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Washington braces for Biden inauguration amid heavy military presence

Central streets of Washington mostly vacant as thousands of soldiers descend on city after last week's violence
Hundreds of soldiers surround US Capitol after rioters entered building last week (MEE/Ali Harb)
By Ali Harb in Washington

At the kickoff of his first campaign in 2015, US President Donald Trump promised to build a wall along the southern border and have Mexico pay for it. By the end of his term, security barriers had been erected across America's own capital, amid security concerns after his supporters stormed the Capitol building last week.

Days before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on 20 January, the normally bustling streets around major government institutions in Washington were largely deserted of motorists and pedestrians. 

The humming of ventilation fans emitted from downtown buildings - usually drowned out by the sounds of the city - ruled over the prevailing silence, often interrupted by the sirens of emergency vehicles. 

Major streets were closed off by cement blocks and army trucks, as National Guard soldiers with automatic rifles loitered on street corners and around government buildings.

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At least 20,000 soldiers are expected to protect Biden's inauguration (MEE/Ali Harb)

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Capitol Hill, where deadly riots led by Trump supporters attempted to stop the congressional certification of Biden's victory last week, looked like an army base. An iron fence stretched around the building and the surrounding area to block Constitution and Independence avenues, the two main roads that flank the Capitol.

Troops in military fatigues guarded the fence and the Capitol Hill residential neighbourhood east of the building. The soldiers acted with invariable courtesy on Thursday, regularly greeting pedestrians who walked by - as if to comfort and assure residents who may be distressed by the sight of heavily armed soldiers.

"It is absolutely heartbreaking to see that has happened and how everything locked down," said Denise Haywood, a school teacher who was standing at the edge of the fence trying to take a photo of the militarised vicinity of the Capitol.

Up until last week's riots, the Capitol - like most government buildings in Washington - was easily accessible to residents and tourists, who could walk right to its steps from the east and the west.

There was always a prevailing assumption that intense layers of security protecting the building and the legislators and staffers who work in it would instantly kick in if things went wrong.

Still, on 6 January an angry mob breached the Capitol's defences with ease and ransacked the building - with Trump supporters roaming the hallways and congressional offices for hours.

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Many streets were blocked and mostly vacant on Thursday (MEE/Ali Harb)

Haywood, the teacher, told MEE that the riot may permanently intensify security around government buildings in Washington, much like the 9/11 attacks did for airports.

"Protesting and free speech, I'm all for that, but when you saw them go into the Capitol, they went over the line," Haywood said, decrying the hate and anger fostered on social media in recent years.

On the western facade of the Capitol, where Biden will be sworn in next week, hundreds of soldiers formed a human wall.

"Thank you for your service. From one vet to another, thank you for your service," a middle aged African-American cyclist told the soldiers as he rode by.

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A newly set-up fence surrounds Capitol ahead of Biden's swearing-in ceremony (MEE/Ali Harb)

Near Union Station, Washington's main transport hub for the National Mall, a Trump supporter held a one-man protest, waving a flag that said: "Demand justice".

"I'm out here today demanding for justice in America," Brian White, the demonstrator, told MEE. "I demand for my First Amendment right, freedom of speech to be respected. I demand that Twitter, Facebook and Apple be de-platformed because they're infringing upon my freedoms, upon President Trump's freedoms; they're not giving him the ability to speak."

Major social media networks suspended Trump's accounts after last week's violence. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives impeached the president on Tuesday for inciting the riots.

White, a builder from Florida, repeated the unfounded conspiracy theory that the riot at the Capitol was not carried out by Trump supporters.

"What they did is they had people infiltrate the Trump rally, and they had them pose as Trump supporters, which they weren't," White said. "It was all a charade. It was a sham."

Although Trump won Florida, White echoed the president's baseless allegations about widespread election fraud, saying that he is not confident that his own vote counted.

MEE spotted a few other Trump supporters in Maga gear and QAnon shirts among the few journalists, tourists and curious residents on the streets of Washington. 

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Stores have been boarded up across Washington out of fear of possible unrest (MEE/Ali Harb)

Trey Mears, who is visiting the US capital from North Carolina, said Trump was responsible for the violence.

"It's a culmination of the rhetoric that we've seen in the past four years from Donald Trump. He's instilling doubt in our electoral process, and these people, they believe it. It's very damaging, as you can see from what's going on now," Mears said, pointing at the militarisation of the city. 

At least 20,000 troops are expected to arrive in the city by inauguration day to protect the ceremony.

American flags hung vertically between the columns of the Capitol behind the platform where Biden will be sworn in next week, as stages were being constructed for invitation-only attendees.

Even before last week's violence, Biden did not want the inauguration to draw large crowds because of health concerns amid the spread of Covid-19. 

All across Washington, construction workers boarded up storefronts in anticipation of possible unrest.

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Protester holds sign near the White House (MEE/Ali Harb)

At the White House, the security perimeter has been enlarged with the restricted area extending a block from Lafayette Square, where Trump ordered the violent clearing of Black Lives Matter protesters last year.

Peace activists, who had been perpetually protesting near the White House, set up camp as close as they could get to the presidential headquarters - on the street now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Anti-Trump and anti-war flags and slogans fluttered as music blared from portable speakers at their sit-in.

Dressed in green overalls featuring a badge that says "Resist" and depicts a clenched fist along with a hat that displays the message "F**k Trump", local activist Karen Irwin drew a contrast between the ease with which Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and how Black Lives Matter and anti-war protesters have been brutalised by law enforcement.

"In it's purest form, it is a visual example of how alive and well white supremacy is in this country. A lot of the white supremacists have badges," she said, suggesting that some police officers may have sympathised with the Capitol rioters and facilitated their actions.

Biden will take oath of office by steps of Capitol next week (MEE/Ali Harb)
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