From the base of the U.S. Capitol, the new barricades stretch westward, past roadblocks and swarms of police officers and National Guard troops, all the way to the Washington Monument, where 50 American flags at half-staff flap in a brisk winter breeze.
Renee Pinkerton, 59, walked there from her Georgetown apartment the other morning, as she sometimes does, to replenish her sense of national pride. She instead felt an overwhelming sadness as she took in a tableau of workers installing eight-foot-high chain-link fences around the Ellipse.
“It’s like we’re broken as a nation,” she said outside the shuttered and mostly deserted monument. “To see all the barricades is a shock. We’ve always been a nation of stability and democracy. This is not who we are.”
As the nation’s capital, Washington is a beacon of a free and open society, its famous landmarks and grand governmental complexes protected by a vast and often invisible fortress of security that projects power and authority.
But its aura of invincibility was shattered last week when a violent mob blew past police lines outside the Capitol and stormed the inner sanctums of Congress.
The photos and videos of the invaders — people who had traveled to Washington to show fealty to the president — were astonishing and disorienting, in ways reminiscent of when two airplanes toppled the World Trade Center in Manhattan 19 years ago.
Here was a masked man in a hoodie inside the U.S. Senate chamber, casually occupying the chair where Vice President Pence sat just before fleeing. Here was another man, his foot up on a desk in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “We will not back down,” read the scrawl on a file folder the marauders left behind.
All at once, Washington felt like a city under siege.
In truth, though, the siege had begun months before.
The novel coronavirus shuttered the city, and the protests and looting after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody pushed unrest to Washington neighborhoods that typically remain out of the national fray: Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Friendship Heights. There was tear gas and rubber bullets, boarded-up storefronts. Over the summer, National Guard troops patrolled federal parks to remind people not to linger, and to remain socially distant.
Beyond the blur of news, there was the Georgetown University cafeteria worker who lost her job and had to move her extended family of seven from a spacious house to a two-bedroom apartment. There was the unemployed construction worker who peddles body oils on an Anacostia sidewalk while helping his granddaughter with Zoom classes.
There was also the florist in a mostly Black, blue-collar neighborhood who has found herself busy arranging bouquets to honor the dead, many of them victims of covid-19 and gun violence. And there was the Capitol Hill priest who, missing his congregants, has taken to strolling his neighborhood and ministering to police officers guarding the Capitol.
After last week’s riot, Stephanie Kay, 56, an art teacher at Langdon Elementary School in Brookland, told her fifth-graders she felt renewed hope with Trump’s impending departure and the swearing-in of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris.
“Are you hopeful that things will get better?” she asked the small faces on her screen.
Eight of the 11 students turned their thumbs down.
“My heart dropped,” she said.
A couple of days later, she posted to a neighborhood listserv her fears that there would be another violent invasion on Inauguration Day, and suggested that the National Guard establish checkpoints to keep “outsiders without credentials” from entering the city. Commenters ridiculed the idea as extreme, and Kay acknowledged that it defied her normal image of herself as a defender of free speech.
But life now is anything but normal, she said.
“We are hanging on by our fingernails.”
New era of unrest
The first contemporary sign of far-right paranoia in Washington burst into public view on Dec. 4, 2016, during the run-up to Trump’s inauguration. That afternoon, a heavily armed North Carolina man walked into Comet Ping Pong, a neighborhood pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue, to investigate what he believed was a child sex-trafficking ring operating out of the eatery.
“Pizzagate” became the popular shorthand for the incident — an omen of what was to come.
Arising from the murkiest recesses of the Internet — and later amplified by the mysterious conspiracist known as QAnon (or just “Q”) — the baseless theory holds that Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats are members of a Satan-worshiping cult victimizing children in tunnels beneath the restaurant.
“We still get Pizzagate calls here and there,” Erika Mendoza, an assistant manager, said Tuesday night, seated at a table on the otherwise vacant patio. “People asking questions like, ‘Where is the basement at,’ or ‘Where are the tunnels?’ ”
In the chill air, she shrugged and half-smiled. “You know, like crazy questions.”
Mendoza, 29, a single parent of three school-aged youngsters, was not working on the day of the incident, but she still felt frightened. “We all felt scared for our lives afterward, because we didn’t know if another crazy person was going to come another day.”
Washington has long been the site of historic crises, from the burning of the U.S. Capitol by the British in 1814 to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, to the rioting that began at the corner of 14th and U streets after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death in 1968.
What has distinguished the past year is the molten mix of a pandemic, racial justice protests, and political unrest.
Stanley Mayes, 71, the owner of A Divine Shine Complete Shoe Care and Repair on T Street NW, grew up in the neighborhood, known as Shaw, and still lives there. He witnessed the looting and arson in 1968, the antiwar demonstrations of the same period, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s.
In some ways, he said, he feels more hopeful now, particularly as cellphone video footage has validated longtime complaints from Black people that they are routinely mistreated by police officers.
But the coronavirus killed his sister-in-law and three cousins and hurt his business. And he was jarred by the sight of Trump supporters walking through his neighborhood on the afternoon of the Capitol riot, their allegiance to the president obvious by their flags and their bright red caps that read, “Make America Great Again.”
“It’s like Dante’s rings, where you just keep going down,” he said.
Demonstrations of the past, he said, were intended to pressure the government “to live up to what’s carved in the stone at the Lincoln Memorial.” But Trump’s supporters “are not asking the government to act out of their highest ideals.”
“They’re saying, ‘Do what we want.’ ”
He said he feels less secure in his hometown these days but would remain in Washington through the inauguration, even if he closes his shop and stays home.
“There are certain things that the body politic should stand down,” he said. “I ain’t going nowhere.”
Natasha Warsaw, 48, an educator who lives in Fort Totten, is escaping to North Carolina to see relatives. The violence at the Capitol reminded her of her childhood in Turkey, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Army. She remembers her fear at seeing soldiers in the streets with machine guns.
The images of White people hoisting Confederate flags at the Capitol evoked the stories she heard as a child about the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings of Black people. When she returns to Washington, she said, she plans to get a license to carry a gun.
“History tells us things are not going to get better,” she said. “This mob — insurrectionist behavior — I don’t think it’s over.”
Taking a toll
One afternoon this week, Teare’Ra Bittle, 31, ordered fried shrimp and crab cakes from a Minnesota Avenue NE carryout and picked up medication from a pharmacy. She returned to her Capitol Hill apartment, a subsidized two-bedroom she shares with her two children, her mother and father, her sister and two nieces.
As she played with her children on the living room couch that doubles as her bed, Bittle’s father, Artis Baldwin, a Metro subcontractor and an Uber driver, checked his phone for the stimulus check he is expecting.
Until last year, when Bittle was laid off from her cafeteria job at Georgetown University, they lived in a five-bedroom house in Northeast. She earned $1,000 every other week. Now, she gets a $600 unemployment check twice a month.
“It’s been the year of hell,” Bittle said. “It feels like you’ve died and are living in another world.”
Across the city, the psychic pain of the past 10 months is discernible in conversations and social media posts about mounting anxiety, dread and anger, and whether the time has come to move away. Nik McCoy, 45, a single mother of five who lives near Anacostia, hasn’t slept through the night since the coronavirus killed her brother in May. Barbara Kelly, 63, a school lunch attendant who also lost a brother to the virus, burst into tears as she watched the Capitol riot on television, recalling arson and looting that ravaged the H Street NE corridor near her home in 1968.
“I thought we were doing it all over again,” she said. “Only this time it was really scary because we didn’t have enough police.”
The growing financial strain is palpable in the long lines outside food pantries, the pop-up tents now visible at Dupont Circle, and the blocks of shops, bars and restaurants that have shuttered and sent workers searching for new jobs.
Gary Lane, 68, of Capitol Hill, hasn’t worked since July, when an illness he suspects was covid-19 forced him to leave his job stocking shelves at an Arlington Safeway. It took him until fall to recover. Now, he is perilously behind on his loan payments for his Honda, which he drove around the city the other day, looking for work.
Just before noon, he stopped at the Skyland Workforce Center in Southeast, hoping to use their computer and seek help from a job placement specialist. The political maelstrom unfolding on the other side of the Anacostia River was far from his mind.
“You can’t imagine what it feels like when you don’t have a job,” he said as he waited. “Why does a person have to go through this just to get a job?”
Bilaal Muhammed, 54, once a janitor and construction laborer, has been unemployed since the onset of the pandemic. Now, he sells body oils from a table in front of a boarded-up takeout joint on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
He waved an arm at the hard-knocks in the neighborhood around him, his home since birth, and said: “Life’s like pulling teeth every day, you know what I’m saying? All my life, it’s been day-to-day, trying to get by. A little bit here, a little bit there.”
Then he smiled big, because you have to smile big, no matter what, he said, or you’ll lose your mind.
In a year of global contagion, racial reckoning and now political violence, Muhammed, whose wife works at an assisted-living facility, said he stays sane by focusing on himself and his loved ones and their needs. He knows that society’s larger currents and calamities are beyond his control.
“I got a family I got to deal with, man, so I try to stay out of the way of that other stuff, especially that political thing,” he said, while his granddaughter Afiah played nearby after a morning of virtual kindergarten.
On his table were racks of 20-ounce bottles labeled Egyptian Musk and Sexy Amber, Pink Privacy and Hippie Chick, 100 bottles in all — and he had a wad of cash in a pocket.
“I don’t let nothing else bother me,” he said, and flashed another smile. “I believe in a higher power, so I try to lean on Him and let that carry me through all the craziness.”
‘Surviving is the new thriving’
All around Crystal Craft’s flower store on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, shopkeepers are struggling. The racks for suits, shirts and dresses at her brother’s adjoining dry-cleaning shop have grown emptier. A neighboring day-care center is behind on its rent.
Craft has never been busier.
“There’s been so many funerals,” she said as she prepared a bouquet of blue stocks for a customer to send to a friend. Between covid-19 and rising gun violence, “we’ve never shut down.”
The upheaval of the past year has rewarded those Washingtonians able to adapt to the hardships and take advantage of opportunities.
On Kennedy Street NW, Charvis Campbell, 47, says he is among just a handful of Black record-store owners in the country. The distinction helped draw patrons during the racial justice protests, he said, and keep his business open. “It allowed us to acknowledge ourselves.”
Several miles west, Nick Cervone manages Middle C Music, on Wisconsin Avenue NW, by day. The structure of going to work keeps him grounded and sane.
The 24-year-old guitarist hasn’t been onstage since before the pandemic. At first, he said, he fell into a rut, wasting hours playing a Nintendo game called “Animal Crossing.”
But he found a way out: writing his own music at night in his Adams Morgan apartment, a blend of “dance and indie pop” that studiously avoids politics.
“I feel weird coming home and seeing the Washington Monument down 16th Street, then going up to my room and making music that is so disconnected from Washington,” he said. “But that’s my choice.”
He pointed across the store and laughed.
“Hey, surviving is the new thriving, right? We’re selling T-shirts with that.”
Tending to the Capitol flock
Most mornings, the Rev. Eugene Hemrick walks the neighborhood where he has lived for a quarter century, chatting up the U.S. Capitol Police officers who guard the complex of stately federal buildings.
The pews at his parish, St. Joseph’s, are nearly empty. Hemrick has struggled with the isolation and finds his chats with the officers ever more important for his well-being.
“Father Gene!” one officer said on the sixth day after the riots, as the 82-year-old shuffled toward him in a winter coat and fedora.
“How have you guys been doing?” Hemrick asked.
The policeman told Hemrick he hadn’t been in the Capitol during the mayhem, but he had known Howard Liebengood, the Capitol Police officer who was on duty that day and died by suicide three days later.
“On top of everything that happened, that was bad,” the officer said.
“What do you say about all this in your homily?” the officer asked. “What are other priests saying about this craziness going on? Is it, like, ‘Hey guys, chill out’?”
It was a question Hemrick, the son of a Chicago fireman, had asked himself again and again over the past year.
After telling the officer to be safe, the priest returned to his apartment and sat at his desk by a window where he often watches passing families, professionals going to and from work, people walking their dogs.
On this day, though, the streets were barren, except for newly erected black metal fences and scores of National Guard members in camouflage, some armed with M4 rifles. No children were in sight.
The priest printed out one of his recent homilies, titled “Freedom at its best.”
“Freedom’s worth,” he had written, “is the good it ultimately produces for the common good.”
A few hours later, he began to hear predictions of more violence in coming days, perhaps even worse than Jan. 6. The officers he talked with were nervous and exhausted.
“There’s something in the air right now,” he said.
For the first time in 24 years, the priest decided he would not take his usual stroll when he awoke the next day.
Timeline by Brittany Renee Mayes. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo. Design by Brian Gross.
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