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It snowed in Washington yesterday. With two inches on the ground, it was the most winter weather we’ve seen in two years, and more could be on the way today and tomorrow. Usually, a big snow dump in Washington transforms the grassy slopes of Capitol Hill into a merry, impromptu sled zone, with parents pushing kids down the hill on the west-facing side of Congress’ home.
This year, not a chance. Tall fencing and barbed wire are still blocking the public from wandering into that space and, if some officials have their way, will be like this for some time to come.
Washington is still standing after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the Jan. 20 Inauguration of President Joe Biden. But the war-footing is still here, too. The city remains braced for next week’s impeachment trial in the Senate of former President Donald Trump, on a single charge that he incited the rioters who stormed the Capitol and defiled the temple to American democracy. It’s an uncomfortable reality that some of the city’s most familiar pedestrian pathways are closed to the public, for fear of what that public might yet do in the name of political extremism.
Washington has responded to serious security threats before. After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, the Secret Service shut down the section of Pennsylvania Avenue directly to the north of the White House, but pedestrians and bikes could still pass. The plans escalated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Pennsylvania Avenue was still an accessible path on most days. Elsewhere, throughout Washington, additional security measures were adopted, but it’s still a pretty accessible city when you consider just how much power is concentrated in a relatively small space. You can almost forget the boulders and barricades that keep cars away from the Washington Monument, big trucks away from the Reflecting Pool and anything larger than a rickshaw from getting close to the Lincoln Memorial.
That public accessibility is part of what makes D.C. such a special place. When I moved back to Washington in 2006, I’d often detour a few blocks to the south on my walk home from work to take-in that stretch of iconic imagery of the North Lawn and the West Wing, a campus whose gates I’d later enter as a White House reporter. Until Jan. 6, I could walk right up to the doors of House or Senate buildings and stroll through the screenings with very little hassle. And, once inside, it was a reporter’s dreamland: almost unfettered access to the officials in the hallways, subway tunnels, coffee shops and legendary spaces.
To varying degrees since last summer, though, as protests and counter-protests to racial inequality stood as a perceived threat to Downtown D.C. — and the White House in particular — Washington’s police forces have limited access to some areas. Lafayette Square, for the most part, is closed to the public. So is the lawn between the White House and the Washington Monument, the place probably best known for hosting the National Christmas Tree and National Menorah. The shuttered spaces will stay that way until at least Feb. 20, according to the National Park Service. The announcement specifically cited “the unique security requirements associated with recent violent events in the vicinity of the White House Complex and security incidents at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.”
It may be a cruel twist of politics that Trump may have inadvertently created his biggest legacy on the way out the door. A centerpiece of his political campaigns was a promise to build a thousand-mile wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. That proved largely a dud. When President Barack Obama left office, there were 654 miles of border fencing. Trump left with 701 miles of fencing, according to NBC News.
Instead, the real walls Trump brought into creation might be the ones surrounding government office buildings and previously public parks. The 7-foot walls and the jagged barbed wires atop them stand as sentinels around the Capitol complex. In 2021, there’s no telling when a merry group of sledders may slide into a white-supremacy rally looking to harm those who dare challenge Trump. Where rioters stood just three weeks ago demanding Congress “stop the steal,” the effect now is an order to “stop the sled.” Trump is gone from Washington, but he’s still making a mess — this time, for kids who just want to sled.
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