WASHINGTON — Even in peaceful times, Washington is situated on a fine line between freedom and order, flexibility and barriers. This city of grand architecture and ever-present security forces conveys an inescapable message: This might be the seat of American liberty, but it is also not a place to be messed with.
The contrast fosters a constant tension in the capital’s governance. How do you police a city of heavily fortified targets without making it feel like a police state? What is the proper balance in a representative democracy?
The question has hung heavy in recent days. Like the country it supposedly answers to, Washington has been on edge, hovered over by low-flying helicopters and patrolled by law enforcement agents from a stew of federal agencies — the F.B.I., the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Bureau of Prisons and more — dressed in an assortment of uniforms, riot gear and military fatigues.
Nowhere has this tension between autonomy and authority been on more vivid display than in the area around the White House, site of the city’s largest and most intense protests after the death last week of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis held down by a police officer who placed his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
By late Wednesday afternoon, many of the streets around the White House were closed off to traffic and, in some cases, secured with newly installed black fencing that gave the area a feel of a caged outcry. Sirens blared from every direction, and helicopters loomed and zigzagged overhead in a signal of the obvious: These are not normal times.
The killing of Mr. Floyd has incited days of nationwide outrage and protest over police brutality and racial inequality, as well as intense debate over what is the proper balance between liberty and law enforcement.
The debate is hardly just a matter of legal and legislative abstraction in the local life of Washington. Here, the tension plays out as a continuing and on-the-ground scenario, nowhere more so than in the area around the White House.
“Of course when you live around here you’re used to seeing a lot of cops,” said Celia Martin, who ventured into the city Wednesday afternoon from Northern Virginia and wore a T-shirt that read, “Roses are red, Doritos are savory, the U.S. prison system is legalized slavery.” She spoke on Connecticut Avenue, a few blocks from the White House.
Recent days have felt deeply uncomfortable to her, Ms. Martin said, particularly given the heavily armored gear of many law enforcement officers.
“It has felt superthreatening,” Ms. Martin said. “Whenever you see anyone in military gear, it’s like, ‘Why are they here? Who are they protecting?’”
Striking the balance between the egalitarian promise of the so-called People’s House and the security demands of the 18.7-acre White House complex has grown increasingly complicated in recent decades. After the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Secret Service closed the portion of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicles. Subsequent years and events — especially the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — have brought an assortment of progressively more restrictive barriers, measures and checkpoints.
The tension exploded into full view of the nation on Monday night, when peaceful protesters outside the White House were routed by chemical spray, flash grenades and mounted police so that President Trump could walk across Lafayette Park for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, a historic house of worship visited by centuries of presidents.
“Put down your shields!” chanted a crowd on Wednesday afternoon arrayed about a dozen feet from a squadron of heavily armored police in black uniforms near the church. It was not immediately clear which forces the officers represented since many were in riot gear with no badges or signifying emblems visible.
It was a tense scene. “Tell us who you are, identify yourselves!” one protester demanded, referring to the mystery of which local or federal entities they worked for.
The officers stood silent in a row.
“Your duty is to protect American citizens,” shouted another protester in the front, Anita Bhatt, of Alexandria, Va. It was Ms. Bhatt’s first time protesting. Part of her motivation, she said, was “the shock and disgust” she felt witnessing the tactics undertaken by the patrols.
“It seems like we’re on the verge of a dictatorship,” said Ms. Bhatt, who came to Washington to attend college 30 years ago and said she was accustomed to living with the region’s heavily guarded presence. The last week, though, has felt jarringly different.
“After 9/11, you would see police and soldiers everywhere,” she said. “But you always had the sense that they were protecting you, that the cops were your friends. Now these same men feel like they’re fighting against us.”
That sentiment was echoed by several demonstrators, some of whom said they only decided to join the protests when they saw what happened Monday night.
Regardless of what brought them here, everyone was aware of the fragile balance of considerations at work.
“You definitely always walk a fine line,” said Robert Apgar, a 13-year veteran of the District of Columbia Transit Police. He was stationed near the entrance to the Farragut North Metro stop at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street. As he spoke, a growing procession of protesters streamed past him toward the White House.
Mr. Apgar made it clear that he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of the police force. He held a sign that contained three messages: “End police brutality,” “Blue 4 BLM,” “Be the change.”
“Safety is paramount, but we are dealing with human beings here,” Mr. Apgar said. “We ourselves are human beings. And after the events of the last week, it’s clear that America’s children are crying out and demanding to be heard. If police want to survive, we need to heed that call.”