WASHINGTON (AP) – The entire center of Washington was the primary sound for several blocks of beeps from forklifts unloading more fences.
There were no cars or scooters and apparently no tourists on Wednesday, just the occasional jogger and several building crews at work. The US Capitol, which turned out to be such a soft target last week, was only visible through lines of high black fences.
Two blocks from the White House, a group of uniformed National Guard troops came out of a tourist bus and headed for a hotel when a state of lockdown fell over Washington, which lasts through the inauguration on January 20th. The number of National Guard troops coming to Washington to help law enforcement with security has grown to about 26,000, officials said Thursday.
“We are clearly in unknown waters,”
Last week’s “violent uprising” at the Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump has “affected the way we approach working with our federal partners in planning the 59th inauguration,” Bowser said Wednesday.
The FBI has warned of armed protests from violent Trump supporters was planned in all 50 state capitals as well as in Washington in the days leading up to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Between the pandemic and the security threat, Bowser is flat-out, asking people not to come to the District of Columbia for the inauguration. And at Bowser’s request, a National Special Security Event statement was moved up to Jan. 13, a distinction she said “introduces a completely different command and control structure” for security.
NSSE status is normal for the president’s inauguration and other major events such as an international summit or the Super Bowl. But it is rare to start the lock so far before the event.
Police vehicles sealed a huge part of downtown DC on Wednesday, causing immediate traffic jams. As of Wednesday, Bowser said anyone within the inauguration area can be stopped and questioned. From Friday, all parking garages in the restricted zone in the center will be sealed through the inauguration. Bowser is asking DC residents to avoid the center altogether, and the city announced that 13 subway stations inside the security area will close for several days.
Bowser is also being pushed to deny lodging options to potentially violent protesters. The local Black Lives Matter affiliate and Shutdown DC issued a joint statement Wednesday urging all downtown hotels to voluntarily close and pay their staffs. In addition to the threat of violence, activist groups say Trump supporters are a threat to hotel staff because they generally refuse to wear face masks during the pandemic. Several hotels in the center, including one that had become a favorite spot for the militant Proud Boy faction, chose to avoid problems by closing last week.
“Closing hotels completely during these six nights is the only way to guarantee the safety of hotel workers, neighbors, vulnerable and unbeaten residents, incoming administration officials, members of Congress and our democracy,” the statement said. “If hotels do not close willingly, we ask Mayor Bowser to extend today’s emergency order and close all hotels in the city.”
On Wednesday, Airbnb announced that it was canceling all reservations in the Washington subway area. Bowser said she had been in regular contact with Airbnb officials since last week, but did not specifically request this step.
“We are aware of reports that surfaced yesterday afternoon about armed militias and known hate groups trying to travel and disrupt the inauguration,” a company statement said. “We continue our work to ensure that hate group members are not part of the Airbnb community.”
On the ground, much of the most visible security will come in the form of National Guard troops, some of whom are armed. Pentagon officials approved requests to have some of them with either long cannons or handguns, especially those awarded near the Capitol building. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security information.
Members of the National Guard operate under strict rules of engagement in the use of force. But in general, troops can use deadly force to protect the lives of others and themselves.
DC Police Chief Robert Contee estimated on Wednesday that more than 20,000 members of the National Guard would be active in the city on inauguration day. But officials said Thursday that the number has grown to 26,000 based on additional requests from law enforcement agencies.
As of Thursday, there are about 7,000 already in the city, with thousands more en route. The length of their missions may vary, but Defense Department officials were allowed to deploy the guard for up to 30 days until the inauguration and the surrounding protests.
Officials say guards from all 50 states are deploying to the city, even though each state is on alert for violent protests or attacks in its own capital.