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The seat of American democracy looks like a city under occupation

A Vox reporter spent the day outside the newly fortified Capitol. Here’s what it looks like.

Members of the National Guard secure the perimeter around the Capitol building on January 13.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The heart of America’s capital looks like occupied territory.

After the President Donald Trump-incited insurrection of the Capitol last week, a massive force is protecting the building and its surroundings from another possible attack. A sprawling black fence encircles the entire perimeter of the building and its nearby surroundings, with armed National Guard members, Capitol Police, and Secret Service agents standing sentinel on both sides.

Their mandate, it appears, is to ensure a peaceful transition of power through President-elect Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day. However, many members of the National Guard on duty I spoke to — all on the condition of anonymity to enable them to speak freely and avoid retribution — said they haven’t received any concrete orders regarding when they will leave Washington, DC.

Until they do, they go about their jobs, staying overnight in nearby hotels or trying to catch a few winks on the floor of the Capitol building, waiting to hear when they can go home — which they expect will be after Biden is sworn in.

What’s clear, though, is that their presence has brought downtown Washington, DC, to a grinding halt.

Local police have set up a perimeter throughout the city using flares and parked police cars multiple blocks from the National Mall. Trucks belonging to the DC National Guard have obstructed main roads into the downtown area. Regular vehicle traffic gets shooed away; when a vehicle is allowed to enter the protected space, it must first go through a designated checkpoint for a security sweep.

All of this has made it hard to access the seat of American power and greatest symbol of democracy, which typically is open to the public. In normal times, one could go inside the Capitol and legislative offices at will — a symbol of how open the nation’s political system is. Now, it’s hard to get within a few blocks of the Capitol complex without law enforcement or troops staring you down.

Views of the temporary situation differ. I overheard a white woman on her bicycle say what she was seeing and experiencing was “cray-cray,” a slang term for “crazy.” A Black man also rode by blasting N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” though it’s unclear if the song was meant as a protest.

Officer Wendell (she wouldn’t give me her first name), a member of the local DC Police force who was guarding an area outside the fence, told me, “This is a normal day for us.” After all, the city often hosts high-profile, high-security events. The only thing on her mind, which she repeated often and requested it appear in this piece, was her planned retirement on April 10.

The heavy security presence seems to be working. The usually busy streets are empty, and few people are actually around the Capitol, except to take pictures or videos of what’s happening.

Members of the US National Guard arrive at the US Capitol on January 12.
Andres Reynolds-Caballero/AFP via Getty Images

One member of the Pennsylvania National Guard on duty inside the fence said that right now, “things are slow, very slow,” and that local law enforcement and everyday Capitol staff could handle themselves without any real assistance. (As I approached him and his colleagues, they were discussing their joy over ordering lunch on UberEats.) But, the Guard member made sure to note, they’re all in town “just in case — and you know what I mean.”

Indeed. That “just in case” is the potential for another attack on the Capitol. Intelligence indicates armed militia groups and far-right extremists are planning to target the inauguration, which will take place on the building’s western platform. The hope, at least for one member of Virginia’s National Guard, is that his and his fellow troops’ presence helps stave off that possibility.

“We don’t need Americans killing Americans,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine a crowd of people actually getting through the barrier and overcoming the large force in place. It’s arguably the most heavily guarded area in the city, perhaps even more so than the White House. If anyone tries to fight their way through, chances are high they’ll fail.

In that sense, having the Capitol area on lockdown is a good idea — it ensures the safety of lawmakers, staff, and eventually Biden’s inauguration dais. In another sense, it’s a bad look for American democracy that it can’t switch from one administration to another without calling in armed reinforcements.

“It’s not ideal,” said a Pennsylvania National Guard member, “but we’re here now, and we got a job to do.”