District of trepidation: Fear of violence upends U.S. capital before inauguration

In a moment of nation-splintering turmoil, an incoming American president, Abraham Lincoln, travelled by train to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., in a nerve-racking ride cloaked in disguise as he faced threats to his life.

Now, 160 years later, an incoming president has cancelled plans for a train ride to Washington.

It was supposed to be a symbolic journey highlighting Joe Biden’s decades-long habit of riding the rails to D.C. each day from his family home in Delaware.

Instead, it has taken on a sad new symbolism, of an American capital clenched shut in fear of political violence at Wednesday’s inauguration.

The question nagging at residents here, and at security analysts, is whether the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was the worst of a passing storm, a one-off, or the start of a dark era of political violence.

What’s already clear is this will be no normal inauguration. The American capital has transformed into a heavily armed and tightly barricaded fortress.

“Clearly, we are in uncharted waters,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser told a news conference last week, urging tourists to stay away from her city during the inauguration.

Fences are now up around Washington’s downtown. Thousands of soldiers are patrolling the streets, bridges are blocked, parking garages are shut, bicycle-sharing services are suspended, Airbnb reservations are cancelled, and residents are being urged on neighbourhood chat groups against renting rooms to tourists.

U.S. president-elect Joe Biden, seen here riding an Amtrak train in 2011, had planned to ride to his inauguration on the same train route between Delaware and D.C. that he rode daily for decades. That plan is reportedly cancelled amid security concerns. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Suspicion strikes Capitol Hill neighbourhood

Security concerns are most acute in the neighborhood near the Capitol.

Lawyer Matt Scarlato already has an overnight bag packed in case unrest spills into his neighbourhood and he’s forced to flee the city with his family.

He lives near one of the new security barriers near Capitol Hill, where police are forcing residents on some streets to show ID if they want to access their home.

Scarlato was working from home the day of the riot in the Capitol building, when unexploded bombs were found near political party offices. 

On Jan. 6, Matt Scarlato, who lives near the Capitol, scrambled to pick up his child from daycare and threw a baseball bat into his car out of fear the violence would escalate. (Matt Scarlato)

He received a message from his son’s daycare urging parents to immediately come pick up their children.

Scarlato grabbed a baseball bat and tossed it in the car for the ride to the daycare.

“It was a minute-by-minute escalation,” Scarlato said. “We were all just sitting in the house saying, ‘What the hell is going on?'” 

A longtime resident of the area, he compared the recent panic to a smaller-scale version of what he witnessed during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

On the day of the Capitol riot, he was concerned by the sight of an unfamiliar RV on his street given the reports of bombs in Washington and the recent explosion in Nashville.

For her part, Monica Ingram, a retired health-care administrator, was rattled yesterday morning by the sound of helicopters hovering over the same Capitol Hill neighbourhood. 

Monica Ingram says the inauguration must go ahead in public to send a message. But she hopes Biden throws a real inauguration party a year from now to make up for the muted festivities. (Monica Ingram)

Around that same time, the congressional precinct was ordered evacuated. The panic was the result of an explosion and fire nearby, caused by a propane tank in a homeless encampment.

Ingram said people now look at each other differently, warily. Ingram saw a man taking pictures of streets near the Capitol the other day and she worried whether he was up to something nefarious.

“We’re suspicious of each other now. It’s sad,” she said. “It’s very disheartening, upsetting. It’s like I don’t even know this country anymore.”

WATCH | Preparations underway to fortify U.S. capital ahead of inauguration day:

With the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris fast approaching, U.S. authorities have gone to great lengths to ensure a safe transfer of power and to prevent violent riots similar to what happened on Jan. 6. Tens of thousands of National Guard troops have fortified Washington, D.C., and imposed tough restrictions on movement that give the U.S. capital an air of occupation. 2:45

Some call for indoor inauguration 

She’s among the many people with mixed feelings about whether this inauguration should even be happening in public. 

Ultimately, she prefers it going forward, as opposed to moving to a makeshift indoor location, in order to deliver a message: that this country won’t buckle in fear.

There is, however, a part of her that hopes Biden might throw another inaugural party, a year from now, a real festive party, after this pandemic, and this panic.

The National Mall awash in U.S. flags. Most Americans will be watching Biden take the oath of office on their screens at home. ( Patrick Semansky/Reuters)

Biden should have a “redo” inauguration, she said. 

“It’s so sad that president-elect Biden has to be sworn in like this. It should be a day of joy for this country.” 

There’s no guarantee this place will feel safer in a year.

Mark Hertling, a retired lieutenant-general who led U.S. soldiers in Europe, said he worries about whether the United States is now entering an era of political insurgency. 

And he’s not alone. 

One-time riot or preview of insurgency?

Some analysts who study domestic political violence have warned for years (in thesis papers and books and government reports) that the conditions existed for an American insurgency on the right.

Those conditions include a proliferation of guns, a surge in ex-military joining militia groups, two increasingly hostile political parties, and a split along racial and cultural lines in a rapidly diversifying country.

A 2018 book, Alt-America, charts how membership in armed militia groups skyrocketed after the election of a first Black president, Barack Obama, in 2008, and these fringe groups began showing up at political protests.

Armed militia protests have become increasingly common in government buildings, such as this one at the state capitol in Lansing, Mich., last April. In October of last year, several people (not pictured) with links to a Michigan militia group were charged in connection with an alleged plot to kidnap the governor. (Seth Herald/Reuters)

Alleged members of such militias are now accused of participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, where numerous people were dressed in paramilitary-themed clothing and several could be heard in the crowd warning they’d be back with weapons.

“Welcome to the reality of other countries,” said Greg Ehrie, who led FBI domestic terrorism units and is now vice-president of law enforcement and analysis at the Anti-Defamation League.

“There is sort of an underlying belief that if we can get through Wednesday, this stops and then it moves on. And that’s just not true.… This is going to be something we’re going to be living with for several years — this heightened sense of security.” 

Details released since the siege of the Capitol suggest things could have been worse.

National Guard soldiers from different states will be helping secure Washington, D.C., during the inauguration. Here, members of the Idaho National Guard are seen in Boise departing for the capital on Jan. 15. (U.S. National Guard/Reuters)

Jan. 6 could have been worse

One man arrested that day allegedly had two guns and enough materials to make 11 Molotov cocktails, and another allegedly had a loaded gun, spare bullets and a gas mask.

A federal prosecutor said one air force veteran who carried plastic handcuffs intended to take hostages.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City said in a YouTube video she believed she was going to die during the riot in the Capitol and that she experienced a traumatic event she declined to discuss: “Many, many, many members of Congress were almost murdered,” she said in the video. “We were very lucky [to escape].”

One police officer died as a result of injuries sustained during the riot. Another said he narrowly survived the angry mob and described how he was Tasered while some wanted to take his gun and kill him with it.

Joseph Young, a professor at American University in D.C. who studies the factors that drive political violence, usually in other countries, said he is bothered by the trends he sees.

“More and more, my work has been applicable to the United States,” he said in an interview. “[And that’s] troubling.”

A word of historical caution

He said it’s wrong, however, to conclude this is a more violent political era than the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. experienced hundreds of terrorist attacks back then, from white-supremacist church bombings to political assassinations to the activities of the left-wing group Weather Underground, which bombed the Capitol, the State Department and other government buildings.

But he’s still worried about the current U.S. situation. As are the authorities preparing for inauguration day. 

National Guard members exit a newly erected barricade near the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 13. Fences and barricades have been erected in the city centre ahead of Wednesday’s event. (Brandon Bell/Reuters)

The Pentagon has authorized the Washington, D.C., National Guard to carry weapons on domestic soil amid ongoing worries about the possible use of explosives.

National Guard members are being screened themselves for any extremist affiliations. A Secret Service member was reportedly under investigation over political comments related to the Capitol riot posted on Facebook.

Jared Holt, an expert who monitors extremist chatter online, said it has gotten quieter lately.

Several kilometres of Washington, D.C., will be off-limits to vehicles or people, as checkpoints and barricades have already gone up around the city. (U.S. Secret Service)

He said he was extremely worried before Jan. 6 about the heated and violent rhetoric he saw in online platforms. 

People were posting tips for smuggling guns into Washington and maps of the underground tunnels connecting the Capitol to lawmakers’ offices.

Those same forums erupted in joy after the attack.

“It was initially jubilation,” said Holt, of the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank. “They were thrilled. They felt incredibly accomplished. [Now], the cohesion between groups has eroded.”

It became clear within hours of the riot that it might backfire — against those involved and against Donald Trump.

It failed to stop the vote to certify Biden’s election win. Then it led to Trump’s swift impeachment in the House.

Has the threat already receded?

Some rioters in the Capitol who posted triumphant images of themselves on social media have been arrested or fired from their jobs, with their posts used as evidence against them.

Social media platforms are either limiting extremist rhetoric and shutting out Trump, are offline altogether (Parler), or are unusually slow (Gab).   

Holt now worries that violent rhetoric is moving to tighter channels that are harder to monitor publicly, such as Telegram and other private messaging apps.

So residents of Washington, D.C., and the country as a whole, enter this historic transition week in a fog of uncertainty, about whether they’ve just witnessed a dark passing moment in the life of the American republic or a sombre omen.

Washington area resident Emilie Frank isn’t sure if the increased security is an overreaction but says she prefers erring on the safe side. (CBC News)

“It looks like a police state down here. We’ve never seen it like this,” Emilie Frank, a communications professional, said in an interview a few days ago, referring to the imposing concrete-and-metal labyrinth being erected downtown.

“It would normally be bustling, everybody’s excited [for the inauguration]. But it’s silent, blocked off, police cars everywhere.”

She doesn’t know if any of this will be necessary. But she’d rather have this than the under-preparation by authorities that the city witnessed on Jan. 6, she said.

“So, even if it’s just [for] show, it’s better than nothing, I guess,” she said. “If some people will be convinced they should stay away after seeing all this stuff in place, then that’s good.”

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