WASHINGTON (AFP) — Lawmakers walked among armed National Guard patrols in the halls of the US Capitol on Wednesday, as downtown Washington was fenced off and boarded up while Congress weighed a historic second impeachment of US President Donald Trump.
The city at the heart of American democracy has been a shadow of itself during pandemic shutdowns, but now it is also under heavy guard after Trump supporters’ deadly attack on the Congress building.
Hundreds of National Guard members in body armor and camouflage could be seen asleep or resting on floors inside the Capitol, their black rifles leaning against the polished stone walls of the building’s halls.
Lawmakers are back in the building to decide whether to formally accuse the president of inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol last week in a failed effort to stop Congress from finalizing Trump’s November loss to Joe Biden.
The building’s grounds are ringed by a security fence erected after the attack, similar to the one put up around the White House months ago when protests erupted nationwide against police killings of African Americans.
The capital of the United States, known for its historical monuments and crowds of tourists, has had a rough ride over the past 12 months.
Navigating the once humming downtown on foot, it is difficult to tell which buildings have been shuttered by the pandemic and which simply shut up shop due to the violent protests the city has been seeing.
“This is my first time [in downtown Washington] in a year. There’s usually people walking all over the place. This is very, very quiet. I almost think it’s like a ghost of itself,” said Jaime, a mother from Maryland who did not wish to give her full name.
Hordes of schoolchildren who normally travel from all over the country to visit museums and see the White House now stay away, as do most foreign tourists.
The hectic jostle of politicians, lobbyists and lawyers on the street has also fallen quiet, while the large metro stations that bring workers in from suburbs are quiet and little-used.
The city of more than 700,000 inhabitants is subdued, one week before the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden on the steps of the Capitol.
“The city is basically desolate,” said Nadine Seiler, 55, who has been demonstrating every day since the end of October near the White House in favor of anti-racist causes.
“Usually it’s very stressful, but here it’s like everybody’s away on vacation,” she added.
As in many Western cities, many workers have been signing in from home — especially staff at big institutions headquartered in Washington such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well as the countless government agencies.
Eateries must try to survive by erecting tents and marquees along sidewalks, and tempting customers to sit down next to heaters of varying efficiency battling the winter cold.
“I went to the Christmas market… that’s gone, all that’s gone. You go into bars, [previously] packed bars — it’s gone,” laments Timothy Bartholomew, a resident of Arlington, just over the Potomac river.
Crowds cheering the inauguration on January 20 will be thin on the ground, with authorities urging Americans to avoid the city, fearing more violence.