President Biden’s first priority, among many firsts, is to restore our democracy. One symbolic act he should take is to tear down the walls, physical and emotional, that have made Washington, D.C. more like a fortress than the seat of democracy.
The U.S. Capitol police this week proposed permanent fencing around the Capitol to increase security following the right-wing insurrection on January 6th. Last year, the White House erected fencing and concrete barriers to block off all entrances to Lafayette Park in the wake of the peaceful protests of the murder of George Floyd. Both barriers should come down.
In Mending Wall, Robert Frost made two competing observations. The first is Frost lamenting, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The second is his neighbor insisting, “Good fences make good neighbors.” The two notions are not in conflict, but they require us to understand what we are trying to achieve.
The White House had closed Pennsylvania Avenue to car traffic in 1995 to increase security in the wake of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. In its place, though, was not a Trump fortress, but a welcoming pedestrian plaza that ensured visitors could peer through the White House fence and gaze at the People’s House. Neighboring Lafayette Park had been the site of peaceful protests for more than one hundred years, and those protests, including against police brutality, reminded us of the value of our First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and free speech.
Trump was never under threat, but he pretended he was to justify Fortress White House and convince his base that their rights were being taken away while it was he who teargassed and throttled the peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park. The Trump fence was not about security but insecurity.
What happened at the U.S. Capitol was quite different. It was not a peaceful protest, but an armed Republican mob calling for the execution of the Vice President and Speaker of the House. Gallows were erected on the grounds. One could understand the desire for increased security, including a fence.
Yet, the U.S. Capitol has never had a permanent fence. It sits on an expansive hill where nearby residents and tourists can walk the grounds in awe of the building’s majesty. Like he pedestrian plaza and parks around the White House, the Capitol is a beacon of democracy. The Capitol security failure was due to an inexplicable refusal to establish the type of security typical of other possibly violent protests, not a lack of moats and alligators.
In 1987, President Reagan called on Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” The Berlin Wall was a symbol of what divided democracy and communism. As the wall came down in big concrete chunks, Germany soon reunified as a democracy and the Soviet Union dissolved.
Trump turned that lesson on its head as he demanded that Mexico pay to build a wall to keep out the “bad hombres.” Mexico balked. Trump detained immigrants behind chain-link fence detention camps, but he failed to build his wall.
From the Statute of Liberty to the San Diego border, America has welcomed generation after generation of immigrants and refugees. This past week, reversing Trump’s fence obsession, President Biden has asked Dr. Jill Biden to help reunify the children who were ripped from their parents’ arms at the border.
President Biden has also created a new position in the White House to focus on democracy and civic participation similar to what I called for last July. It feels like there is a lot that divides our nation, not just walls. Until we can restore a sense of community and common purpose that honors and respects all Americans, until we can rein in the bots and apps that amplify divisions, until our leaders can compromise on issues that matter rather than go to war over each and every issue, walls will keep popping up. These fences will not make good neighbors.