Instead of cheering masses, Joe Biden’s welcome to the White House on Wednesday was miles of metal barriers, masked security forces, and a dystopian-looking Washington that would normally be primed to party on Inauguration Day.
The lockdown meant the contingent of roughly 25,000 National Guard troops far outnumbered revellers, who were told to stay away due to America’s out-of-control Covid spread and fears of violence.
“This looks like the entrance to a military base… during the war,” said 42-year-old Joe Brunner from New York City, as he stood across from a checkpoint guarded by armed troops and military vehicles in central Washington.
Red dump trucks with “God Bless America” emblazoned on their sides served as security barriers at one of the most sensitive sites — the north side of the White House where Biden was to arrive after his swearing-in.
“The atmosphere is very strange, it is very un-American”, said 36-year-old Jason Sheffield, adding the security zone and heavy police presence “is unethical to freedom” and “very scary.”
For most Americans, the inauguration was watched on social media and TV.
Streets were nearly empty and many businesses in downtown Washington were boarded up, some due to the pandemic and others because of recent violent protests.
In recent years, tens of thousands of people have been close enough to the inauguration ceremony to see the president take the oath of office at the great domed Capitol building that hosts Congress.
The crowd has been massively pared down due to virus contagion concerns — normally 200,000 passes would be distributed among lawmakers to hand out to their constituents.
– ‘Today is kind of joyous’ –
This year it was one ticket for each of the 535 members of Congress and one guest each.
On top of that, Donald Trump’s supporters attacked the Capitol building two weeks ago to try to undo Biden’s election win, prompting extra heavy security.
“All of the security services have gotten together and essentially shut down movement into Washington DC,” G. Alexander Crowther, a research professor at Florida International University and a retired Army colonel, told AFP.
The number of National Guard troops — which is on top of thousands of police officers — is about three times the roughly 8,000 on hand for Trump’s inauguration.
Those troops would, outside a pandemic year, be guarding crowds on the Capitol grounds and many thousands more packing the roughly 700-acre (280-hectare) National Mall.
The 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, drew an estimated 450,000 spectators to the Mall.
Yet some people defied the warnings and strolled the car-less streets to see what they could of America’s handover of power.
“I think today is kind of joyous,” said downtown Washington resident Sheila Callahan.
“As soon as Trump’s helicopter took off from the White House, people (in her neighborhood) were up on the roof cheering.”
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