Fortress Washington
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 01, 2021
The barricading of the U.S. Capitol, after years of stepped-up security in D.C., fuels the push for statehood
Amanda Kolson Hurley

In the days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, a 7-foot-high fence topped with coils of razor wire went up around the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It was described as a temporary measure to protect the seat of Congress for a month or longer. But on Jan. 28, Yogananda Pittman, the acting head of the U.S. Capitol Police, called for making the fence permanent, citing the need for “vast improvements” to security.

Even with the recent violence fresh in their minds, D.C.’s elected leaders denounced the idea. Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted that the city “will not accept” a long-term fence. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district’s nonvoting congresswoman, introduced a bill to block it. (The D.C. government has no jurisdiction over the Capitol grounds, which are federal territory, so Bowser can’t simply tell Pittman no.) Local citizens bristled. An online petition against the plan had garnered more than 20,000 signatures as of Feb. 23.

Patrolled by National Guard troops, the current fence is about 3 miles around, encompassing not just the Capitol but adjacent landmarks such as the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. It cuts off main thoroughfares, effectively severing areas east of the Capitol from downtown and the west of the city.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant planned Washington in 1791 as the embodiment of American democracy, with its two poles, the Capitol and the White House, each visible from the other, an architectural check on one branch of government gaining too much power. Now both are unapproachable and half-hidden behind fortifications. Resentment over the cordoning off of the “people’s house” is feeding into the D.C. statehood movement—which, with the Democrats in charge of the White House and both houses of Congress, now has its most promising (if still narrow) political window ever.

Tim Krepp, a tour organizer who’s lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood since 2001, acknowledges the prudence of a short-term fence at the Capitol but says there is “absolutely no appetite” in his community for a permanent one. “This is a wall for us,” he says. He’s not sure how his children will get to school once in-person classes resume.

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