In his mealy-mouthed speech on the Senate floor following Wednesday’s attempted government takeover by a mob of Donald Trump supporters, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska threw in a casual dig at the city whose residents make his life possible. “The center of America is not Washington, D.C.,” Sasse said. “The center of America is the neighborhoods where 330 million Americans are raising their kids and trying to put food on the table and trying to love their neighbor.”
D.C. is home to about 700,000 Americans—all of whom are trying to put food on the table, many of whom are raising kids, and plenty of whom are trying to love, or at least tolerate, their neighbors. We pay taxes but have no voting representation in Congress. We are governed by laws and a city budget that can be vetoed by members of Congress, even though many of those members are elected by voters who’ve never so much as visited D.C. And this week, our city was invaded by white supremacists invited and incited to—and rewarded for—violence, all while refusing to wear masks during an escalating surge of COVID-19 cases and the spread of a new highly infectious strain of the virus.
I am white, and I am lucky to be able to work from home during the pandemic. I will not attempt to explain what it must feel like to be Black in this plurality Black, majority people of color city, where hotels and restaurants welcomed the white supremacists who showed up in D.C. this week looking for a fight. I cannot know, though I can imagine, the exhaustion and anger of the workers forced to serve and clean up after the belligerent, maskless terrorists who’d been calmly escorted from the Capitol after their insurrection. I don’t know the hunger of the D.C. children whose school meal distribution was suspended because right-wing extremists made it unsafe to gather outside this week.
What I do know is that the confluence of the pandemic, the incursion of armed and violent domestic terrorists, and D.C.’s lack of statehood made the past few days feel like a hostile occupation. Many of us were stuck in our homes on Wednesday, listening to the hovering helicopters and sirens that lasted well into the night, scared to step outside while unmasked extremists high on their own impunity roamed the streets. Unlike one of the last times there was a Nazi incursion in D.C., there were no plans for a dramatic counterprotest. Aware of the potential for violence and the explicit desire of the white supremacists to cause a bloody scene, Black Lives Matter D.C. had urged “Black and brown people, if possible, to avoid Trump support rallies and actions” this week and “stay away from known areas where white extremists and militant gangs will gather.” Once Mayor Muriel Bowser issued the 6 p.m. curfew, we seem to have mainly adhered. (And on a cold night during a pandemic, where would anyone have gone, anyway?)
Secure in my house, I was embarrassed by the texts I received from far-flung friends and family members concerned for my safety. Terrorists were marking my city like a fire hydrant, abetting an attempted coup two miles away at a government building I can see from my window, and I was huddled at home. If not for the (eventual) helicopters and sirens, I could have been anywhere. Still, the psychic geography of D.C. is such that we make fun of news reports that menacingly describe events as taking place mere “miles from the White House,” because anything within the city limits is within a few miles of the White House. If you live in D.C., you are at least somewhat close to the action.
That proximity to the seat of U.S. government theoretically means that we are always living with the slightly enhanced danger that comes with the risk of a terrorist plot or gathering of armed extremists. It also means living with enhanced “security.” D.C. is patrolled by multiple law enforcement agencies, each with their own turfs and tactics. The U.S. Park Police, Capitol Police, Secret Service, the Metropolitan Police Department—if you live here, you’ve probably interacted with most of them. Even if you’ve never been arrested or harassed by them, if you’ve tried to walk or bike anywhere near a government building, you might have been diverted by an officer. You’ve seen snipers on the roofs of buildings and assumed they would shoot if you made a threatening move toward a cop or other government official. You’ve gone through metal detectors to get near the Mall on Inauguration Day and had food confiscated at the doors of the Library of Congress. Until Congress reversed the ban a few years ago, it was illegal for children to sled on Capitol Hill, and Capitol Police would chase them away.
It was this summer, during the weeks of racial justice demonstrations downtown, that D.C. residents saw what can happen when all the city’s law enforcement agencies mobilize in unison. There were armored trucks blocking intersections. There were uniformed men with assault weapons and handguns stationed outside chain restaurants and office buildings, presumably all there to protect the city from its own residents. At one Black Lives Matter march, on a weekend afternoon, students walked around with signs, people pushed strollers down Pennsylvania Avenue, and volunteers handed out bottled water and hand sanitizer. No one engaged with the dozens of National Guard officers and various cops on the route. No one tried to push down any barriers. There was barely any chanting. And yet, I counted more than 40 law enforcement officers stationed outside, get this, the Trump Hotel.
There were no troves of sensitive and classified data inside the Trump Hotel that day. There weren’t thousands of government employees and contractors at work, nor hundreds of members of Congress in the midst of certifying the results of a presidential election. Just a building with the president’s name on it. But when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, after publicly planning the attack for weeks, about 10 officers met them at one of the Capitol’s gates.
Though plenty of D.C. residents work in and around government buildings, there is a mental, social, architectural, and literal security barrier between the Washington of government and the D.C. of daily life. For some of us, Wednesday’s insurrection felt like it was happening far away—we watched it on the news, like everyone else around the country. But it was also frighteningly close by, as the terrorists returned to their hotel rooms across our city and picked fights on our streets. In my neighborhood, some households took down their Black Lives Matter signs and brought their gay and trans pride flags inside. There’s a debate to be had about what the “right” move was there, about the line between cowardice and self-protection. But the fact was people were scared, and they were right to be. White supremacist mobs are unpredictable, armed, and violent. Terrorists seek to inspire terror, and these ones succeeded. My neighbors realized they couldn’t count on the cops to protect them from the mob after the capital’s full complement of law enforcement agencies couldn’t, or wouldn’t, even protect Congress.
When Trump and members of his administration moved in a few years ago, they set up shop in a town that despised them. Just 4 percent of voters went for Trump in November 2016. (There are plenty of assholes and racists here, sure, but there aren’t a lot of Trump supporters.) There was a new wariness around clean-cut patrons of fancy restaurants and dive bars. There was also a new sense of solidarity against them. The “Fuck Trump” graffiti Dirty Knucklez drew in thousands of nooks and crannies all over the city seemed to speak to a pervasive shared hostility against the new occupants of the White House and a few luxury condo buildings by the waterfront. On Thursday, when I woke up to see this video of two D.C. residents—strangers, presumably—commiserating about the “treasonous pieces of shit” invading our town, I felt a twinge of comfort. The pandemic has us estranged from normal city life and one another. When Trump invited white supremacists to our hometown this week, it was harder than usual to remind one another that we were all furious about it.
You don’t have to be a D.C. native to understand the devastating impacts of our lack of statehood. During the height of D.C.’s HIV epidemic, for example, Congress forbade us from using our own municipal tax dollars for syringe exchange programs. Legislators we did not elect have kept D.C. women on Medicaid from getting coverage for abortion care. And during Trump’s tenure, we’ve seen how a hostile president can use the military to attack, or refuse to protect, D.C. residents. Because the president, not a governor or our mayor, commands the D.C. National Guard, Trump was able to mobilize the force against local protesters this summer without consulting local leaders. On Wednesday, he refused to deploy the D.C. National Guard to protect the Capitol, and everyone in it, from terrorists. The vice president eventually did, but it was too late to stop the siege. Congress will debate in the coming days whether to impeach the president or attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment for his incitement of the insurrection in D.C. The people who live here, who will be grappling with the damage, the residual fear, and the possible COVID spike in weeks to come, won’t have a vote either way.