US Capitol riot

Deserted and boarded up - Washington is barely recognisable

Pedestrians walking past a boarded-up office building in Washington on Jan 2. Many buildings in the city of more than 700,000 have been boarded up due to pandemic closures or riots. Troop deployment has also been increased in the lead-up to Mr Joe Bi
Pedestrians walking past a boarded-up office building in Washington on Jan 2. Many buildings in the city of more than 700,000 have been boarded up due to pandemic closures or riots. Troop deployment has also been increased in the lead-up to Mr Joe Biden's presidential inauguration on Jan 20.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON • Walking through central Washington, it is difficult to distinguish between those buildings boarded up due to pandemic closures, and those boarded up due to riots.

The capital of the United States is known for its grand vistas, historical monuments and crowds of tourists, but the city has radically changed in the last year.

"This is my first time (in downtown Washington) in a year. There are usually people walking all over the place. This is very, very quiet. I almost think it's like a ghost of itself," said Jaime, a mother from Maryland, who did not wish to give her full name.

Hordes of schoolchildren who normally travel from all over the country to visit museums and see the White House now stay at home, as do most foreign tourists.

The hectic jostle of politicians, lobbyists and lawyers on the street has also fallen quiet, while metro stations that bring workers in from suburbs are quiet and little-used.

The city of more than 700,000 is subdued, a week before the presidential inauguration of Mr Joe Biden on the steps of the Capitol.

"The city is basically desolate," said Ms Nadine Seiler, 55, who has been demonstrating every day since the end of October last year near the White House in favour of anti-racism causes. "Usually it's very stressful, but here, it's like everybody's away on vacation."

As in many Western cities, many workers have been signing in to work from home - especially staff at big institutions headquartered in Washington, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as government agencies.

The city's famous museums, most of them free, have been closed since last March. And Mayor Muriel Bowser has again tightened restrictions so that restaurants can no longer serve any indoor customers.

Mr Timothy Bartholomew, a resident of Arlington, just over the Potomac river, said: "I went to the Christmas market... that's gone, all that's gone. You go into bars, (previously) packed bars - they're gone."

According to the specialist site Eater, nearly 70 restaurants have permanently closed in Washington since the start of the pandemic, and many others are boarded up without certainty that they will ever reopen.

The economic fallout is even more starkly evident in the lengthening lines at soup kitchens and the spread of tents sheltering homeless people under bridges and along main roads.

Violent protests and unrest have also shaken Washington repeatedly in the last year.

After the death of Mr George Floyd at the hands of the police in Minneapolis in May last year, Washington became a hot spot for nationwide anti-racism demonstrations.

The city authorities painted huge yellow letters reading "Black Lives Matter" across a street outside the White House, and the location became a popular site for rallies.

But over the months, clashes between anti-racism activists and pro-Trump protesters have brought an edge of tension to the city. Roads and sidewalks have been gradually shut down around the White House, with the security cordon holding people far back from President Donald Trump's residence.

Police cars keep their flashing lights on at all times and block streets normally streaming with traffic, while high metal fences surround many government buildings, like the US Treasury.

Since pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch, last Wednesday, the building has been at the centre of the crackdown, with a heavy presence of security forces patrolling a new perimeter fence.

The troop deployment around the city has increased every day ahead of the Jan 20 inauguration, when there will be no cheering crowds to welcome the new president.

Instead, security forces patrol in helmets and fatigues, and they will remain deployed until at least after the inauguration, giving Washington an untypically military feel.

National Guard troops deployed on the streets of Washington began carrying weapons on Tuesday in a major change of posture ahead of Mr Biden's inauguration, according to an Agence France-Presse photographer.

The Guard soldiers were originally mobilised to provide mostly logistical support to Washington police and, on Monday, General Daniel Hokanson, Pentagon National Guard Bureau chief, said they had not been authorised yet to carry weapons.

Authorising Guard members to deploy in a law enforcement role - armed and empowered to make arrests - would be a last resort if the security situation got out of hand, Gen Hokanson said.

It was not clear what changed late on Tuesday, and the city's National Guard had no comment.

Security experts said chatter among extremists and Trump supporters online about holding armed marches and threatening violence in the US capital and other cities had surged in recent days.

The Pentagon is mobilising up to 15,000 National Guard troops for the inauguration, as Mr Trump and supporters still refuse to accept Mr Biden's election victory two months ago.

Five people died on Wednesday last week when Trump supporters attacked and shut down the US Congress in a bid to halt the certification of Mr Biden's election win. At the time, Guard troops were nearby but were unarmed and called in too late to back up the Capitol Police.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2021, with the headline 'Deserted and boarded up - Washington is barely recognisable'. Print Edition | Subscribe