Years ago, I accompanied a European colleague to a series of meetings at the United States Capitol building. He insisted we arrive hours before his first appointment, expecting the required security screening to be time-intensive. Instead, we waited in a short line, walked through a metal detector and put our bags on the security screening conveyor belt. The entire process couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes.
How wonderful, my companion remarked, how American that citizens could so easily visit their legislators.
Today, though, a 7-foot-high fence, topped with razor wire, stands around the Capitol, establishing a physical barrier between the government and the governed. If the acting chief of Capitol Police has her way the fence will become a permanent fixture. Such an action would turn the Capitol into a fortress instead of a building embodying America’s proud tradition of open democracy.
View from Capitol Hill
I live just eight blocks from the Capitol. On Jan. 6, I watched as countless police cars sped past my house towards the site of the insurrection. I prayed that friends in the Capitol — staffers and reporters covering the Electoral College vote count — would return my texts asking if they were safe. That night, I turned on a favorite audiobook in a fruitless effort to drown out the sound of helicopters hovering above.
In the days after, I watched as my neighborhood transformed into an occupied zone. Each day, as I took a walk — my escape from my apartment during quarantine — I saw more and more members of the National Guard. They stood armed and ready, not far from my favorite pizza place and my go-to Chinese food joint. The fence surrounding the Capitol moved almost daily as the Green Zone grew.
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By the time I left to stay with a friend for the inauguration, the Green Zone started just two blocks from my house. I could see the barriers from my window. When I returned to the city after President Joe Biden’s swearing-in, many of the 25,000 National Guard troops were gone, but the fence encasing the Capitol remained.
Those of us who live on Capitol Hill, the neighborhood surrounding the House and Senate, use the Capitol grounds as a park. We wander the botanical gardens, sit by the reflecting pool and even sled down the hill during our rare snowstorms. Our presence was a demonstration that the government is — or at least should be — of the people, not separate and apart.
Democracy in action
Before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors lined the halls of Congress. Advocates for research into rare diseases and other policy initiatives would fly in to encourage legislators to allocate more funding for their cause. School children had the chance to see their government in action. Citizens met with their representatives.
Outside the building, protests — ranging from the massive Women’s March to demonstrations with just a handful of protesters opposed to GMO labeling — occur nearly daily.
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These activities are part of the rhythm of my life on Capitol Hill but, if the fence remains standing, even after we’ve put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, these activities could remain a thing of the past. Citizens could lose the opportunity to see and interact with their government in person.
While the Capitol Police’s desire to protect Congress from another attack is understandable, the 7-foot fence is a misguided tactic. Alternatives to fencing and more strategic policing certainly have their trade-offs but would not put a literal barrier between the government and the governed.
Breaking down barriers
At a virtual town hall Thursday evening, my neighbors and I listened to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting member of the House of Representatives argue the fence needed to come down. Holmes Norton introduced legislation last week to prohibit the permanent installation of the fence.
“The notion that only members of Congress can get to the Capitol is outrageous,” Holmes Norton said at a virtual town hall Thursday. “Barrier by barrier we have to show we can get our Capitol back.”
I hope we get our Capitol back as part of our city and our nation, instead of a fortress standing on its own.
Elizabeth Held is a writer living in Washington, D.C., working for Subject Matter. She writes a weekly book recommendation newsletter. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethheld