I was in line at the grocery store when the alerts hit everyone’s phones. When the cashier asked why D.C. was under curfew, I told her that an angry mob was marching on the Capitol.
“They better not bring that nonsense to this neighborhood,” she said through her mask. It was admittedly a pretty solid rejoinder. The store would be closed within the hour. The rest of D.C. would follow soon after.
In the two weeks leading up to the presidential inauguration, D.C. would become a bit of a police state. Even though we were almost a year into pandemic restrictions, this was something new altogether. Residents were instructed to avoid the downtown area completely. Thousands upon thousands of National Guard members were bussed into town.
More and more barriers, blockades, and fences were erected, and street closures began to branch outward from the center of the District. Reports claimed that this was the most heavily policed the city had been in 60 years. D.C. was now home to more troops than Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
In this new level of lockdown, people did what they always do in the face of extreme uncertainty: come up with pointless distractions to cope.
Helicopter Twitter is a big thing in D.C. As a major metropolitan area and multijurisdictional nightmare, the city’s airspace is active and diverse. Flight patterns only become more pronounced when there is major unrest. You can imagine the response to an attempted insurrection on the Capitol.
But this increase in airborne surveillance works both ways. Let me tell you about #CopterSpotter.
10K! Welcome to all the new followers! We are building a decentralized helicopter tracking system and need your help! Send helicopter photos, include 🚁 and use Twitter location to tag a specific building #CopterSpotter pic.twitter.com/kRlHDBUCw9
— Helicopters of DC (@HelicoptersofDC) January 15, 2021
Created late last year by the Twitter account @HelicoptersofDC, #CopterSpotter is a game where locals identify and document helicopter sightings around the District. One point is awarded if you can get a photo, two if you can also identify the type of helicopter. With the recent upswing in air traffic, the game has increased in popularity. The first-place contestant is nearing a score of 600.
In addition to a distraction, social media also offered a way for those stuck in their homes to have some sort of agency when it came to identifying the people who stormed the Capitol. The images flooding out of D.C. became evidence, and anyone with an internet connection could play detective. Thankfully, the threats of an armed attack on D.C. never materialized. There was a bit of a dustup at a pizza place that caught everyone’s attention.
Happening now: two worlds colliding at Comet ☄️ pic.twitter.com/G5K0Q0rbj3
— Laura Dally (@LauraDally) January 20, 2021
On the eve of the inauguration, protesters gathered outside of Comet Ping Pong, the target of the Pizzagate conspiracy. According to crackpots, the particular eatery houses a child sex ring operated by the Clintons. Some of these individuals decided this was the best time to post up outside the restaurant and wave signs about pedophilia and eternal damnation. There was only one solution: Just dance.
Nearby neighbors and restaurant employees quite literally danced the religious zealots away as Lady Gaga songs blasted in the background. The following day that very same pop icon would sing the National Anthem at the inauguration. Naturally, she was introduced as “Lady Gaga” rather than her actual name because formality cannot defeat a strong personal brand.
Pizzagate isn’t the only QAnon conspiracy to repeatedly manifest itself in D.C. We’ve often been told to expect an appearance by John F. Kennedy Jr., who you may know died in 1999. Apparently, he was supposed to emerge from his hiatus to serve as Trump’s new vice president.
We haven’t seen him.
As the inauguration neared, these conspiracies continued to be reshaped to better fit reality. The increased military presence in D.C. became part of an elaborate sting operation whereby Trump loyalists would arrest all members of the Deep State who were conveniently gathered for the inauguration. Instead J-Lo sang and everyone made fun of Bernie Sanders’s mittens.
Due to the pandemic and security restrictions, D.C. was cheated out of a proper inaugural celebration. This is a city where the bars open early so people can watch Congressional testimonies. Drink specials all come with topical, pun-filled names that reference chief justices or legislative procedures. It’s all very nerdy, but I guess it’s better than nothing.
Capping off the absurdity of the moment in the nation’s capital, Garth Brooks appeared toward the end of the inauguration to perform “Amazing Grace.” Everyone of a certain age made a very specific joke. Remember Chris Gaines?
For those unfamiliar, Gaines was the smoky-eyed alt-rock alter ego that Garth adopted briefly in 1999. He crafted an elaborate biography and released a full album of original Chris Gaines material. When Garth hosted Saturday Night Live, Gaines served as the musical guest. Looking back, it’s difficult to discern what was real and what wasn’t.
“It’s only natural with time, details can somehow slip your mind. Something so sweet, though incomplete, you fill the spaces in-between,” sang Gaines on “That’s the Way I Remember It.” “It never will be that way again. Maybe it wasn’t way back when. But to my heart and soul, this is the way the story has to be told.”
Well, that’s something.
The short-lived Chris Gaines experiment was so bizarre and out of nowhere that it now feels like some half-remembered national fever dream.
Only nowhere near as bad as the one we’re all waking up from.
Now a strange normalcy has settled over the residential neighborhoods adjacent to the militarized zone. Across the street from armed troops and razorwire fences, neighbors jog past one another, nannies push luxury strollers, and pet owners still fail to pick up after their own. National Guard members balance trays of coffee as they step out of Starbucks. It’d almost feel routine if not for all the armored vehicles.
If there is one comfort to D.C.’s brief occupation, it’s that you can get used to anything.
If there is one concern, it’s that you can get used to anything.