“In these trying times” has been so often repeated over the last year that it has lost meaning. Take a look at Washington, DC these days and you’ll get a sense of what it means for those of us who call DC home. The storming of the Capitol and its aftermath are making us rethink our own exceptionalism and what democracy means.
Those who live in DC, like those who live in Mexico City are accustomed to a certain amount of disturbance as the norm. Protests are normal, motorcades block traffic and streets are closed for special events. We adjust. We consider ourselves hardy and these inconveniences the cost of calling the nation’s capital is our home. At the same time, Washingtonians resent the fact that we don’t get much respect. We don’t have voting representation in the House or Senate. Congress overrules decisions we make about local governance. Mexico City is far ahead of us on the issue of representation.
I’m going to take the liberty to speak for my neighbors in DC. The attack on the Capitol and subsequent militarization of Washington in preparation for the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph Biden, has shaken us. There is a palpable sense of fear that the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters was not the end of violent protest, but that more will come.
Large swaths of downtown and Capitol Hill are blocked off by barricades. Much of the subway system is temporarily shut down. Every police force imaginable seems to be in the city. We even have sections of the city designated as “red” and “green” zones, leading locals to compare our existence to those living in Iraq. We say this half in jest and half in dread.
Our sense of exceptionalism is being challenged at its core. We didn’t see this coming, even though we had plenty of warning about right-wing militia groups. We did not imagine that the Capitol could be overtaken, especially those of us who have spent a good deal of our lives waiting to pass through metal detectors to enter government buildings. These things happen in other countries, not here.
Since the storming of the Capitol, with Congress returning to business and some of those who took part in the riotous mob being arrested, I’ve heard analysts saying that “This is a sign that democracy is working.” Really?!! These people can’t live in DC. Militarizing the city for days to ensure a safe transfer of presidents is not what successful democracy looks like.
Washingtonians also ponder what new restrictions on freedoms and movement will become normalized moving forward. Long-time residents remember when you could drive up and park in front of the White House and the Capitol. Then came the Oklahoma City bombing and the security parameters around federal buildings were expanded, no more parking close by. Then came 9/11, after which metal detectors became the norm and registration or pre-clearance were required for many buildings.
We don’t want the presence of the military in DC streets to become the new normal. The loss of freedoms, even militarization can happen slowly, event-by-event. Figuring out what our democracy will look and how we will protect an open society is the challenge before us. Instead of discounting the voice and vote of the locals, national policymakers should pay attention to those of us who live here. While disenfranchised this is our city.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson