For days now, my conversations with my husband have been a broken record, debating the same question over and over: do we stay? Or do we go?
I live four blocks from the U.S. Capitol in a charming neighborhood filled with Victorian row homes, decades-old businesses, and trendy restaurants. For all the party-driven tension that resides at the top of the Hill, those of us within the Capitol Hill neighborhood enjoy one of the quieter, most historic, community-focused enclaves in Washington, DC.
I always tell friends outside the District that we’re fortunate within Washington that we’re somewhat sheltered from the political echo chamber that often develops within social circles, and that we’re privileged to engage in thoughtful discussion with people who truly care about the world. It’s a small town and you inevitably collect friends from both sides of the aisle. You understand there are dedicated, reasonable people in both parties (emphasis on the reasonable—only 5 percent of DC voted for Trump in 2020). During previous administrations, particularly for those of us who don’t work in politics, we’ve enjoyed spotting politicians in our midst and, while the occasional motorcade was an annoyance, we generally existed alongside the Capitol, rather than despite it.
During previous administrations, particularly for those of us who don’t work in politics, we’ve enjoyed spotting politicians in our midst and, while the occasional motorcade was an annoyance, we generally existed alongside the Capitol, rather than despite it.
On Jan. 6, all that changed.
Last Wednesday, I spent the early morning fielding text messages from friends across the country. Were we nervous about the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally? “No,” I answered matter-of-factly to each. “Of course not. Protests happen every week.”
Then, as I sat down to my computer for the first meeting of the day, I looked out my front window. In groups of two, three, four, and more, I watched rioters parade from the parking spots they’d found on our streets. Carrying Trump 2020 flags, they appeared unaware the election was decided over two months ago.
But I’d seen protestors use our neighborhood as their route to the Capitol before. So while their numbers were larger and the parade steadier than the Trump rallies in previous weeks, I wrote it off as simply another First Amendment “event”—a regular occurrence in DC. I made my way to the market at lunch and everything seemed normal enough… as long as I ignored the ominous feeling hanging heavy in the air. As I walked home, I heard a loud bang echoing through the streets. A man on a bike screeched to a halt and turned around quickly in the other direction. I picked up my pace. My first thought was that protestors—as I still thought they were at this point—had come armed. Then, as I unlocked my door, a text came in from a friend, “Holy shit. The Capitol has been breached.”
I spent the afternoon glued to the news, informing colleagues who’d missed the news, and copying and pasting the same response to the dozens of messages from concerned friends asking if we were OK or if we needed a place to stay. There was a bizarre disconnect, sitting safe inside our home while knowing the terror unfolding just blocks away. Sirens became our constant soundtrack and I watched as these domestic terrorists walked back to their cars, when they should have been escorted out of our city in handcuffs.
There was a bizarre disconnect, sitting safe inside our home while knowing the terror unfolding just blocks away.
No one understands exactly how this happened; how one of the most secure complexes in the country became a violent playground for white supremacists hellbent on cosplaying with Confederate flags and preventing the electoral certification. But for most across the country, this is a news story playing out on evening TV. For those of us who live in Washington, DC, this is our city, our home.
We watched as senators returned to the Chamber that evening and debated the objections raised. And we listened as one senator referred to “real Americans”—specifically those not in Washington, DC.
Well, friends, REAL Americans do live in Washington, DC. Real Americans have had their neighborhoods and their city overrun with members of the National Guard, here to hopefully protect us from the threatened return of violent insurrectionists.
For most across the country, this is a news story playing out on evening TV. For those of us who live in Washington, DC, this is our city, our home.
We are the ones whose daily run routes have been cut off by blocks of impenetrable fencing. We’re the ones living in an emergency state, knowing that a curfew could go back into place at any moment. We watch FBI canvassing the neighborhood, looking for information on the pipe bombs that were found—found on the same block as a darling house I’ve posted to Instagram. We try to smile through our masks at the armed military men and women, hoping they know we appreciate them more than they’ll ever know.
We debate, over and over again, whether we retreat to friends’ houses in the suburbs (and, yes, the pandemic makes this more complicated), book one of the now-inflated rate rental houses out in Virginia, or stay put. For me, I’m torn, and a large part of me feels strongly that leaving is letting them win.
Yet despite this underlying sense of uncertainty and disruption, life in Washington, DC goes on. I still wake up, work out, call into Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting; I go to the grocery store and to pick up takeout. DC residents are continuing to do everything that’s normal during this incredibly abnormal time.
This past weekend was beautiful in DC. I strolled through the bustling farmers’ market on the Hill. I met friends for a socially distanced walk. My husband and I strolled down the National Mall, shocked at the number of tourists still visiting despite the security perimeter. If it weren’t for the fences and the constant military presence, one would never have known our democracy was shaken to its very core last week.
If it weren’t for the fences and the constant military presence, one would never have known our democracy was shaken to its very core last week.
Tonight, I took an evening walk to see that the fencing had been extended even further. I watched as armed guards patrolled the streets and, as I stopped to take a photo of our new military state reality, I noticed a woman on her front porch directly behind me. She sat playing with her two toddlers, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. And that’s all we can do right now—and hope that, with time, these fences will come down as the hate recedes.
I know I can’t even begin to speak for the impact across all our city’s residents so I asked friends and acquaintances for their experiences over the past week. I’ll leave you with their reactions to my simple question, “What is it like to live in DC right now?”
“It’s demoralizing. It feels like any day there could be a second attack on our homes and democracy. It’s an overwhelming feeling like we’re on the verge of history, but also that the scariest and deadliest days (COVID) are yet to come.” – Jennifer
“Incredibly jarring. I’ve lived in this city for two inaugurations and this one is indescribably different. Seeing armed military personnel guarding the Capitol and the buildings I worked in for years and my husband and friends still [work] in is heartbreaking. I’ve been having a difficult time articulating my feelings after walking around the Capitol complex the other day, but I’m just overwhelmingly sad and also a little scared that this is just the beginning and not the end.” – Bri
“Being in [Upper NW DC], it was eerie and a little surreal this was going and is still going on just down the road. As I’ve told some family, there’s no escaping the news for DC—this is local, national, and international news, and yet we’re still expected to work and be productive as if this isn’t going on in the city. I know I still haven’t processed everything.” – Alison
“I have always felt safe in my [lifelong] home and neighborhood. Last Wednesday was the first time I felt true anxiety and fear here … The country is in crisis and it’s playing out in our backyard.” – Holly
“I feel like the unity is palpable amongst our residents!” – Sarah
“Well, I got called a “dumb liberal c*nt” in my shop for asking rioters to put their masks on.” – Anonymous
“It’s terrifying, especially for people who live on the Hill. The fact that armed terrorists were walking freely through our neighborhood and we were just sitting ducks if they wanted to do anything … The constant anxiety about it is just f*ing awful.” – Caroline
“Is it safe to walk my dog in this direction? Should I go to the grocery store today or tomorrow because tomorrow the right wing extremists arrive? We had to miss our puppy’s first vet visit because of the curfew. I think it’s a weird combination of the BIG stuff—like how emotional and upsetting it is to see your city and home desecrated by violent mobs—and then the everyday things that become intrinsically tied to that fact and how it disrupts our daily lives in such a big and inconvenient way. I don’t know, I’m still processing over here and so, so, so worried about next week.” – Julia