Open Capitol Grounds Symbolize Our Open Democracy

Commentary

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A very young Sarah Cymrot on her bike. Courtesy S. Cymot/Family Photo

My small bike wobbles on the grey cobblestones as I battle to keep it upright. I desperately want to look behind me, to check if my dad’s hand is still on my seat, keeping me grounded and upright. But no, eyes forward, one push of my feet on the pedals, then another.

It’s a warm sunny day, tourists mingle, taking selfies beneath the white dome of the US Capitol which looms above us all, or flopping on the steps leading up to the huge front door. On the grass, families picnic or start an impromptu game of Frisbee. Slowly, over the course of the afternoon, my hands stop gripping the rubber handles quite as tightly. I speed up, looping in wide figure eights around the benches and lampposts arranged in rows.

Perhaps our Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined my bike ride on the Capitol grounds, but the ride represented the heart of their dreams. The US Capitol was never intended to be Versailles, a palace far away and barred off from the people, a symbol of the separation between the government and everyone else.

It’s no accident that the Capitol is the center of a vibrant city. In fact, the open grounds of the US Capitol are symbolic of our “open” democracy.

The US Capitol is the people’s house. A place where a young girl could learn to ride a bike. Where families laughed and played. Where people new to the city could stand, breathless in awe of the Capitol’s majesty and of their ability reach out and touch the hard, marble reality of the democratic ideal.

Today, there were reports that the fence that currently wraps the Capitol inside a wide 4-mile perimeter will be scaled down, reduced to a tighter line around the grounds themselves. While the news is welcome, it is nowhere near the ideal.

lnstead, we are still faced with the question: how do we preserve this accessibility to the center of our government in the face of the January 6 insurrection. Will our children have to peer through barbed wire to catch a glimpse of the Capitol? Are we giving up on our Founding Fathers’ dream of a Capitol that is open to all?

The issue of fencing the Capitol is not just a local issue. It’s not just about Capitol Hill neighbors upset about losing access to a greenspace.

On one hand, it is certainly understandable that, faced with the threat that we all witnessed on Jan. 6, that the first reaction would be to enclose the Capitol with high fences to keep this symbol pristine and to protect all of those who work within those walls from further harm.  

But, if we truly believe this to be a symbol of democracy, and the center of our government, what does it say about the state of these institutions if the only way to keep them safe is to encircle them with barbed wire?

I’m a third generation DC native, and I sincerely hope that the state of our democracy will be strong enough that I’ll be able to let go of my future child’s bicycle seat as she rides for the first time, eyes up towards the glistening dome.

Sarah Cymrot is a 16-year-old from Capitol Hill who occasionally contributes to the Hill Rag. She is the co-host of My Life’s Work podcast and attends School Without Walls High School. You can reach her at [email protected].