National Guard troops reinforce security around the U.S. Capitol ahead of expected protests leading up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.
( AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Tanzina Vega: Wednesday's presidential inauguration will be unlike any in modern history. In response to the violent mob that stormed the Capitol, local and federal law enforcement agencies have been ramping up security ahead of the inauguration. Currently, there are more than 25,000 National Guard troops in the nation's Capitol, multiple security checkpoints, and large-scale vetting of any military personnel on the scene. I'm joined now by Jenny Gathright, a reporter for WAMU in Washington, D.C. Jenny, thanks for being with us.
Jenny Gathright: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Tell us what it looks like right now where you're on the ground.
Jenny: Yes. There is a pretty intense security perimeter in downtown D.C. There's about a 4.6-mile perimeter. Inside the perimeter, there's an extremely intense military and police presence. There are some checkpoints as you get closer to the US Capitol and the National Mall, where you have to be searched by Secret Service if you want to proceed. Life inside that zone has been extremely disrupted for people, roads are close, it's really difficult to get around, many businesses are closed, and then the effects are rippling out beyond just people who live inside that zone to the broader city and affecting residents all over in different ways.
Tanzina: Are there specific measures that have been put into place other than the national-- We know that there are 25,000, some-odd, National Guard troops on the ground. Is there anything else specifically that we know? Are local and other law enforcement agencies also there?
Jenny: Yes. There's a heavy law enforcement presence from NPD, which is our local D.C. police department. There also is a heavy presence from Federal Police. I saw people in uniforms from Bureau of Prisons police, I saw uniforms from Customs and Border Protection, and there are also police reinforcements from police departments out of town. Yes, there's a huge law enforcement presence. Like I said, some of the measures extend just beyond that downtown area. Many of the bridges as of this morning that go into the city from Virginia and also go into the downtown areas from neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and D.C. are closed, completely closed to traffic.
Tanzina: Jenny, is this in response to specific threats, or is it largely a precautionary measure because of what happened at the Capitol?
Jenny: The FBI has said in recent days that it's been monitoring online chatter and threats from far-right, white supremacist, and other extremist groups following the insurrection at the US Capitol earlier this month. So far, no far-right gatherings have materialized in the city since January 6th, but local and federal officials say they're still on high alert. Yes, this is largely just in response to what happened on January 6th and there's concern that small groups of people might continue to express their anger, and those threats online might materialize into something. Folks are on high alert because of that.
Tanzina: I've got one minute left in this part of the conversation. The mood in D.C. must be tense, but I'm imagining it also takes a long time to get from one side of town to the other, is that what you're finding as well, given all these checkpoints?
Jenny: Yes, for sure. I think that a lot of neighborhoods in the city that are farther from downtown, life is going on as normal, but for folks who are essential workers who have to get around the city to commute into their job, for delivery drivers, it's been really difficult to get around. For those neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, there's only one hospital, and it doesn't have a maternity ward. That means that if you go into labor, it could be possible that your quickest route to the hospital you planned to go to is now completely disrupted. I think the ripple effects are real.
Tanzina: You're just saying that, particularly for essential workers, women, people who might be about to give birth, there are real concerns about being able to navigate the city, what are you hearing from people in D.C. about how they feel about all the security around them right now?
Jenny: Yes, it's different from person to person. Many people say they understand why these measures are in place, but it is making their day-to-day life difficult and it's exacerbating existing inequality in the city. D.C. has a large homeless population, for example, and many people experiencing homelessness who choose to stay outside of the shelter system, they stay in parks and encampments that are in these downtown areas that fall inside the security perimeter.
Outreach workers and mutual aid groups have been scrambling to get them resources and shelter because many of the homeless services have had to shut down because of the security measures. I'm also hearing from folks who are feeling their life has really been disrupted and there's a bit of resentment in the city over that because this is a city that overwhelmingly voted for Joe Biden and many of the people who were involved in the insurrection largely came from out of town. I think there's a lot of resentment about this disruption that the insurrection has caused for locals here.
Tanzina: Jenny, you said that it's exacerbating a lot of the inequalities, one of the things about Washington D.C. is, in fact, the stark inequality on our nation's capital, particularly among residents of color and Black residents. While the law enforcement there is there to protect folks, it could also heighten the opportunity for chances of law enforcement and residents of the city to come into contact, which is sometimes problematic, particularly if they're residents of color. How do Black residents feel about what's happening on the ground?
Jenny: Yes. I think there's a two-fold answer to that question, I have concern from Black and brown people who live closer to the security perimeter and who feel uncomfortable about this police and military presence. They say it's like there's two sides of the coin. We face violence now in the city from far-right and white supremacist groups, and then, on the other hand, this increased police presence isn't making them comfortable, either.
The other concern is that these neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River that are affected now by bridge closures, those are overwhelmingly Black neighborhoods, and some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city are over there. I think people over there are feeling like, "Why should we have to deal with the consequences of this when this is not a problem we created and it's really affecting our day-to-day lives now?"
Tanzina: This is supposed to be a celebration of a new administration, particularly for those who voted for this administration. Is there any celebratory sense on the ground right now or are things just really tense, Jenny?
Jenny: It's definitely a mix. I spend as much of a day and over the weekend walking the city and talking to residents. I did come across people who were trying to find their own ways to celebrate. I spoke with a Black woman who lives close to the US Capitol and she said she was going to try as hard as she could to get a glimpse of a ceremony because she was so excited about Pamela Harris being a Vice President, but it's definitely a different vibe.
To contrast, President Obama's first inauguration brought 1.8 million people to the National Mall, and we knew that this year was going to be different because of the coronavirus. One resident I spoke to put it pretty well, he said, "That was a time of celebration. This year, it's more about a feeling of relief at the end of the Trump presidency."
Tanzina: Couldn't add much more to that. Jenny Gathright is a reporter for WAMU in Washington, D.C. Jenny, thanks so much and please stay safe this week.
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