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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 8 March 2021

Residents in Washington brace for inauguration as shadow of Capitol riots looms large

Joe Biden will be sworn in on Wednesday, less than a fortnight after rioters stormed the US Capitol

For most residents of the US capital Washington, living at the centre of national politics is a part of everyday life.

Citizens from across the country flock to the city to see its national monuments and museums, and often to protest on behalf of various causes.

As Washington prepares for the swearing in of president-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday, it feels markedly different from the inauguration of any previous president.

The city is still reeling from an assault on the Capitol by rioting supporters of President Donald Trump on January 6.

The events may have shocked those watching the chaos unfold on live television, but they arguably had a more immediate effect on the city’s 700,000 residents.

Grace Caldwell lives 600 metres away from the Capitol building. A call from her landlord alerted her to the seriousness of the situation.

“He was concerned about pipe bombs since [my apartment] is so close to the Senate buildings,” Ms Caldwell said.

“He sounded calm, but said, ‘If you have somewhere else to go that would be my recommendation’.”

Those fears were not without basis. Federal agents detonated two pipe bombs found near the Republican and Democratic national committees that day.

Shawntia Humphries and Peter Tracey were less than a kilometre away from the Capitol as the riots escalated.

On the afternoon of January 6, Ms Humphries was trying to drive her co-worker home after being called off work early because of the riots.

She said she was already frustrated with the protesters and rioters because of the traffic, and many of them were walking in the middle of the street near her car.

That is when Ms Humphries saw Mr Tracey screaming on his front porch.

“Get out of town,” he shouted, adding a few choice expletives at those he called "traitors".

“I wanted to say something already,” Ms Humphries said. “And there goes Peter on his porch.

"Peter was like the light of day, out there cursing them out and I was just like, yes!”

“I know. They’re really destroying our city,” Ms Humphries responded from her car.

The interaction, captured by Norwegian journalist Veronica Westhrin, went viral. The internet quickly dubbed them “#WomaninCar” and “#GuyonPorch.

As a resident of Washington for more than 20 years, Mr Tracey said he was used to demonstrations that he did not agree with. But the riots crossed a line.

“We understand people are going to come here and express views that are different from ours and you get used to that,” Mr Tracey said.

“That’s their right. But to come and destroy and come and violate what is really every American’s sacred space, we are not down with that.”

After the riots, President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration in the city lasting until January 24, given “emergency conditions” around the Wednesday inauguration of Mr Biden.

Local officials have also established an “inauguration perimeter”, with security checkpoints throughout the city. That entails closing roads in the downtown area and major bridges into the city.

The National Guard sent more than 25,000 troops into Washington for the inauguration. That is 10 times more guard members in the city’s 177 square kilometres than American troops in Afghanistan.

“The fence is just on the other side of my block but I’ve had my ID checked about where I’m going, asking me what I’m doing,” Ms Caldwell said.

“I feel pretty safe but it’s really scary having all these long-nosed guns all over the place. It’s pretty nerve-racking.”

She said the militarised presence in the city meant the loss of her daily routine.

“All around I’ve really loved living [on Capitol Hill] because it’s really quiet," Ms Caldwell said.

"Every morning I wake up, make myself coffee, try to get more steps in so I do a lap around the Capitol and listen to podcasts.

“I really hate how difficult it is to walk around now.”

Born and raised in Washington, Ms Humphries says she feels cautious but calm.

“I really don’t walk in fear but I’ll be aware of my surroundings," she said.

"But as a DC resident it is scary that other people are coming here to destroy what we have here because they’re upset.

“I did want to go see the inauguration but now I feel like you’re just putting yourself in harm’s way going down there.”

The threat of violence also loomed in the run-up to the historic Capitol riots.

Smaller Pro-Trump demonstrations have trickled into the city ever since the November election.

In December, four people were stabbed in the downtown area amid skirmishes near a gathering of white nationalist, chauvinist group the Proud Boys.

I do worry about what will be taken away after this

Grace Caldwell

The chaos is increasing the burden on local businesses already facing stress because of the pandemic.

Centrolina is an Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown. It was among the businesses that decided to close theirs doors on January 6 and will stay closed until after the inauguration.

“I’m not sure people understand the extent to which you get nervous not being able to control what’s going to happen to your space,” said owner and head chef Amy Brandwein.

“There’s just a lot of emotions but mainly it's complete exasperation at this point.

"I have a feeling we will have to stay closed another few days after the inauguration. It’s just the unknown.”

For Washington restaurants, the added uncertainty comes at a time that would normally generate substantial revenue.

A city government report pointed to an increase of 5.7 per cent in city revenue in 2017, in part due to that year’s inauguration.

Amy Brandwein. Photo by Scott Suchman
Amy Brandwein. Photo by Scott Suchman

“Inauguration in DC is usually a huge event and restaurant time. People are usually out celebrating, spending a lot of money,” Ms Brandwein said.

“But this is completely different. There’s basically no business to be had.”

With the latest emergency order from city Mayor Muriel Bowser, all restaurants are closed for in-door dining until January 21.

Private businesses in the hotel and service industry are also deciding to close or limit services.

Airbnb has cancelled all reservations in the metro area, and some unions are pressuring the city’s hotels to do the same.

For Ms Brandwein, the importance of survival for Washington’s restaurants goes beyond business.

“I think sometimes people forget that food is a way for people to express culture," she said. "People can understand more about other people by eating food.

“We want to make sure the restaurants and all their different cultures can continue to operate.”

When the inauguration is over and demonstrations disperse, Washington locals such as Ms Caldwell wonder if life in the city will ever be the same.

“What I worry about is how long this period is going to last after the inauguration,” she said.

“I grew up in DC before 9/11 so I remember when you could walk around the Capitol terraces, and I do worry about what will be taken away after this.”

Updated: January 19, 2021 04:58 PM

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