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A changed America: 'People get into ridiculous fights. Something really has broken.'

With thousands of National Guardsmen on the streets, there’s an “eerily quiet” atmosphere in Washington DC ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration today.

Entrances to the US Capital blocked by military vehicles
Entrances to the US Capital blocked by military vehicles
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THE SCENES IN Washington DC today are set to sharply contrast what we saw just two weeks ago. 

Thousands of National Guard members and law enforcement will be on the streets with the aim of ensuring that there is no repeat of the violence and rioting seen inside and outside Capitol Hill on 6 January as Joe Biden is sworn in as the next US President. 

Although for much of the last year we’ve become accustomed to the unprecedented, for Irish people in the US the last few weeks have been unlike anything they’ve experienced before. 

Barry Grogan has lived in America for five years, and has spent most of that time in Washington DC. 

During his time there, the Galway native has kept in touch with a sense of home by playing midfield, and also captaining, the Washington DC Gaels GAA team.

download (93) Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building two weeks ago Source: Lev Radin/Zuma Press/PA Images

“People are edgy,” Grogan told TheJournal.ie. “It’s that anticipation of the unknown. The storming of the Capitol was such a shock. Nobody thought that would ever happen.”

Over 25,000 National Guard troops were expected in Washington for today’s inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.

The ceremony to usher in Biden’s tenure at the White House comes at a time when the pandemic continues to rage at an alarming pace around the country. 

The death toll stands at 400,000 with almost 24 million cases reported in the US. 

It also comes as supporters of his predecessor Donald Trump stormed the Capitol Hill building earlier this month.

The violence of that day led to the deployment of thousands of the National Guardsmen. They are just part of a huge security operation taking place, with the aim of ensuring Biden’s swearing in as president takes place without significant incident. 

Seeing so many members of the National Guard is “reassuring” according to Rex Daugherty, who is the artistic director of Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organisation based in Washington DC. 

He told TheJournal.ie: “But in another way, the fact that that we need so many here for security is troubling in and of itself.

We’re just trying to live in our lives. There was a sense of ‘can you bring that crazy somewhere else’. They talk of draining the swamp. The rest of the country sent the swamp here. DC is a city with a lot of great artistry, culture and people. But the world was watching something else entirely a few weeks ago. 

Anne Mitchell, a Belfast-native who’s been living in the States for over 20 years, is an immigration lawyer who is also on the board of Solas Nua.

She told TheJournal.ie: “The whole area of DC is empty and on lockdown like I’ve never seen before. Everybody is very nervous. There’s two camps in this country now, and something really has broken.

You never know who you might be talking to. Growing up in Belfast, you knew there were certain things you couldn’t talk to people about. It’s exactly the same here now. People get into ridiculous fights. It’s black and white here in a way that 20 years ago was unthinkable. People will yell at you just for wearing a mask. 

Today, checkpoints and large zones closed to citizens mean there will be very few attendees at the inauguration. Even before today, the security services have been making their presence felt. 

Grogan described getting a taxi home at the weekend and being stopped at a checkpoint. 

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“There were four soldiers around the car asking where I was going,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.

Like 93% of DC voted for Joe Biden in the election. You don’t see the kind of MAGA Republicans out for a pint on a Saturday night. When that crowd rolled in a few weeks ago, you really noticed them. 

Daugherty said that, due to the pandemic, everyone at Solas Nua is working from home so the various restrictions being put on movement around the Capitol has not had much effect. “That’s the more frustrating thing,” he said, citing the cancellation of planned shows in 2020 such as an adaptation of Playboy of the Western World co-written by Roddy Doyle. 

“But they’ve even closed some bridges now,” he said. “If a show was on across town, I probably wouldn’t be able to go to it.”

capitol-inauguration Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Compared to events two weeks ago, the streets have been “eerily quiet” in recent nights ahead of Biden’s inauguration according to Grogan. 

“Because of Covid, bars here are shutting at 10pm,” he said. “So there’s no crazy Saturday night scenes. Everything has quitened down. It’s part-Covid, and part the huge security presence. 

In terms of manpower, these guys [National Guard and law enforcement] are intimidating. It’s locked down for an almost eight or nine block radius around where the inaguration will be happening. Wherever the trouble will be, it won’t be down there.  

Even if today’s events pass without negative incident, Mitchell said that she doesn’t believe that the recent events seen around the world from Washington will be forgotten any time soon. 

“The Trump era will have an impact way beyond what he deserves,” she said. “Social division is much more frightening now than it was and Covid has made that worse. Trump has left behind a lot of true believers. 

The country has become a very different place. As much I’d love to blame everything on Trump, I can’t. It’s been a long time coming and it’s sad and sorry to see. Biden has a big job on his hands. 

About the author:

Sean Murray

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