About a week ago, we all thought this was going to end in blood.
After a shock like January 6, it’s easy to get carried away and overcompensate. I decided that I would put body armor in my car to come down to DC and cover the inauguration, figuring that I probably wouldn’t have to use it but, hey, you never know. By the time I’d actually picked up the rental car, that felt pretty silly, as all reports seemed to indicate that a second flood of boomers and YouTubers and armed militia members was extremely unlikely.
What we got instead was an incredible, sweeping, virtuoso performance by the American security state. D.C. this week had it all: the National Guard, the FBI, the Capitol Police, the D.C. Metro Police, the military police, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, the Secret Service. Even the TSA got involved: blue-shirted and gloved workers inspected bags at outdoor checkpoints, looking vaguely out-of-place without the regular trappings of an airport terminal. Once you got close to the Capitol area, there was an outer perimeter where cars had to stop and a “green zone” that you could pass through with a bag check and then other parts of the green zone that you could not pass through and then the red zone that you definitely could not pass through. There were rented dump trucks blocking major intersections to stop car bombs, many of which said “RIP FATS” in big letters, which is funny in a sick sort of way if you imagine it as the last thing a prospective car bomber would see.
All of this stuff worked, obviously. When it comes down to it, it seems, the right wing doesn’t actually want to grapple with the full force of state power, unlike, say, the leftists who fought with and died at the hands of federal officers for months in the Pacific Northwest. The extremists got scared off and the QAnon prophets told their followers to stay home, leaving only the weird straggling remnants of a mass movement whose leader had just exiled himself to the swamp.
An old man in an American flag t-shirt marched slowly from checkpoint to checkpoint, chatting with the national guard and stopping for interviews, a crisp “STOP THE STEAL” sign tucked under his arm. A woman with a sequined jacket and a thick South African accent recited a dream diary she had jotted down on her phone into another phone, which was streaming her on YouTube. The dream, it sounded like, had something to do with demonic spirits and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s involvement with the Illumniati. A man wearing leather work gloves and an NRA baseball hat ate a ham and cheese sandwich out of his backpack.
At one point, I chatted with a mask-free, camo-festooned group of friendly baby boomers, who were quick to tell me they hoped our Republic would heal after we all stopped yelling at each other. “But all of this is temporary,” Megan, a mid-50s woman with smudged aqua eyeliner, told me, edging slightly closer. “I’m more concerned with people’s souls. I came here for souls.” She then led me through a quick prayer, which seemed rude to turn down at that point, and left, seemingly happy.
A few blocks later, two similarly maskless young guys posed for a camera crew, holding up large white signs that said “NICKLEBACK FAN CLUB” and “NEW BOOT GOOFIN.” They told the reporters they were from North Carolina, and their only “message” was that America needs to have some fun.
They had a point: for most of the people milling around between the fences outside of Joe Biden’s locked-down ceremony, Inauguration Day can’t have been that fun. Mostly, you stood in line, and if you weren’t a journalist, you got approached by an endless line of journalists. A group of Black women wearing the letters of Kamala Harris’ sorority were particularly popular, holding court to a throng of photographers and TV crews as they cheered while watching a video feed of the ceremonies on someone’s phone.
Other than that, there wasn’t much to see except the soldiers. And there were so, so many of them. It’s funny and ironic and also incredibly stupid that Trump lobbied for four years to do the biggest and best military parade through Washington D.C., and Biden got to have one basically for free in his first minutes in office. There’s basically nothing better you can be in American politics than a wartime president, and 46 wasted no time in picking up that mantle. Now all he has to do is choose his enemies.
How this plays out, exactly, is yet to be seen. Biden has wasted no time in undoing some of his predecessor’s worst injustices: ending the Muslim ban, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, attempting to rebuild our infectious disease infrastructure. These are important steps that will have real impact on many people’s lives, brought on by the often-futile act of participating in our electoral system.
But the question for Biden has always been: what happens when we’ve gotten back to the status quo? We’ll put the brakes on Trump’s wall, of course, but will we stop widespread deportations, or just halt them until the dust has settled? Will we respond to the real threat of right-wing violence by breaking their hold inside our own law-enforcement institutions, or just throw more money at the cops while equipping them with new “domestic terror” statutes that will soon be turned on the same groups they’re meant to protect? How much of this is pageantry, and how much is progress?
Towards the end of the afternoon, over on the outskirts of Capitol Hill, I spotted a long column of California National Guard soldiers marching toward me, dressed in full riot gear in mint condition: shields, batons, Rawlings baseball catchers’ shinguards, helmets with clear, unmarred face shields, never before worn. They looked purposeful, focused. For a moment I thought that there was an actual threat. They marched down the hill in two files, clustering with another group of guardsmen on a side street that had a clear view of the Washington Monument. Then they knelt for a team photo.
I stood and watched, as they swapped out the officer on camera duty so everyone could get in the shot. Then they marched back up the block, unloaded their riot gear onto their charter bus, and left.
All photos by Jack Crosbie.