Preserving the Spirit of Democracy in a Time of Barricades

by Mary-Margaret Zindren, EVP/Executive Director

When I saw the photo of the Confederate flag being paraded by one of the seditious rioters who overtook the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I was horrified. I thought of the entrenched and resurgent White supremacy that flag represents and the war that was fought to ensure it never gained a place of honor within or on top of the buildings of our nation’s capital.


Something else about the photo caught my eye, and another chill passed through me. I recognized the floor. I knew this place.


Back in 1994, when I was working for the National League of Cities, I waited for nearly an hour in that hallway for former Sen. Bob Dole to exit the Senate Chambers and tell me the fate of a bill I’d been working on. I spent a long time marveling at the intricate pattern of those Minton tiles. 


For most of my 50 years, I have walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol building, Congressional office buildings, state capitols, and centers of city government across the nation. Access to these spaces started in my childhood as part of school field trips and inspired a career rooted in public service.


Growing up Catholic, I experienced these government buildings much like I would a cathedral. The most common architectural elements of these centers of democracy—across geography and architectural styles—are soaring ceilings and stone floors. In these spaces, the power, awe, and inspiration evoked is of the spirit of democracy. Greater than any one person or group of people, abiding across generations, this spirit calls us to our nation’s highest ideals.


Prior to and following January 6, fences and blockades have been installed around the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the Minnesota State Capitol, where there is now talk of replacing these temporary measures with permanent structures.


I absolutely understand and support the need to protect the health, safety, and welfare of those who work in and visit these government buildings. Today’s threats to the safety of lawmakers and their staff are very real and not to be minimized. A variety of security solutions will need to be employed.


But sustaining, much less augmenting, these types of security measures may actually undercut efforts to protect public safety and to secure our democracy.


Living responsibly through the COVID-19 pandemic is showing us the emotional toll of maintaining physical distance from one another; it affects our feelings of connection and community, and our mental health. A pandemic-charged bunker mentality—suspicion and defensiveness borne of isolation—already appears to be a factor in the events of the past few weeks. It’s not a stretch to contemplate how turning government buildings into bunker-like spaces has the potential to exacerbate the deep ideological and partisan divides that characterize today’s politics.


When it comes to implementing temporary architectural barriers, we tend to expect they’ll be removed once threats have passed. History proves otherwise. With each new incident and threat, the distance established through these types of security measures has grown. For example, the public had full access to the White House grounds for years. Over time, fences of various heights and materials were installed, and the times of day and days of the year for public access were increasingly restricted. Today, the area blocked off to the public includes the whole of Lafayette Square, the site of protests protected by the First Amendment for more than 100 years.


So, what is the long-term strategy to keep our public buildings from becoming fortresses? How and when can we end this escalation?


One step is to ensure vigorous debate—from the beginning—about under what circumstances we will roll back the distancing security measures that have already been put in place and those that are under consideration.


Another is to recognize that no wall or fence can address the deeper challenges we face—among them, the fears held by many White people of a majority-minority future, and deep distrust of all levels of government felt by people of all races and political affiliations. (Trust in government is at historic lows, as is our trust in one another.)


There is hope and opportunity in that these deeper challenges to democracy are, in fact, design challenges—and therefore it is imperative that designers and design thinkers join in the work of developing solutions. Our system of governing, our legal system, and our ways of communicating and creating community are much more by design than by chance. We designed our way here, which means we can design a better way forward. The “we” of who designs that way forward is key; it must be a “we” that is truly representative of the people.


Overall, as design solutions are put forward, we need to resist letting fear drive decision-making. Further fortifying government buildings and grounds in a manner that grows the distance between elected representatives and the people they serve comes at a cost to core tenets of democracy: access, accountability, and pluralism. Attention to the negative consequences of distance is essential if we are to keep the spirit of democracy alive for generations to come.


View the February 2021 edition of Matrix.