Security at ‘unprecedented’ level as Washington prepares for inauguration

City could host up to 25,000 National Guard members for inauguration

Capitol Police guard the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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A handful of camouflage soldiers stand at the corner of H Street and New Jersey Avenue in Washington. Heavy assault rifles dangle from their necks as they use their free hands to direct traffic away from the US Capitol building.

They are among the close to 15,000 National Guard troops currently in the capital in the days leading up to the US presidential inauguration on January 20. That number could swell to about 25,000 on inauguration day, according to some reports.

This particular group of soldiers is stationed a whole kilometre away from the Capitol. They form part of a perimeter that stretches around much of central Washington.

The city has already closed dozens of streets in the city centre and as of Saturday, 13 metro stations will be temporarily shut.

At the behest of the US Secret Service, which oversees security for the inauguration, most of the National Mall, the traditional gathering site for inaugural ceremonies, has been shut.

This is all part of a co-ordinated plan to prevent a repeat of the January 6 riots, when a mob of President Donald Trump's supporters broke into the US Capitol building in an attempt to prevent lawmakers from certifying the 2020 election results.

Five people were killed in the riots including a Capitol Police officer, leaving the country deeply rattled.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser called the level of security “unprecedented.”

In addition to the potentially 25,000 National Guard troops, the Metropolitan Police will be “all hands on deck,” said acting police chief Robert Contee.

The sound of drills buzzing can be heard throughout the city centre as businesses frantically board up their facades.

“I think it’s pretty telling of the concerns for what’s coming in the next week,” Zoe Wadge, a law student at nearby George Washington University said. “I’m concerned that we’ll see something similar to last Wednesday or something bridging off of that. I know there has been a lot of online chatter that’s pretty concerning.”

The heavy security presence has helped mollify Ms Wadge's concerns.

Florida native John Cordeiro, who is in town working on a construction project, said he understands why there is such a huge security presence but still finds it shocking. “It’s very disappointing. It breaks my heart that we need it,” he said.

There will be multiple levels of security. The city centre has been divided into two zones. A red zone, which will be fenced off, is comprised of the National Mall, the US Capitol and the White House. Access will be limited to those with authorisation, and anyone trying to enter should expect to be searched and be ready to explain why they are entering.

Then there is a softer green zone where authorities may ask pedestrians for identification and what they are doing in the area.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans traditionally descend on Washington for inauguration ceremonies. President Trump famously claimed over million people attended his inauguration.

Crowd estimation experts believe the number was likely much smaller than that. Mr Trump excoriated the media for refuting his estimates.

In 2009, an estimated 1.8 million people filled the National Mall and the surrounding area for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, making it perhaps the largest in the country’s history.

Authorities are begging Americans to stay away this year. “We want everybody to enjoy and enjoy it right in their own states in their own living rooms and with their own families,” Ms Bowser said.