A New Normal: Hill Residents React to Capitol Security Threats

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Fencing was erected overnight Wednesday. On Thursday, the public was still being admitted through open gates to the Capitol grounds.

For 21 years, Elin Whitney-Smith and Christopher Berendes have lived two blocks from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters.

To a certain extent, they’ve grown used to the constant barrage of threats to the Capitol that also affect the neighborhood. They say that, to some extent, they’ve developed a callus.

“But it’s like the one on your foot, that you get from walking,” Whitney-Smith said. “You’re not going to go barefoot. It doesn’t make a difference.”

There’s a demonstration slated for Saturday Sept. 18 on the west side of the Capitol. Demonstrations have historically not been unusual on the U.S. Capitol grounds, but this one is: entitled “Justice for J6”, it is organized in support of people jailed for participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The National Guard has been called to function as an emergency response team. The U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) have announced they can deputize outside law enforcement. After two months of open access, a fence, installed the night of Jan. 15, again surrounds the Capitol Grounds.

It’s only the latest in a string of security threats on the Capitol. On Jan. 6, neighbors watched in horror as a crowd attacked the U.S. Capitol Building, breaking in through windows and doors on both the western and eastern sides. Residents in the surrounding blocks were evacuated after pipe bombs were found at both the Republican and Democratic National Committee headquarters.

The House rescheduled hearings set for March 4, when the Capitol was on high alert after officials said they had obtained intelligence showing a possible plot to breach the Capitol. In April, a U.S. Capitol Police Officer died after an attacker rammed a car into two officers at a security checkpoint.

Most recently, a North Carolina man pulled a pick-up truck onto the sidewalk in front of the Library of Congress Aug. 19, claiming to have a bomb. He surrendered after an hours-long standoff. Meanwhile, officers with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) went door-to-door, evacuating residents from their homes and businesses.

These security incidents around the Capitol affect the thousands of people living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, many right outside the fence itself. Homes, businesses and churches near the Capitol complex are affected, and families fear for those living, learning and working near and in the Capitol.

Those feelings of anxiety, many say, are part of the deal when you live here.

Capitol Hill residents cycle through the US Capitol grounds, July 10, 2021. E.O’Gorek/CCN

Crossing A Line

On Aug. 19, Whitney-Smith and Berendes walked right by the pick-up up pulled up on the curb near the Library of Congress as they took their morning walk.

Bomb threats are commonplace, Berendes said; streets are often blocked off, but rarely is there a real bomb. But they aren’t blasé about the possibility.

“On one hand, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens, like what happened in Nashville,” Berendes said, referencing the detonation of an RV in downtown Nashville last Christmas Day that killed the perpetrator and injured eight others. “Things actually do blow up. They mostly don’t –but it’s a big enough deal.”

Whitney-Smith and Berendes attend St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (301 A St. SE), three blocks from the Capitol Building. A few hours into the Aug. 19 truck drama, DC Police evacuated the daycare inside the church building.

The couple are staunch defenders of the First Amendment, and of people’s right to protest. Threats of violence, however, are where they draw the line.

“You can think about the church, and the parents coming to pick up their kids –and if that were me, that wouldn’t be theoretical at all,” Whitney-Smith said. “In other words: inconveniencing some politicians, I’m all for that –even if I’m against your thoughts,” she added. “Having parents worry about their kids? No, not that.”

A child on a balance bike looks at security behind fencing near the US Capitol, Jan. 20, 2021. E.O’Gorek

‘Something We Will Always Grapple With’

“Unusual situations like this feel like they’re becoming more and more usual,” said Rabbi Hannah Spiro.

Like the children in care at St. Mark’s, the children at Gan Shalom Cooperative Preschool were also evacuated, including Spiro’s son. Spiro is the leader of Jewish Congregation Hill Havurah, with which the school is affiliated. Both the congregation and the school are housed in the Lutheran Church of the Reformation (212 East Capitol St. NE).

USCP officers visited the congregation to alert them to the Sept. 18 event, and to warn them of potential risk. Spiro said the Hill Havurah security team read some disturbing online material encouraging those attending the rally to target Jews and liberal churches.

“And we’re a Jewish congregation housed in a liberal church,” Spiro said.

The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, is Saturday, and they had wanted to hold services outdoors and in-person.

Now, they grappled with multiple risks, Spiro said.

“Do we negotiate the risk of COVID, with an indoor service?” she asked. “Or deal with the risk of whatever is going on outside?”

Shabbat services will be held online Sept. 18, Spiro said. It feels like a big loss in some ways. “It feels like we’re letting the folks who organized the rally win,” the Rabbi said. “At the same time, we have to consider members of our communty –some of whom are really traumatized by the events of Jan. 6.”

Since Jan. 6, the members of Hill Havurah have been trying to balance openness with security. They want all their services to be welcoming for everyone, Spiro said. “We know some people feel extra safe with a police presence, and som people feel really unsafe, even threatened –and for very good reason.”

But given the proximity of Hill Havurah to the Capitol and recent events, she said, it feels important to have that presence –even though it is painful.

“It’s something we will always grapple with,” Spiro said.

Playground equipment for the children of Hill Havurah’s preschool Gan Shalom sits in the yard at 212 East Capitol St NE, with the Capitol dome in the background, Jan. 12, 2021. E.O’Gorek/CCN

Getting Used to A New Normal

Some say they’ve grown used to dealing with threats and the security measures against them, seeing it as part of the package, a necessary evil when one lives so close to the heart of the nation’s capital.

Sitting on a blanket on the lawn outside the Library of Congress opposite the fence where she was playing cards with her elementary-aged daughter, one woman said she still found the security incidents “somewhat surprising”.  At the same time, she accepts them.

“I think there’s a sort of getting used to a new normal. I mean I think it’s a piece of living in DC,” said the woman, who lives two blocks from the Capitol and declined to be named. “I think it’s hard to get worked up about it, because I think it’s a piece of what it is to live in DC right here near the Capitol, which is a huge privilege most of the time –and sometimes, more challenging.”

Many residents reacted strongly to the initial installation of the fence around the Capitol grounds. It was first erected Jan. 7 and came down July 10. (This time, Capitol Police say it will be removed “shortly after” the Sept. 18 rally).

Some worried about the statement a fence made about democracy, blocking as it did access of the people to the seat of government. Others pointed to the tremendous importance of the large swath of public space to Hill families.

Such security measures are an inconvenience, others say, but they try to keep priorities in order. Lara Walker, a 30-year Hill resident, said she applauds the installation of the fence. She said her friends and neighbors who work on the Capitol are still traumatized.

“The original fence should not have been removed until they had better defenses, enough police, and a solid plan to deal with ongoing and future threats,” Walker said. “We’re under attack and the current threat has not waned.”

It’s an inconvenience not to be able to access the Capitol lawn, she said, but she encourages residents to keep perspective. “There are more important issues to worry about here,” Walker said.

A fence surrounds the U.S. Capitol, March 2020. The fence was taken down July 10, and re-erected Sept. 15. Photo: Nathaniel Liu

They’re Going to Be Ready

Sitting outside Grubb’s Pharmacy (326 East Capitol NE), a woman calling herself Ladybird said that she thinks this time officials are prepared to deal with the situation if it gets out of hand.

“We got caught with our pants down,” she said of the police response to Jan. 6. This time is different, Ladybird adds. “If sh*t pops off, they’re going to be ready,” she said.

Ladybird doesn’t think there are going to be as many attendees at the Sept. 18 rally as there were Jan. 6, and that, combined with the preparation, makes her feel certain that the fence will be gone by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.

Still, many residents told the Hill Rag via social media that they will avoid their own streets Sept. 18. Some have made plans to leave the neighborhood, planning trips to nearby cities such as Baltimore to avoid the crowds and the situation. One wrote that she would “stay inside –and be annoyed that I have to stay inside.” One wrote that she will hunker down in her home, buying groceries in advance to prepare for a long stay.

Others are pretty direct about their feelings: “[I’ve] marked my calendar “idiots visiting”,” one wrote, “so I know to stay away.”

Read our article on preparations for and information on the Sept. 18 rally here.