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Residents Resistant To Permanent Capitol Security Fence

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The day after the mob attack on the Capitol, Capitol Police sealed the area off from the public with a three-mile-long fence topped with razor wire. As Jordan Pascale from member station WAMU reports, some lawmakers and residents are worried the fence will become permanent.

JORDAN PASCALE, BYLINE: You can't get anywhere near the Capitol right now thanks to an 8-foot-tall fence that went up on January 7.

CHARLES ALLEN: Things that began as temporary sure have a habit of becoming permanent pretty fast in this town, and we can't allow that to happen here.

PASCALE: That's D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who represents the Capitol Hill neighborhood. After September 11, the city's museums added metal detectors. Bollards went up around federal buildings. More recently, White House intruders led to a wider perimeter and a new 13-foot fence there. Now Allen and others are worried that security creep is coming for the Capitol.

ALLEN: It's not a good look for democracy, but it's also not the right solution for the security concerns.

PASCALE: Weeks after the January 6 insurrection, the House's acting sergeant at arms told Congress, quote, "we must harden this campus." Assistant Capitol Police Chief Chad Thomas told residents this week he understands how security like fences affects the city. But police need help from what he called physical security enhancements.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHAD THOMAS: No number of police officers that we might have available to us could possibly pull such a crowd back that was so highly motivated to attack us and penetrate the building.

PASCALE: Neighbors say they understand the need to keep everyone safe. But a fence is also at odds with the Capitol grounds' history as a communal space. Council member Allen.

ALLEN: There's a special tree next to the Supreme Court that my daughter likes to read a book under. This is a part of the fabric of our life in our neighborhood.

PASCALE: The temporary fence blocks off two major streets on Capitol Hill. The Botanical Gardens and the Library of Congress are inside it. It also cuts off key routes for runners and cyclists. Jeremiah Lowery of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association is advocating to keep the area open. He's also a lifelong resident of the region, concerned about what could be lost.

JERIMIAH LOWERY: Go watch the fireworks. You can grill. You can bike. There were festivals. There were sometimes concerts growing up. Like, all of that was just a part of it. It was normal.

PASCALE: The fence also affects visitors that come from all over the country and the world. Deputy Mayor Chris Geldart says tourists should also have access to the nation's landmarks.

CHRIS GELDART: They too should be able to walk the steps, take photos and make the same memories we enjoy daily.

PASCALE: D.C.'s non-voting representative to Congress, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, is a leader in the effort to have the fence removed.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: And I'm going to do all I can to keep it the people's house. There are ways to accomplish security without making it into a fortress.

PASCALE: Norton says the temporary fence should come down after the impeachment trial and has introduced a bill banning a permanent fence. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have come out against the fence. Some are advocating for more personal security instead. This week, Norton hosted a virtual town hall attended by hundreds of residents.

JOELLA JACOBS: We feel really cut off from other parts of the city.

ALLISON CUNNINGHAM: Putting up a fence punishes the wrong people.

PASCALE: That was Joella Jacobs (ph) and Allison Cunningham, who we spoke to afterward. Cunningham is part of the petition group Don't Fence the Capitol. They've gathered 14,000 signatures. It's not clear when a decision will be made on whether a permanent fence is needed. An outside security review is due next month. Ultimately, it's up to the Capitol Police Board and lawmakers who will have to decide how to balance safety and access.

For NPR News, I'm Jordan Pascale in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENE AUBRY'S "LA GRANDE CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.