Metropolis

What Was the Point of Fortress D.C.?

Security swallowed Washington’s public spaces so its protectors could stop a real threat. They couldn’t.

A woman jogs past a tall metal security fence in front of the low stone wall surrounding the Capitol. National Guardsmen in camo patrol the sidewalk between the fence and the stone wall, and the Capitol dome looms in the background.
The Capitol and its new fence on Friday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

You develop a certain psychic geography as a bike commuter in D.C. You know places, but from the outside only. Most people here aren’t Hill staffers or journalists or tour guides—we don’t actually go into the U.S. Capitol, the White House, or the J. Edgar Hoover Building. They’re not buildings so much as backdrops, each of which includes copious security that you see and feel everyday. You ride through metal bollards and past security gates and around shacks where officers stand with big guns. You marvel at the effort and expense, even as you put up with the daily minor inconveniences it erects, all while trying to not be late for work.

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For years, there was an officer who put a traffic cone in the middle of the East Capitol Street bike lane by the Supreme Court. Not next to the lane but smack in the middle of it. You could ride around the cone easily enough, so it wasn’t much of a safety hazard. It was there because he parked his car in the lane and, I guess, didn’t want anyone to bike into the back of his vehicle. It was both security theater and a tiny neg to bike commuters, a little reminder that you are in the midst of an important place for important people and you are not one of them (which is true), and that protecting those important people and places is the most important thing, followed only by protecting the protectors of those important people and places.

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D.C., especially around the Capitol, contains some of the most overtly armored public spaces in the world. There are little reminders and big ones: signs, barriers, checkpoints, and probably a whole host of weaponry and invisible countermeasures that you don’t see. What you feel the most are those security negs: the bike-rack-style barriers and the forever-closed streets and the bollards. Meanwhile, you encounter the people involved with securing spaces. Most of them are fine and some are jerks who seem to take glee in barking out orders at hapless passersby. Eventually you come to accept the whole setup as necessary, even if you grumble about it while climbing Capitol Hill. You think to yourself, Sure, this is a pain in the ass, but there’s a good reason for it.

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Like, what if something happens?

Then it’s Jan. 6, 2021. Something did happen, not just a minor something, but a full-on breach of a purportedly impenetrable building by extremists trying to overturn the results of a presidential election. And you’re left completely shaken and angry, wondering what the point of it all was. You feel like a sucker. The trap didn’t spring.

It turns out that Fortress D.C.—the capital city’s permanent, ever-expanding post-9/11 security-scape—is a myth. It’s a myth that residents have put up with because, in some ways, we want it to be true. It made us feel safer and it made us feel important, if only by proxy. (We also put up with it because we couldn’t say no.) And it gave some higher purpose to getting yelled at for unknowingly walking too close to a building or leaving your Swiss Army knife on your keychain when you walk through a metal detector. The scrutiny was frequently more intense for people of color.

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Naïvely, I thought they were taking little things so seriously to demonstrate how gravely and ruthlessly they would dismantle a big thing. (After all, Fortress D.C. hasn’t had a problem being ruthless in the name of security in the fairly recent past.) But Wednesday’s insurrectionist siege revealed that there never was any higher purpose to us getting yelled at or detoured. It wasn’t an indication of any higher seriousness at all. It was instead the limits of the security’s reach.

When Fortress D.C. was tested, it failed: An angry mob marched to the Capitol, broke in, and stayed for hours. Unrushed, they sat in the House speaker’s office with their feet up. Unbothered, they walked out with a senator’s computer. I can barely believe these things happened, and not even in my wildest imagination would I have considered them possible before Wednesday. Fortress D.C. failed from a combination of factors that I’m sure will be investigated and enumerated, and people will resign and be fired if they haven’t already. It turns out that yelling at bike commuters, stray tourists, and kids sledding did not prove a successful deterrent to a mob invasion that was announced ahead of time. Whatever the security plan was, it wasn’t sufficient to secure the building, deter the crowd, or prevent tragic and senseless deaths, including that of one of the Capitol Police officers whose superiors failed to adequately prepare for a clearly hostile crowd. Fortress D.C. was so sure of itself it preemptively rejected offers to help. It took local police to get things back under control, and by that point the building and the myth of the building’s inviolability were completely wrecked.

The response will be to double down on more of the same. “Non-scalable” fences will cut off the U.S. Capitol for at least the next 30 days. There will inevitably be more bollards and more metal detectors. More street closures. More intrusions on daily life. More of the things that proved so easily surpassable when there was an effort to pass them. Fortress D.C. didn’t work, and as a consequence, it will get larger. Everyone will lose more public space, more access, and more mobility. And for what?

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