on Jan. 6, when White insurrectionists entered the Capitol, armed as if it were their right to do so.
Fortunately, I didn’t have anywhere to be. Like many bartenders in D.C., my place of work is temporarily closed because of the pandemic. I’m sad to be unemployed, but I’m also grateful not to have to clock in, because I doubt that many restaurant owners would be able to keep me safe under these conditions.
As I walk down the empty streets of D.C., I spot shuttered businesses with Black Lives Matter banners pasted proudly in windows. Yet Black people know they aren’t truly welcome. I wonder, what do the signs really stand for? I say this as both a restaurant worker and patron.
I see businesses with oddly specific, anti-Black dress codes. I see the restaurant that allowed me to be bullied by my White-presenting manager “because I have a strong personality and I can handle it.” I see the restaurant that fired me for not coming into work “sassy” and “twerking.” I see the restaurant that ignored me when I expressed that it made me uncomfortable when a regular customer constantly asked to touch my hair. I see the restaurant that has a hip-hop night for its almost exclusively White patrons and staff. They think posting black squares on their Instagram accounts and placing signs in their windows means all is forgiven.
I’ve put my energy into building a safe community for Black people. I’ve identified resources and tried my best to develop relationships with people who are looking at how they do business by making personal and professional changes. I’ve participated in protecting democracy. I’ve tried to be inclusive and pursue paths that lead to more equitable spaces, but most importantly, I’ve tried to do so without focusing on making White people comfortable. That’s not my job. That’s, in part, the mayor’s job.
As we reflect on what happened last week, I have to wonder what it means for our community that claims to be progressive, inclusive, and equitable. If you truly believe in democracy and a free and fair society, what are we as a city doing to protect it? What are you going to do when your Black coworker is harassed by visiting White supremacists? Are there plans to keep Black people safe? —Allison Lane
“No, the disturbing events at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 did not change my view about the value of living and working in the District. Washington still is the most interesting city in the world. The riot and ensuing fallout is eye [opening] for many; however … the racial and ethnic disparities in America are deeper and wider than some wanted to believe even as late as the summer of 2020.”
—Rawle Andrews Jr.
“The recent events at the Capitol concerning the white terrorists was no surprise to many Black folks. These events and other white privileged tactics always have me thinking about moving and living elsewhere. I’m talking elsewhere like not in the U.S. If I lived in a place like Florida (which I have before) and this occurred there, yes I definitely would have made moving a top priority ASAP; however since I am a native of D.C., I know I am somewhat safer here than possibly other places.”
“I have lived within a mile of the Capitol on and off for most of my life. As a native Washingtonian and a Jew, the attempted coup horrified me.
It also strengthened my love for D.C. and the Hill. We are resilient. Living here will be different for a while but it has also strengthened our community. On neighborhood Facebook groups and listservs, we offered safe places to ride out the unknown last Wednesday, are checking in on each other, and buying local Girl Scout cookies. It’s hard to imagine letting fascists scare me away from my community.”
“In general, I’ve become aware of the rise in crime in D.C. and specifically in shootings. I live in Petworth and Columbia Heights and Brightwood are around me and become bad hotbeds of activity. This rise started in May and is clearly parallel to the pandemic. That, with the happenings of this week, do make me wonder if I’m choosing the safest place possible to raise my child. Especially because pre-pandemic there were areas where he used to walk/ride his bike that I would never permit him to do the same now.
That said, my son loves this city and violence and crime can happen anywhere, even in “safe” suburbs. Truly I think it’s a more sign of the times than anything else and not something that would necessarily be “fixed” if I moved.
I’m also hopeful that the crime rate will go down post vaccine distribution and that there will be more opportunities for my work in entertainment with Biden and Harris in the WH attracting celebrities and other VIPs to the city for events like WHCD weekend etc.
To sum it up, I’m sticking it out and hopeful for the city’s future!”
“If anything, I’m more committed to living here. The residents of this city deserve the right of representation and the right to defend themselves from the people who are attempting to suborn our government. As a resident, I can lend my voice toward those efforts from a first hand, on the ground perspective and I aim to continue doing so.”