Downtown Washington was filled with military and law enforcement, sliced up by fences and vehicle barriers and devoid of protesters and most residents Sunday – a sign that a massive security presence has succeeded in keeping violent protesters away after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Tourists snapped photos with armed troops at checkpoints and lamented that they couldn’t access historic sites. Soldiers and reporters milled around, waiting for assignments. The few vehicles on the street were police cars, fire trucks and military vehicles.
By Sunday afternoon, there had been no reports of protests or political violence in the city. USA TODAY journalists crisscrossed the area and found almost no one out to make a political statement, save for a typical contingent at Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Metropolitan Police and the Secret Service reported no major incidents.
State capitals were busier, though they, too, were tame compared with the preparations, such as extra security and boarded-up windows.
Experts warned against declaring the extraordinary lockdown in Washington a success just yet.
“The calm that we are witnessing should not lead to any complacency,” said Jonathan Wackrow, chief operating officer of consulting and advisory firm Teneo Risk and a former Secret Service agent. “What we have seen is that the threat of domestic violent extremism can present itself in an unprecedented and dynamic fashion.”
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Calls for protests after Jan. 6 attack on US Capitol
After last week’s insurrection, calls were made on right-wing social media sites frequented by extremists to protest in Washington and state capitals Sunday.
Then Parler, the preferred social media service for many extremists, got bogged down by new users and was kicked offline by Amazon Web Services. Law enforcement rounded up people involved in the Capitol attack. Thousands of National Guard troops streamed into Washington. And leaders of far-right factions told their followers not to show up to any events Sunday or Inauguration Day, which is Wednesday.
The lack of organized protests in the short term doesn’t mean much in the new era of domestic terrorism, Wackrow said. As long as tens of millions of Americans believe Joe Biden was not elected president fairly, he said, the threat to Biden and the federal government will probably remain high for months or years.
“What makes this threat different is that law enforcement no longer has to assess the likelihood that they would engage in violent acts,” he said. “We actually know that they will, and that’s the baseline – that they’re willing to engage in acts of domestic terrorism in furtherance of their cause.”
Daryl Johnson, a security consultant and former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security, said, “There’s a lot of chatter among these groups that they’re not going to show up right now; they’re going to wait until we let our guard down again.”
Snapping selfies with troops
Sunday, District of Columbia residents Charles and Gina Hall walked along C Street near the Lincoln Memorial, their Biden/Harris buttons catching the afternoon sun. Metal fencing 8 feet high blocked their access to the National Mall, their usual walking route.
National Guard troops from as far away as Florida managed roadblocks and security, along with police and uniformed members of the Secret Service. Some tourists snapped selfies with them as locals zipped past on bikes.
“We walk around here all the time; it’s our normal place,” said Gina Hall, who works in environmental finance. “It’s wild to see.”
The military presence stretched for at least a mile from the Capitol building, with armored personnel carriers and Humvees set up at roadblocks at major intersections. Thousands of fatigue-wearing National Guard troops milled around hotels and restaurants. Vehicles from the Border Patrol, Secret Service and Metropolitan Police Department raced around the city, sirens blazing, raising tension but without any obvious emergency given the lack of protests or gatherings.
The Washington Monument is off-limits to everyone but authorized security personnel, but that didn’t keep Leif Neve from a Sunday afternoon bike ride.
The Bethesda, Maryland, resident challenged himself to bike the perimeter of the miles-long fencing.
“It’s memorable, let’s put it that way,” the 66-year-old programmer for the National Institutes of Health said of the tall fences lining Constitution Avenue.
Colin and Kaye Cole came from Charlotte, North Carolina, for the inauguration. They found the security in Washington both reassuring and eerie.
“It’s really disheartening to know it happened,” Ron Cole said about the attack on the Capitol. “But I feel strength in this country, knowing that they’re taking the security seriously and going to the ultimate lengths to ensure that there is a more peaceful transition of power than what we saw last week.”
The Coles brought their three children – ages 11, 9 and 7 – and got more of a history lesson than they imagined. Kaye Cole travels to Washington frequently for work, and she had seen the rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza.
“For us to be here right now is very important,” she said. Charlotte is conservative, so “to be in the nation’s capital to expose our kids to real life was very important.”
Even if it’s not the city she’s accustomed to visiting: “It’s like a ghost town,” she said. “I told my kids, ‘This is not typical.’ D.C. is usually very bustling, with different smells, sights and sounds. There are no food smells, no sound until we got (within) a few blocks of coming here. Very eerie.”
A brief bomb scare
Just before 2 p.m., law enforcement spotted an unattended suitcase on a sidewalk a half-mile from the Capitol. Personnel with the FBI, the Metropolitan Police Department and the Border Patrol blocked off the area with yellow tape. An officer approached the suitcase and emptied its contents.
After the officer had checked the bag, Masuo Yokota, a correspondent with Shogakukan, a Japanese publisher, returned.
“I have two suitcases,” he explained in a brief interview. “I got out of the taxi over there, and I was taking pictures, and I left behind the small suitcase.”
He sheepishly wheeled it away, past several law enforcement officers and journalists who had come to see what was happening.
Contributing: Chelsey Cox, Trevor Hughes, Gabe Lacques, Kevin Johnson