Even Democracy Requires Constant Vigilance From Corrosive Attacks Within

Last spring, a man ran from the police at about eight one evening after throwing rocks into the Russell Senate Office Building while repeatedly shouting, “Suicide by cop!” 

It was a typical day for the National Guardsmen on shift, already used to the “weird and crazy” things occurring beside the protective bubble they formed around the Capitol. Having expected to come to Washington to prevent further attacks on the Capitol by extremists, they now found themselves doing none of that—besides the deterrence factor their presence offered. Instead, they performed routine law-enforcement operations in the blossoming spring that reliably serves as a bellwether for rising crime in Washington.

A U.S. soldier with the National Guard stops to look at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. At least 25,000 National Guard men and women have been authorized to conduct security, communication, and logistical missions in support of federal and district authorities leading up and through the 59th presidential Inauguration. Photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht, courtesy of the U.S. Air National Guard.

A U.S. soldier with the National Guard stops to look at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2021. At least 25,000 National Guard men and women have been authorized to conduct security, communication, and logistical missions in support of federal and district authorities leading up and through the 59th presidential Inauguration. Photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht, courtesy of the U.S. Air National Guard.

In the winter and late fall, few people without homes are bold enough to strip entirely naked and throw themselves into a cop. But during a nice warm D.C. spring, plenty felt the need to do just that, and they didn’t spare the guardsmen around the Capitol from the full show. 

“What the fuck?” guardsmen from other states commonly uttered as they reacted to the wild and bizarre crimes they heard about, reported, and kept an eye on. Adding to the oddity? They happened right smack in the middle of one of the most heavily policed and—perhaps—militarized cities in the world. 

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The police had stopped the man who threw rocks and yelled, “Suicide by cop!”—but not without a fight. We saw plenty of jostling. The police used chemical irritants, but Capitol Police on the ground reported that an “officer got sprayed.” First serious charge to kick off the night: felony destruction of property.

“Anything crazy happen?” we always asked or were asked as we changed shifts, with the assumption that something had. As we spent long days and nights waiting for the rioting mobs to attack, before we finally realized no rioters would come, our boredom was broken only by “crime and suspicious activity” reports—a macabre form of entertainment.

It was one a.m. We watched an empty street next to an empty building next to an empty parking lot. We heard a report of a man who lugged a machete. We responded with bewildered laughter. We were hooked to the radio, and we eagerly anticipated what the next “crime and suspicious activity” report would bring.

Some crimes were deadly—like the brazen attack at one checkpoint that resulted in the death of a Capitol Police officer and seriously harmed another on Jan. 6, 2021. The Delaware Guardsmen by the checkpoint locked and loaded, no doubt because they anticipated more similarly styled attacks. 

Then, during the President’s State of the Union address on April 28, someone fired shots at the Capitol Police at a checkpoint, and the suspect remained at large. Shootings occurred almost on a weekly basis.

U.S. Air Force Airman Tariq Strickland, a pharmacy technician with the 113th Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard, conducts a temperature check on Spc. Keltin Melvin, an infantryman with the Ohio Army National Guard’s C Company, 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, at the District of Columbia Armory in Washington, D.C., to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 among National Guard soldiers and airmen on duty in the district, Jan. 14, 2021. Photo by Senior Airman Amanda Bodony, courtesy of the U.S. Air National Guard.

U.S. Air Force Airman Tariq Strickland, a pharmacy technician with the 113th Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard, conducts a temperature check on Spc. Keltin Melvin, an infantryman with the Ohio Army National Guard’s C Company, 1st Battalion, 148th Infantry Regiment, at the District of Columbia Armory in Washington, D.C., to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 among National Guard soldiers and airmen on duty in the district, Jan. 14, 2021. Photo by Senior Airman Amanda Bodony, courtesy of the U.S. Air National Guard.

Inside the security bubble of the Capitol, safety was guaranteed; step one foot outside the bubble, say toward Union Station, and things could get dicey. Officials once shut down the station for some hours in the middle of the day—and in the middle of the week—because of a shooting on the tracks. Some suspects fled near the security perimeter of the Guardsmen, and another took the train. 

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Another time, three men fresh from a shooting with an AR-15 that seriously wounded a 14-year-old boy just outside D.C. fled on a street that headed straight to the Capitol. The Capitol Police deployed their long gun units just in case, and guardsmen were once again told to be on the lookout. But outside the murders, as one former D.C. mayor explained, Washington actually has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

In between watching for suspicious people, we spent our lunch breaks in underground parking lots watching Netflix and playing games, nearly getting lost in the tunnels searching for that Starbucks machine, or trying to get some rest back at our hotels. 

Suspicious people with suspicious intentions had other ideas. They went to our hotels, filmed the guardsmen, and attempted to recruit us to join extremist groups. One man snatched a purse from a woman right in front of guardsmen outside their hotel. They quickly stopped him and held him for the police. 

A U.S. Army soldier with Bravo Company, 104th Brigade Engineer Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, is reunited with his family at the National Guard Armory in Hammonton, New Jersey, after completing the Capitol Response II mission on May 26, 2021. The New Jersey National Guard has been supporting federal and district agencies with security, communications, medical evacuation, logistics, and safety support. Photo by Mark C. Olsen, courtesy of the New Jersey National Guard.

A U.S. Army soldier with Bravo Company, 104th Brigade Engineer Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, is reunited with his family at the National Guard Armory in Hammonton, New Jersey, after completing the Capitol Response II mission on May 26, 2021. The New Jersey National Guard has been supporting federal and district agencies with security, communications, medical evacuation, logistics, and safety support. Photo by Mark C. Olsen, courtesy of the New Jersey National Guard.

Just when it seemed we would get a break, Covid changed things up yet again: We faced a steady trickle of infections throughout the mission.

The extended mission after January seemed to be unnecessary to some, including the chief of the National Guard, who, in a memo, stated that he was “concerned [with] the continued indefinite nature” of the Guard’s mission. There were no invading mobs at the Capitol for the Guardsmen to fight back, which some took as evidence that the mission was pointless after the January unrest. On this, most soldiers agreed. They had left jobs and families to stave off a threat that hadn’t materialized. But soldiers disagreed when officials started to reject the very idea of the attacks themselves. This rejection rankled them.

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They watched a congressman who’d worn the uniform for almost 30 years as a naval aviator claim the attacks were just a “normal tourist visit.” So beneath the soldiers’ professional apolitical surface lay the typical dismissal and impatience for politics and politicians.

Still, there was an undeniable symbolic purpose to our mission. Here’s a democracy recovering from the brink of an insurrection, and here are the soldiers protecting the democratic process and institution from further attacks. 

It was not a very subtle reminder that even the oldest of democracies requires constant vigilance from corrosive attacks within. That’s the message the Guardsmen’s presence sent to the nation: If they want a thriving democracy, they should hope to never again see Guardsmen at the Capitol. 

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T.L.K

T.L.K. is a pseudonym for a person who serves in the Washington, D.C., National Guard. T.L.K. enjoys reading mystery and thriller fiction when not hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as studying languages, such as French and Russian.

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