But more significantly, the dozens of protesters out on a crystal blue-skied, temperate Saturday said — in words and signs — that they see the fence as a threat to freedom. By putting miles of razor wire and camouflaged troops between the public and the seat of American government, the fence is a symbolic danger, some argued, to democracy.
“This has ruined my life. A democracy doesn’t block off public access to the seat of government,” said Barbara Johnson, who was at the protest with a friend. Both are retired educators from Gallaudet University who have lived on Capitol Hill — the residential neighborhood to the east of the Capitol — since the 1970s.
The women normally walk and run through the gardens of the Supreme Court, and along the paths and the broad plazas of the Capitol. Now the Capitol complex has been blocked off, and the women could only look through. They recalled security changes that happened there after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Before, “you could just stop in and use the bathroom,” Johnson said. JoAnn Laboy nodded. “We dealt with changes. But this?” Laboy said, gesturing to the fence and the Guard members behind it. “This is awful and unnecessary.”
The U.S. Capitol Police, in charge of the complex’s security, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Capitol Police Chief Yogananda D. Pittman and Timothy Blodgett, the House’s acting sergeant-at-arms, told a February House hearing that they are awaiting several security reviews before making a decision about the fence. They mentioned unspecific threats of future violence from armed groups. Lawmakers that week said Pittman and Jennifer Hemingway, the Senate’s acting sergeant-at-arms, also mentioned threats by extremist groups in a private meeting but without any details.
Other anti-fence protests have had an angrier tone, organizers said, so they picked a chill protest that showcased what life was like at the Capitol before Jan. 6 and set it against the new backdrop of steel and concrete. About 50 people came, including Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C.’s delegate to Congress, and D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose ward includes Capitol Hill.
On Saturday, as police and National Guard members looked on, children used chalk to write, “GIVE US OUR BACKYARD BACK,” on Second Street SE. Multiple groups sat in lawn chairs along the fence, reading the paper, playing Scrabble and eating pizza handed out by a nearby restaurant hit hard by the fence.
Some had signs reading, “Open our neighborhood,” “This is what Democracy looks like?” and “Washington D.C. = Pyongyang.” Someone had propped up a model of the signs at Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. It said in four languages: “YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR.”
Robert Pohl, 55, who lives on Capitol Hill and helped organize the event, also works as a tour guide of the areas around the Capitol. His focus has been history, but now on his virtual tours people want to know more about why the fence is there and why he can’t get anywhere near it. The public’s deeper interest in the Capitol area is “literally the only positive” of the fencing situation.
Next to him was Sandra Moscoso, 47, of Capitol Hill. She works in international development and says she’s still sorting out what it means that her neighborhood looks like places with more tumultuous governments where she has worked, including Sudan and Afghanistan.
“It’s kind of a punch in the gut. We’re supposed to be a model, right? This is not a model.”