If you’d wanted to make a year-in-review video for 2020, you could have done worse than plopping a time-lapse camera on the sidewalk on 16th Street in Washington D.C., just north of Lafayette Square and the White House. It was here that the righteous anger of racial justice demonstrators poured out all summer, prompting Mayor Muriel Bowser to name the street Black Lives Matter Plaza in early June. It was here that Trump deployed the National Guard against peaceful protesters for his Bible-wielding photo op. And it was here that, when Joe Biden’s victory was officially declared on the Saturday after the election in November, thousands of masked people danced in the street late into the night, blasting music and spraying Champagne in a celebratory mood rarely seen during the pandemic. In the months after Trump’s loss, that stretch of 16th Street saw the white fury of right-wing extremists, who made a beeline for the plaza each time they invaded the city. In calmer times this fall, the plaza attracted tourists and locals, who took selfies against the street art and affixed hopeful signs to the unscalable fencing Trump had erected to block Lafayette Square from public use.
On Wednesday, a few hours after Biden was sworn in as president, I got to see the plaza from Trump’s point of view. Two stories above ground, on a temporary structure built for reporters covering Biden’s arrival to his new home, I had almost the exact vantage point as Trump would have from the second floor of the White House. When I turned around after climbing up, Lafayette Square and Black Lives Matter Plaza stretched out before me. This, I realized, was Trump’s front yard.
Or at least that’s how he saw it. Like the White House, the square and the plaza are public property. And yet, for months, the park and the pedestrian roadway in front of the White House have been fenced off to protect Trump, creating a symbolic battle over who really owns the square. After Trump used the military to force demonstrators off the plaza, marking his power over the vicinity, D.C. residents reasserted their right to the area by continuing to plaster the fencing with art, protest signs, and recriminations of the man in the house behind the fence. Trump’s supporters tore them down, but then other people put up new ones, re-covering the fence within days. Still, the fence itself remained. Trump looked out on his front yard—the people’s yard—and proclaimed his ownership over it by making it impossible to use, forcing his political opponents off of it with chemicals, walling it off. Just as he did with so much of American life, he proved his proprietorship over this land via destruction. He made personal that which was public, then used whatever power he had to trash it.
His supporters did, too. During the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, the message I kept hearing in videos of Trump rioters was “this is our house” and “this belongs to the people.” Some of us, if we felt such ownership, might think, “If this is mine, I’d better take care of it.” But the insurrectionists used their perceived ownership of the Capitol as a justification for destroying it. They demolished “their” furniture, broke “their” windows, and ransacked “their” offices. They made revoltingly literal the metaphor of a dog peeing on an object to mark its territory: In Trump’s name, rioters urinated on “their” building and tracked feces through “their” halls.
Trump has pissed all over America. It will take time to get rid of the stench. It was heartbreaking to bike through Howard University’s campus today and witness it as a ghost town on the day one of its alumni became the first woman vice president. (If you’ve ever witnessed the raucous joy of a Howard Homecoming, you know what kind of celebration could have, and should have, taken place there if the virus were under control.) The rest of the city felt similarly lifeless and hollowed out on a day that usually sees it packed with people and brimming over with energy from tourists and residents alike. But it felt fitting, in a way, for a transition to a not-super-exciting president at a time of immense hardship and loss. Despite the show put on for television, today was not the triumphant beginning of a bright new era. It was the first day of a long slog ahead as we struggle back to a baseline that was plenty low to begin with.
The anticlimactic experience of a mid-pandemic, post-coup Inauguration Day in D.C. also drove home how much Trump has exerted his ownership-by-destruction over this city. We can’t celebrate indoors—and some of the people we’d like to celebrate with are dead—because Trump refused to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Our entire downtown is a boarded-up, militarized no-go zone because his supporters attempted to overthrow the U.S. government. Restaurants and hotels that thrive on inauguration tourism are hurting. Many D.C. residents left town for the week, and the rest are afraid to go outside, for fear that residual trigger-happy white supremacists are roaming the streets. Miriam’s Kitchen, a longstanding service provider for unhoused D.C. residents, suspended meals and closed its bathrooms on Inauguration Day—the first time it’s closed since its founding in 1983.
In other words, on the day Trump left office, the cruel legacy of his tenure was more visible than ever. Some of what he’s ruined can be remedied. (He robbed us of a celebration befitting the historic swearing-in of Kamala Harris, but there will be better weather in autumn, anyway.) But much of what Trump has taken can never be returned: The storming of the Capitol may make D.C.’s rich collection of public spaces permanently less public, for one thing, to say nothing of the profound trauma and loss of life he’s presided over. There will be no total healing of the wounds of the Trump era. But at least, for now, the bleeding has stopped.
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