Washington

‘A war zone?’: Push to erect permanent fence around Capitol lambasted


The deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol has prompted calls to step up security around federal properties in Washington, but D.C. officials and locals say the idea of putting permanent fences around those sites is a step too far.

Today, a steel-bar fence as high as 12 feet and topped with razor wire encloses a 3-square-mile area around the Capitol building, where rioters last month toppled bicycle-rack barriers and overwhelmed police officers to disrupt Congress’ certification of the Electoral College vote. Armed National Guardsmen now patrol the fence perimeter, which is backed by concrete Jersey barriers in some areas.

“I hate it. You know, it’s ugly and I feel like it’s taken away a lot,” said Louis Rose, 57, who works nearby at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and lives in Arlington, Virginia. “It looks like a war zone: razor wire, with armed guards with machine guns behind the fence. How else could you describe that?”

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is one of many locals who hope the unsightly fencing is only a temporary measure. She told The Washington Times that she wants “to keep the People’s House open to the people.”

“Permanent fencing would send an un-American message to the nation and the world, by transforming our democracy from one that is accessible and of the people to one that is exclusive and fearful of its own citizens,” she told fellow members of Congress on Feb. 11, when she introduced the United States Capitol Complex Act to block permanent fencing.

“It would tell the world that the most powerful nation must rely on crude barriers for safety instead of state-of-the-art intelligence and security protocols,” said Mrs. Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting congressional representative.

Critics of permanent fencing say the issue is not only of aesthetics but also one of economics. Washington attracts millions of tourists each year who visit the city’s museums and monuments, take in the federal buildings’ neoclassical architecture and witness the government at work.

Capitol Hill resident Allison Cunningham said Thursday during a town hall sponsored by Mrs. Norton that the Capitol grounds are not just for lawmaking.

“Around the Capitol, businesses are going to be impacted,” Ms. Cunningham said. “People who routinely use the Capitol grounds as part of their everyday life — as part of a big beautiful park in the city — are not able to do so. So there are a lot of different far-reaching reasons [permanent fencing is] such a bad idea.”

Ms. Cunningham has launched a “Don’t Fence the Capitol” drive via a website, social media and an online petition that had garnered more than 16,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning.

Still, the shock and horror of the riot remain fresh in the minds of lawmakers and officers assigned to protect them. Previously released surveillance video aired last week during former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial showed rioters coming within several feet of lawmakers, attacking police officers and damaging property.

One Capitol Police officer died the next day from a beating in the crowd, one rioter was fatally wounded inside the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies.

The Associated Press reported that Capitol Police officials told congressional leaders that the fence around the complex should remain in place until September as law enforcement continues to track threats against lawmakers.

Citing a person familiar with the matter, AP reported that the threats range in specificity and credibility but include online chatter about extremist groups potentially returning to Washington and to the Capitol in the coming weeks.

The Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and Rules Committee are scheduled to hold a joint oversight hearing Tuesday on security failures. Acting U.S. Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman, who was not in charge of the police force on Jan. 6, has apologized for those failures.

In a written statement late last month, Chief Pittman called for permanent fencing. She said more restrictive security measures have long been needed to adequately protect the Capitol and members of Congress.

“[E]ven before September 11, 2001, security experts argued that more needed to be done to protect the U.S. Capitol. In fact, a 2006 security assessment specifically recommended the installation of a permanent perimeter fence around the Capitol,” Chief Pittman said in her statement.

“In light of recent events, I can unequivocally say that vast improvements to the physical security infrastructure must be made to include permanent fencing, and the availability of ready, back-up forces in close proximity to the Capitol,” said Chief Pittman, who assumed command of the force several days after the riot and after the resignation of Chief Steven Sund.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee, a union of about 1,050 officers, announced Monday that its members overwhelmingly voted no confidence in senior leadership for the “mishandling” of the riot.

At least 92% of members voted no confidence in Chief Pittman, 96% in Assistant Chief Chad Thomas and 97% in Capt. Ben Smith, the union said.

“Our leaders did not properly plan for the protest nor prepare officers for what they were about to face. This despite the fact they knew days before that the protest had the potential to turn violent,” said Gus Papathanasiou, chairman of the union’s executive board.

Capitol Police employs about 2,300 officers and civilians and has an annual operating budget of nearly $500 million.

Capitol concerns

The Capitol Building sits at the heart of the 270-acre Capitol Complex, which encompasses other buildings, a reflecting pool, an expansive lawn and some monuments. President Washington marched with Masonic Lodge members to lay the cornerstone of its foundation in 1793, and the iconic structure has since served as a backdrop to history, including inaugurations and protests.

According to a 2019 report from the Architect of the Capitol, billions of people from around the world have visited the grounds and 2 million tour the Capitol each year. However, the building has been closed to visitors since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has so much scrutiny been applied to the security of the area. In the aftermath of the attacks, Congress spent hundreds of millions of dollars to enhance physical security, including the placement of bollards and concrete planters, street closures and checkpoints, and the Capitol Visitor Center, a mostly underground holding area for visitors.

The site’s importance to visitors is not lost on Christopher Geldart, the District’s acting deputy mayor for public safety and justice. He said the Capitol is also for those “who plan their once in a lifetime trip … all for the opportunity to visit their nation’s capital.”

“Access to these grounds is as much theirs as it is ours. They, too, should be able to walk the steps, take photos and make the same memories we enjoy daily,” Mr. Geldart said.

Soon after the Jan. 6 riot, about 25,000 National Guardsmen from several nearby states were activated and deployed to protect the Capitol and members of Congress, and fencing was erected to limit access to the building and discourage breach attempts. Several thousand Guardsmen, mostly from the D.C. unit, remain on duty.

Rep. Ted Budd, North Carolina Republican, said Wednesday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, had not responded to a letter sent two weeks ago by 42 representatives “demanding an explanation of why the People’s House is still an armed camp.”

“Both Republicans and Democrats agree: The Capitol should NOT be permanently fenced off,” Mr. Budd tweeted.

More than 40 House Republicans signed onto a letter two weeks ago calling on Mrs. Pelosi to remove the fence and arrange for National Guard troops to go home, AP reported.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, told The Times that “a democratic society is an open society, and all this fencing is antithetical to democracy.”

The fence already “has a huge impact on the ability of the city to provide services to our residents,” council member Charles Allen, whose ward includes Capitol Hill, said during the town hall.

Earlier this month, council staffers were unable to get past the fence to deliver the city’s legislation for congressional transmittal, he said. Because the District is not a state, Congress must give final approval to local laws.

“We had to figure out who had Vice President [Kamala] Harris’ cellphone number to come up with a workaround,” said Mr. Allen, Ward 6 Democrat.

Mr. Allen, who chairs the council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said the shutdowns of roads may impede emergency vehicles and evacuation routes.

Assistant Capitol Police Chief Chad Thomas acknowledged that department heads “understand that these emergency security measures have great impact on those around us in the city.”

“There are currently multiple campuswide evaluations and assessments underway that will greatly inform what can be done to replace the existing security measures with more long-term solutions,” Chief Thomas said.

Mrs. Norton, who lives near Capitol Hill, called the riot a failure of intelligence and security that cannot be solved by a fence.

She told Congress that there are better ways to thwart an attack, including “taking threats of extremist violence seriously at an earlier stage; blocking off the Capitol during high-profile and high-threat events, as is typically done, but was not done on January 6; manpower; and training.”

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