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Capitol Hill Neighbors Brace For Sept. 18th Rally After 'Dystopian' Year

Aerial view of Capitol Hill featuring the U.S. Capitol, with the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building and Capitol Hill neighborhood behind.
Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress
Aerial view of Capitol Hill featuring the U.S. Capitol, with the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building and Capitol Hill neighborhood behind.

Elena Robertson wasn't planning on taking a trip in two weeks, but it's on her calendar now.

It's not for leisure. It's not for business.

It's to get away from her Capitol Hill apartment on September 18th, a date that Trump supporters and others plan to come back to the west side of the Capitol to rally for people arrested during the January 6th insurrection.

The Associated Press reports far-right extremist groups are planning to attend. Organizers are insisting it will be a peaceful protest, but Robertson and neighbors like her who have lived through three high-profile incidents in recent months aren't taking a chance.

"I cannot be in town another day when something like this could happen," Robertson said.

Tiffany Davidson thought the same thing when she saw an alert aboutMPD activating its full force for the 18th, "Justice For J6" rally.

"I'm the kind of person who feels emotion strongly," Davidson said. "And I have a strong fight or flight instinct... and so on days like [the Library of Congress bomb threat] and other days, I feel terrified, very unsafe and anxious about what's happening in the world."

"So when I saw the news about the 18th, I thought, 'okay, where the heck can I go? I gotta get out of town that day.'"

Allison McGill will be in Atlanta but has packed go-bags for her family back home in her usually peaceful neighborhood. She's also moving heirlooms — drinking glasses from the ship her Swedish family took when they emigrated, photos and birth certificates — to a friend's house in Northern Virginia, something she did just before the inauguration.

"I'm a planner. I ask, 'what's the worst that can happen?' and I plan for that," she said. "When they breached the Capitol, nothing seemed safe.

"If you can do that, what would stop you from doing other things? To me, I just did not feel safe that they wouldn't just burn down neighborhoods."

She hears about how Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) talks about bloodshed and picking up arms against other Americans over claims of voter fraud that have been consistently debunked.

"What does that signal to the people who are listening?" she asks.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who heads the District's public safety committee, says D.C. police, Capitol Police, and other federal agencies like Homeland Security are prepared for September 18th. He couldn't go into more detail for security reasons. The AP reports Capitol Police are considering re-installing the temporary fence around the Capitol for that day.

But he says a lot of these events would stop if politicians would quit stoking the flames.

"Those elected leaders don't give a damn about us," Allen said. "They don't give a damn about the staff at the Capitol. They are looking at what might make a really good fundraising email and they sure aren't looking at what's best for our country.

"That's why I take (this type of language and behavior) so seriously, it puts my neighbors at risk and it puts the Capitol Hill staffers at risk."

A 'dystopian' year

All three women live within a handful of blocks from the Capitol. Some heard commotion during January 6th's insurrection. They saw their neighborhood militarized with fences and National Guard troops.

And it's not just the events of January 6 rattling locals who live near the Capitol. Many weredisturbed by an April 2 car and knife attack that killed one Capitol Police officer. And more recently, several blocks had to be evacuated when a North Carolina man said he had explosives in his pickup truck. During an hours-long standoff, he threatened to blow up two blocks of the neighborhood and claimed he had four other bombs around the District. A lot of residents here also know people who work at the Capitol, adding to the trauma of recent events.

They describe 2021 on the Hill as stressful, unsettling, dystopian, and just a bad vibe.

Now they're bracing for more of what seems like semi-regular events of domestic terrorism, motivated by either political views, white nationalism, mental health issues, or some combination of the three.

"I would bet money we are going to see more of this stuff," Davidson said.

And it's with that dread they've debated what to do next: do she and her family move to a different neighborhood? Back to Connecticut, the state they left two years ago? Somewhere else?

"We've agreed to give it a little more time to see how things play out," she said. "I like to be hopeful, but I'm not sure it's getting better."

But the thought of leaving is difficult, too. Residents we spoke with describe Capitol Hill as a nice place to live, usually calm and filled with good memories and good people. Yet it can be deeply upsetting on certain days when you least expect it, Robertson said.

"At 10 a.m. (the day of the bomb threat), I got a text from a friend, 'life check — are you ok?'" she said. "It's never a text I would've gotten before days like January 6, April 2, Thursday..."

She adds, "You cannot concentrate on work. You can try, but my home, my neighborhood is in danger."

She knows friends who are moving from the neighborhood solely because "crazy people want to come and attack our government."

Many are quick to also acknowledge that their neighborhood isn't the only place in the District that goes through traumatic events. Violence is prevalent in other wards and just as unsettling — it just happens to capture national news on Capitol Hill.

But Davidson admitted to an odd feeling of isolation and aloneness in processing what's happened this year — from COVID to insurrections to divisions within the country and now a crisis in Afghanistan.

"I generally feel unsettled, and then I go outside and it's beautiful and flowers are in bloom and look at other people and wonder are other people feeling this, too?" Davidson said. "How are we processing this?

"I don't want to be desensitized to what is happening. We can't just move on like it's another day on the Hill. It's just not right."

McGill said her young son had behavioral issues this year for the first time. She said virtual learning, the pandemic, and other issues took a toll on their mental health, and January 6th was "the straw that broke the camel's back." They decided to seek therapy.

"I don't live right next to the Capitol... we weren't really in any trouble, but a friend put it this way, 'No matter where you are in D.C., our city was attacked and so, of course, you're affected,'" she said. She also knows several people who work at the Capitol who have been shaken month after month.

Robertson said she felt safe and tough as nails when the National Guard arrived after January 6th. But later in the week, she found herself short-tempered, and finally she broke down and cried on the floor.

"Everything hit me from what had happened on the 6," she said. She came to terms: she was terrified. "I wanted these people in prison."

Bracing for what's next

For now, residents say they hope these attacks stop. Tensions feel high and there's a sense of always being on edge. They know it's going to take more than just law enforcement intelligence reports and responding to individual incidents to overcome division in the country.

But in the meantime, they want better communication from Capitol Police, the MPD, and other authorities the next time a threat is down the street.

"We get all these alerts about flash floods, and during protests, we got alerts about curfews," Robertson said. "Why can't I get a warning on my phone when someone is trying to bomb the block?"

Allen says he's talked to District officials in Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency about exploring micro-targeted alerts, but it's unclear if or when that could happen.

In the meantime, Allen hopes people still see the Hill as what it usually is: a vibrant, active, wonderful community that is happening to go through understandable anxiety about what's been happening lately.

"I know folks are resilient, we will get through this and we will be stronger for it," Allen said.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

Copyright 2021 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.

Jordan Pascale
Jordan Pascale is WAMU’s transportation reporter. He covers everything from WMATA to road congestion, tolls, bike and pedestrian issues and more. He joined WAMU in June 2018 after covering transportation and state government at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. He also worked at the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star in his home state of Nebraska.