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Six months after riot, Capitol fencing comes down

Workers remove connecting fasteners as they begin the process of taking down a security fence surrounding the U.S. Capitol on July 9, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Workers remove connecting fasteners as they begin the process of taking down a security fence surrounding the U.S. Capitol on July 9, 2021 in Washington, DC.Drew Angerer/Getty

WASHINGTON - The metal fence that has encircled the Capitol since a mob of Trump supporters stormed the complex on Jan. 6 began coming down early Friday evening, relieving residents who had been walled off in their own neighborhood and making way for tourists to get a closer look at the iconic democratic building.

The perimeter had become one of the last remaining symbols of the failed security response to the riots that disrupted Congress from confirming President Joe Biden's election victory and led to the deaths of five people.The fencing had also become a political flash point in recent months, with officials denouncing permanent enclosures that would restrict public access to the building that previously had about 2.5 million visitors per year.

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"The Capitol grounds were meant to be used as a park, a place for sledding, a place to come and enjoy the open air, and we want it to return to that use," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, the District of Columbia's nonvoting delegate in the House who has been trying to get the fence taken down.

Workers in bright neon vests plugged away from row to row, some standing atop concrete barriers to balance themselves as they drilled at the bolts holding the fence together.

The sun peaked from beneath the clouds after rain halted their progress, but it didn't stop workers for long early Friday evening.

As they made their way around the northern perimeter on New Jersey and Constitution avenues, a truck with yellow flashing lights and a Capitol Police escort followed alongside them.

Bystanders looked on and snapped photos.

Lucas Pipes, 36, a resident of Capitol Hill, walked his daughter's purple scooter up to the fence as workers drilled in front of them. Juliet, 2, twirled in her dress and hopped along the sidewalk.

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"We knew this was the big day," Pipes said. "This inner perimeter was the last remnant and reminder [of Jan. 6] . . . we couldn't wait for it to disappear."

So far, more than 500 people have been charged with federal crimes in the attack, when some Trump supporters brawled with police, broke windows and endangered lawmakers.

The House narrowly approved a $1.9 billion security bill in May that includes strengthening the Capitol building with reinforced windows and doors and additional surveillance, among other measures. The legislation now faces an uphill battle for Senate approval.

The fencing is expected to be removed within three days and the Architect of the Capitol can "expeditiously reinstall the temporary fencing should conditions warrant," according to a memo sent to lawmakers Wednesday. Capitol Police will continue to monitor threats and the Capitol will still remain closed to public visitors, according to the memo.

The fencing has been scaled down significantly since the riot's immediate aftermath, when the razor-wire enclosure circled the Capitol, Supreme Court and federal buildings and soldiers in fatigues monitored checkpoints. This spring, that enforcement shrank to securing just the dome. But 12 days after the road near the Capitol reopened in April, a car plowed into two Capitol Police officers, killing William "Billy" Evans, a father of two and an 18-year veteran of the department. The driver was fatally shot.

The second deadly attack at the Capitol in less than three months since the riot and after a year of widespread protests throughout the District sparked additional debate on how to defend the nation's capital.

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Residents of Capitol Hill have expressed concern for months with the fortification of their neighborhood and the restrictionsto the Capitol.

"Part of what's beautiful about our Capitol, and what's very different than capitols around the world, is that we do have this access. It's not closed off, it's intended for every citizen to have access to it," said Allison Cunningham, 37, a longtime resident of Capitol Hill.

Cunningham started a petition against the fence as soon as she heard of the proposal for making it permanent by the Capitol Police's acting chief, Yogananda D. Pittman, at the end of January. Garnering over 34,000 signatures from across the region and country, Cunningham said she heard from other neighbors who wanted to work together to find better security solutions, which led to the creation of their community-based group, Don't Fence the Capitol.

Cunningham said the fence not only took away from people's everyday lives and routines like walking their dogs and riding bikes, but also served as a "painful reminder" of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“Don’t Fence the Capitol was concerned that continued presence of a fence would serve as kind of an acknowledgment that insurrectionists won in some ways,” Cunningham said. “They were able to permanently change the way our democracy functions.”