It is a sprightly bright Thursday as I walk from my hostel on 11th and W toward the capital city’s undoubted centre, the misleadingly titled National Mall. There are numerous cranes visible over the city as I wander in and the talkative Texan that drove me down from Philadelphia told me that this is unfailingly the case; he said that Washington is a city constantly under construction and shall end up a metropolis to rival Manhattan. I accepted this as fact until a jadedly shitfaced Washington lawyer that I shared a taxi with informed me that the buildings here are limited to twelve stories, probably so that none of them outgrow the Capitol building, and so perfectly functional office buildings are constantly being rebuilt and replaced by slightly more efficient modern versions, surely at a net energy loss given the sunk cost of their being redone. This local had recently moved out from the government into private practice, having come in with Obama in ’09. He was unclear as to whether this was a move made with choice or without, which usually allows one to assume the latter. While walking I judge from the fair scarcity of people that I must be a fair distance from the centre but then I round a corner and the phallically impressive Washington monument is towering in the middle distance and I realise that I am on the South side of the Treasury building, neighbouring the White House. I walk to the left of a heavy duty vehicle check point and fail to catch the eye of the armed guard. There is a heavy duty metal and concrete fence that perimeters the presidential residence. At this checkpoint metal barriers jut out from this fence and are adorned with two signs, one bearing the header ‘Welcome to the Whitehouse’ and then listing the various prohibited items – careful with your makeup ladies – the other reading ‘RESTRICTED AREA: DO NOT ENTER.’
The South side of the Whitehouse offers little beside a much taken photo opportunity, which is being harvested by the few dozen people that stand in line with the building. After a couple of minutes I hear an approaching school trip in the direction I am heading, led by a woman with a voice that you can just tell she loves the sound of, and so I take a deep breath and plunge through it, emerging gasping on the other side. I decide to do a flyby tour of the Mall’s various monuments then head back to the front (North side) of the Whitehouse.
I head toward the impossible to miss Washington monument, which is closed on this day and which I wouldn’t have wanted to climb anyway: it’s fucking tall, that’s essentially all it is. The Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool that it overlooks are impressive and fully swarming with tourists that I hypocritically mutter quiet curses about. There is a nice moment when I see a father positively beaming while he watches his late single-digit aged son reading the Gettysburg address that is embossed on the wall to ol’ Abe’s left, but for the most part the experience of sharing the monument with a few hundred more, and having to endure constant glares for not revolving one’s day around another’s photo is generally unpleasant. When I returned to this West area of the National Mall at night in an attempt to get a more personal view it, I found that a good few dozen others had come with the same [utterly unoriginal] idea. I did not share in my companion’s delight at feeling part of this group of similarly minded people.
The East side of the Mall is mainly devoted to the various impressive museums that Washington has to offer, most of which are entirely free. This are was considerably quieter than the
West, something that I found surprising given the far greater amount of practical activity that it offers – maybe it is just that the monuments and the historical figures mean far less to an Englishman such as myself than they do to A.N.Other American, maybe it is that the Lincoln Monument and Reflecting Pool are more recognisable from their frequent references in pop culture.
I get distracted by a paint pot drummer who is playing beside the stairs to the Museum of American History and watch him in the sun for a good fifteen minutes. He is indeed good but I leave once the rhythms starts noticeably repeating, dropping some money into his only upside-up/downside-down pot and happy with the experience. However, in the next couple of hundred Mall metres I encounter two more drummers with the same style of kit and who are equally decent and I can’t help but feel my appreciation of the first drummer and my minutes spent spectating him diminish.
There is little action around the Capitol building; each of the two stairways on its East Side are fenced and guarded but there is currently little for them to be guarded against. I suppose the Whitehouse feels like more of a Trump specific location, the gilded celebrity who heads the current government, and as such serves as the natural focal point for those wishing to exercise their democratic right.
When I arrive the North side of the current Trump family home there is immediately more energy than at any other point of the Mall. There was undoubtedly more people littered across the steps up to Lincoln Memorial, but those were the bodies of lethargic tourists, fatigued from a day traversing the considerable distances between ‘must-see’ monuments [renting bikes is undoubtedly the way to go]. There is a temporary barrier set up, keeping all persons on the pavement at the far side of the road at closest. Behind this barrier there are a handful of stoic armed guards who animate only to warn a person who puts a foot down from the pavement onto the Presidential asphalt. These guards are considerably more serious than the equally armed [with large assault rifles] that were stationed outside Trump Tower in NYC, and who were laughing and joking and I think maybe enjoying the stiffening effect of their weapons upon the casual passer-by when I walked past, around midnight. These Washington guards present themselves as the real deal, perhaps an impression they need to nurture after a recent teenagers successful and seemingly innocent venture into the Whitehouse building itself.
The crowd here of course includes a large proportion of spectators, satisfying either a curious desire or dutiful tourist obligation to see the famous building in the white-brick flesh. There is a decent handful of protestors though, their chants mainly focused upon the preservation of the Affordable (‘Obama’) Care Act, understandable given the imminent vote upon its bill. This protesting group is of a varied racial demographic but all are around their early twenties. There are a scattering of other politically riled persons among the crowd – such as a bearded man who sits in front of a tent that is absolutely covered in signs with vague slogans calling for somebody to ‘END NUCLEAR WAR’ and ‘SUPPORT WORLD PEACE’ – but the majority are clustered together in his youthful group singing a fairly quiet and pleasant melody whose lyrics are difficult to discern but are essentially calling for the government to, in their eyes, give a shit about their health.
I notice a separate section of the protesters that is made up of 3 young guys in matching blue Ts. These pleasant ‘Equal Rights’ campaigners are seeking donations for LGBT causes and, to his credit, the young man that I speak to retains his amiable demeanour after I inform him that I will not be donating, urging me to help where I can by “spread(ing) the good word” After I speak to him he is approached by a couple of sprightly white teenage girls and begins his routine, but they are hurriedly ushered away by a mother who hears the acronym he is supporting. After waiting until they are out of earshot, he laughs sadly to his friend.
After a good hour sitting and listening and basically waiting for something to happen – little does – a budget looking three piece news crew, consisting of a reporter, wearing douchey red wayfarers and a similar suedeish leather jacket, and bearded mic- and cameraman. The reporter takes his stance against the barriers in front of the Whitehouse and begins his bit without removing the sunglasses. It takes them about half a dozen attempts to get through the four sentence take because the [extremely] amateur vuvuzela player that is accompanying the continuing protest song keeps bursting in at the perfectly disruptive moment. The greying cameraman gets self-righteously irritated after a few attempts and says angrily, but in a volume that has no chance of reaching its target, “fancy giving us a minute here buddy?”
On the next take they manage to hurry through the entire bit. In it, the reporter states that the resistance here will only achieve something if it “sustains this initial burst of energy.” I step back from the pavement to allow one of the endlessly conspicuous Segway tours to pass and survey the energy on show here: it seems to me that more of it is needed to be generated before it can be effectively sustained.
That Thursday night the News reports are all focused upon the next day’s vote upon the Trump government’s new health care bill, which would, in one fell swoop, take down the majority of the measures introduced by the Obama government.
The Friday morning that I wake to is wet and miserable and almost nostalgic for a Brit abroad. I again head down to the North side of the Whitehouse to check what the response is on this crucial day, but when I arrive the area is nearly silent, its energy entirely absent; the most noticeable human presence is another Segway tour, its participants clad in translucent sheet waterproofs. The barrier that kept the pedestrians off of the asphalt surrounding the Whitehouse’s entrance have not yet been put in place but when I step down off the pavement I am instantly reprimanded by one of the ever present guards. The inescapable awareness of this location’s significance gives its emptiness an eerie quality – even in the dead of night you cannot find the essentially redundant Lincoln Memorial this quiet.
There is a lonely bearded man in front of the similarly constant tent with it’s various vague, peace-calling slogans. I try to engage him on the Trump government and its implications but he is entirely preoccupied by the weathe
“They said scattered showers. Now I got here at 8am,” – it is now 10:30 – “how long would you say that scattered showers are supposed to last?”
“Less time than that.”
“You’re damn right less time than that! Of course, we got climate change now so nobody knows what’s going on!”
The rain increases slightly and he retreats into his tent with a shaking head and urges me to get out of the rain, which is still bearable, in one of the restaurants down the street to the West. I bid him goodbye and head around the South side to see if there is any more energy present there. When I arrive it is even more quiet than the North but after a few moments silence a band of noisily marching Christians approach, undeterred by raid or shine. When they reach me their leading woman threateningly tells me: “Jesus loves you!”
I tell her thankyou and carry on walking, past the Whitehouse. I hear the Christian procession continuing their rampant path behind me and approaching others with the same verve and brazen confidence.