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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 January 2021

Fear and resolve in US capital ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration

Washington residents and law enforcement prepare for the challenges of inauguration day

Members of the US National Guard walk the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 12, 2021. EPA
Members of the US National Guard walk the grounds of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 12, 2021. EPA

A black metal fence surrounds the US Capitol building. Behind the grated alloy, National Guard troops stand idle.

Their presence a week before the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris is unusual but not surprising. It is a show of force meant to deter any new attempts at protest or insurrection.

Only a week ago, a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building and ransacked the sacred halls of the world’s oldest democracy. The breach of the Capitol shook the country to its core.

“I just wanted to see that democracy was still standing,” Pamela Lessard, 53, said. The fitness professional brought her 21-year-old daughter Haley Gross to the Washington Mall for a glimpse of the aftermath of last week’s events. “We live near by, we could hear the sirens as we were sitting in our home. We were watching everything happen on TV and we were probably as stunned as most people.”

‘I never thought I’d see it in my own country’

The images of the president’s supporters traipsing through one of the most symbolic buildings in the country disturbed many. “It was hard for me to watch,” Bryan Ribis said. “It was terrifying. I’m originally from Boston, so when I saw it, it reminded me of the Boston Marathon bombing.”

Ms Lessard and her daughter were equally appalled. “I thought it was disgusting, despicable, frightening. I lived overseas in my youth. I lived through coups, I lived through an embassy attack, it was very reminiscent of that. I never thought I’d see it in my own country,” Ms Lessard said.

For her daughter Hayley, it raised memories of the school shootings her generation lived through. “The first thing that came to mind was, I saw all the aides sheltering in place and it felt very reminiscent of growing up around here and having lockdown drills from shootings at schools.”

Like many across the city, the women said they are worried more riots could take place in the coming days, especially on January 20, the day Mr Biden and Ms Harris are scheduled to be sworn into office.

US National Guard to send 10,000 troops

There are currently 6,200 National Guard troops from six states stationed in Washington, DC, and that number will swell to at least 10,000 by inauguration day. The head of the National Guard, Daniel Hokanson, said he has authorisation to bring in as many as 15,000 troops for the inauguration.

The increase in troops is at the behest of US Capitol Police, who are responsible for protecting the Capitol building, as well as the US Secret Service and National Park Police.

The Washington Metropolitan Police, the local city police force, have already started closing streets and erecting barriers a week before the event. “Allow for additional travel time in and around downtown,” the mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, tweeted on Tuesday. “This is the beginning of the installation of the inauguration perimeter around the White House, the Mall, the Capitol and parts of downtown.”

Concern mounting across the country

Concern mounting around the country

While the capital city is expected to be the epicentre of demonstrations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned law enforcement agencies around the country to brace for protests on inauguration day. An internal FBI bulletin, first reported by ABC News, stated nationwide protests could occur in the week leading up to the inauguration.

The FBI believes some of the protestors that are planning demonstrations may be members of domestic extremist groups.

The bureau stated that armed protests were being planned at state capitols in all fifty US states beginning on January 16 and extending through the inauguration.

Biden administration urges people to stay away

Even before the events of the January 6 riot, Mr Biden’s transition team was planning a toned-down inauguration due to the threat of Covid-19. Instead, they encouraged Americans to stay home and enjoy the event online.

While there will still be some of the traditional in-person events, like the swearing-in ceremony, Mr Biden’s Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) has planned a virtual parade. “In light of the pandemic, the PIC will produce a virtual parade across America that will be televised for the American people and feature diverse, dynamic performances in communities across the country,” a PIC press release said.

Many Americans are anxiously bracing for January 20. In Washington, some residents are trying to do their part to avoid a repeat of last week’s insurrection. People who rent their homes on online sites like Airbnb and VRBO have said they will remove their short-term listings from the sites during inauguration week.

Airbnb released a ‘Capitol Safety Plan’ for the inauguration and said it will review local reservations and cancel bookings associated with members of hate groups.

Ms Lessard hopes the well-oiled machinery of America’s democracy prevails. “I would like to see a safe democratic transition of power. I’m looking forward to having Biden and Harris in office. I hope eventually these fences come down because this city is a jewel and I don’t like seeing fences, but we need them right now,” she said.

Meanwhile Mr Ribis is determined to attend the event, even if it is not advised. “Trump’s presidency has been an era for the US kind of showing a lot of the things that are wrong with the country and I feel like I need to see that transition with my own eyes, to know that there is a transition,” he said.

Updated: January 14, 2021 01:20 PM

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