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‘I never imagined this’: Washington prepares for an inauguration under siege

In easier times, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal church would be crowded, especially on the Sunday morning before a presidential inauguration a few blocks away.

In the midst of a pandemic and a security lockdown following the assault on the Capitol, the street outside was almost deserted. Metropolitan AME, one of the city’s oldest Black American churches, has already been vandalised by the white supremacist Proud Boys, while “liberal” churches have been warned they could be targets once more in the days before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office, and the Donald Trump era ends.

“You couldn’t imagine this happening in the United States, for the seat of power to have been overtaken like that,” said Angela Walker, a 63-year-old congregant who had come to work in the church kitchen. “It’s just sad.”

Metropolitan AME was one of many churches targeted by a Proud Boys mob in December, when they rampaged through town, destroying Black Lives Matter (BLM) signs and looking for people to fight.

Enrique Tarrio, the group’s leader who has been charged over the attack, told USA Today his group was not mobilizing as part of inauguration protests, saying: “I feel like this part of the battle is over.”

Walker said: “They were here and they have done a lot of damage.” But she quickly added she was unafraid. “I pray that it stops now. I actually truly believe that they will not hit any of the churches again, not here in this city.”

She said her conviction was rooted in her faith but also in the presence of thousands of national guard troops. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks there were US warplanes in the air but fewer soldiers on the ground. Less of Washington was locked down.

Blocks to the south of the church were blocked off by the national guard detachments with armoured cars, guarding “green” and “red” zones, an echo of the fortified area of central Baghdad that was part of America’s ill-fated war on terror. The presence of a military garrison in Washington, on a scale not witnessed since the civil war, was a reminder that endemic racism remains a greater menace to national security than any external threat.

National Guard troops stand behind security fencing with the dome of the Capitol building behind them, on Saturday. National Guard troops stand behind security fencing with the dome of the Capitol building behind them, on Saturday. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

“We have more troops in Washington than we do in Afghanistan right now and they’re here to protect us from our own president and his mob,” Seth Moulton, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told the Guardian.

The Marine Corps combat veteran said the images from the Capitol this week were “shocking”.

“I expected this in Baghdad,” he said. “I never imagined this in Washington.”

The area around Metropolitan AME was held by the Pennsylvania national guard, posted at junctions, assault rifles hanging from their body armour.

“I never thought in a million years that I would be on patrol in the streets of DC,” said one sergeant who said his unit was deployed in Iraq just before he joined up and last year went on military exercises in North Macedonia, codenamed Decisive Strike, meant to prepare them to meet foreign adversaries.

The sergeant hoped the current deployment, defending the seat of government against his fellow countrymen, would go down in history as an aberration.

“We’ve been through worse before and got through it,” he said. “Hopefully we can soon all go home.”

Thomas Porter, vice-president for government affairs at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, said: “To many veterans, they’re going to recall the vivid images of their experiences in Baghdad.”

The invasion of the halls of Congress, and the knowledge some veterans were part of the mob, has left many veterans angry, Porter said.

“We would compare ourselves to countries overseas and we could always depend on a democratic and peaceful transfer of power,” Porter said. “The whole attack on the Capitol was an affront to that.”

The heavy military presence represented the closing of a very large stable door after the horse had bolted. The show of force which confronted BLM protests in the summer was glaringly absent when Trump loyalists ransacked the Capitol on 6 January.

On Sunday, at BLM Plaza in front of the White House, a few demonstrators talked to journalists near a sign warning: “Domestic terrorists not welcome.”

Jade Olivo, 31, had come from New York to demonstrate for Black trans lives. The presence of so many troops in the city was “nerve-racking”, she said. She planned to stay in Washington through inauguration but said she had no idea what the next days might bring.

A few blocks to the north, two Washingtonians had paused on a street corner to discuss the strange atmosphere in their city.

Emily Turner, 24, had spent part of Saturday walking around the fortified perimeter around Capitol Hill.

“I’ve never seen so many guns in my life,” she said.

Inauguration is supposed to be a celebratory event, she said, but there was “not so much celebrating going on anywhere”.

“It’s just eerie,” said Andy Smith, 33. “I hope it’s not the future of every major event in DC.

The militarisation of the Capitol and the shutdowns of businesses, streets and public transportation has had a disproportionate effect on homeless residents of Washington, said Shannon Clark, 27, an organizer with Remora House, a small mutual aid group that distributes supplies. There are small tent encampments throughout downtown, some in close proximity to the Capitol and the White House.

“In effect, folks are largely trapped down there,” Clark said. “It’s going to be very difficult for them to get out.”

Reports that far-right groups have harassed and targeted unhoused people in the past has only increased concerns, Clark said.

On Saturday, Remora House distributed dozens of Metro cards loaded with $10, along with instructions on how to access shelters and stations still open.

“People here are hungry,” the group tweeted. “Cold. And scared. People want out.”

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