An Inaugural Lockdown Comes at a Price for Washingtonians

An Inaugural Lockdown Comes at a Price for Washingtonians

WASHINGTON — Chuck Weathers was waiting Monday morning on a bus in Columbia Heights, a residential neighborhood of shops and quaint homes about four miles north of the Capitol.

It was cold, the bus was nowhere in sight and Mr. Weathers was annoyed.

“We didn’t do a damn thing,” he said, referring to the people of Washington. “But now it’s our problem.”

The problem he was confronting was the simple act of moving around the nation’s capital, which seemed to be getting increasingly difficult as the city shored itself up against potential violence for the inauguration on Wednesday of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. Thousands of troops have poured into the capital, where armored military trucks are parked in the middle of streets to block traffic and subway stations and roads are closed.

Downtown Washington is locked down, boarded up and on guard for the ushering in of the new leader in hopes of preventing a scene like the one that played out to the nation’s horror on Jan. 6 as a mob stormed the Capitol.

The tight security has left Washington anxious, as rumors spread about threats of attacks by domestic terrorists looking to upset the transfer of power from President Trump to Mr. Biden. At one point on Monday, an inauguration rehearsal was postponed and the Capitol was put on a brief lockdown for what turned out to be a fire in a nearby homeless encampment.

All of this turmoil has picked away at wounds not close to being healed over from a summer of racial justice protests and the damage done by some in the crowds.

Mr. Weathers, 56, had planned to spend the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday with a few friends. But they lived on the other side of the city.

“The Metro trains are all screwed up,” he said. “I don’t know when a bus is coming.”

What’s worse, Mr. Weathers, who works in a restaurant downtown, had no idea how he was going to get to work Tuesday. “I guess I’ll have to walk,” he said, adding a string of expletives about the protesters who attacked the Capitol.

“They were all talking about ‘the people,’” he said. “What people? We people didn’t get anything out of what they did. Just trouble, making it difficult. For what?”

Dog walkers, bikers and people out for a stroll have been caught up in a surreal, fortified corn maze of ever-changing metal security barriers across sidewalks and roadways that seem to be open one minute and closed the next.

Cranky workers have bunched up at new checkpoints set up along the perimeter of the National Mall, worried they will be late for jobs. Stressed members of the Secret Service and other security forces sighed into their walkie-talkies, trying to keep up with frequent updates to security protocols. Checkpoints opened and closed. A hotel bellhop pushing a tall luggage cart was stymied by a concrete barrier, his guests lugging suitcases waiting just on the other side.

A frustrated biker on Sunday approached a Metropolitan Police officer at a typically busy downtown intersection near the Mall.

“Officer, how do I get out of this war zone?” he said, using a four-letter word.

The man pointed south, toward an enormous wall of black fencing that blocked the street. “I live right down there,” he said, before being directed by an officer who seemed only somewhat sure of an open route.

On Sunday afternoon, the streets were empty, the temperature was dropping and Wendell McCollough could not figure out how to enter the JW Marriott.

The hotel, on the north side of Washington’s Freedom Plaza, was ordinarily a popular spot for tourists and visiting foreign officials. But now it was in a warren of steel fencing, concrete barriers and checkpoints, and its usual entrance was blocked off.

“How do I get into this damned place?” he said as he trudged his suitcase around a corner, looking for a way to the lobby.

Mr. McCollough, 50, of Terre Haute, Ind., was visiting his brother in Maryland and had decided to come to Washington for a few nights to see friends. He knew the city was going to be heavily guarded but, he said, “I didn’t think it would be crazy.”

No matter, he said. He was planning to stay a few days. The streets around his hotel were blocked off and empty. There were no cars. The only civilians appeared to be journalists and a few homeless men camped on the sidewalk next to the hotel.

Tricia Ortiz, 48, who was walking her dog with a friend Sunday, had come downtown to see what all the fuss was about. Ms. Ortiz is an Army veteran, and one of her last assignments before retiring was to work on the second inauguration of President George W. Bush.

Back then, “I learned very quickly that it was an exciting time to be in D.C.,” she said.

“This is not it. There’s not going to be any crowds — not like the kind of crowds we’d have usually. This makes me feel like we’re at war,” Ms. Ortiz said.

Businesses in downtown Washington, already hammered by the pandemic and civil unrest, in the past several days have been drained of even what had become a new, subdued normal. Near Farragut Square over the weekend, a woman sat alone at a folding table piled with Trump-themed hats and winter accessories. Hardly any customers had materialized, she said.

The woman, who asked not to be named because of a permit issue for street vending, said the vibe was different from Jan. 5 and 6, when large crowds provided lots of business.

“It’s because of what happened in the Capitol,” she said, glancing at the empty street behind her.

Many buildings had facades of plywood. Restaurants, hotels and coffee outlets all were shuttered or had notices taped to their entrances about plans to close for the rest of the week.

In place of the normal ebb and flow were soldiers with assault rifles or with handguns strapped to their legs spaced out across multiple intersections. The troops have become sounding boards for some citizens.

On Monday morning Camille Johnson, 54, who immigrated three decades ago from Uganda, stood before a line of soldiers pouring out his heart about the state of America.

Uganda’s president of 35 years, Yoweri Museveni, had just been re-elected amid accusations of vote rigging. U.S. election observers were in place there, an irony that Mr. Johnson could not shake.

“We came from overseas. We know. Trump has all the signs of being a dictator,” said Mr. Johnson, an executive in the hotel industry. “It makes me sad Americans are not seeing where they are going.”

Ali Watkins and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.

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