Among the Guardsmen
Blocks from the Capitol, residents and business owners must pass through military checkpoints to go about their day.
Photographs by Tavon Taylor
Beyond the dozen National Guardsmen stationed behind the Library of Congress, the seven-foot-tall fence lining the back side of the Capitol, and the men in balaclavas carrying assault rifles, 67-year-old Rick Genderson sells liquor and old wine in his store, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill. With its narrow aisles stocked with gin and brandy and rare wine labels—an 1887 Constantino Port, a 1953 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache—Schneider’s has been a go-to spot for lawmakers and their hangers-on for more than seven decades, since Harry Truman was promoting the Fair Deal and America only had 48 states. Its owners have collectively witnessed the inaugurations of 13 U.S. presidents. But they have never seen anything like this.
Thousands of National Guard personnel and law-enforcement officers patrol the streets of Washington, D.C., ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, blocking off roads leading to the Capitol and chiding passersby who get too close. Razor wire surrounds the seat of American democracy to guard against more far-right violence. Genderson must pass through a security checkpoint to get to his house on Fourth Street, one block from the store. Soldiers ask his employees to show ID on their way in to work.
Genderson has supplied liquor for Election Night gatherings, and fine wines for private parties hosted by Supreme Court justices. Usually, presidential inaugurations provide two full weeks of good business—welcome dinners and farewell parties, mostly. But not this year. The threat of violence on Inauguration Day seems to have quashed all plans for merriment, Genderson told me. “There’s not any celebration,” he said when I visited the shop over the weekend. “People are freaked out.”
Genderson’s father and grandfather opened Schneider’s in 1949, after his father returned from flying reconnaissance missions in World War II. Back then they had four employees—just the two men and their wives—and sold liquor, beer, and cigarettes ($1.47 a carton). Schneider’s quickly became a local fixture. Senator Tom Dodd used to visit once a week to chat and cash a $400 check. When he was investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1967, Genderson’s father had to testify.
These days, Schneider’s has 26 employees (including Genderson’s niece, Elyse, who helps him manage the place) and is known nationwide for its collection of hard-to-find vintages. Genderson is a Democrat, but his business is apolitical, he told me. Republicans buy wine, too. Genderson was friendly with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who regularly ordered wine for her parties, and he enjoyed the occasional visit from Justice Antonin Scalia, “who was funny as hell,” Genderson said. In the 1990s, he befriended Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who often stopped by to taste new wines and swap dirty jokes. Before he retired, Simpson told Genderson that he’d grown weary of how divided and polarized the country had become. “This was 20-some years ago, and it’s gotten a lot worse since then,” Genderson said.
He watched the television in horror as pro-Trump rioters just blocks away breached the Capitol on January 6—the first time a hostile force has penetrated the building’s security since the War of 1812. The sight depressed him. He’d expected people to riot back in 2000, when the Supreme Court sided with George W. Bush in a legal dispute over the vote count in Florida. When they didn’t, “I was pretty proud of this country,” he said. It assured him that even during times of polarization, America will have a peaceful transfer of power. But last week’s riot has disillusioned him of the idea.
Federal and local authorities have received more threats of violence from far-right groups since last week’s insurrection, which resulted in the deaths of five people, including one police officer. In response, law enforcement has established a secure perimeter around the Capitol, the White House, and parts of downtown. They’ve divided the city’s core into red and green security zones, and shut down nearby metro stations and bikeshare stations. The military presence has been hard on local businesses like Schneider’s, which are already struggling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “You’d think people would come in and buy champagne for [the inauguration], but we’re not seeing any of it,” Genderson said. I asked him if he could recall a time in his life when the streets of the nation’s capital were as heavily guarded as they are now. He shook his head. Genderson was 15 years old when people took to the streets in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Rioters smashed the front windows of the shop and stole everything, and D.C. leaders called in the National Guard. “But even then, there weren’t nearly as many Guardsmen as there are in the city now,” he said.
According to David S. Reynolds, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times, to find an appropriate historical parallel to this week’s militarized inauguration you’d have to go back to March of 1861, when Lincoln was sworn in under the protection of an estimated 3,000 soldiers and sharpshooters. At the time, seven southern states had already formed a new nation based on slavery and white supremacy. “You might call it a nation of Proud Boys,” Reynolds told me. Lincoln faced numerous death threats ahead of his inauguration, and to get into the city, he caught a late-night train in Maryland and snuck in under the cover of night. The carriage he rode in from the Willard Hotel to the Capitol building on Inauguration Day was so heavily surrounded by mounted police that the throngs of civilians lining the streets couldn’t even see it, Reynolds told me. And during Lincoln’s inaugural address, armed guards mingled with civilians on the National Mall. Even so, “Lincoln was still taking a chance, given the fact that there was such electricity in the air,” Reynolds said.
That same electric dread is in the air today, 160 years later, as Capitol Hill braces itself against a possible attack on an incoming American president. Biden’s speech has yet to be delivered, but Lincoln wound down his first inaugural address back then with a plea to his fellow Americans: “We must not be enemies.”