With three days to go until Joe Biden’s inauguration, Washington DC has turned into a fortress. There is a grim atmosphere in the city. Cops and soldiers are standing on almost every street corner. The area around the White House, the Capitol, and the National Mall is closed off with high fences, barbed wire, and armored vehicles.
The security services are very shocked after the storming of the Capitol. The authorities have pulled out all the stops to prevent a tragedy like last week’s. With more than 20,000 heavily armed National Guard members, there are more American soldiers on the streets of Washington than Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
“It’s insane and unreal. We’re not used to this,” says journalist Matt Laslo. The political reporter was in the Capitol when the violent Trump mob stormed it. He hid for hours in the attic of the parliament building.
“You would be a stupid terrorist if you tried to carry out another attack in Washington with all these security measures. Still, the capital remains a target. America is tense.”
Not a festive occasion
Normally, the inauguration of a new president is a festive affair, but Biden’s inauguration takes on a unique character. The US government had already discouraged Biden supporters from coming to Washington because of the pandemic.
Last Friday, the authorities decided to close the door completely. The National Mall, the mile-long lawn around which major monuments, museums and important government buildings are located, will be closed to the public until this Thursday. Metro stations in the center and bridges will also be closed.
It will be a totally different picture from the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2008 when the Mall was filled to its full length with a crowd of over a million people. Donald Trump’s inauguration was much smaller, but still attracted several hundred thousand supporters. It will be the first time in modern American history that there is hardly any audience at an inauguration.
In recent days, reports have circulated in chat groups of extreme right-wing groups that heavily armed militias would be traveling to Washington. They want to try to disrupt Biden’s swearing-in.
The threat from extremist groups is not only focused on the day of the inauguration. Activists have called for a march with weapons from the White House to the Capitol today. Given the extreme security measures that seem like an impossible task, the Washington police are prepared for anything. Local authorities have only authorized demonstrations at two locations in the capital, but up to 100 people are allowed to participate on the day of the inauguration.
Possibly also protest in other places
The FBI warned in an alarming memo last week that violent protests may not be limited to Washington DC alone. Fifty state authorities should consider armed protests surrounding their state parliaments, the federal police force concluded on the basis of raw intelligence.
In Richmond, the capital of the state of Virginia, the area around the state parliament is therefore fenced off. Reports are circulating on social media that the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist militia that supports Trump, is set to emerge in Richmond today. A major protest march from proponents of firearms has been announced for tomorrow. Buildings in the vicinity of the parliament have therefore been boarded up.
Virginia authorities have since been placed on high alert. “We try to analyze which threat is real and which is not, but we take it very seriously,” Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public security, said at a news conference.
As Twitter, Facebook and other social media more actively block messages from right-wing extremist groups and militias, it has become more difficult to monitor their movements. Moran: “The intervention by social media has advantages and disadvantages. It prevents extremist groups from organizing, but it has become more difficult for us to keep an eye on them. They are now forced underground.”
Some capitals of American states already got a taste of what may come last week. Heavily armed protesters surrounded the Kentucky state parliament. In the capital of Texas, a small group of armed activists had gathered at parliament yesterday afternoon. They carried flags with texts such as “Freedom or death”. Almost all states have therefore taken extra security measures.
On Saturday, a man was arrested at a checkpoint in downtown Washington with a loaded pistol and a fake accreditation for the inauguration of incoming President Biden. America is bracing for a troubled week.