National Mall ‘to be completely closed’ for Joe Biden’s inauguration amid security concerns

Oliver O'Connell and Griffin Connolly
·5 min read
<p>Security concerns will see the National Mall closed for the inauguration of Joe Biden</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Security concerns will see the National Mall closed for the inauguration of Joe Biden

(AFP via Getty Images)

The National Mall in Washington, DC will be completely closed off to the public on Inauguration Day amid ongoing concerns about the prospect of violent protests.

Only security personnel and the media will be allowed to access the traditional gathering place for crowds keen to see the ceremony.

The extraordinary shutdown of the entire mall for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden comes as the city and federal authorities act to prevent further violence following the 6 January assault on the Capitol Building.

More than 20,000 National Guard troops have been called up to protect the swearing in of the 46th president on Wednesday 20 January. The FBI is monitoring threats ahead of the event, including the possibility of armed protests.

The Mall is the largest open space in the city, officially stretching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument — though often taken to also include areas to the west leading up to the Lincoln Memorial.

Shutting it down on Inauguration Day is particularly significant given the familiar images of crowds of supporters and large screens broadcasting the events of the day up close.

Even before the events of 6 January, the public had been asked not to gather or travel to Washington given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the danger of the inauguration becoming a Covid-19 superspreader event.

Officials have now warned people to stay away for fear of further right-wing attacks in the week leading up to Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ swearing-in on the front, western face of the Capitol.

A 310-acre fortress

A secure zone has been established in downtown Washington, with more than a dozen metro stations set to close to deter people from travelling to the vicinity.

Airbnb is cancelling all reservations in the city ahead of the inauguration.

The National Guard — whose presence in DC is expected to swell to 10,000 troops by Saturday — has erected fences topped with barbed wire to surround the entire Capitol complex, which includes the Capitol itself, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court at its centre and the six House and Senate office buildings on the outskirts.

Barricades for vehicles extend even farther out: a three-block perimeter in every direction from the nearest vital federal building on Capitol Hill.

The thousands of guardsmen and guardswomen already in the city to protect the 310-acre area of the Mall have been equipped with black assault rifles from the Department of Defense, per Pentagon orders earlier this week.

On Thursday, active Guard units in full camouflage prowled around the Capitol Hill perimeter in pockets of five to eight as squads from the US Capitol Police scrutinised press and staff IDs at various entry points.

Inside the legislature, the scene was even more eerie than on Wednesday, when 3,000 troops first showed up and were pictured lounging on marble floors throughout the building as the House debated and ratified a resolution to impeach Mr Trump for a second time.

With both chambers out of session on Thursday and most of the thousands of Hill staffers thus working from home, the only ones remaining at the Capitol — which on normal days resembles the hustle and bustle of a beehive — were the thousands of heavily armed National Guard members being quartered there.

One guardsman took a catnap on a burgundy leather bench overlooking the main atrium of the US Capitol Visitor Center, his black face mask pulled up and converted into a makeshift eye shade.

A nearby foyer advertised by a 6-foot vertical sign reading “MAIN EXIT” was blocked to credentialed thoroughfares on account of the roughly three dozen troops lying there in relief. It has apparently been turned into a break zone for off-duty Guard members.

Several members, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, spoke to various guardsmen on Wednesday to thank them for offering their protection after the bloody riot last week.

Five people have died as a direct result of it, including a US Capitol Police officer bludgeoned to death by the mob and a woman who was shot by a policeman just outside the House chamber.

That death toll doesn’t include at least two other people who have taken their own lives since the mayhem on 6 January: a USCP officer who had been protecting the Senate during the insurrection and a pro-Trump rioter who was subsequently arrested – and then released – in Georgia.

Led by the vice president, Mike Pence, Congress was in the middle of certifying Mr Biden’s electoral victory when the pro-Trump throngs breached security at the Capitol and ran roughshod through the legislature, forcing lawmakers to halt the proceedings and scramble for their lives.

White House secured

Mr Biden’s new home for the next four years, the White House, is also on lockdown.

Last summer authorities erected a 7-foot black fence around Lafayette Square amid massive racial justice protests that often led to clashes between police and demonstrators.

Tensions boiled over at Lafayette Square on 1 June when federal law enforcement officers used tear gas, sting ball grenades, flash bangs, and other anti-riot devices to clear a path along the park’s eastern edge so Mr Trump and some of his advisers could march to a photo op at St John’s Episcopal Church.

The fence that was subsequently installed is still standing. No cars are allowed within three blocks of the White House from every cardinal direction.

The inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 holds the record for the largest crowd at 1.8 millionAFP via Getty Images
The inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 holds the record for the largest crowd at 1.8 millionAFP via Getty Images

Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 is widely regarded to have attracted the largest crowd of any presidential swearing in ceremony, clocking in at an estimated 1.8 million people.

Crowd size estimates for Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 fall between 300,000 and 600,000 people, despite protestations and a series of false statements from both the new president and his then press secretary Sean Spicer.

The Trump administration claimed that the ceremony had attracted the largest inaugural crowd ever. Photographic evidence proved this was not the case.

The 2021 ceremony has been pared down both due to Covid-19 and the security threat, but will still feature prayers, poetry and music. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem and JLo will also perform.

Former presidents Obama, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton have confirmed they will attend and will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the swearing in of Mr Biden.

Mr Trump will not be attending.

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