DC Mutual Aid Groups Are Preparing For The Worst As Inauguration Day Looms

National Guard troops holding rifles stand watch over the Capitol building in Washington, DC

Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

All eyes are on Washington, DC, this week, as the city prepares for Joe Biden’s inauguration following the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump. 

In the weeks since the far-right putsch, intense security precautions have been placed on the region as threats of armed Trump supporters returning to the capitol on Inauguration Day continue to proliferate. The FBI issued a memo to national law enforcement warning that some of the same actors who planned or participated in the January 6th insurrection intend to return to the city for Wednesday’s Inauguration Day events.

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While the National Guard overtakes the city and downtown DC streets are shut down, DC locals have been unwillingly placed into a militarized city, further complicating community efforts to provide food and other essential resources to those in need during a global pandemic. Local employees, including a hospitality workers union, are calling on city officials to close hotels in the area; Airbnb cancelled all reservations in the area for the week of the Inauguration following complaints.  

“The past few weeks in DC have been rough,” a member of the Good Trouble Cooperative, who asked to remain anonymous due to increased police surveillance of organizing efforts, told Motherboard via email. Good Trouble Co-op, previously the BLM & H St. Cooperative, is a local mutual aid collective. “We have had to coordinate our actions differently.” 

One such change came about to their jail support efforts: normally, they congregate outside the courthouse, but due to the street shutdowns and checkpoints, “We have to strategize to get people to vehicles and get people home safely, ” the mutual aid volunteer said.

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“We’re boxed in,” said Maurice Cook, founder of Serve Your City, which serves as the mutual aid hub for DC’s Ward 6. “We’ve got the military state to bear in our city, in our community and our neighborhoods. We’ve got their cousins, the white supremacists who want their country back. And then, you know, we’ve got the racist medical apparatus, and dealing with COVID and the launching of the vaccine.”

On Monday, as the federal government carried out a rehearsal of Inauguration Day, Capitol Police interrupted the rehearsal for a “small security threat”: It turned out that a fire broke out at a homeless encampment under the nearby 295 highway, blocks away. 

While no one was hurt, paranoia about the threat of violence permeated the encampment. “People were really concerned like, ‘oh, the Nazis have gone and decided to go mess with the unhoused encampments,’” said Justin Dawes, a member of DC Protests who helped clean up after the fire on Monday. “Everybody was freaking out… They don’t do that at encampments, they don’t sit there and throw around [fire], it didn’t make sense.” 

DC Protests, formed after the June 2020 tear-gassing of protesters in DC, is a grassroots group focused on supporting and protecting protesters, and uplifting local politics in support of Black and brown communities. One such example of this mission is their coalition work with other local groups on homelessness.

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Nationally, homelessness—already intensifying pre-pandemic due to income inequality and housing crises—has risen since the start of the national COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 report based on one night in January of that year found roughly 9,700 people without shelter in the DC, Maryland and Virginia metropolitan area (DMV). 

Cook from Serve Your City pointed out that DC’s rapid gentrification and pushout of Black and brown local residents led to the current dynamic. “Black peoples’ safety is my main concern,” said Cook. “These ‘progressives’ gentrified the city, and they invaded Black neighborhoods. Now all of a sudden they care about people who have to live on the streets because [gentrifiers] have the wealth, and the opportunity, and the access, to make it more expensive in our communities… I’m kind of triggered by their newfound attention to our people who live on the street below their luxury apartments.”

This year, per NPR, local DMV officials are scaling down their usual reporting tactics in light of the pandemic, creating strain on their ability to get an accurate read on the problem. Due to COVID-19, DC shelters are operating at sixty percent of pre-pandemic capacity. DC organizers, such as Remora House DC, have worked to get resources to the unhoused so they have the option to leave the area if violence breaks out tomorrow. They put out a call for Metro cards, and have worked to distribute them throughout homeless encampments. Others, like the DC Ward 2 Mutual Aid group, compiled a list of emergency shelter options for the week. According to Dawes, their local coalition plans to help clean up any mess created by Trump supporters wreaking havoc on the homeless encampments. 

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Homelessness is only one issue that local mutual aid groups are attempting to navigate, in addition to the jail support work of the Good Trouble Co-op and partner groups. Organizers and volunteers are attempting to provide free food to locals despite the difficulties put in place by both the pandemic and the local shutdowns. On Fridays, local organizations including Good Trouble Co-op, Theythem Collective, DC Protests, and others work to provide free hot meals to anyone who requests them, prioritizing LGBTQ people, and people of color; on Saturdays, through Feed the People Mutual Aid, they host a mutual aid station at Dupont Circle. 

For Dawes of DC Protests, the difference in the treatment of the white supremacist siege on the city, versus its treatment of racial justice protesters, is both stark and personally painful. 

“Myself and two other friends got stabbed on November 14th, and the next week out or even for the [December 12th alt-right protest], there weren’t even [National Guard present]. So it really does take terrorism from white supremacists to get people to really care and wake up, and that’s really sad when you have black liberation protesters and just people walking home from work getting jumped and getting stabbed by far-right groups that come to the city to do violence,” said Dawes. “And they could have seen it coming. Because each time they came to DC, they attacked, and they stabbed people. And they try to hurt people.”

Similarly, Cook is ready for the federal takeover of DC to end. Given the ongoing fight for DC statehood and its impact on local officials’ control over the influx of militarized forces, DC’s occupation, and its impact on its communities, demonstrates the significance of the statehood bill entered earlier this January by Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton

“The militarization of our community is dangerous for us,” Cook said. “This whole Hatfield-versus-McCoys turf war around the inauguration is deflecting from the structural issues that we work to address every day.”