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Washingtonians navigate new normal: Razor-tipped wire fences and armed soldiers

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/29/2021 Emily Davies, Alex Horton
a group of people wearing costumes: Pat Savoy, holding his son Noah, who is almost 2, approaches a checkpoint near the U.S. Capitol to offer U.S. Capitol Police officers and National Guard personnel treats. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post Pat Savoy, holding his son Noah, who is almost 2, approaches a checkpoint near the U.S. Capitol to offer U.S. Capitol Police officers and National Guard personnel treats.

Weeks after their jogging routes and day-care drop-offs were interrupted by a mob storming the U.S. Capitol, the residents of a quiet neighborhood nestled amid the national monuments are wrestling with life in a fortress, where checkpoints abut corner stores and armed soldiers are new neighbors.

Some residents on Capitol Hill have rallied behind the thousands of National Guard members stationed nearby, bringing them wagons full of snacks and hot coffee to express gratitude for their service. Other locals have gone to great lengths to avoid the encampment, saying the presence of armed troops and fencing topped with razor wire makes them feel even more on edge in their own neighborhood.

The polarizing positions have laid bare the personal toll that the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol has taken on D.C. residents who have to live with the aftermath of the insurrection and the militarization of their home.

“This is our land, and many of us are attached to this land because it’s made us who we are,” said Anthony Lorenzo Green, a Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative who remembers visiting D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) at the Capitol when he was 7 years old. “Now, we have the feeling of being occupied.”

The heightened security measures are not going away anytime soon. More than 9,500 National Guard members from 19 states were on duty in D.C. on Wednesday, officials said. While that number will fall below 6,000 by mid-March, Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard bureau chief, has said the Guard’s presence in Washington is expected to endure.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has requested 500 locally based troops remain activated through March 12 for the upcoming impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump, President Biden’s February speech to Congress and potential extremist activity March 4. Capitol Police on Thursday proposed permanent fencing around the Capitol and “the availability of ready, backup forces” in proximity. The controversial recommendation immediately drew condemnation from D.C. officials and members of Congress.

[D.C. requests support from 500 members of D.C. National Guard through March 12]

This new militarized normal in the District, and in particular on Capitol Hill, has forced locals to interact with soldiers on a daily basis. Camouflage-clad troops are not only stationed at checkpoints along almost all major roads near federal buildings, but they have also become regulars at area pizza joints and coffee shops.

Since arriving in D.C., Sgt. Travin Moore, an artillery crewman in the Kansas National Guard, has toured the Capitol building, stood underneath the Washington Monument and swung by Target for the essentials — workout sweats and a pair of headphones — when he has not been stationed outside the Library of Congress with an M4 rifle strapped across his chest. Thomas Warth, a lieutenant colonel also with the Kansas National Guard, sat outside Le Bon Café on Second Street SE on Wednesday afternoon with a cup of coffee and a club sandwich.

a man holding a sign © Provided by The Washington Post a group of people walking down the street © Provided by The Washington Post

“They’ve been great neighbors, and we are just incredibly appreciative of them,” said Patrick Savoy, a 34-year-old government consultant who lives on Capitol Hill.

Savoy, like many who live on his block, said he was relieved when thousands of troops descended on his neighborhood in advance of Biden’s inauguration. He had run through clusters of police cars and blaring sirens on Jan. 6 to pick up his 1-year-old son, Noah, from day care three miles from the Capitol. The armed guards made him feel protected.

For three weeks, Savoy has made a point to express his gratitude to the soldiers and police by bringing them bags of chips and drinks during his daily walks. On Monday night, Noah bounded toward officers at New Jersey Avenue and D street SE, clutching a blue Powerade bottle that rivaled him in height. He twisted his hand through a gap in the fence and waved at the officers, who crouched down and smiled.

“Thank you, bud. We appreciate you,” a Capitol Police officer said, taking the drink. She handed Noah a Capitol Police sticker to add to his jacket, which was already adorned with patches and pins from National Guard members and other Capitol Police officers.

The outpouring of support was so large that it created its own headache.

Well-meaning citizens delivered food and set up online fundraisers after photos of troops sleeping in the Capitol went viral, prompting Guard officials to warn they were “not logistically able” to accept donations and asked them to stop.

Noah Savoy wears badges, shields and pins on his coat that were given to him by National Guard and Capitol Police personnel as a thank you. © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post Noah Savoy wears badges, shields and pins on his coat that were given to him by National Guard and Capitol Police personnel as a thank you. [National Guard members allowed back at Capitol after they were banished to a parking garage]

Not all residents have been as comfortable with the military presence.

Maurice Cook, executive director of Ward 6 Mutual Aid, also lives and works on Capitol Hill. But he said he tries to avoid the fence-lined areas interspersed with law enforcement.

“No part of me feels safer having them around,” Cook, who is Black, said. “I feel vulnerable.”

Cook said the federal government’s decision to boost security in the predominantly White neighborhood of Capitol Hill while gun violence tears through a historically Black community just across the Anacostia River shows that the heightened safety measures are not actually meant to protect him.

On Tuesday night, while thousands of federal troops watched over quiet streets near the Capitol, a 15-year-old middle school student was shot and killed in Southeast Washington.

“Who are they keeping safe?” Cook said. “Because it’s not people like me.”

Green, who is also a core organizer with Black Lives Matter D.C., said the fallout from Jan. 6 should call attention to the importance of D.C. statehood.

“This is the price that we pay as stateless people in the nation’s capital. We are people who are constantly asked to show up and clean up the mess, show up and fight in the wars, show up and pay our taxes, but our country has yet to show up for us to give us full voting rights and statehood,” he said.

Patrice Sulton, executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab, said the encampment around the Capitol may be chilling for people who are “fearful and skeptical and cynical of the government having too much and showing so much power.”

“We want to protect our safety, but we also want to protect our liberties and our values,” she added. “When I think about that show of force, it’s an indication of our failure to address our liberties.”

Still, many of the troops standing guard on Capitol Hill said they have rarely felt so appreciated for their service.

Warth, who left his wife and three kids in Kansas for a now months-long stay in D.C., said he has seen locals offer his troops coffee and food. He said one person drove by a checkpoint with a stack of Starbucks gift cards.

“It reminds me of the Shiite community in Baghdad when people would invite us in for tea,” Warth said, recalling his deployment to Iraq from February 2007 to April 2008. “Though it is sad to make those kinds of comparisons.”

In addition to snack and coffee runs, local establishments have staged a community-wide effort to provide free meals to the troops and officers around their neighborhood.

We, The Pizza, a restaurant on Capitol Hill, has raised more than $40,000 in donations to send meals to the soldiers after photos of the Guard members with their pizza boxes went viral in the wake of the insurrection. They have since partnered with more than 30 Washington-area restaurants to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to Capitol Police and members of the National Guard.

“January 6 was a sucker punch to businesses on Capitol Hill,” Michelle Mendelsohn, one of the owners of the pizzeria, said. “That we are able to do some good now, bring restaurants together and thank the police that are not only guarding the Capitol building but also our backyards, it is really beautiful.”

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