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Eeriness hangs over Washington as Biden takes office

Soldiers, journalists and a few curious observers replace large crowds of jubilant Americans who usually descend on Washington on inauguration day
Woman walks past line of soldiers while carrying American flag near Union Station in Washington on 20 January (MEE/Umar Farooq)
By Ali Harb in Washington

The divisions and uncertainty plaguing the United States at the end of former President Donald Trump's term were visible on the streets of the nation's capital on the day of the inauguration of his successor. 

As Joseph R Biden was taking the presidential oath of office on the steps of the US Capitol on Wednesday, few Americans were able to witness the historic event. 

The National Mall area where the inaugural audience usually gathers was sealed off by security barriers and thousands of troops.

Washington was on edge amid heightened security concerns after an angry mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol earlier this month. The violence had killed five people. 

On Tuesday, the tensions deterred people from the central streets of Washington, with the exception of a few Trump fans and folks celebrating Biden's inauguration who scattered along the security perimeter.

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At any given point near the mall, one could see more reporters and photographers than regular people.

'It's creepy'

Cloaked in an American flag with a "Black Lives Matter" mask covering her face, Jaelyn Maxwell, who flew from Utah to Washington to witness what she could of the inauguration, held a sign that said: "Dear women of color, thank you."

"It's a bit ironic that next to our native population, the most disenfranchised Americans are women of colour, and they saved our democracy," Maxwell told MEE.

Exit polls show that 90 percent of Black women voted for Biden in the 2020 elections, helping oust Trump from the White House.

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Maxwell bemoaned the extraordinary security measures and presence of the military on civilian streets, but blamed Trump for "inciting" the violence that led to the eerie atmosphere on inauguration day.

"It's creepy. It's sad," she told MEE. "We've always taken great pride in celebrating and having a transition of power in peace. And that was disrupted by our former president, and now we're a military state just like he wanted it."

Street vendors selling presidential merchandise had already switched their inventory from Maga gear and items featuring Trump's wispy comb-over to Biden-Harris memorabilia and hats stitched with "46", Biden's number in the presidential succession.

Steven Sigmon, who travelled with his family to Washington from Florida, was already wearing a "Biden 46" hat on Wednesday morning.

"We're not going to let these terrorists stop us from coming to see this inauguration, no way," Sigmon told MEE.

He also expressed dismay that Americans were not able to celebrate the transfer of power peacefully, saying that Biden's inauguration would have drawn hundreds of thousands of people had it been open to the public. "That was taken away from us."

Even before the violence at the Capitol, Biden was planning on a downsized inauguration because of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic - an issue that will be at the top of the list of new president's policy priorities.

Capitol MEE
Amid heightened security concerns, the National Mall was off-limits for the American public on Wednesday (MEE/Umar Farooq)

Call for unity

In his first speech as president, Biden pleaded for national unity, pledging that he will be a leader for all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.

"To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy - unity, unity," Biden said.

With intensifying political polarisation in the wake of Trump's exit in the White House, bridging the political schism in the United States may prove to be Biden's most difficult challenge.

In fact, millions of Americans are convinced that their new president is ascending to the White House on the back of a fraudulent election. 

Kelly Janwiak, a Trump supporter who described herself as a "prayer warrior" from Chicago, cast doubt over the legitimacy of Biden's presidency, echoing baseless theories about the election being rigged.

'The past four years really showed us that we got a lot of work to do in regards to race relations'

- David Bates, Biden supporter

With an American flag scarf around her neck, Janwiak stood by a security checkpoint alongside a couple of Trump supporters and a crowd of journalists.

She told MEE that she came to Washington to witness the events of the day herself because she does not trust the media, accusing journalists of focusing on the "bad apples" on either side of the political spectrum to exacerbate divisions.

Janwiak had a pin showing Israeli and American flags on her bag. She said the former president does not get recognition for his achievements, including recent normalisation deals between Israel and Arab states.

"I am a patriot at heart. I'll forever support this country. I'm a freedom fighter," she said. 

"But I just don't think that Trump gets enough credit for all of the good that he did; it wasn't even reported on. But we're here to be boots on the ground and to continue to champion the United States and the will of God going forward."

Janwiak's companion, Lindy-Ann Hopley, a Christian activist from South Africa, was more forceful in her rebuke of Biden, accusing the new president of being self-appointed.

"Where are the people supporting the president-elect? Was he elected by the people?" she asked, suggesting that the absence of inauguration crowds is somehow proof that Biden did not have enough support to win the presidency.

Hopley also repeated unfounded allegations that left-wing activists were behind the violence at the Capitol on 6 January. 

Confederate symbols

Both Janwiak and Hopley were responsive to journalists and amicable with Biden supporters around the checkpoint. 

But nearby stood a man who represents what might be the biggest obstacle in Biden's call for unity. He waved a Bonnie Blue flag, a banner used by early Confederate states that seceded from the American Union in 1860 to uphold slavery, and wore a hat featuring a confederate flag.

"It's a military symbol. That's what it was used for. It's a battle flag," the man, who refused to identify himself, told MEE of his confederate flag.

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When challenged about the flag being a symbol of hate used by states that attempted to break up the United States in order to maintain the enslavement of Black people, he said: "Northern treachery, just trying to put down my way or the highway basically."

Away from Trump supporters trying to relitigate the American Civil War, others were jubilant about the inauguration. 

David Bates, who runs a homeless shelter in Minnesota, planted a "Biden 2020" flag at an intersection near Union Station as he embarked on a rather solitary celebration.

Dressed in a cowboy hat and a flannel dotted with anti-Trump pins, Bates said he is excited about Biden's presidency, but acknowledged that uniting the country will be a tough task for the new commander.

"The past four years really showed us that we got a lot of work to do in regards to race relations," he told MEE. 

"I didn't realise we still had a bunch of Confederate people running around thinking African Americans and immigrants are bad people. It's really a sad state, where America is today."

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