The eight-foot-high black metal fence topped with razor wire that surrounded the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection has been gone since July. The more than 30,000 heavily armed National Guard troops who arrived from all 50 states and the District to help secure the People’s House have returned home. The rumble of Humvees over neighborhood streets and the loud chop of helicopters overhead have long faded.
What hasn’t disappeared for residents and workers in the Capitol Hill neighborhood are the memories of that dark day when democracy felt in the balance. As the anniversary of the attack approaches, the fallout continues to be felt.
For the rest of the country, the Capitol attack was a national political crisis. For those living and working on Capitol Hill, it was also deeply personal. The Capitol lawn was their backyard. They walked their dogs on the same blocks, shopped at Eastern Market, bought Christmas trees from the local Boy Scout troop, drank beers together at the Hawk 'n' Dove and wolfed down breakfast at Jimmy T’s. The mob that invaded the Capitol — breaking windows, vandalizing offices, destroying statues and viciously attacking and injuring 140 U.S. Capitol and District police officers — had also invaded their lives.
Businesses were forced to shutter. Streets were closed. Neighborhood parks where dogs once ran and children played were instead patrolled by troops carrying high-powered weapons. Overnight the friendly neighborhood became a menacing occupation zone.
A year later there is still fear, disbelief and anger at what the rioters wrought.
Louis Nguyen, 52, the owner of Capitol Barber and Stylist, just a half block from the Capitol complex, decided to close early on Jan. 6. Some Trump supporters who had marched to the Capitol had come to his shop and asked to use the bathroom. They weren’t wearing masks and Nguyen didn’t want to let them in but he was worried about turning them away.
“I didn’t want to say the wrong thing to them,” he said on a recent weekday as the noon bells tolled at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, a Catholic church around the corner. “I didn’t feel threatened but I didn’t feel comfortable.”
Business plummeted after the insurrection as armed National Guard troops stood sentry and large military trucks were a constant presence near the storefront Nguyen has occupied for 19 years.
His clients have included senators and representatives from both parties, and many of their staff members as well. On Jan. 6, Nguyen, who moved to the United States from Vietnam in 1984, couldn’t believe what was taking place.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It should never have happened,” he said. “It made me feel like I was in Ukraine or Syria, not the United States. If they can attack the government openly, they can attack anybody.”
In interviews conducted with 20 Capitol Hill residents and workers, frustration and anger about those who attacked the Capitol were common themes. There is a feeling that many of those who took part in the insurrection have escaped justice.
To date, federal prosecutors have charged 725 people in the attack. More than 75 of those were charged with using a deadly or dangerous weapon against police officers. The Architect of the Capitol estimated in May that the attack caused about $1.5 million worth of damage to the building.
The fear and panic the rioters created inside the Capitol was also felt by residents who lived nearby. As the mob dispersed that evening, many who had participated in it filtered through the neighborhood, shouting and cheering.
“I wondered if my car would be vandalized,” recalled a young lawyer who’d moved to Capitol Hill three months before the attack. “And as a Black woman who has to go out to walk her dog I wondered if I would be a target.”
The woman, who asked not to be identified because her employer hadn’t authorized her to talk, said she wasn’t particularly worried that morning as she watched Trump supporters carry banners and flags through her streets. New residents here quickly learn that protests are a regular occurrence.
It wasn’t until late afternoon that she started to hear helicopters and sirens and turned on CNN, where she watched live as the mob continued to surge through the Capitol in a violent effort to overturn the election.
A year later, she wonders what lessons were learned.
“I’d like to say that I feel all of this has cemented the rule of law and that the country has condemned what happened,” she said. “But I’m not sure. I feel like the lack of an immediate government response with teeth has only emboldened people to thwart the rule of law. It has weakened it.”
If newcomers to the Hill were unnerved, so too were residents who have lived here all their lives.
Born and raised in the neighborhood, Gina Sangster, 71, is a social worker and therapist who has weathered all of the demonstrations and days of unrest that have unsettled the Hill over the past seven decades. But Jan. 6 was different. She had appointments scheduled virtually with clients but as the wail of sirens grew louder and the news reports grew grimmer, she canceled them.
“It was surreal for me that this was happening in real time in my backyard,” she said. “And I had to cancel the appointments because I could not pay attention, which is an uncomfortable feeling when you do the work I do.”
The uncomfortable feeling continued long after. Before that day, her regular walks included traipses to the Mall and around the Capitol. When the fences went up blocking access and cutting off the Hill from the rest of the city, it was too much for her to continue.
“Seeing that fencing was depressing and disturbing and I stopped going that way for weeks and months,” Sangster said.
Skip Seward, 69, who has lived on Capitol Hill for 18 years, remembers being surprised the police weren’t allowed to use firepower to prevent the insurrectionists from taking over the Capitol. Angered by the attack, he wants all of those responsible for it to be punished.
“We’re like a lot of people in that we want the people involved in the insurrection to in some way be held accountable,” said Seward, who watched the events unfold from out of town. “But we’re not necessarily optimistic that will take place.”
“I think if it was a bunch of Black people it would have been a bloodbath up there,” said Magdalena McDowell, who grew up on Capitol Hill and visits often. McDowell, 59, is Black and said she believes the people who took part in the attack “have gotten a free pass.”
“They at least need to do community service and pay back for all the damage they did,” she said. “It’s not right for the taxpayers to have to pay for that.”
Stephen Rakowski says he’ll never forget Jan. 6. He lives just a few blocks from the Capitol and that evening, as police cleared what was left of the protesters from the Capitol grounds, he watched dozens of Trump supporters wearing tactical gear and yelling, “We’ll be back!”. “It felt very apocalyptic,” said Rakowski, 31, who moved to the Hill in 2018 and works as a consultant.
Part of the problem, Rakowski said as he stood outside Eastern Market on a recent rainy morning, is the disconnect people from outside of Washington have toward Congress.
“A lot of people who visit Capitol Hill see the Capitol and the buildings around it in the abstract,” he said. “If you live here and walk by on a daily basis you see them as places full of people who are trying to do their best as a staffer. They’re just people going to work.”
With time, some of the anger and fear engendered by Jan. 6 has subsided. And in its place is a sentiment shared by many residents: that the tragedy brought the neighborhood closer together.
“For me, it’s been really wonderful to just see the sense of community that came together when most of the neighborhood was getting cut off from the rest of the city,” said Maria Helena Carey, 45, who has lived on the Hill for 16 years and is co-owner of The Hill is Home, a newsletter and blog about the neighborhood.
“I think the biggest ramification that I see, and maybe I’m being overly positive, is that a lot of people really started cherishing being neighbors,” Carey said.
Leah Daniels, who was born and raised on Capitol Hill and owns Hill’s Kitchen, a popular kitchenware store near Eastern Market, agrees that the shared trauma of Jan. 6 brought the best out of the Hill’s residents. They made food for one another. Called or texted often. Some — like Daniels, who lives a little further from the Capitol — offered to let friends who lived closer to it stay with her until things calmed down.
“We looked out for each other. We were aware of what was happening around us a little bit more,” she said. “It was a little bit of a badge of pride that we all lived through it together. But also, somebody came into our home and kicked our home and we had to protect our home with each other.”
Daniels, 41, said that despite the neighborhood’s proximity to power, most people she encounters don’t talk much about their politics. They may guess at her beliefs and she at theirs, but it’s territory that many on the Hill learn to respectfully avoid. What’s important is how her neighbors treat one another and the ways they show their shared commitment to the community.
“I care about whether you shovel your sidewalk when it snows,” Daniels said, laughing.
Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.