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Even for Washington DC, a city which has long had a front-row seat to history, these past few weeks have been extraordinary. The inauguration of a new president is traditionally a day for celebration, but an eerie quiet looms over the capital ahead of Wednesday’s ceremony.
National Guard troops – wearing their full military gear – gather in the cold on sidewalks outside of hotels usually filled with bustling tourists. Coast Guard boats with mounted machine guns patrol the Potomac River. The streets near the Capitol are largely empty but for police and soldiers and scattered military vehicles. Roads are blocked with giant concrete barriers and high metal fences.
The peaceful transfer of power has been a hallmark of American democracy for more than 200 years. But it is clear here on the streets of the nation’s capital, in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, that the clock on that long tradition has to be reset.
Read more: Follow live updates and news on Inauguration Day 2021
It was less than two weeks ago that a mob of hundreds of the president’s supporters stormed the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. The attack was the culmination of a months-long campaign of lies by the president and his band of hangers-on, who falsely told anyone who would listen that the election was stolen from him. That attack has left a mark not just on the city, but on the democratic process itself.
Fearing another attack by extremists to thwart Mr Biden’s inauguration, some 25,000 National Guard troops have been brought in from across the country to ensure security. Unlike previous years, when tens of thousands packed the National Mall to witness the swearing in of the president, the entire area is shut down to the public. Most bridges leading into the city have been closed off and a “Red Zone” has been created in the centre of the city that is off-limits to unauthorised cars.
The dramatic change that has taken place in such a short time has jarred an already weary city.
“I wonder how other countries see this,” says Kenneth McIntyre, a 28-year-old software technician who lives near the US Capitol, as he looks down the street towards a road block.
Mr McIntyre, originally from Baltimore, has spent the past few days navigating the checkpoints that have sprung up near his home. The whole city, he says, is on edge.
Read more: Where will Trump be on inauguration day?
“This only happens every four years, but this one has been really extreme. I was chilling and a fire happened in a homeless camp nearby and everything went crazy,” he says, referring to an incident on Monday which led to the evacuation of the Capitol building.
“I wouldn’t expect it to be so difficult to move around. But it’s understandable; the Capitol just got raided,” he adds.
For Jesse Ilan Kornbluth, a photographer who has lived in DC for nearly four years, the arrival of the National Guard brings back uncomfortable memories of the heavy handed response to racial justice protests in the city this summer.
“A lot of people were really angry, disgusted, and appalled by the National Guard presence back in June because of what they were being used for,” he says. “They were called to DC under the auspices of keeping the peace, but in a lot of cases, they were the ones aggressively engaging peaceful protesters, directed by none other than the Commander in Chief himself.”
This time, he says, things are different.
“It’s almost as if the National Guard is a welcome presence because we know what they are preventing from happening — something like the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. They are a confusing if not welcome presence for the time being.
“The biggest thing people are hoping for after the Inauguration is just a return to normalcy, whatever that means in 2021,” he adds.
The extra security measures in place for the Inauguration were taken to counter an ongoing threat of violence, according to authorities. Online chatter from extremists has law enforcement on high alert for another attempt to stop Mr Biden taking office. An internal FBI bulletin leaked to the press last week warned of “armed protests” at state capitol buildings across the country, as well as in DC.
The same bulletin added that the FBI had identified a group that is “planning to ‘storm’ government offices including in the District of Columbia and in every state, regardless of whether the states certified electoral votes for Biden or Trump, on 20 January”.
Speaking ahead of Inauguration Day, Matt Miller, special agent in charge of the US Secret Service’s Washington Field Office, said federal officials were monitoring a “proliferation of, for lack of a better term, chatter around the country” about potential threats.
“We cannot allow a recurrence of the chaos and illegal activity that the United States and the world witnessed,” he added.
The security operation to stop that from happening has been unprecedented. Much of that effort will be managed by the Secret Service, which will have an array of officers from federal enforcement agencies under its command, including the FBI, National Guard and the US Marshals Service. Law enforcement agencies in Virginia, Maryland, New York and New Jersey are also expected to send officers to assist with security throughout the inauguration.
But the additional security has brought problems of its own. The FBI has carried out an additional layer of screening of National Guard troops over fears of an insider attack. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the inauguration, the Associated Press reported that as many as 12 soldiers have been removed from the mission, some for inappropriate posts on social media and others after they were found to have ties to fringe right group militias.
Mr Trump has done very little to calm the passions of the supporters he whipped into a frenzy. He and his wife Melania will not welcome the Bidens as is tradition. Mr Trump will be the first president in more than 150 years to skip the inauguration.
It is also the first time that the public will not be able to watch the event in person. Mayor Muriel Bowser has urged people to watch the event at home.
She said she was “sad” about the closure of the event to the public, “but I also know that we have a special responsibility, that there is a peaceful transition of power in our country”.
“We saw white extremists storm the Capitol building who were trained and organised, seemingly with the intent to capture the vice president of the United States and perhaps harm other lawmakers,” she added. “We all have to think about a new posture.”
Mr McIntyre, who wears a red hat like the ones worn by Trump supporters but with the words “Make the hood great again” in place of the president’s “Make America great again” slogan, says he would have liked to have gone to the inauguration to “be part of history”, but understands the need for the extra security.
He also hopes there are lessons to be learnt not just from the Capitol attack, but from the past four years.
“You really got to see the kind of evil that is still lurking in America. You have this hate that’s still very strong,” he says of the Trump presidency. “You saw it when the Capitol got raided, too. He brought out the true nature of a lot of people. He opened the door for people to show how they really feel.”
“I feel like now you have to do something about it, because for years and years and years this has been going on. Nothing has changed for minorities, it’s just being recorded now. It’s time to actually do something about this hate.”