Jourdan Bennett-Begaye
Indian Country Today

I stood in the marble-ish government building in Washington, D.C., waiting to go through the metal detector at the security checkpoint to obtain one of my two media credentials. This one was from the U.S. Secret Service. It was three days before the 2021 inauguration.

To my left were about a dozen officers. My heart started racing a bit, and I kept repeating in my head the phrase my parents reminded of as a kid, “The police are my friends.”

In front of me was a White, blond-haired reporter getting the security wand, being asked to unzip his coat and empty his pockets, and then his hands were on the security belt. An officer was patting him down. We made eye contact.

I unzipped my jacket and mentally prepared to be patted down. I thought this makes sense. It’s three days before the inauguration, and there was an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol less than two weeks ago. I could see where this was coming from.

My purse, press pass and phones went through. The Black officer waved me through. He gave me a thumbs-up.

I ended up chatting with the White reporter while waiting. He said something along the lines of “That was something else.” I joked and said he got some extra love.

He then asked, “Did you have any problem getting here?” I was confused and replied, “No. There was hardly anyone on the roads and the guards were kind. Did you?”

He said, “A guardsman followed me alongside my car for three blocks.”

An FBI sign on The National Mall before January 20, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

I was shocked. Then he said something like, “Well, I guess I fit the profile during this time,” while brushing back his nearly shoulder-length wavy blond hair, holding his coffee tumbler.

I gasped and wanted to laugh like a Native auntie, but I didn’t allow the shock to take over my expression out of professionalism and kindness.

How the tables have turned.

Not only was I shocked, but it took everything in me to not say, “Welcome to my world,” or “Now you know how it feels.”

I felt empathy but immediately felt shame and guilt for feeling empathetic. Because that was the world I grew up in.

As a Diné woman with dark hair and brown skin, I had to navigate systemic racism since I was in grade school.

Again, it’s why my parents always told me that “Police officers are your friends” growing up.

Fortunately, this comforting phrase relieved some anxiety while walking in the fortress in downtown Washington, D.C., and on the barricaded National Mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Law enforcement stood at every block, and the National Guard next to them or occupying the empty spaces.

The Washington Monument gated off days before the 2021 inauguration. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)
Troops on the National Mall in prep for the inauguration. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

I walked the maze from the White House to the Capitol and hit a fence. Typically, hundreds of tourists fill the sidewalks on the National Mall, tour buses and cars line the streets, and residents are playing soccer or frisbee on the grass.

It wasn’t the same Washington I’ve come to know in the nearly three years.

Settler colonialism and militarized law enforcement met me head-on in the form of 7-foot metal fences, tanks, barricades, empty streets and thousands of National Guardsmen accompanying the marble city buildings.

I felt safe with the tight security, but it was because of this tight security and my experience as a brown Indigenous woman in this country that I also felt like I shouldn’t be in the city. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that technically, during this time, I’m not the perceived threat after the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

Once I got inside the National Mall, I saw the Field of Flags, where more than 200,000 flags that represented the 50 states and U.S. territories were in the grass. They symbolized the missing crowd on Inauguration Day. (Oh, how I wish for that experience.)

The "Field of Flags" lining the National Mall to represent the missing crowd on Inauguration Day. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

The temperature fell in the 50s on Monday, but wind chill made it colder. (Inauguration Day is supposed to be in the 40s. Much colder.)

It took me an hour and half to make my way from close to the Smithsonian’s National American Indian Museum to a few blocks behind the White House. Typically, it takes 45 minutes. A media liaison told me to go out the south side of the National Mall and take a rideshare to the north side of the mall where my car was.

But after getting lost and trapped on the south side of the mall on Saturday, I knew that wasn’t going to happen and it was already dark. Rideshare was going to be impossible on the south side of the National Mall.

Remember that White reporter from earlier? It turns out, he is from the city and is based there. He covered the 2008 inauguration of former President Barack Obama. From his experience, there was only traffic for two days, and now we get it for a week. He mentioned how it’s difficult to get from the south side of the National Mall to the north side because you have to go all the way around. Yes, I can confirm this. It was even difficult for me to go back to northern Virginia during the weekend. I got lost and drove around for an hour and half trying to get back home. Of course, he said the security is much more extensive.

Inauguration Day prep on January 18, 2021. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

So I took my chances in walking the same route back through the National Mall — and possibly getting yelled at again. But honestly, I felt safer walking in between the fences surrounded by law enforcement in the middle of a bare tourist attraction. I had to ping-pong between blocks and chat with officers on the best route back.

After a 6.2-mile walk and five hours experiencing the new ghost town that is Washington, I still stopped by each officer at every intersection to indirectly let them know I wasn’t a threat. I was just a female Indigenous journalist trying to get back to her warm car.

Yaadilah, Washington! 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the deputy managing editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb or email her at jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com. Bennett-Begaye’s Grey’s Anatomy obsession started while attending the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

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