The Militarization of Washington DC
I visited ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, as the Capitol increased its security. This is what I saw.
We spent almost 4 hours walking, and covered over 6 miles, skirting the barricaded perimeter. We had gone down in my Element, after learning that Metro stops in and around the mall were shut down. We ended up parking near Folger Park, which was as close as we were able to bring a vehicle before being spun around by DC Metro police.
The neighbourhood was a quiet one, full of expensive brick houses.
Everything was covered with multiple layers of security, from metal fences, to flip up barricades.
Even some of the very expensive local residences were boarded up, with custom-fitted plywood boards that matched their arches.
I enjoy shooting with Joe. Even though sometimes our shots overlap, we definitely sharpen each other’s craft. And no matter what, it’s impossible for us to get the EXACT same shot since we see things in different ways.
It was fascinating to see how city politics is layered into how the barricades went up, which still made sure bike lanes were preserved, even though the streets were devoid of any automobiles save for military and law enforcement.
There were people with all types of uniforms standing around with long guns. I wasn’t able to identify most of them, but Joe spotted several divisions he recognized.
It was tough to see the Capitol building, let alone get close to it. When we asked the guards at the gate, they told us only people with congressional press passes were permitted in.
High black metal fences lined everything, contrasting sharply with what was otherwise a pleasant warm January afternoon.
There’s already a stark contrast to the enormity of the marble and granite buildings to the ornate brick houses of Washington DC, but the fences drew a thick dark line down the border.
The fences were almost as high as the medium tactical vehicles they used to bar gateways, giving them the appearance of caged elephants.
Humvees rumbled by encampments where housing challenged people had gathered for protection. I wondered what the cost of all this extra security was. I wondered what the budget for housing people in DC is.
I was struck at how comfortably the military and DC Metro police folded neatly into each other, jovially keeping each other company and trading Starbucks orders.
Most of the military personnel seemed to range from mildly amused to bored at their assignment. They awkwardly smiled at people who rushed up to them to thank them for their service or ingratiate themselves to authoritarianism in the streets.
I couldn’t help but wonder what January 6th would have been like if these metal fences and military trucks had been installed earlier. Would 5 people not be dead. I’m not sure. But white supremacists would be less emboldened.
That, to me, is the lasting damage. Not that there is white supremacy, and that they are armed and crazed, but that they showed to the world how easy it was to almost murder representatives of the people. I fear these changes will be permanent.
And I also fear that in less than two months' time, this increasingly militarized force will be used against the Black protestors that have been petitioning to not be killed in the #BlackLivesMatter Plaza on the other side of this building.
A cop began to string up extra police tape directly in front of me, getting direction from another further down. “Go as far as you can!” they shouted, “the tape just makes people uncomfortable so they stay away.”
Most of the medium tactical vehicles were running, coughing diesel fumes as they sat, with soldiers inside almost universally bored on their phones. They had to remain running, so they could be moved like a gate at a moment’s notice.
Nearly every business near the fences was boarded over, protecting the glass from whatever the owners were afraid of. This business even wrapped up the sign to make it unidentifiable. A sign was posted; “HATE IS NOTHING TO BE PROUD OF”.
Some boards offered messaging, like the Teamsters building; TEAMSTER LIVES INCLUDE BLACK LIVES.
As we walked, the boundaries kept advancing on us. Trucks of freshly fabricated fencing rumbled in and were rapidly unloaded by forklifts. Teams of Spanish speaking men slammed them together, securing blocks in less than half an hour.
Meanwhile, fleets of black SUVs with police lights would drift in and out of lanes in formation, while locals carried on like nothing put of the ordinary was happening.
Makeshift checkpoints stood every few blocks, where armed guards went through every pocket of every knapsack, pocketbook, and jacket. We found out later a white supremacist got caught in one, with fake inauguration credentials and a gun.
Layers kept getting added as we rounded the northwest side of the Capitol building, and though the view was clearer, at least 6 barriers separated us from the steps that insurrectionists had climbed just over a week earlier.
It was remarkably empty. It was the first time in months that I had been in DC and hadn’t seen a single MAGA hat. They had lost. And they knew they lost.
Scores of additional soldiers streamed out of trucks as we watched, with instructions being barked at them. Other soldiers weaved in and out of those standing watch, handing out gum, chapstick, water, and snacks.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, the National Mall would usually be packed with people. But the military presence was so large that they blocked off the entirety of the park, turning it into bases of operation.
Rose, another amazing Baltimore photographer, met up with us (ro.rya on IG), and we playfully shot each other shooting things.
The streets were not completely devoid of tourists, and the few that were there wanted selfies with the fences. The militarization of a park became the backdrop to their Instagram photos.
The layers of fencing went up so rapidly that people often got caught and lost in between the maze of barricades. A couple of skateboarders met such a fate, and had to be shooed out by multiple guards.
Squirrels seemed to be the only ones being unencumbered by the fencing, scurrying under the gaps to scavenge nuts and discarded food.
The museums were remarkably bare of barricades. Fencing went up to the buildings, and stopped. I guess the assumption was that Trump supporters have little care for the fine arts.
Some fencing zigzagged across streets with no apparent direction, other than just to be a show of force. DC streets bisect at angles and wedges, and some of the fencing stood in odd places that could easily be walked around.
Other areas were blocked at their ends, but otherwise open. People meandered up and down them without inhibition. On a normal day, these streets would be constipated with vehicles.
As we headed back, we often had to pick slightly different routes, as the fencing advanced on areas just a half-hour before we had walked freely.
Medium Tactical Vehicles stood waiting for the arrival of more fencing, appearing almost like a child’s forgotten toy, out of place on the empty city blocks.
As the sun sank into a cool haze, even our starting point was inaccessible. The barriers of authority were ever moving outward, and it didn’t seem like they were stopping any time soon.
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