The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At least take down the razor wire: D.C. residents, lawmakers chafe at Capitol fence

A pedestrian on Thursday walks by fencing that surrounds the U.S. Capitol. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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It was a modest plea from D.C. residents to the Capitol Police during a virtual town hall: If they couldn’t take down the seven-foot fence surrounding the Capitol, could they at least remove the razor wire?

“It could be the beginning of normalcy,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, suggested to Assistant Police Chief Chad Thomas at the Feb. 11 meeting.

But days went by, and the razor wire and fencing installed after the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol remains. Norton, District residents and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have grown more irritated with the unsightly barriers closing people out of the Capitol — and, in the view of a least some lawmakers, closing some in.

“It’s kind of like working in a minimum-security prison right now,” Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) told acting Capitol Police chief Yogananda Pittman during a Thursday hearing before the House Appropriations Committee.

Pittman and Timothy Blodgett, the House’s acting sergeant-at-arms, said they are awaiting several security reviews before making a decision about the fence, but that it would remain at least through President Biden’s first address to Congress because of threats of violence from militia groups.

The date of Biden’s address has not been announced. Pittman did not describe the source or credibility of the intelligence, and some lawmakers questioned whether the threat is concrete enough to justify what increasingly feels like the new normal in Washington.

The Capitol fence meant D.C. couldn’t enact laws. Vice President Harris’s office stepped in.

Residents’ commutes and recreational activities — bike riding, dog walking, picnics — have been disrupted. They have signed petitions, put up signs and contacted their local representatives. Jay Adelstein, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, noted that the fencing surrounds much more than the Capitol itself.

“We have a botanical garden on Independence by the Capitol that is inaccessible. We have the beautiful outdoor Bartholdi Park, which is a gem of the Capitol, that is inaccessible,” he said. “No tourist is going to want to come to the Capitol or to Washington, D.C., with the city in such a locked-down state.”

Reminiscing about the days when he would take his daughters to sled on the Hill, a childhood rite of passage in this neighborhood, Adelstein said, “We’ve given up too much for too long.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Pittman and Jennifer Hemingway, the Senate’s acting sergeant-at-arms, briefed lawmakers on Wednesday and also mentioned threats by extremist groups, but without any details.

“I don’t think vague allegations about threats cut it and suggest we need to just leave this razor wire up indefinitely,” Kaine said. “Senators were asking on that call: Okay, well what’s the plan? Give us the date. Give us a timeline. Let us all have an understanding of what’s going on. They wouldn’t do that.”

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Both Kaine and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the Jan. 6 riot was largely a failure of intelligence, rather than infrastructure. “The idea of just making a permanent fortress or a permanent fence is too much of a knee-jerk solution,” Van Hollen said.

Norton has introduced a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), to prohibit the use of federal funds for any permanent fencing, and city officials have joined her in the fight.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who represents Capitol Hill, spearheaded a council letter to congressional officials opposing permanent fencing. He said the security measures are unnecessary and harmful to the city, particularly the closure of parts of Independence and Constitution avenues, two major east-west thoroughfares that are crucial for both traffic and emergency vehicles.

“It’s already having a massive impact. To me, it is beyond insulting for the Capitol complex to continue to do this,” Allen said. “They do it with no regard, none, for the 700,000 residents of the District.”

Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) said many residents’ commutes — including her ordinarily quick drive from her toddler’s day care on Capitol Hill to her office at the Wilson Building — are a maze of long ways around the fencing. She cast doubt on whether a fence was really necessary to protect the Capitol during Biden’s speech.

“We’ve been able to do how many State of the Unions in the past without that massive type of fence?” said Henderson, who was an aide to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) until she ran for the council last year. “It has never required permanent fencing in order to keep that type of event safe.”

Alan M. Hantman, who oversaw security enhancements after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he was architect of the Capitol, said similar debates played out then and after other violence: how to balance public accessibility with public safety.

Many of today’s physical security measures in Washington, including bollards and planters at federal buildings, can be traced back to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he said. After the fatal shooting of two Capitol Police officers in the Capitol in 1998, and again after 9/11, officials sought new security enhancements — including the construction of the Capitol’s visitors center, which Hantman oversaw.

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But debates were always more nuanced than simply whether to build a wall or not, he said. Security officials and urban planners are expected to find creative architectural solutions to address potential threats.

“I don’t think we want to see concrete or steel walls around the United States Capitol, because we have this imperative of openness in this free and open society,” he said. “This is not Baghdad. What an image that would be around the world to have us fencing ourselves in from our own people.”

Still, Hantman said he could understand the need for a temporary fence. He recalled some security measures, including the presence of the National Guard at major intersections and the closure of Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, dragging on for months after 9/11. “Eleanor Holmes Norton sent us letters and pressed us, just as she is right now,” he said.

Norton said her strategy is to start small, by asking for the razor wire to be removed.

She said she was fine with the fence remaining through Biden’s address or as long as credible threats warranted it. But the razor wire “makes our country appear unable to protect its own Capitol unless it is fortified like a prison,” she wrote in a letter to the Capitol Police Board on Feb. 22.

“I can’t say enough what an open Capitol symbolizes for our democracy. You can talk about the White House. You can talk about the Monument. But it’s [the Capitol] that really symbolizes what our democracy is,” Norton said in an interview. “We cannot let it be fenced in, in this way.”

The Capitol fence meant D.C. couldn’t enact laws. Vice President Harris’s office stepped in.

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